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Thursday, September 20, 2007

'Tankistim' in tutus?

Once upon a time, nearly everyone in Israel served in the IDF. The country has had a universal draft since its independence, and nearly every person was needed and wanted and wanted to serve. Religious women, most of whom did not serve almost from the start, mostly did national service instead. Not serving in the IDF was a mark of shame. So was emigrating abroad. Only Arabs did not serve.

The army was more than a fighting force. It was a finishing school. It made you an Israeli. It tried to instill the values of being an Israeli. It tried to make everyone think and act as similarly as possible. There's a group mentality in this country that's hard to explain to those who have not lived here. Individuality is not - or was not - sufficiently valued.

Over the years, groups started standing up for their own individuality. One of the earliest breaches was hesder, which started in the 1960's and allowed religious soldiers to combine army service with Yeshiva study. An additional - unstated - goal of hesder was to allow religious soldiers to serve away from the often religiously corrupting influences of many of their non-religious colleagues. Hesdernikim served in completely separate units until the 1982 Operation Peace in the Galilee, in which tanks, dominated by hesdernikim, took disproportionately large numbers of casualties. At that point, the IDF tried to spread the hesdernikim among different combat units (most of them serve in combat units), but the hesdernikim largely tried to stick together. Today, there is another type of segregated religious unit - Nahal Haredi - which was originally started to draw ultra-Orthodox boys who wanted to leave their yeshivot, and which also includes a sizable contingent of hesdernikim who are attracted by Nahal Haredi's making greater accommodations to religious practices than the IDF makes generally.

Two other factors ought to be mentioned that changed the face of the IDF. One is the massive Russian aliya of the late 1980's and early 1990's, which suddenly made 'everyone' no longer necessary. From a manpower perspective, 'someone' - the motivated someones - was sufficient. And the increasing technological innovations in the military have also reduced the number of soldiers required to run an army.

The world has changed. A recent survey showed that approximately one third of the males in this country do not serve in the army. A large part of that contingent is ultra-Orthodox (and some national religious) boys who remain in yeshivot studying Torah, often for many years. So long as they (by affirmed affidavit in front of a lawyer), their yeshivot and something called the va'ad hayeshivot certify twice a year that they are engaged in full-time yeshiva study, their army service legally is legally deferred.

But there are also Israelis who don't serve in the army for other reasons: They are engaged in careers in the theater, in sports or in other fields of endeavor that they fear would be damaged if they take time off to serve in the IDF. Or they just don't feel like serving for political or other reasons. Their numbers are also substantial. And that doesn't even count those who, after they finish their regular service, avoid reserve duty to avoid serving over the green line or similar political statements.

The response to the survey cited above has been an attempt to encourage universal service by making it more attractive. One example is this item from yesterday's YNet:
In an effort to fight the spreading phenomenon of draft dodging, the IDF has decided to form a military dance troupe that would allow outstanding dancers to continue pursuing their vocation within the army.

The troupe is the initiative of prominent dancers and choreographers David Dvir and Ido Tadmor. "Talented dancers do not enlist in the army and leave the country for a career or studies abroad," Dvir explained.

"Unlike exceptional athletes, an outstanding dancer needs to be in a supportive environment constantly, and the arrangement that had existed so far – of service that allowed limited time to dance - hurt their career," he added.

"Therefore, many of them decided not to enlist and we felt that an entire generation of dancers was slipping through our fingers."


According to their plan, pre-service dancers wishing to join the troupe will undergo auditions held by senior dancers. Those who are admitted to the group will go through basic training [six weeks CiJ]and then return to the IDF's physical training base at Wingate where they will serve.

The troupe will rehearse together, hold dance workshops at IDF bases, perform before troops and represent the army at official events in Israel and abroad.
With all of the threats this country faces, should we really be spending the defense budget on forming a professional dance troupe? I think not.

