Attrition: Israeli Soldier Shortage


December 17, 2007: The Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) is running out of soldiers. Not just because of a low birth rate, but also because of an increasing number of potential recruits are avoiding service.

The Israeli armed forces has about 160,000 people on active duty, about 60 percent of those are draftees (men serving for 36 months, women for 21 months). You get drafted at 18, unless you have a deferment. For a long time, nearly ten percent of potential draftees were deferred because they were ultra-orthodox Jews in religious schools. Now that's up to eleven percent, as more young Orthodox Jews use the religious study deferment. Another seven percent are exempted on health grounds, five percent because of criminal records and four percent because they are living abroad. Fraud is increasingly a factor in religious and health exemptions. Others are known to have gotten in trouble with the police, just to have enough of a police record to be exempt from military duty. For those who can afford it, living overseas for a while works, and is perfectly legal.

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 a third do. As a result, Israel is having a difficult time keeping its armed forces up to strength.

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.

The military is taking a number of measures to deal with the problem, but the way things are going now, the IDF (Israeli Defense Forces) will still be short 50,000 or more troops on mobilization. Normally, when Israel mobilizes for war, reservists (men serve until age 41, women until 24) quickly expand the size of the armed forces to 600,000.

In reaction to all this, the military is making a big deal out of draft dodging, hoping to shame more men into stepping up. Second, it is 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 suspected 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 these guys more opportunities, and see how they respond.

The basic idea here is that quality is more important than quantity. This has always been important in the IDF, but with an increasing number of young Israelis avoiding service, that quality edge becomes even more important. For older Israelis, this situation is hard to comprehend. For sixty years, service in the IDF was seen as an essential element in achieving civilian success. Your job opportunities were better if you had served in an elite infantry unit, or been an officer. That's no longer the case. Israeli society is changing, and the IDF has to adapt, or else.




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