Everyone must serve

For solidarity, there needs to be a sense that everyone shares in carrying the burden.

IDF soldier who spotted would-be terrorists near the Gaza security fence  (photo credit: IDF SPOKESMAN’S UNIT)
IDF soldier who spotted would-be terrorists near the Gaza security fence
(photo credit: IDF SPOKESMAN’S UNIT)
Israel’s resilience is its greatest strength – an uncanny ability to face challenges, face loss, face threats and carry on.
This resilience is constantly exhibited.
It is put on display daily by residents of the South who don’t flee their communities despite unrelenting rocket fire from Gaza, and it was on full display throughout the country during the Second Intifada, when the nation faced mind-numbing terror but carried on.
One of the key ingredients of this resilience is solidarity: a sense that when push comes to shove, we are all in this together.
Which is why the issue of ultra-Orthodox (haredi) draft deferments for yeshiva study have always been so contentious. That one mother’s son risks life and limb, rolls around in the mud and sleeps out in the cold for some three years defending the country, while another mother’s son does not, is a gross inequality that is understandably a continuous source of friction.
For solidarity, there needs to be a sense that everyone shares in carrying the burden. When that sense frays, we are in trouble. This is why there is simmering resentment by many toward the haredim – and it is also why Sunday’s news that every third youngster is not conscripted was so troubling.
According to the IDF, some 33% of draft-age men who should be reporting for army service are not doing so. While the ultra-Orthodox account for nearly 16% of this figure, some 8.3% of army-aged youth are getting out of service based on mental-health exemptions.
Another nearly 4% do not go into the army because they have run into trouble with the law, 2.5% have exemptions based on physical health problems, and a similar percentage are abroad.
Not everyone is fit to serve, and exemptions based on criminal records, health and mental-health reasons are, of course, absolutely necessary. But what is troubling about these figures is that the exemptions under the mental-health clause have nearly doubled in five years, going from 4.5% in 2015 to 6.5% in 2019, and to 8.3% in 2020.
There are three potential explanations for this. The first is simply that there has been a sudden surge in the incidence of mental-health problems among 18- and 19-year-olds compared to five years ago, an explanation that – while possible – does not seem so plausible.
The second explanation is that the IDF numbers are skewed, something unfortunately not that far-fetched considering recent revelations that the military inflated the figures of haredim serving. But this explanation is unlikely, as it is not clear what the IDF gains by exaggerating the numbers of mental-health exemptions.
The third explanation might be the likeliest, and also the most problematic: More healthy youth are creating “mental disorders” to get out of the army. This statistic becomes even more worrying when coupled with another: Motivation of new recruits is declining. While some 81% wanted to serve in combat units in 2011, by last year that number dropped to 65%.
Army duty is hard and often dangerous, and it is understandable why some want to get out of it. But the IDF is absolutely vital for this country’s survival. Someone has to do it, and the Zionist ethos that this country’s youth have been raised on is that even the most difficult jobs cannot be pushed off onto others, but rather must be done by oneself.
The norm for years has been that IDF service is a source of pride, and that the more combat for the unit, the better. But these statistics point to a different trend: The army, and the difficult and dangerous jobs in the army, are for someone else, not for me or my kid.
Obviously, there is no shame for those who genuinely cannot serve. But these figures indicate that society – starting from the family and running through schools, peers and messages coming from government leaders and cultural icons – must re-instill the sense that serving in the IDF is both a privilege from a Jewish historical point of view, and a responsibility that cannot be shrugged onto someone else.
Because what will happen to the country if that other person also doesn’t want to serve?