'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.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.
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.
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.