Israeli Society Debates Draft Dodging

The issues of draft evasion and objection are popping up everywhere nowadays, as Israeli society debates its most basic values.

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Gil Ronen,

The hot topics in Israel's debate fora this summer are "sarvanut" and "hishtamtut" – words that refer to, respectively, conscientious objection and draft evasion. Most, but not all, Israeli men and women are drafted into the military at age 18. Exceptions are made with regard to religious women, married women, many full time Torah students, Arabs, and people with medical problems.

Earlier this month, the IDF published statistics which showed a rise in the relative number of draft evaders – people who falsely declare medical or mental problems, or otherwise avoid conscription dishonestly. The Chief of Staff, Lt.-Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi, said that it was time to "bring back shame to the cheeks" of those who evaded service without justification.

The subject of "sarvanut" (literally, refusal), or conscientious objection, is highly-charged politically: most recently, it came up when soldiers from two IDF units refused to physically transfer Jewish families out of their homes, on land purchased decades before by a Jew, in Hevron's market. Left-wing commentators and politicians demanded that harsh justice be meted out immediately and claimed that army service is not a buffet menu: you don't get to choose your assignments.  Indeed, 12 soldiers received 28 day jail sentences which they are still serving, and others were told they would no longer serve in combat roles.

Nationalist pundits were quick to counter that when it comes to evicting Arabs, some very prominent voices in the Left seem to have no problem with "conscientious" objection. Speaking in Knesset, MK Aryeh Eldad (NU/NRP) reminded his audience that former MK Yossi Sarid and author Amos Oz swore, in the 1990s, to "blow up bridges" and "lie down under the wheels of the trucks," should an order to expel Arabs from their villages b
Lider avoided service because of "back problems" but is known to work out regularly at a gym, where he lifts weights.
e given. Such an order, Sarid claimed then, would be an illegal one.

Disillusioned by the Disengagement
On the other hand, some fervent Zionists were so disillusioned by the use of the army to destroy Gush Katif and other communities in Judea and Samaria, that they feel they can no longer identify with the army as theirs.

Draft dodging is usually seen as less of a political matter and as having more to do with the basic Zionist ethos, which sees service in the military as part of the creation of the "new Jew," as opposed to the Diaspora Jew who did not have the means to fight back when attacked.

MK Avshalom Vilan (Meretz) suggested this week that the new IDF recruits' oath be changed as part of the fight against draft dodging and conscientious objection. He said that soldiers should sign a declaration as opposed to just shouting out "I swear!" and that the part of the declaration in which the recruits pledge their readiness to sacrifice their lives be dropped, because it was "archaic and terrifying." Vilan said that rabbis who tell their followers to refuse orders should be seen as "beyond the pale" of Zionist consensus.

Earlier this month, Defense Minister Ehud Barak said draft evasion needed to be stopped, before the IDF becomes "an army of half the people" instead of "the army of the people."

Geffen loses radio show
The army seems to also be cracking down on the phenomenon of celebrity draft evaders. Plans to let
32% of military aged girls declare that they are religious, but only a fraction of these are truly observant.
famed pop singer Aviv Geffen host a weekly music show on IDF Radio were scuttled because of objections that Geffen had evaded service because of back problems, but that these problems didn't seem to prevent him from jumping about on stage in his performances.

Chart-topping singer Ivri Lider, who was scheduled to perform at an IDF sponsored concert, was asked to sign a declaration of "respect for the IDF values" as a precondition for his performance. He refused and the performance was canceled. Lider, too, avoided service because of "back problems" but is known to work out regularly at a gym, where he lifts weights and appears to be healthy.

Female celebrities, too, are being given a hard time in articles and talkbacks. Top Israeli model Bar Refaeli lost points with many fans because she did not serve in the army. She received her release after taking part in a fictitious marriage ceremony, and (according to a military source) got a divorce a few days later. Other singers like Maya Buskila declared they were religiously observant but kept on performing in revealing dresses and going out to clubs on Shabbat.

According to the army, 32% of military-aged girls declare that they are religious, but only a fraction of these are truly observant. The IDF Human Resources Department has stated that it intends to prosecute young women who falsely declare that they are religious, and that some of these women will be served with new draft notices if they are seen to have "reverted" to a secular lifestyle.

More evasion-related controversy has been generated by Channel 2's "Kochav Nolad" (A Star is Born) talent contest, which is an Israeli version of "American Idol." A winner in one of the contests, Jacko Rosenberg, lost his record deal after giving an interview in which he revealed that he had avoided the draft as a pacifist. If
A winner in one of the contests lost his record deal after revealing he had avoided the draft as a pacifist.
talkback items are any indication, many viewers are unhappy with the fact that the current Kochav Nolad cast includes several draft dodgers.

Municipalities won't hire draft dodgers
Local government leaders from the areas referred to as the "periphery" also joined the growing campaign against draft-dodging (the term "periphery" refers to towns and councils that are not located in central Israel and are considered relatively weak socio-economically).

Shlomo Buchbout, Mayor of Ma'alot-Tarshicha in northern Israel, and Be'er Sheva Deputy Mayor Rubik Danilovich in southern Israel, who head the "periphery" municipalities' forum, sent a letter to Maj.-Gen. Elazar Stern, Head of the Human Resources Branch in the IDF, announcing that their municipalities will not employ draft dodgers.

The mayors want to cooperate with the IDF on the creation of an educational program against draft evasion among their towns' youths. According to their plan, the IDF will appoint officers to work with each local government council on motivating pre-enlistment age youths, and there will be an annual "IDF Day" in which every local council will host an IDF corps.

Some observers think the heated debate on the subject of draft evasion may signal a return to old-style Zionism which took pride in the IDF and saw military service as an important value. Others just see it as yet more proof of Israeli society's complex and splintered nature.