From the beginning, in 1948, the idea of the Israel Defense Forces was that everyone would serve—men and women, young and old, secular and religious—with few exceptions. A new, besieged and outnumbered country would safeguard itself with a universal draft and a reserve system that would keep citizens in uniform well into middle age. The military would be the common denominator in a society of disparate immigrant groups. The nation would be the army and the army would be the nation. It was a romantic notion, one that added to the mystique of the I.D.F.
In fact, the people's army was always something of a misnomer—Israel's Arab citizens, who today make up 18% of the population, have always been exempt. But never has the notion of universal service been more mythical than today. Draft-dodging has become a convention in an Israel whose population has been swollen by immigration to 6.2 million and whose army, with 170,OOO members on active duty, is actually oversubscribed. Evading service was even deemed legitimate recently by a government committee charged with studying the issue. Though Prime Minister Ehud Barak came to power promising to abolish the controversial draft deferments given to ultra-Orthodox yeshiva, or religious college, students, the report he commissioned and is expected to approve in coming weeks instead recommends institutionalizing the practice.
At its birth in 1948, the state granted exemptions to 400 ultra-Orthodox students to free them to rebuild a yeshiva system devastated by the Holocaust. Last year, such pupils accounted for 9.2% of all 18-year-old, Jewish boys. In all, 30,414 ultra-Orthodox males now enjoy army deferments, enough for five infantry brigades.
But it isn't just the ultra-Orthodox, or haredim, who are skipping out of the army. Last year, 38% of all 18-year-old Jewish girls were not taken in, most because they were married or claimed to be at least marginally religious. Among 18-year-old boys, 12% either were living abroad, received medical exemptions or were deemed unfit for duty, usually because of poor school performance. And of the boys who do enter the I.D.F., some 25% fail to complete the mandatory service of three years; generally, they are let out for creating disciplinary problems or for having (or feigning) emotional trouble. For every three Jewish males who complete army service, two don't.
Every male I.D.F. graduate is supposed to do a month of reserve duty a year until the age of 41 for combat forces, 51 for others. In practice, most reservists find it easy to weasel out. According to an army survey, only a third of eligible reservists do any time. The brunt of duty falls on those in the infantry, tanks and artillery, the I.D.F.'s truest fighters. Even within those categories, many reservists are allowed to slide because their skills are outdated. Put a soldier trained in a British Centurion tank as many as 20 years ago in a state-of-the-art, Israeli-made Merkava III and he won't know which button to push to get it started. The arrival of nearly a million immigrants from the former Soviet Union over the past decade has further weakened the idea of universal reserve duty. Newcomers over the age of 23 are exempt even from the minimal army course required to become a reservist.
The military brass are not exactly up in arms about the slackers. They don't much want them. The haredim are considered unfit, because their loyalty is to their rabbis, not to any army commander. They also stop to pray three times a day, insist on food more kosher than the army now supplies, have no job skills because of their restricted education, and cannot mix with women—who make up 30% of army personnel.
Army leaders are not any hungrier for the non-haredi shirkers—they have all the personnel they need, and then some. The profusion of soldiers is most obvious at army headquarters in Tel Aviv, which has more than one-and-a-half times the staff it requires. Many of the so-called jobniks loiter all day, with little to do. Says Brigadier General (ret.) Israel Einhorn, former head of personnel planning, "You wind up sending back to society a 21-year-old guy who spent three years learning to be a bum." To minimize such cases, "I gave the green light to people to leave the army just like that," says Einhorn. "We didn't need them." Every Israeli conscript—they earn about $100 a month—knows that if he makes enough noise or says he's considering suicide, he'll likely be out of the army in days.
Labor-saving advances in military technology have further reduced the need to draft every able-bodied 18-year-old. For instance, the soldiers who once did the math required for aiming artillery batteries have been replaced by computers. At the same time, the I.D.F. hates losing, after three years, conscripts in whom it has invested enormous resources preparing for the future battlefield of high-tech missiles, sophisticated tanks, computerized avionics.
To lose the bums and keep the techies, the army is considering shrinking the intake of draftees, chosen perhaps by lottery to ensure enough grunts, while recruiting volunteers for the better jobs by offering salaries designed to attract and retain prime talent. The reserves may go professional too, à la the U.S. National Guard. One senior officer suggests the army keep only a third of the 600,000 reservists now on the books. The rest, he says, "would be kept in abeyance for Armageddon."
Some army commanders worry that dividing the military and civilian worlds would remove the I.D.F. from the central place it occupies in Israeli life. And ditching the draft would mean losing a unifying force that does help stitch together an immigrant society. A professional army would be less enchanting than a citizens' force—but it might make more sense.
—With reporting by Aharon Klein/Tel Aviv