But there's more to it than that. Even among those who do serve, there are those who - to put it nicely - aren't exactly enthusiastic. Despite what you hear about 70 and 80% and more wanting to serve in combat units (a statistic I don't believe for a New York minute), the facts are that the ratio of non-combat to combat in the IDF - according to a high-ranking officer with whom I discussed this - is 7:1. Many of those non-combat forces - called jobniks here - would rather not be in the IDF. They do the bare minimum required to carry out their tasks, if that. As a result, and in order to occupy people whom the army really doesn't need anyway, instead of one jobnik being assigned to a task, often two or three will be assigned. According to my source, in many cases they just get in the way. The army's senior commanders would rather not have them.

Unfortunately, the culture in this country is such that it's very hard to break out of the group mentality. But in this case, I believe the group mentality has to be broken. It's time to go to a volunteer army and to provide financial and other incentives to those who serve (and believe me there will be more than enough volunteers in Israel - patriotism is much higher here than in the US, partly because our threats are more imminent). It's time to create significantly better post-army benefits for combat than for non-combat soldiers. It's time to stop pretending that certain units in the IDF deserve combat benefits when all their soldiers do is sit in front of computers at IDF headquarters. And it's time to let those who don't serve for whatever reason legally hold jobs (and pay taxes) instead of wringing our hands over statistics that show increasing numbers of children living in poverty every year when we all know who those children are and why their parents have no income (or may be hiding the income they have by working 'off the books').

Those are my ideas. They won't be popular with lots of old-time Israelis and they won't be popular with the woman from Teaneck (just guessing) who called me a 'parasite' in the comments section last week because my bio says that some people would call me 'ultra-Orthodox.' I really don't care.

It's not just me saying this. It's a lot of high-ranking officers in the IDF who are tired of spending the defense budget dealing with basket cases who don't belong in the army in the first place. The army should not be a panacea for society's problems. In 2007, with hostile armies surrounding us, hostile Arabs among us and a maniac in Tehran threatening to incinerate us, we need a mean, lean and efficient fighting unit, not a dance troupe.

Too bad most of Israel's politicians would be too scared to risk their political careers by saying the same things I am saying. I am just a blogger, so I can speak the truth.


At 3:48 PM, Blogger Daniel434 said...

Great post, although I am saddened to hear there is a phenomenon of draft dodging, I did not expect that(not in Israel). Thank you for the history lesson too, I really enjoy reading about Israel and learning things new everyday about Israel. I believe you made a great suggestion, I also think Israel should start some type of incentive based program for combat soldiers. I think combat soldiers need even more incentives fighting with Olmert in control, heh. Great post, I'll be praying for your military. ;)

At 4:17 PM, Blogger Daniel said...

As always , great post.
Army service in Israel has been used as a way to "Israelify" those who serve. I have also heard that sex is used as a way of "pais cutting" some of the vulnerable religious recruits.
As to the "parasite" comment, I have often felt that the deferments hurt the Hareidim politically, nevertheless they are the true "Delta Force " of Israel. They are on the front lines fighting the only battle Israel may lose-baby making.
I also felt that the parasite charge was always disingenuous because they never demanded service from the arab population.
Of course a professional army would be much more religoius and hesder as they would be most willing to serve. Some muckity muck came to my shul a few years ago and stated in 5 years 70% of the officer corps will be dati. I have never seen any corroborating data on this however. Have you?

At 5:21 PM, Blogger Carl in Jerusalem said...


You make a number of good points. On the sex issue, yes, I have heard that happens as well, and it's one of the reasons that Hesder fights so hard to be segregated. When you read about women going into all combat units, that's what the battle is about. If they actually introduce women into Hesder's units, I would guess that many Roshei Yeshiva will instruct their charges to take deferments - just like the Haredim do. But religiously, the conditions for Nahal Haredi are far better today than are the conditions for ordinary Hesder.

I ignore charges of being a 'parasite.' My tax return here proves that I am far from being one.

As to the officer corps, my understanding is that it is currently 40-50% religious. As you intimate, if there were a volunteer army, that number would undoubtedly rise. 70% in five years does not sound far-fetched, particularly if we went to a volunteer army (and if those Hesder Yeshivos that require boys to withdraw from the Yeshiva if they take officers' corps courses stop doing so). That may be one reason why it's considered tabu (as far as I can tell) for anyone in power to raise the topic.

But a smaller, more motivated (on an overall basis) professional army would - in my opinion - cost us less over the long run and be a more powerful fighting force. I'm happy to have my taxes go to reward those who choose to join.

At 5:23 PM, Blogger Carl in Jerusalem said...


Just to be clear, many of these people are legally avoiding the army. It's not like the Vietnam era in the US where people would get drafted and then run away to Canada.

Also, just about every country in the western world that has compulsory military service has an exception for people in or studying for the clergy. Anyone who came of age during Vietnam knew people who were studying in Yeshivot in the US who may have been motivated in part by the desire to avoid being sent to Vietnam. In that sense, studying in Yeshiva here is no different.

At 11:36 AM, Blogger Jewish Girl Friend said...

Clergy may not be enlisted , but what percent of the population need to be clergy?. In the "Haredi" community ,if you want to be anybody, you got to sit and study ,even if you are not interested,or talented for it. Let me use your idea for the army about theis community: Why don't they stop pressuring everyone to be big "scholars" .you only need some, and the rest of the"basket cases" should do something more useful with their lives, like be productive..........earn a living a support their women that are consistantly are giving birth and making a living.................

another point about the army having women around , and the sex thing. The fear of sexuality in the reigious community is bizzare.i think you say you have 8 childern. then you must engaging in intercoused sometimes?.women are around,you married one.The seperation that occors in the ultra-orthodox community between the sexes is not natural and does not allow for a real humane vie of women and of sexuality, and created unnescecery tention and the inability to control yourself around women(?).
regarding the dancers. there has always been an entertainment group
in the army that helped the moral of the soldiers, a dance group is just another form.
What i'm trying to say is stop being afraid ("chared") of the world.............
it's a wonderful place to live in!

At 6:54 PM, Blogger Rena Freedenberg, ND said...

I agree with you wholeheartedly that we should go to an all-volunteer army. But maybe that's the chutznik in both of us speaking, as every Israeli I've spoken to insists that it won't work since no one wants to be the "fryer" who serves. Who knows?

One more small point: there have been incidents where there was "trouble from our cousins" in a particular area and the yeshivot fled the area and the bachurim left until things quieted down. If these guys and their rabbonim really, truly believed that Torah study protects the nation and certainly the one studying, then the yehivot and the bachurim would have stayed put and davened and learned in shifts so that there was learning on the front lines 24-hours a day every day until the threat was neutralized. Between you and me, who are we kidding that bachurim don't want to go in because they think that their Torah learning is protecting us all? They are also Israeli and don't want to be the fryers that give up a much cushier life and schedule to fight...

At 7:01 PM, Blogger Rena Freedenberg, ND said...

I agree with you about the volunteer army, but maybe it's just the chutznik in both of us, since every Israeli I've spoken to insists it will never work. Who knows?

Also, one other point: there have been incidences where there was trouble from our cousins in a certain area and the yeshiva closed down temporarily and the bachurim fled the area. Now, if they and their rabbonim really believed that Torah study protects klal Yisrael and the person learning, they would have set up 8-hour mishmerot and had learning going on 24-hours a day until the trouble passed. But between us, we know that they don't believe this; they are Israelis too and just don't want to be the frier who gives up a much cushier life and schedule to put himself in danger -- let the other guy do it!

At 12:36 AM, Blogger Carl in Jerusalem said...


Here's one Israeli proponent of a volunteer army that might surprise you: Moshe Feiglin.




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