Morale: Israel Considers Cancelling Conscription


January 15, 2015: The IDF (Israeli Defense Forces) has always monitored the changing attitudes of its troops and has recently concluded that the IDF will have to eventually drop conscription and go to an all-volunteer force. Conscription is becoming more unpopular with young men and women, especially now that the defense budget has been cut so much that the IDF literally cannon afford to conscript all those who are eligible each year. As happened in the United States and elsewhere with these situations, the methods used to decide who goes and who does not tend to please no one. That leads to many potential recruits seeking to avoid serving.

To no one’s surprise in 2012 Israeli police declared open season on young men and women who refused to serve in the armed forces. That’s because in 2011 2,700 Israeli men and over a thousand women illegally avoided military service. That's fifty percent more than in 2010 and it has gotten worse every year since then. This trend is partly in response to the growing number of Jewish Israelis claiming religious exemptions. Government efforts to negotiate a compromise on this issue with the religious conservatives has not worked. This perceived unfairness of the exemption to the non-religious majority 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 160,000 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 630,000 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 arbitrary or perceived unfairness of many of those exemptions is causing a lot of unrest among Israeli voters and the government has to pay attention to that.

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.

The Israeli government has been under a lot of pressure to fix the problem. That has not been easy and success has proved elusive. But this shows how large a problem this has become. One of the most annoying items for most voters was the growing number of 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 14 percent and climbing because more young Orthodox Jews use the religious study deferment. About 14 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 in 2010 and 2014 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. Despite all this many IDF analysts and planners have agreed that an all-volunteer force is the best solution for all these problems.

Israel is also looking towards the U.S. and Europe for help. These nations have been dropping conscription and going all-volunteer since the 1960s. It was found that the transition brings with it some unexpected benefits. There is a lot of interest in how Britain (went all-volunteer in the early 60s) and the United States (did it a decade later) handled things because these two nations appear to have been the most successful at going from a conscript to a volunteer force.

The first problem eliminated by using only volunteers was the "conscript mentality." Officers, and especially NCOs had to quickly adapt to the fact that all their troops were now volunteers, and more could be demanded of them. It apparently takes 5-10 years before NCOs got rid of all the little tricks they used to deal with reluctant, and often downright uncooperative, conscripts and fully exploit the advantages of an all-volunteer force.

Aside from being able to demand more from the troops, the all-volunteer force also attracts a different sort of recruit. You end up with more women, and more foreigners. The foreign recruits do not include the traditional ones (the Gurkhas in Britain and "foreign legion" troops on the continent.) This came as a surprise to some European nations (like Spain and Italy) when they found that about ten percent of the volunteers had emigrated from another nation. The U.S. had less of a problem with this, as there was a long tradition of recent migrants signing up, even during the three decades when conscription was in force.

What nations do with all these volunteers, before long, is sharply raise standards. Britain, Australia, Canada and the United States are all noted for their well trained and very effective troops. That's not just because they all speak English, but mainly because they have an all-volunteer force and expect the most from their troops. Spain and Italy are making the most of this, training troops to a higher level of skill and performance. Italy has also greatly expanded the size of its Carabinieri (para-military police) force, making it about the same size as the army. The Carabinieri are well trained light infantry who excel and peacekeeping missions. Spain is organizing similar units.

As more European nations drop conscription, they find themselves with many more recent examples of how to handle the transition, and what to ultimately expect. Already Israel is studying all these experiences to find the best way forward for the IDF.





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