Tel Aviv - After years of grumbling about those Israelis who avoid military service — particularly Haredi or ultra-Orthodox Jews who refuse to serve on religious grounds — and leave the burden to others, Israelis have recently begun focusing anxiously on the growing numbers of youngsters who simply don’t want to serve.
The topic became front-page news last fall, when the Defense Ministry issued a report stating that fully 28% of draft-age men had avoided service last year, and that fewer than half of them were Haredim.
Now, one Israeli, advertising executive Rami Yehoshua, has decided to do something about it. Father of a 17-year-old draft-age son and owner of his own Tel Aviv ad agency, Yehoshua has created a series of billboards, bus advertisements and television commercials that encourage pride in army service. His goal is to make serving “cool” again.
One commercial shows übercool Israeli boys chatting up super-sexy foreign girls. The guys seem like prize catches as they discuss their army service — all except one who looks sheepish, and then ashamed when asked where he served. “A true Israeli doesn’t evade the army,” the slogan says.
Yehoshua’s ad agency, Yehoshua/TBWA, is footing the cost of the campaign, except for some sponsorship from the commercial sector. The company is not disclosing the amounts involved.
The issue of draft dodging is not new. The refusal of most Haredi Jews to serve, on religious grounds, has long been a source of tension between Haredim and the secular and Modern Orthodox communities. The subject has been debated fiercely for years in the Knesset, without resolution. Few observers believe that change can come from advertising on television, a medium banned by Haredi rabbis.
The Defense Ministry figures released last fall show that Haredi refusal, while growing rapidly as a share of the draft-age cohort, accounts for less than half of the males who do not serve. Yehoshua’s campaign is targeting that second group that has long been overlooked: the growing numbers of Israelis who simply choose to ignore their draft.
“Of late, there has been a phenomenon of normal Israelis who are choosing not to go to the army and instead study or work or travel abroad,” said Ella Goldstein, who is managing Yehoshua’s campaign.
It is difficult to determine the number of people who fall into this category, since most manage to pass themselves off as unfit, or simply leave the country before registration and disappear into the murky statistic of Israelis living abroad.
“Recruitment is required of all Israeli civilians when they arrive at the suitable age,” said Captain Benjamin Rutland of the army spokesman’s office. “There are several reasons for Israelis to be exempted, among them religious beliefs, the existence of a criminal record, and various medical and psychological rationales.” Personal taste is not one of the choices.
Thought the army takes a dim view of those who feign medical trouble, it has few tools to fight this. “One who evades military service through dishonesty acts in breach of the law,” Rutland said, but those who do so “will be dealt with accordingly by the civilian legal authorities, as well as by Israeli society.”
At the same time, it is telling that Israel Defense Forces figures show that 28% of army-age males failed to serve in the draft last August, compared with 18.8% in 1991. Nearly all the increase came quite recently; the figure rose to 21% in 1998 from 18.8% in 1991, but then jumped in nine years to 28% in 2007, rising 1% per year. Only half the increase is accounted for as religious refusal, resulting from a natural increase in the Haredi population.
“The young generation is self-centered and less concerned with the nation as a whole than in the past,” Goldstein said. “People think about themselves. Just 10 to 15 years ago, not serving was a source of embarrassment. Today, the stigma has gone — which is what we want to change.”
The army, for its part, views the campaign with approval — but at arm’s length. “The media campaign, ‘A true Israeli doesn’t evade his military service,’ is a civilian campaign, in which the IDF is not involved,” Goldstein said. “However, the IDF considers it to be a positive initiative.”