The IDF wants you – or does it?

The idea that Israel’s draft is universal and everyone except the ultra-Orthodox serves in the military is a myth.

An IDF helicopter in the Negev (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
An IDF helicopter in the Negev
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Israel’s new national unity government has committed itself to codifying in law – by August – the question of citizens’ responsibility to serve in the IDF. For years the ultra-Orthodox have been criticized for not serving. The arrangement by which they do not serve has meanwhile prevented them from almost ever finding gainful employment. While in recent years the government has succeeded in enlisting growing numbers of ultra-Orthodox, this February the High Court essentially ordered the government to draft thousands of them against their will.
One of the groups protesting the exemption granted to ultra-Orthodox seminary students rallies under the banner “freierim,” indicating that anyone who serves is a fool, but this is meant ironically since they purportedly all serve. However, a different banner flies over a second protest movement, one that calls to treat those who serve as professional volunteers.
Official committees and now the public are asking how to make army service a responsibility shared by all the nation’s diverse population; or, the other side of this question, whether the draft is still a necessity.
These are questions addressed by one of America’s leading economic thinkers, Milton Friedman, who would have celebrated his 100th birthday this year and who held the accomplishments of the Jewish state in great esteem.
Friedman was famous for working in the 1960s to cancel the draft in the US, and ever after to ensure it would not be reinstated. While many differences exist between the US and Israel, some of Friedman’s principles are worthy of consideration.
When Gen. William Westmoreland criticized Friedman’s support for a volunteer army by saying he did not want to command an army of mercenaries, Friedman interrupted and asked, “General, would you rather command an army of slaves?” Westmoreland said he did not want to hear draftees called slaves; Friedman ended the discussion by saying he did not want to hear volunteers called mercenaries, but in any case, he was a mercenary professor and Westmoreland a mercenary general, and all the doctors and lawyers and shopkeepers who served them were, if they engaged in their work voluntarily, just as mercenary.
In Friedman’s work against the draft he pointed out the economic cost to young men of serving and to society of forcing them to serve.
Back to Israel. During the underground war against the British in the 1940s, and during the war with the Arabs that followed in 1948, many ultra-Orthodox yeshiva students voluntarily enlisted. In 1948 they left their yeshivas to dig trenches – even on Shabbat. One brilliant yeshiva student, Abraham Ravitz, who joined the Lehi underground later became a member of Knesset representing the ultra-Orthodox Agudat Israel party. It is a sad reflection on Israeli society that today the ultra-Orthodox and others have to be threatened with imprisonment to get them to serve. Or maybe it is a happy reflection on the perceived level of threat Israel is facing.
BUT SEVERAL points should be considered in the debate about the draft in Israel that might lower the level of bitterness between the different sides, and the volume of the shouting.
The idea that the Israel’s draft is universal and that everyone except the ultra-Orthodox serves is a myth.
A recent study by the Jerusalem Institute for Market Studies shows that nearly 25 percent of draft-age men never enlist. And another 18% of the men leave the service before their term is up. Forty percent of women do not enlist. The ultra-Orthodox are not the only ones not serving.
Reserve service is even less universal. Barely 4% of eligible Israelis serve their month (more precisely, 26 days) each year.
Does this mean the IDF is in trouble? On the contrary.
A committee set up by then-defense minister Shaul Mofaz admitted that “the amount of manpower conscripted today is higher than necessary” given the technological means at the army’s disposal and the nature of today’s security work. Another government committee determined that the army was already being selective in whom it accepted and what to do with them, and differentiated on the basis of sex, academic background and other factors.
So the debate about drafting the ultra-Orthodox is not about Israeli security, it is about social equality. And with all due respect for the issue of social equality, the army exists to protect Israel, not to make social policy.
A better solution than embittering people by forcing them to serve while actually reducing Israeli security and paying more to do so – would be to pay a normal wage to the dedicated soldiers the IDF already has. This would encourage the army to use its soldiers more effectively and remove the stigma of their being called “freierim.” It would remove a point of contention in Israeli society and allow more people to join the country’s workforce.
It would also show that most Israelis want to serve even without being threatened.
The writer directs the Public Policy Center of the Jerusalem Institute for Market Studies, which is holding a conference on Religion and Economic Liberty in honor of the centenary of Milton Friedman’s birth, May 20-23, in Jerusalem.