Terra Incognita: Mandatory poverty? Soldiers by day, workers by night

Poor pay in the army forces tens of thousands to work at night while soldiering during the day.

Members of the 188th Armored Division practice evacuating a wounded soldier during a drill on the Golan Heights  (photo credit: IDF SPOKESMAN’S UNIT)
Members of the 188th Armored Division practice evacuating a wounded soldier during a drill on the Golan Heights
(photo credit: IDF SPOKESMAN’S UNIT)
A few weeks ago I was scarfing down a burrito at a Mexican restaurant in Tel Aviv when a statuesque woman in a khaki IDF uniform walked in. She chatted with the bartender for a few moments and then disappeared. A few minutes later she was back, wearing all black and waiting tables. Soldier by day, waitress by night.
For thousands of Israeli soldiers this is a normal experience. For three years citizens are conscripted into mandatory service in the army. Most soldiers receive around NIS 400 a month ($110), while those in combat units receive up to NIS 850 ($211). Last week the Knesset decided to raise the salaries of soldiers after politicians had been embarrassed by news they voted to give themselves a NIS 1,500 a month raise, but had neglected to give the tens of thousands in the trenches a raise. The new figures are as paltry as the old, increasing non-combat soldiers’ pay to NIS 540 and giving fighters up to NIS 1,600.
The army views pay as convenience or luxury.
Soldiers are not paid a salary, the concept is that they receive no pay but a “stipend.” The lack of reasonable compensation for three years of their life, when most of their counterparts abroad are going to university, burdens the middle and lower classes in Israel the most. Many soldiers interviewed by Channel 2 last week complained of barely being able to afford a sandwich. Consider that a cell phone bill by itself can eat up much of the stipend a soldier receives. If he wants to go out with friends just once a month, his “compensation” is all gone. So Israel creates a nation of 18-year-old debtors.
Poor pay in the army forces tens of thousands to work at night while soldiering during the day.
This is an abject and wretched existence. An air force soldier told Ynet earlier this year, “I’m going hungry, I’m thousands of shekels in debt, there’s a lien on my bank account and I have loans I have no way of repaying.” Welcome to the life of the 20-year-old Israeli. This system gets young men and women hooked on debt and welfare early. According to the report more than 30,000 soldiers receive “financial assistance” from the army’s welfare offices. That means that soldiers have to beg to receive minimal financial aid and sacrifice their dignity, in addition to sacrificing years for the country, and perhaps sacrificing life and limb in battle.
There is little shame in Israel about this. You’d think having 30,000 soldiers on welfare at age 19, with thousands of dollars in debt, working part time and soldiering full time would be a national disgrace. The worst is that many soldiers who can’t get permission from their officers to work on the side actually end up working “illegally” to fund basic needs. Many of these soldiers end up going AWOL because of being late from work or from home, and are then sent to military prison.
Fully 11,000 soldiers are imprisoned every year by the IDF, often for a month or more. Israel has the highest incarceration rate of any army in the world. It burdens minorities and the poor especially.
Up until a few years ago 40 percent of Ethiopian- origin male conscripts were seeing the inside of a prison cell while in the army, before their 22nd birthday. Debt, prison, working in a shadow economy, begging to be on welfare, could it get worse? Yes. According to a friend of mine who was an officer, two of her soldiers were detained by military police over the years for working as prostitutes.
One was a recent immigrant and couldn’t afford an apartment.
The lack of reasonable compensation has long-term economic consequences. Soldiers themselves are highly motivated to serve. Fully 75% of soldiers ask to be in combat units, not just for higher pay but because of the prestige. Some communities, like the Druse village of Julis, have 100% enlistment rates, while Ethiopians, the poorest community in the country, have among the highest rates of conscription.
But as Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon said last week, “soldiers don’t have a lobby or a political party.” Their motivation does not pay off during their service. Many of them are used to the “system” so much that the concept of being fairly compensated is hard to fathom, because “everyone” is being punished equally.
