Dagan Jacobi looks like he’ll always be more comfortable holding a surfboard than an M-16. When he’s not studying for his high school finals, the 18-year-old with a sun tattoo etched onto his right shoulder blade is riding the waves of the Mediterranean Sea, which laps the edge of his farming village, Shavei Zion, in Israel’s Western Galilee. But on July 25, Jacobi will begin a three-year stint in the Israeli army.
“It isn’t what I’d want to do if I had the choice,” Jacobi said. “But how else can we defend the country?”
As Israel drags through its third year of the intifada, more and more recruits into the Israeli army, interviewed in towns, moshavim and kibbutzim in the Western Galilee, say that they, and many of their friends, will fulfill their military obligation with ambivalence, if not reluctance.
Indeed, the image of the Israeli army seems to have been tarnished not only abroad but among Israeli youth themselves. As Avi Cohen of Shlomie, a small town on the northern border of Israel, said, “The Israeli army kills children — by accident — in the territories. But even if it’s only by accident, many people my age still don’t want to serve.” That said, there has been a surprising drop in the number of draftees requesting exemptions from service as conscientious objectors, according to an Israel Defense Forces spokeswoman, down to 28 in 2003 from 47 in 2000 — of those 28, only eight people received such exemptions.
Yet there has been a rise in the number of eligible people who request medical and psychological exemptions to get out of the draft. The “high percentage of exemptions,” said Israeli army reserve Colonel Micha Regev, “is getting worse.” As much as 20% of all eligible conscripts now receive army exemptions, he said, adding that the numbers higher than that floating around at the moment are based on statistics that factor in the ultra-Orthodox, who are not considered eligible. This increase has sparked Israeli army and political leaders in recent months to press for changes in what they view as a flawed universal draft system. Some army critics have begun to press for an all-volunteer, professional army, but no changes have yet been made. (The Labor Party’s Haim Ramon, chairman of the Knesset’s subcommittee on IDF manpower, is working on several proposals to change required reserve duty, although a spokesperson for Ramon said that none had yet made it to the floor.) The IDF office declined to confirm how many people are in the IDF.
All Israeli Jewish 18-year-old men and women are drafted to serve in the Israel Defense Forces. (Israeli Druze men are also drafted, but Arab-Christian and Muslim men and ultra-Orthodox Jews are exempt.) Men serve for three years, women for two. When Israelis are in the 11th grade, they receive their first zav, or letter of induction. This letter marks the beginning of a yearlong series of interviews and psychological, medical and physical tests to determine in which branch of the IDF — air force, navy or army — a student will serve. The procedure is similar to the college-application process familiar to so many American teenagers.
The IDF offers recruits a variety of options based on its needs and a draftee’s abilities. Possibilities for men range from serving as barbers to commandos, cooks and welders to pilots, and women also face postings that vary from intelligence to fitness instructors to medics to combat duty.
Yet more young people are finding ways out of fulfilling their military obligations. Their reasons range from the political to the personal. “I’ve heard stories of people introducing their teddy bears as their psychiatrists so that they get out of the army,” said Israel Lazar, 18, of Nahariya. “They want to live at home, go to nightclubs, do nothing — just hold onto their youth.”
Lazar himself said that he would rather not serve when he could be “studying and building my future.” Lazar received a 97, the highest score a young man can receive, on his physical profile. (According to local lore, nobody gets a perfect 100 because three points are taken off during an infant boy’s circumcision.) Because of his high score, Lazar will most likely be conscripted into a combat unit, despite his preference for “something technical or intellectual.”
His generation has far less “motivatzia,” Lazar said, using the Hebrew word for motivation, to serve in the army than his parents’ had. In the past, everyone served in the army except for people with serious mental or physical disabilities. Today, with more people requesting and receiving exemptions, there is less of a stigma attached to not fulfilling one’s army duty. Israeli youth also have more social and educational options than ever before.
“The army used to be the place where young people met each other and fell in love,” said Roie Levy of Kibbutz Cabri, about five miles east of Nahariya. But young people today have other social venues. He hopes to be accepted into the army’s rescue unit rather than become a combat soldier. Once considered Israel’s finest soldiers, kibbutz members, who are predominantly secular, are more likely to disagree with Israel’s role in the territories these days and many are less inclined to try out for the special forces that help defend it.
Still, said Ayala Baifus, 18, of Shavei Zion, the privilege of living in Israel means that people have an obligation to give back to it. Baifus was drafted into an army program in which she would study to receive a preliminary engineering degree at the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology before serving for two years as a soldier and then 18 months
as a paid officer. But she found her daily three-hour commute too difficult and is now waiting to be re-assigned. She doesn’t mind if she ends up in a secretarial position. “I’ll do anything but fight — I’m too afraid,” Baifus said. Just 2% of all female conscripts serve in combat units, according to an IDF spokesperson.
While idealistic soldiers might be harder to find today, there are still many who willingly endure the grueling tests required for training in the IDF’s elite combat divisions, such as the Tzanhanim, or paratroopers, and Shayetet 13, the Israeli equivalent of the U.S. Navy Seals. Every Israeli prime minister has served in one of these elite forces. Many soldiers covet postings in these high-risk squads because they offer prestige and serve as steppingstones for careers both in and out of the army.
Eran Cohen, for example, plays on a high school basketball team but dreams of becoming an Israeli air force pilot or a commando. Politics doesn’t interest him, he said, he just wants to “serve as much as I can.”
The only group of future recruits whose view of the army seems to have remained unscathed are those from the religious sector.
Chaim Hellman, 18, of Nahariya, for example, said that he will be joining the army’s hesder program in June. A religious Jew, he will be drafted into the army to study in a yeshiva for the first 18 months; some of his studies will focus on Jewish law as it pertains to the military. He will complete his tour of duty in a combat unit. He said that as a soldier, he would do whatever he is told to do, even if that meant helping dismantle Jewish settlements in the territories (though he personally supports such settlements). He is not ultra-Orthodox, or charedi, a group granted automatic exemption, a point of contention in many Israeli circles.
For religious recruits like Hellman, serving in the army is more than a matter of civilian legal duty — it is a holy obligation. He said that the three “gifts” that Jews have always struggled to defend are the Torah, the Jewish people and the land of Israel.
“The things that are most important to you,” Hellman said, “are always the things that you have to work the hardest to protect.”