Sam Lehman-Wilzig
Prof. Sam: Academic Pundit

Too many IDF soldiers: What will replace universal army service?

With signs that a smaller, higher tech army is already on the way, there is an alternative that would even include the ultra-Orthodox and Arab sectors
Israeli soldiers attend a swearing-in ceremony as they are inducted into the Givati Brigade, at the Western Wall in Jerusalem Old City, June 23, 2016. (Flash90)
Israeli soldiers attend a swearing-in ceremony as they are inducted into the Givati Brigade, at the Western Wall in Jerusalem Old City, June 23, 2016. (Flash90)

We’ve all heard of the maxim: “more is less.” Israel’s army is now facing precisely that reality, and its headache will only increase in the coming years. What does it have “too much” of? Eighteen-year-old draftees!

As is well known, Israel is the only OECD country with a positive birthrate i.e., far above the 2.1 needed for simple population replacement every generation. With around three children per woman, the number of potential draftees has increased significantly – and is about to explode. In 2021 there were approximately 90,000 Israeli young men and women of draft age. By 2030 – less than a decade from now – the projections are for over 130,000 (demographic extrapolation is an accurate exercise as those early adults today are already alive as pre-teenagers).

Such an increase might seem to be a positive development, except for a major change in the contemporary art of warfare: far more technology and far less (wo)manpower. If anything, Israel will need fewer soldiers in the future – and certainly not more than today – as it invests greater military resources in cutting-edge jet fighters and futuristic technologies (stealth weapons; micro-drones; artificially intelligent, automated weapons).

Paradoxically, a countertrend adds another problem: of all draft-age youngsters in Israel today, only 50% are drafted! Religious women can opt out; similarly, haredim (although the latest legislation renders this a bit more complicated for them); conscientious objectors (against the “Occupation”); and those found mentally or physically unfit. All these, of course, lower the number of draftees, but they also undercut the ethos of universal service (caveat: most religious young women opt to do non-army national service). By 2030 the IDF will have to be even more selective about whom to draft because if it continues to draft everyone based on today’s policy there won’t be enough money for the critically needed technological upgrades.

If the policy of universal army service is already a semi-fiction, why then doesn’t Israel simply drop the pretense and change over to a professional army? In fact, it has already started making moves in that direction, but it isn’t calling the baby by its name. The government very recently approved a significant increase in monthly payments to regular (drafted) soldiers (600 shekels more) and a far larger increase for army officers (NIS2,000 extra a month). Nevertheless, this is a stopgap measure; at some point in the near future, the IDF (with government and Knesset approval) will have to take the bull by the horns and make some very tough decisions.

Why tough? On the one hand, universal army service is one of the most sacred cows in Israeli society. It serves a very important purpose: with “everyone” draftable, the IDF has been Israeli society’s only real “melting pot,” in which virtually all segments meet and work together (Israeli Arabs can serve if they volunteer, but relatively few do so). Note, however, that I said “has been” for it is not clear that this still holds. The fact is that those serving in the elite units (intelligence, cyber) come mainly from the center of the country, where educational opportunities far outstrip the country’s “periphery,” and this, very unfortunately, piggybacks on the ethnic “divide” between Ashkenazim and the Edot Ha’Mizrakh. Thus, here’s another aspect of the universal service semi-fiction. Still, officially renouncing the policy would be hugely difficult politically and possibly harmful socially.

But let’s say “universal army service” is renounced. What would take its place? One possibility: universal civil service, in which the IDF decides who serves in the army (with some pay) and all others would then do civilian service – much like most non-haredi religious women who forego army service today (“sherut le’umi”). Such a national civilian service corps could help in various service areas that today suffer from not enough workers: kindergarten teachers and aides; school teaching assistants; traffic auxiliaries (freeing the real cops to deal with serious crime); environmental workers (beach and national park cleanups); part-time, elderly caretakers; etc. The added advantage of such a system: mandatory inclusion of the haredi and Arab sectors, that today are mostly absent from army service, each for different ideological/theological reasons. They could do civilian service respectively in their own cities and towns, with the added benefit of lessening the Israeli majority’s antipathy to such heretofore social “freeloaders.”

To be sure, this would also entail setting up another bureaucracy, but that might be a small price to pay for the country to avoid continuing its head-in-the-sand policy regarding army service and the real needs of the IDF at present and increasingly in the future. Israel’s military might and improved standing in the Middle East – not withstanding remaining threats, the most serious of which (nuclear Iran) can only be met with greater technology and not more soldiers – means that the time is ripe for facing reality and making the necessary, if psychologically and politically difficult, decision to forego its tenet of universal army service. Universal civilian service would be a worthy replacement.

About the Author
Prof. Sam Lehman-Wilzig (PhD in Government, 1976; Harvard U) presently serves as Academic Head of the Communications Department at the Peres Academic Center (Rehovot). Previously, he taught at Bar-Ilan University (1977-2017), serving as: Head of the Journalism Division (1991-1996); Political Studies Department Chairman (2004-2007); and School of Communication Chairman (2014-2016). He was also Chair of the Israel Political Science Association (1997-1999). He has published five books and 69 scholarly articles on Israeli Politics; New Media & Journalism; Political Communication; the Jewish Political Tradition; the Information Society. His new book (in Hebrew, with Tali Friedman): RELIGIOUS ZIONISTS RABBIS' FREEDOM OF SPEECH: Between Halakha, Israeli Law, and Communications in Israel's Democracy (Niv Publishing, 2024). For more information about Prof. Lehman-Wilzig's publications (academic and popular), see:
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