The False “Crisis” in Military Recruitment: An IDF Red Herring

By July 23, 2007

BESA Center Perspectives Paper No. 33

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY: According to figures released last week by the IDF, 25 percent of Israeli male youth are shirking military duty. However, the statistics simply do not support this: Israeli enlistment remains at extraordinarily high levels. Why then the hysteria? The IDF is cynically seeking to legitimize its budget demands by creating the aura of crisis.

The “Crisis”

According to figures released last week by the IDF, only three out of every four 18-year-old Israeli males who are liable for military service enlists. In other words, a full 25 percent of potential male draftees do not take part in what has traditionally been considered the most meaningful manifestation of (Jewish) Israeli citizenship. Statistics relating to women were even more dramatic, over 40 percent of potential female enlistees were exempted from service, principally after declaring that military duty would conflict with their religious lifestyles.

Predictably, media reactions to the recruitment figures – especially relating to males – were frantic. “Crisis” screamed one headline; “collapse of values” announced another. Fuel was added to the flames of hysteria by two further items of information released by the IDF. First, in terms of overall numbers, the August 2007 cohort was the smallest draft in the past several years. Second, even amongst those males who did enlist, “motivation to serve” – measured by applications for assignment to combat units – has declined by 1.5 percent over the previous twelve months.

While the first statistic generated fears that the IDF was facing an irremediable manpower shortage, the implications of the second seemed even more drastic. The decline in motivation was interpreted as evidence that the old traditions of patriotic self-sacrifice were being abandoned – especially by the sons of the secular bourgeoisie.

The Reality

In reality, however, a very different interpretation of the available figures is needed. On closer inspection, the statistics simply do not support the contention that young Israeli men (on whom this paper focuses) are abandoning the IDF in droves. The real message of the recruitment figures is very different. Yes, the IDF does confront a crisis. But it is largely one of its own making.

A proper assessment of the statistics released by the IDF in July 2007 mandates two inter-related steps. First, those statistics must be broken down into their individual components. After all, the 25 percent of potential recruits who do not enlist are hardly a homogeneous group, and the various reasons for their absence from the ranks must therefore be differentiated. Second, the 2007 figures must also be compared with those available for previous periods. Only then can long-term trends be observed and the present situation placed in perspective.

For purposes of comparison, we can rely on two publicly available sets of figures that cover the 1980s and 1990s: 1) those that the IDF made available to the “Army-Society” project organized by the Israel Democracy Institute in 2002,[1] and 2) those included in the State Comptroller’s Report for 2002 (no. 53a, pp. 118-9), published in 2003.[2]

By combining the available sources, the following results emerge:

1. Non-service in the IDF is by no means an entirely novel phenomenon. The rates have been steadily increasing for over twenty years. They stood at 12.1 percent in 1980, at 16.6 percent in 1990 and at 23.9 percent in 2002.

2. The largest group of the 25 percent of today’s male non-draftees consists of charedim, ultra-Orthodox, who are granted draft deferments (effectively, draft exemptions) on the grounds that they devote themselves full-time to the study of the Torah. This is also the group whose growth has in recent decades been most pronounced. Charedim accounted for only 3.7 percent of the total pool of potential recruits who did not enlist in 1980 and just 4.6 percent in 1990. But their proportion rose to almost 9 percent in the year 2000 and now stands at 11 percent.

Charedi non-enlistment is certainly a significant phenomenon. However, in the context of the present outcry, it is essentially a red herring, since it clearly does not indicate a sudden transformation of national attitudes towards the ethos of military service. Charedim have consistently evinced an attitude of resistance to the draft (their spiritual leaders tabled demands for deferments as early as 1948) and the dramatic rise in the number of exemptions in this community is principally caused by its high birth rates.

3. Similarly, a considerable proportion of the remaining 14 percent of non-draftees does not fit the depiction of persons experiencing a sudden crisis of motivation. According to the 2007 figures supplied by the IDF, 4 percent of the present total of 25 percent consists of potential recruits who reside abroad when summoned to service – a proportion that has in fact declined from 4.6 percent since the late 1990s. Another 3 percent are rejected for service by the IDF because they possess a criminal record – a proportion that has doubled since 1990. Incidences of physical incapacity or premature death account for roughly another 2 percent, a figure which has remained stable over the years.

4. Deducting these categories from the 2007 total of 25 percent non-draftees, leaves the final group worth examining. Amounting to 5 percent of the age cohort, this consists of young men whom the IDF excuses from service for what it delicately refers to as reasons of “psychological incompatibility.”  While some persons thus classified are excused from service because they do indeed suffer from psychological handicaps likely to be exacerbated by the strain of military life, it is probably not so for the majority. Instead, it is generally accepted that the term “incompatibility” is a code used by the IDF to classify what the man-in-the-street calls “draft dodgers” – persons who sham a mental illness or other psychological impediments in order to shirk service.

