Almost 28 percent of those who have been called up for IDF service this year have not enlisted. This is among the most disconcerting statistics to have emerged from last week's Sderot Conference on Israeli Society. Dodging pretexts are manifold, but OC Manpower Maj.-Gen. Elazar Stern told conference participants that among the glaring disincentives to full, dedicated service is the conspicuous lack of gratitude expressed by Israeli society to those who defend it, many of them laying their lives on the line. Stern argued that it is high time this blatant thanklessness were replaced by preferential treatment, for instance in institutions of higher learning. In the past, discussion of moves to reward servicemen and women even marginally for the years they devote to preserving the state has triggered protests about discrimination. Since Israel's Arab citizens aren't subject to the draft, it has been argued, they would unfairly be ineligible for any such benefits. Stern noted, however, that Israeli Arabs, far from being disadvantaged, gain substantially from being three years ahead of their Jewish counterparts in civilian life. For instance, he pointed out, no fewer than 54% of applicants accepted to the Technion's medical school are Arabs. "Why," he asked, "shouldn't a veteran enjoy special admission privileges after he had endangered life and limb so that the Technion can at all continue to exist and function? Without such self-endangerment there'd be no Technion medical faculty at all and that's an indisputable certainty." To date the only educational perks for veterans are paltry discharge benefits reserved for schooling expenditures. These barely suffice for one year's tuition fees and they confer no admission privileges. Stern proposes that veterans - especially combat unit alumni - enjoy free tuition and receive extra credit points when their applications are processed by universities. He further argues they deserve preference for dorm accommodation. "Active defense of this country ought to count for something and offer a leg-up in civilian life," Stern asserted. Essentially, what Stern would like to see here is akin to what the US enacted toward the end of World War II. The Servicemembers' Readjustment Act of 1944 - popularly dubbed the GI Bill - became one of America's most socially-significant legislative initiatives, allowing many millions to avail themselves of otherwise unattainable educational opportunities. This changed the face of American society. Stern cited Israelis' ingratitude to our veterans and our increasingly forgiving attitude to draft-evasion as factors crucially lowering morale. In the past, draft dodging carried a heavy stigma. This affected their ability to find employment and continue their education. Today, dodgers skip service with near impunity. Several organizations openly offer counsel and assistance to those seeking to buck the system. Some university lecturers have been known to sign pro-dodging petitions and to take an unaccountably hard line in refusing any consideration to students who miss class, assignment deadlines or exams due to reserve duty. This actively punishes those who fulfill their national obligations. Stern stressed that national service - of the sort done mostly by young women in national-religious circles and small numbers of haredi yeshiva students, and now being hotly rejected by many in the Arab sector - "should not qualify for the same perks that ought to be offered veterans. National service is very nice and you can wrap up lots of things in very nice gift-paper, but it cannot and must not be compared to an actual military stint. National service, for one, entails no self-sacrifice and no risk whatever. When all is said and done, someone has to put himself in the line of fire to make sure we can lead normal daily lives in this country. Nothing can match or compare to the hazards faced by combat units and nothing should." Stern's proposals deserve positive consideration - for all our sakes. He is recommending the kind of affirmative action that already exists in many democracies and which has been incongruously missing in Israel - a country that has to fight relentlessly for its physical survival. No country owes its soldiers more than Israel; no nation should work harder to find ways to express its gratitude and appreciation to its men and women in uniform.