Israel: To serve or not to serve?

As the Middle East heats up, Israel is at risk of being left short of troops as its increasingly tough talk drives away the very people it needs in order to mount an effective defense.

For years, conscription has been the cornerstone of the country’s security policy. But these days, there is a real risk that the Israeli Defense Forces could be left defenseless as recruitment hits an all-time low.

Between the ages of 18 and 40, about 50 per cent of Israeli Jewish males don’t serve in the military,” Professor Yagil Levy, an expert on Israeli military affairs, told RT.

Instead of choosing to serve their country, people are choosing to serve themselves.

Ronnie Barkan spent most of the year and a half he was in the army trying to convince his superiors to release him on medical grounds. They eventually did – but only after he had wasted months sitting around, he says – doing nothing while in uniform.

I did get drafted for the feeling that I would be a parasite if I wouldn’t. And a couple of months later, I actually realized that my sole responsibility is to humanity. I am first and foremost a human being. I just couldn’t take part any longer in what is called the Israeli Defense Forces, which has nothing to do with defense other than by name,” he said.

And a growing number of Israelis agree with him. Neta Friedman, who refused to serve in the IDF, made sure she scored low on her army entrance tests.

So instead of serving as a soldier, she is now doing civil service work as an art instructor in a center for the mentally disabled.

I have a lot of friends in the army and I saw how they were when they first came to the army and how they are now. And it’s a lot of brainwashing actually, and they just strip you down from of your identity and make you a soldier,” Friedman explained.

Ten years ago, the “Refusenik” movement started in Israel – youngsters refusing to serve in the army on political grounds.

Add to that the nearly 15 per cent of potential draftees who do not serve for religious reasons, and a recent series of scandals, including photos of a soldier posing with blindfolded Palestinians, saw public trust in the military decline.

One video posted on YouTube declares that a true Israeli does not evade the truth – in other words, a true Israeli avoids conscription.

Fifteen or 20 years ago, seeing an advert like this would have been unthinkable. In those days, avoiding military service was something shameful.

Now, however, youngsters have role models like actor Leonardo DiCaprio’s former girlfriend, model Bar Rafaeli, who evaded military service and gave conscientious objection legitimacy.

The violation of human rights carried out by Israel, the absolute disrespect of international law – it’s crystal clear. There is no question about it. As far as moral decisions go, it’s not a big dilemma. The only thing to overcome is actually the social pressure,” says Ronnie Barkan.

But that social pressure is loosening up, which is why volunteers like Zahava Alon from Shivyon (‘Equality’) organization are trying to stop draft-dodgers by lobbying the government and speaking at schools.She says part of the problem is with the army itself.

It’s very easy to be exempt. If you go to the mental health officer with a letter that you paid for, he doesn’t have the facilities, the money, the time to check if you lied to him or not. He doesn’t want to take the risk,” she says.

Studies show that by 2020, the number of military-age Jewish Israelis not serving will be the highest ever – with untold consequences for Israel’s security.