Draft Dodging Remains a Minority Phenomenon

Persons in the “incompatibility” category of non-draftees most closely fit the picture of youngsters to whom the old values of military service no longer speak. Over time, their numbers have steadily grown. Whereas in both 1980 and 1990 this category accounted for less than 4 percent of the total of non-draftees, in the 2007 audit that number has risen to 5 percent.

But – and this is the most striking fact – the figure is still only 5 percent. The numbers in this category must be supplemented by a larger pool of like-minded youngsters who do enlist (or, alternatively, do not manage to evade enlistment) and who, as noted above, exhibit less “motivation” to combat assignments than did their predecessors of an earlier age. For good measure, we can also add at least some of the 17.5 percent of conscripts who, although drafted, received early discharge (often, according to street-talk, on spurious grounds).

Even when these possibilities are taken into account, the overall picture remains unaltered. At the end of the day, “draft dodging”, in its commonly accepted sense, remains a minority phenomenon in Israel, as does conscientious objection – refusal to serve for political, ideological or moral reasons. Conscientious objection is so rare in Israel as to be statistically irrelevant. Overwhelmingly, the majority of youngsters, from all classes and societal segments, respond positively to the call to service – and usually enthusiastically so.

Considering all that is going on around us, that is a truly remarkable phenomenon. After all, there are numerous reasons why one would have expected draft-dodging in contemporary Israel to be far in excess of 5 percent – and why even 50 percent need not have raised too many eyebrows.

Here are just a few: the pervasiveness in much of today’s Israeli society of “post-modernism” (sometimes “post-Zionism”), an atmosphere that places the individual’s interest before those of the community; the knowledge that for the past two decades the IDF has assigned much of its complement to constabulary duties in the territories, which many recruits consider to be at best distasteful and at worst morally problematic; that as recently as 2005 the IDF ordered vast numbers of conscripts, who when drafted were told that they were joining “a people’s army”, to evict Jewish citizens from their legal homes in the Gaza Strip; and that during the past year hardly a day has passed without another revelation of the almost unbelievable buffoonery and incompetence displayed by IDF commanders during last summer’s Second Lebanon War.

Given that background, the wonder is not that 5 percent of potential recruits seek to avoid the draft (a figure that was considered reasonable in the western Allied countries during World War II and that the US would have been delighted to match during the Vietnam War), but why that number is so small.

Cynical Manipulation of the Statistics by the IDF

Why, then, all the fuss?

In cases such as these, usually the best advice is to adopt the rule of thumb which Arthur Conan Doyle attributes to Sherlock Holmes, always ask: Qui bono? or “who stands to gain most from what has transpired?”

The media and media pundits, who grasp any opportunity to whip up national hysteria, are one obvious set of candidates. The more likely culprits, however, are the highest echelons of the IDF – the persons without whose authorization the figures would never have seen the light of day. What possible interest could they have had in breaking the rule of silence that is usually observed pertaining to recruitment statistics? And why, in their background briefings to reporters, did the senior staff in the IDF’s Human Resources Branch deliberately give the impression that the situation is so grave?

These questions become particularly pertinent when it is born in mind that persons of that rank are surely capable of doing simple arithmetic. They, too, must know that draft dodging is a marginal phenomenon (as seen above). If they nevertheless went out of their way to exaggerate its scope, one can only assume that they had an institutional interest in creating an impression of crisis and in generating precisely the sort of outcry that did in fact ensue.

This is an old IDF tactic. As was demonstrated by the recent Brodet Commission Report, published in May 2007, it has been used time and again by successive Chiefs of Staff, each of whom has with utmost cynicism thus sought to legitimize IDF demands for unnecessarily inflated additions to the annual Defense Budget. What Brodet found reprehensible in that behavior was not simply the fact that the IDF pulled the wool over the eyes of both public and politicians but that it prevented the military itself from undertaking necessary reforms. Instead of streamlining, the IDF became increasingly bloated and top-heavy.[3]

Precisely the same situation now seems to apply in the area of human resources. Instead of taking the steps urgently required to re-fashion its force structure and bring them into line with the needs of an increasingly complex battlefield (for instance, by seriously examining the option of a shift to a more professional force), the IDF prefers to cry wolf and give society a bad conscience. “We shall have to start drafting even youngsters with a criminal record,” was one threat that, according to reports in Omedia, floated around last week by the Commanding Officer of Meytav, the IDF Draft Management and Recruitment Unit. “We shall have to ask the Knesset to plug the seepage caused by legislation that allows young women to declare their religiosity,” was a second.

Soon enough, the IDF will begin demanding larger budgets, so that it can devote more resources to recruitment drives in schools and neighborhoods – all in order to correct the supposed failing of Israeli youth.

However, as we have seen, few such efforts are in fact required. The only thing wrong with the vast majority of today’s Israeli youngsters is that they are naïve enough to believe whatever persons in uniform tell them. Surely it is up to older heads to try and rectify that imbalance, and to persuade the IDF that its first priority is to put its own house in order.

BESA Center Perspectives Papers are published through the generosity of the Littauer Foundation

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Prof. Stuart A. Cohen

Prof. Stuart A. Cohen is a professor of political science at Bar-Ilan University and a former senior research associate at the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies.