May 15, 2012: Israeli police have declared open season on young men and women who refuse to serve in the armed forces. Last year 2,700 Israeli men and over a thousand women illegally avoided military service. That's fifty percent more than in 2010. This trend is partly in response to the growing number of Jewish Israelis claiming religious exemptions. Government efforts to placate the religious conservatives have not worked. This perceived unfairness is making it difficult to maintain morale and high standards in its armed forces.
The most obvious sign of this declining morale is the growing number of young men and women who are avoiding service (draft dodgers in U.S. parlance). The Israeli armed forces has about 175,000 people on active duty, about 60 percent of those are draftees (men serving for 36 months, women for 21 months) and a third are women (who can serve in 90 percent of military jobs). There are another 450,000 reservists (those who have already completed their active service). You get drafted at 18, unless you have a deferment. Currently about a quarter of men and nearly half the women get some kind of deferment.
The military expects this deferment rate to keep increasing. In an effort to get more young men with a religious deferment to volunteer, the army is giving in to conservative Jewish sects that demand unmarried men and women remain separated while in the military. At first this meant smaller (company and battalion size) units containing only "religious" (actually, very religious) Jews. But when these units came together for operations or ceremonies the religious Jews demanded that female soldiers be segregated from the men. They also demanded that women soldiers not sing (Israeli soldiers sing a lot) when religious male soldiers are around. In general, female soldiers were increasingly not allowed to mingle with male soldiers if there are religious soldiers present. All this sort of thing has been bad for morale, angered the female soldiers, and caused a public uproar over the issue.
A newly formed Israeli government has promised to fix the problem. But it won't be easy and success is far from certain. But this shows how large a problem this has become. The first thing the new government is doing is sending police out to arrest, and let the courts prosecute, existing draft dodgers. Next, there is supposed to be a sharp reduction in the number of religious deferments.
The core of the issue is religious deferments for ultra-religious Jews. For a long time about ten percent of potential draftees were deferred because they were ultra-orthodox Jews in religious schools. Now it's over 12 percent and climbing because more young Orthodox Jews use the religious study deferment. About twelve percent of Israelis are very religious Jews but there are a higher percentage of religious Jews among junior officers, and senior commanders fear they will soon face subordinates refusing to carry out orders for religious reasons.
Moreover, about 25 percent of potential male recruits are exempt (unless they volunteer) because they are Moslem or Christian. It's easy for women to get exemptions and over 40 percent do. As a result, Israel is having a difficult time keeping its armed forces up to strength.
Another looming problem is a new law that only allows reservists to be called up once every three years. This law came about because so many reservists were being called up more frequently, which upset a significant number of voters. On top of that active duty troops now require more months of specialized training, which proved quite useful two years ago in Gaza. But those months of additional training means fewer troops are available for counter-terror and other duties.
The problem with the draft dodgers is that they know that Israel has never been defeated in war and has been the top military power in the region for decades. Many young men believe they won't be missed if they manage to fake their way into an exemption. In the last few years the military has been cracking down on the exemptions, sending out investigators to make sure those claiming a deferment are entitled to it. This has resulted in thousands of young men, and especially women, changing their declaration (usually about religious matters) and choosing to serve. But it also provided publicity for the extent of the draft-dodging and that made it a hot issue.
The military is now making a big deal out of draft dodging in the media, hoping to shame more men into stepping up. It is also allowing more of the minorities, especially those who only serve if they volunteer, to get into any job they qualify for. In the past Arabs were restricted from many fields because of potential loyalty conflicts in wartime. But now the military believes they have screening that can detect who is loyal and who is not.
Finally, the military is making more of an effort to integrate young recent immigrants into the military. Because these guys often had not yet mastered the language and customs they usually end up in menial jobs. Highly educated conscripts don't respond well to that and it's a waste of valuable skills. So the military is going to give the new migrants more opportunities and see how they respond.
But the most contentious problem is, ironically, the religious one. Israeli women know very well how women are mistreated in Moslem countries and they see ultra-religious Jews as a local version of that. The ultra-orthodox (Haredi) Jews are becoming more aggressive in imposing their rules on others. Violence by religious extremists is becoming more common. The most conservative religious Jews have increasingly used violence in Jerusalem. For example, they oppose the government allowing cars to park near Haredi neighborhoods on Saturday (the Sabbath). They also oppose billboard ads that feature women anywhere near where Haredi live and segregate women on buses in their neighborhoods. Now they want to segregate the military as well, in addition to keeping most of their young men and women out, and that has aroused a lot of public opposition.