IDF is no longer a people’s army, time to pay soldiers better - opinion

Why the State of Israel continues to think it's okay to pay soldiers a fraction of minimum wage is due anachronistic view of military service.

 ISRAELI SOLDIERS pray at the Western Wall. Will they continue serving for such little pay? (photo credit: OLIVIER FITOUSSI/FLASH90)
ISRAELI SOLDIERS pray at the Western Wall. Will they continue serving for such little pay?
(photo credit: OLIVIER FITOUSSI/FLASH90)

Two years ago, four-and-a-half million Israelis – half the nation – flew overseas, leaving the country for vacation, a work trip, or a family event. The number was expected to increase in 2020 had it not been for the global pandemic that overturned our lives.

I thought of that last week when speaking with a senior IDF general about why salaries for soldiers did not increase under the new state budget. The conversation focused on the criticism leveled at Chief of Staff Lt.-Gen. Aviv Kohavi for fighting with the Treasury to increase pension payments for career officers.

Pensions he defended; but salaries for soldiers in their compulsory service? No.

“We don’t call it salaries,” the officer corrected me. “We call it subsistence costs.”

And therein lies the problem. Soldiers are looked at as a resource that does not need to be financially compensated. So non-combat soldiers can be paid around NIS 900 a month, and combat soldiers around NIS 1,600.

Illustrative photo of Israeli money (credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)Illustrative photo of Israeli money (credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)

Everyone in Israel knows that this is not enough. When soldiers come home on the weekend, they go hang out with friends. They need money for gas, food, entertainment, clothes, and their phones. And that is the least of it.

My colleague at Walla News, Amir Bohbot, has in recent weeks extensively covered the battle for increased salaries, highlighting the IDF’s wrong set of priorities; how on some bases the food is completely inedible, forcing soldiers to spend even more of the little money they receive. Who fills in the rest? Parents.

The explanation the officer gave me is more than just semantics. It covers up a cultural divide between Israel’s political echelon and IDF commanders – who view soldiers doing compulsory service as cheap labor – and the soldiers themselves, so many of whom are fed up.

Why the State of Israel continues to think that it is okay to pay soldiers a fraction of minimum wage – which is supposed to rise in the coming years to NIS 6,000 – has to do with an anachronistic view of military service in Israel, and a refusal to see reality for what it is.

This is where the travel numbers from 2019 fit in. I asked the officer when he enlisted in the IDF. He was drafted into the Navy, he said, in 1992. I then asked whether he ever thought before he was drafted of getting on a plane and flying to Europe for a few days over a school break. Of course not, he responded.

My experience was the same. I spent a year in yeshiva before being drafted in 1998. There were no low-cost flights to jump on for a quick getaway to Europe. Most of us still didn’t even have a cellphone.

And that is the difference between young adults drafted into the IDF now and those like this officer, myself and others who served in the 1980s and ’90s.

Don’t get me wrong. This is a positive development. The world is smaller and indeed more closely connected, made possible by technology and social media but also by the ease and low-cost of international travel. What once seemed out of reach is today at the fingertips of every young adult.

These same young adults are not naïve, and see what their counterparts are doing around the world. They watch as Americans go off to college, as Europeans go to work or travel, and they wonder why they are giving some of the best years of their life to the country.

They also don’t have to look that far. In Israel today, only around 50% of 18-year-olds enlist in the IDF. The 50% not enlisting consists mostly of haredim and Israeli-Arabs – who both draft in small numbers – as well as secular and national-religious youth who find ways out of service undeterred by a stigma that doesn’t exist anymore.

The idea that employers used to require military service as a standard for hiring is a long-forgotten memory. Nowadays, all you need to do is come with motivation and some tech experience. That is more than enough. And if you can code? Go straight to the front of the line.

Part of the army and the government’s hesitancy in acknowledging this reality is that the moment they do, the politicians and generals will have to start burying the idea of the IDF being a people’s army. How can it be a people’s army when half the country does not serve? It’s absurd.

But instead of talking about it, instead of debating what needs to change, our generals and politicians are burying their heads in the sand.

They don’t want to touch the hot issue since it is almost blasphemous to talk about: the idea of the IDF as a people’s army goes to the very core of the ethos of what Israel was about when it was founded almost 74 years ago. The IDF was supposed to have a universal and egalitarian compulsory draft.

But it is time to be honest and recognize two simple facts. One is that the IDF is no longer a people’s army. It can’t be when so many people dodge the draft. And two is that the youth of today are not the youth of yesteryear. Yes, they are talented, amazing, and capable of skills that us older folks did not know existed.

But at the same time, they have been raised in a period of Israel’s history that is the safest, most prosperous and most secure ever. Besides the occasional operation in Gaza – which usually does not see troops crossing enemy lines – they do not know war. They have heard the stories of the buses and coffee shops that used to regularly explode during the Second Intifada, but they were either not alive or do not remember.

Their motivation to enlist in the IDF is not out of a sense of saving the country, or that they are needed to hold the line on the Golan Heights to keep Syrians from invading once again. That was the feeling in the ’60s, the ’70s, and even in the ’80s and ’90s to some extent, but it has changed, and obviously, that is a positive development.

Instead, the youth that enlisted in the IDF in recent years, and will be drafted in the years to come, have grown up with the belief that Israel is strong and has a powerful military, the most powerful in the Middle East and beyond. And they are right. Do we still have threats and enemies that seek our destruction? Of course. But are we strong enough to confront them? Also, yes.

This a not a call to disband the IDF. Never. It is more a call to recognize reality, to begin discussing what type of military we in Israel want to have, and how we want to treat our soldiers and veterans.

Can we continue to take their service for granted, and assume that people will keep on enlisting when one out of two 18-year-olds today are not? And if we continue the mandatory draft, should we assume that we can keep paying them almost nothing, and that ideals and Zionism will fill the void in their bank accounts?

I recognize that this is a complicated and sensitive issue that strikes at the core of what it means to be an Israeli, and what role the army serves in society.

Granted, military service can be an incredible life-transformative experience that builds character and contributes to the journey through life. But it is time to discuss the alternatives. And there are alternatives.

Israel can decide that it will no longer draft everyone but only the people it wants and needs, and that these servicemen and women will receive respectable compensation while serving and GI Bill-style benefits when discharged.

Israel can decide that while it won’t draft everyone, it will set up a national recruitment center that will send some to the IDF and some to various forms of national service. This is an idea that Defense Minister Benny Gantz has already asked the IDF Manpower Division to start exploring.

It is time we begin these discussions as a country. It is understandably difficult to give up old traditions and ideals, but reality will always be stronger. Kohavi has an opportunity now to effect real change. Israel’s soldiers deserve better.