Joining the army is not optional for Israeli teenagers. At the age of 18, Israeli men face three years of mandatory service in the Israel Defence Forces (IDF); in an odd example of gender inequality, young women serve for two. Yet despite conscription, it has been reported in the Israeli media that the IDF is facing a recruitment crisis.
Figures released by the Personnel Directorate last month show that 42.6 per cent of women avoided military service in 2013. Haaretz reports that the authorities are "highly concerned" by this. The figures also show that around one quarter of men – 26.3 per cent – subject to the draft were not enlisted this year. Fourteen per cent were excused for religious reasons, with the others not serving because they live abroad, have medical problems or have criminal records. Recent legal changes aimed at bringing in ultra-religious Haredi men into military service (they are currently exempted), and attempts to encourage Christian Arab citizens to enlist, demonstrate the extent of the problem.
Even within those conscripted, there has been a significant shift in the last few years. The Personnel Directorate figures also showed that just 70 per cent of recent recruits expressed an interest in combat service. This is a drop of nine percentage points in less than three years. Ever since the end of Operation Cast Lead – the brutal bombardment and invasion of Gaza at the end of 2008 – there has been a steady decline in those showing interest in actually fighting whilst in uniform. There are several possible reasons for this. The IDF, keen to downplay any problem, stresses that the high figure of 79 per cent in 2010 reflected a spike in enthusiasm because of the conflict with Hamas, and says that the current figures are in line with the last decade.
Although army chiefs are downplaying the significance of this lessening enthusiasm for combat service, they are clearly rattled. In an attempt to motivate teenagers nearing conscription age, the army this week launched a viral video campaign. The three videos, in Hebrew and promoted through the IDF's YouTube, Facebook and Twitter accounts each have the same punch-line: "You think that's strong? The IDF is strong." One shows an old man preparing thick, traditional coffee, before cutting to action shots of soldiers; another shows a muscular young man lifting weights, then a series of explosions; while the third shows a teenage girl playing the drums, before a montage of jets and warships. The ads have been met with widespread derision, with social media users condemning them as embarrassing and a waste of taxpayers' money. They represent only the tip of the iceberg; the Israeli press reports that the online ads are the beginning of a much bigger promotional campaign that will kick off next year, using television, radio and print media. The total cost will be 10 million shekels (around $2.8 million).
It is clear, then, that the IDF is anxious about its ability to recruit conscripts for active service, but why the decline in enthusiasm? The IDF notes that actually being at war increases motivation for combat service and Israel is not currently at war, although no spike was observed during Operation Pillar of Defence, the attack on Gaza in 2012.
Analysing the negative response to the viral ads, Business Insider points out that similar ads do well in the United States. It suggests that "the reception to the IDF's campaign may have more to do with the current feelings of Israeli youth than the ads themselves". Are these numbers, then, indicative of a wider disillusionment with the army? In a long piece for the Arutz Sheva newspaper, Rabbi Eliezer Melamed pointed out that Israel is culturally similar to western countries, which have all abolished conscription. "The predominant culture of freedom, permissiveness, and hedonism which has spread throughout the west," he said, "is totally incompatible to demanding military service, requiring dedication and sacrifice."
Some analysts have suggested that the decline in enthusiasm for combat service could be because of repeated allegations of brutality, war crimes and use of excessive, disproportionate force. There is certainly a strong current of pacifism and left-wing activism among Israeli youth. However, there is no clear empirical evidence to support the claim that such allegations are causing the current problems with recruitment; some opinion polls actually suggest that the youth are moving further to the right than their parents' generation.
Whatever the reasons, the fall in recruitment does highlight problems with the way that things are run. Conscription underlines divisions between the secular and the religious; and between Jewish and Arab Israelis although, ultimately, conscription remains at the heart of Israel's military policy. It is a small country and it frequently stresses the fact that it is surrounded by "hostile" countries. As such, Israel sees the need to guard the still undefined borders of the state as paramount and will do everything it can to maintain its military strength.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.