JERUSALEM — A drop in the percentage of Israelis serving in the military has Israel’s leaders warning that the Jewish state is losing touch with its most admired institution.
“From the army of the people, the Israel Defense Forces are gradually becoming the army of half the people,” Defense Minister Ehud Barak said at an academic conference at Tel Aviv University this week. “A soldier must not feel when he goes to battle that in the eyes of part of our society he’s a sucker.”
Army service in Israel has long been a national rite of passage. High school seniors compete to get into the most prestigious combat units, and men well into their 40s make the annual pilgrimage to serve in the reserves.
But as Israel has evolved from its socialist roots into a me-first, capitalist society, and become entrenched in its 40-year occupation of the Palestinians, army service has lost some of its luster.
While most of the percentage drop in military service is due to the rising numbers of those who are exempt from service _ ultra-Orthodox Jews and Arabs _ dodging the draft is no longer the social taboo it once was.
Draft dodging hit a national nerve last week when five of eight finalists in TV’s top-rated reality show, Israel’s answer to “American Idol,” revealed they squirmed their way out of the army.
The disclosure followed the release of the army’s latest conscription figures two weeks ago.
About 25 percent of eligible Israeli male draftees do not serve _ more than double that of 1980. Of those not serving, almost half are legally exempt as ultra-Orthodox Jews. With Israel’s 20 percent Arab minority also exempt, only 54 percent of the country’s 18-year-old men are now inducted into the Israel Defense Forces for their mandatory three-year service.
Some 43 percent of eligible women, who are required to serve two years, don’t join the army either. An additional 17.7 percent of all soldiers do not complete their full term in uniform, according to the army’s tally.
Analysts have said the numbers are misleading _ those volunteering to serve in combat units have not diminished and those shirking the law have only grown slightly.
Still, the statistics caused a public uproar and Israeli leaders warned of an impending crisis.
In a tour of the army’s induction base outside Tel Aviv on Sunday, President Shimon Peres said the army must remain the backbone of Israeli society. He encouraged Israelis to rediscover their pride in service.
“We cannot allow the matter of draft dodging to go by,” he said. “Only a strong and beloved army will give Israel the security it needs to deal with the dangers we face.”
In the hip bastions of Tel Aviv, the shame of evading the army has all but disappeared. In trendy bars people make no secret of their choice to bypass the army. Several Israeli celebrities also have skipped the service _ including Bar Refaeli, the supermodel girlfriend of Leonardo DiCaprio, and Aviv Gefen, Israel’s top recording artist.
“I don’t think I owe the country anything except taxes,” Uri Yaakobi, a 23-year-old conscientious objector, said in a debate on Channel 1 TV on Tuesday.
Dodging the draft in Israel can land someone in prison, but such enforcement has been lax in recent years.
In his speech on Monday, Barak warned that a society under existential threat will survive only if it learns to respect those who defend it.
“The time has come to go back to the days when serving was an honor, and when dodging the draft was a mark of Cain,” he said.
Gideon Sheffer, a retired general who once headed the army’s manpower division, said Israel must do more to reward its warriors and to find alternatives for those not serving, such as civil service.
“We do not have the luxury to allow them not to serve,” he said.
Last May, Israel’s Supreme Court upheld the controversial Tal Law that allows the ultra-Orthodox to avoid the draft, based on the claim that religious studies are their profession.
The law has deeply strained relations between religious and secular Israelis. While tens of thousands of other observant Jews serve in the military, the ultra-Orthodox _ who now account for about 14 percent of Israel’s 7 million people _ make no apologies for their mass exemption.
“The state of Israel was only invented 60 years ago, but studying Torah has been done for as long as Jews have been a people,” said Meir Porush, an ultra-Orthodox lawmaker. “One of the characteristics of the People of the Book is studying, and we see this as being of the utmost importance.”
Stuart Cohen, a professor of political science at Bar-Ilan University, said the public outcry has been blown out of proportion. He said the motivation to serve in Israel was still very high.
During last summer’s Lebanon war, reservists responded in record numbers to fight against Hezbollah guerrillas.
Of the 25 percent who don’t serve, Cohen said less than 5 percent were actual dodgers, taking into account families living overseas, people with criminal records and those with medical exemptions.
“Five percent was a reasonable number for Western democracies during World War II,” he pointed out. “You are never going to get 100 percent in a democratic society.”