Israelis dodge military duty

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TEL AVIV — Growing numbers of young Israelis are finding ways to avoid compulsory military service, a trend that many think reflects declining social cohesion in the Jewish state and increasing alienation from its most venerated institution.

According to figures released by the Israeli army this week, about one in four eligible men are being exempted from the three-year stints. For women, required to serve two years, the exemption figure jumped to 43 percent. In addition, nearly 20 percent of the recruits leave the army before their terms of service are complete.

Ran Cohen, who serves on the parliament’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, said that compares with 10 percent of eligible Israeli men who received exemptions a decade ago.

“It’s worrisome,” said Mr. Cohen, a legislator from the left-wing Meretz party. “Serving in the army used to be the clearest example of domestic solidarity. The fact that it’s no longer attractive indicates a weakening of Israeli society.”

Mr. Cohen said the trend has spread from Jewish ultra-Orthodox youths, who traditionally have been allowed exemptions in order to pursue religious studies. The ultrareligious accounted for 90 percent of exemptions a decade ago but about 60 percent today, he said.

In addition to the ultrareligious, the army exempts youths who are considered mentally or physically unfit to serve, as well as Israelis who are living abroad.

Army service has been compulsory for all 18-year-old Israelis since the state’s establishment 59 years ago. Israel saw itself outnumbered by hostile neighbors, and the universal draft enhanced the army’s centrality in society because it was the one melting pot for a country of immigrants from divergent ethnic backgrounds.

The number of secular draft dodgers has risen as Israeli society has become more individualistic, less ideological and more critical of public institutions.

“In this minuscule Jewish land, encircled by huge Muslim populations, the legacy of defending ourselves as Jews, especially after the Holocaust, is important,” said Yuval Steinitz, a member of the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee from the right-of-center Likud Party.

“People need to feel that everybody is sharing this burden, and that we’re all together in the same boat.”

The legislator said he remained encouraged by the fact that about two-thirds of male draftees express interest in serving in combat units.

Although the number of draftees is in decline, an army source said, it hasn’t affected the number of soldiers serving in combat units.

Israel’s press this week carried reports of Web sites that provide advice to young Israelis interested in obtaining a dispensation from serving in the army.

One, named “Target 21” after the score out of 97 that wins prospective soldiers a medical dispensation, urged readers to complain of back pains and botch answers on computerized aptitude tests used by the army.

“Motivation to get out of the army is important,” urged an online information sheet. “It’s important to know that, it doesn’t matter how long the process takes, the exemption will ultimately be issued.”

The Israel Defense Forces usually receives the highest approval rating of any Israeli public institution. But its image was tarnished in the past year by a major government investigation that found it was unprepared to fight a ground war against Hezbollah in southern Lebanon.

On Wednesday, a strongly worded report criticized the army’s home-front command for its handling of its responsibilities during the war.

The declining recruitment numbers reflect “a deepening rift between the state and its citizens, and continued dissipation of the unwritten contract — even if it is bound by law — between Israeli society and the army,” wrote Ariella Ringel Hoffman, an opinion columnist on the Ynet.com news Web site.

“This has reached such an extent that we may for a moment wonder at the fact that 50 percent of youngsters still fulfill their military duty in full.”

Michael Oren, a military analyst at Jerusalem’s Shalem Center, said the new participation figures don’t necessarily indicate a drop in the size or capability of the army.

The army can’t take everyone and needs to become more efficient by shedding excess positions, he said. But he acknowledged that at upscale urban high schools in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, “it has become unfashionable to go into the army.”

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