The fact is that “everyone” is not being punished equally. Large numbers of people avoid the draft in Israel. First and foremost this involves the Arab minority and most of the haredi (ultra-Orthodox) minority, which receive different exemptions.
Then come female Jewish Israelis, of whom 40% claim to be “religious” to receive an exemption.
Obviously 40% of women in Israel are not actually religious. Last come the wealthier secular Israelis who, according to anecdotal evidence (the army does not release figures), disproportionately receive “medical exemptions” for supposed illnesses like “epilepsy” or who feign marriages suddenly at 18 to escape service.
That means that statistically the burden of service falls largely on the poor, and several motivated communities such as the national religious. Grunt jobs and “jobniks” in the army are relegated primarily to people from poorer and less educated communities, whereas elite units that help with post-army careers and education are still dominated by traditional, mostly Ashkenazi, Israelis. That means the very units that impart skills, such as being a pilot, an intelligence officer in 8200, or in the army’s law departments or spokesman units, is largely reserved for those from “good backgrounds” who pass the standardized tests and who can even afford “pre-military” academies and training.
Do a socio-economic test on these units, which the army notoriously will not release such data about, and you’ll find the soldiers come from the wealthiest 10% of society.
There is nothing wrong with the best and the brightest being the lawyers, pilots and intelligence officers in an army. No one is saying, let’s recruit the dumbest and poorest just to even out things for diversity’s sake. But what must be done is to equalize the economic burden of service, so that being poor in Israel is not perpetuated by the army, reinforcing a cycle of poverty.
At this moment the army is largely responsible for increasing poverty in sectors in Israel.
There is evidence that the long-term effects of this situation are seriously undermining Israeli academic and economic prospsects. A recent study found that Israelis of Mizrahi origin whose parents came from Asia or Africa are less likely (28% versus 31%) to obtain an academic degree than their parents’ generation who were born abroad. Less likely. Could low pay in the army, debt and disproportionate representation in the army prison system lead to lower academic prospects? Consider the life of an Ethiopian Israeli.
Her parents never served time in prison, but during their formative years of 18-22, fully 40% of Ethiopian Israeli soldiers are sent to IDF prison.
Prison creates a cycle of feeling abandoned and mistreated by society, during precisely those young years when one should be gaining work experience.
THE IDF gains a wealth of support abroad. The Friends of the IDF recently raised $31 million at a gala in Beverly Hills. Divvying up even millions of dollars among 100,000 IDF conscripts won’t be but a drop in the bucket. The Israeli state must compensate them better. But what donors can do is demand that more support be given to Israelis pre-army and post-army.
That means supporting the poorer and middle class soldiers to find better placement in the army. It means supporting soldiers in college and to get into university after the army, like the GI bill did for US draftees. But most of all it should mean supporting a consistent lobby to raise soldiers’ pay to minimum wage or above.
Israel complains it doesn’t have the budget (the recent raise for IDF conscripts was initiated by the Treasury Ministry, not the Defense Ministry).
But other armies in history have paid their conscripts normal wages.
Forty-five years ago the US economist Milton Friedman confronted US General William Westmoreland about the draft in Vietnam, arguing that the draft was a kind of tax imposed on soldiers who would perform better if they volunteered instead. Westmoreland said he didn’t want to command mercenaries in battle. “Would you rather command an army of slaves?” asked Friedman.
The economist passionately believed that patriotic volunteers were better than conscripts.
In Israel there is a social cohesion and utility to having national service. Israel is not a country forced to live by the sword, as critics contend, it is a country that is forced to live with the sword at its side. As such some conscription is needed. Jewish and Druse Israelis are already highly motivated to serve. They are not an army of slaves, but they are enslaved to a failed economic system. Recognizing the utility of higher pay, reduced length of service and not forcing soldiers to work all night and sit in the trenches all day, is necessary.
Follow the author @Sfrantzman