The case for a volunteer Israel Defense Forces

Israeli society is strong, vibrant, and robust. In regularly held opinion polls, during times of both war and peace, the vast majority of Israelis consistently assert that the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) is by far the country’s most trustworthy institution.

And yet that very institution is by definition an institution of enslavement. Military conscription, in the Israeli case, implies the forced enlistment of 18 year old boys and girls into the ranks for several years. Currently the law defines the mandatory length of service as 32 months for boys and 24 months for girls.

The Israeli public’s willingness to forgo their civil liberties for a greater perceived sense of security in the form of a large army is astounding. It’s worth noting that Israel is not alone, and that countries such as South Korea, Singapore, and even Switzerland still use conscription. None of these countries, not even Israel, has needed to fight an existential war for the past 40 + years.

Then why does military conscription continue to exist today in Israel? I believe that the reason is primarily economic. Free slave labor is a great money saver for the government. An additional reason is that the IDF is considered by many to be a societal ‘melting pot’ – you go in a youth and you come out an Israeli.

However, many sectors of Israeli society have found creative ways to exempt themselves from conscription altogether. Some people would call them draft evaders. Others would call them smart.

The ultra-orthodox population is largely exempted from the draft if they study torah full-time. The arab population of Israel is largely exempted from serving in the army due to security concerns. Parts of the national-religious sector have worked out an arrangement with the IDF where they combine military service and torah study. And the list goes on. With all these exceptions, what is the rule? A smaller and smaller group of people are carrying a larger and larger part of the military burden. Instead of different sectors enjoying different arrangements with the IDF, Israel should be looking at abolishing conscription altogether. It’s time to recognize the need for the Israeli Defence Forces to gradually become a volunteer army.

Forcing people to serve in the army has an inherently negative connotation. On the other hand, people who volunteer to serve, and possibly die, in the army is one of the strongest possible endorsements a person can give any society.

My detractors always say, “but no one will join!”

The answer to this statement forms the basis of free-market economics. If you increase wages and benefits, and treat military service like the profession that it is, there will always be more than enough recruits from all sectors of Israeli society lining up to volunteer.

With the introduction of a volunteer IDF, gone are the problems of pacifists and conscientious objectors. They simply won’t volunteer. Let them attend university, join the work force, travel, or do whatever they wish to do on their own time and on their own dime.

Additionally, a volunteer IDF instantly removes the greatest barrier to acceptance in Israeli society for both the ultra-orthodox and arab-Israeli communities. Those who want to volunteer will be more than welcome. And those who don’t need not worry about being shamed or stigmatized.

In a constantly changing world It is necessary to adapt. Difficult changes lead to growing pains. Many of the older generation, especially those that fought in the 1948, 1967, or 1973 wars may find it difficult to separate Israeli identity from military service. Yet today’s reality is drastically different from 50 years ago. Conventional warfare is less of a concern, while low-intensity conflict, terrorism, and cyber attacks are the new norm. Additionally, it’s possible that a volunteer IDF could gradually come to be disproportionately dominated by the national-religious community, military families, and people living in the periphery of the country where employment opportunities are scarcer. But the personnel composition of a volunteer IDF doesn’t scare me, nor should it scare you.

About the Author
Freeman Poritz is currently traveling long-term and observing Israel from afar.
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