ISRAEL

Does the army make "real Israelis"?

It’s estimated that around 25% of Israelis don’t complete their mandatory military service. This group is largely made up of Arab-Israelis, Ultra-Orthodox Jews, married and religious women and individuals with physical and psychological disorders, but it also includes many who simply refuse to partake. These “conscientious objectors” are now being targeted by a guilt-wielding campaign, entitled “A real Israeli does not evade the army.” From the video campaign. Foreign girls are impressed by Israeli guys who've done their military service...

Advertising

It’s estimated that around 25% of Israelis don’t complete their mandatory military service. This group is largely made up of Arab-Israelis, Ultra-Orthodox Jews, married and religious women and individuals with physical and psychological disorders, but it also includes many who simply refuse to partake. These "conscientious objectors" are the target of a critical campaign from conservative Israeli groups.

"There has been a witch hunt against artists who didn't serve"

Commentary from our Observer Yael, an Israeli writer who wishes to remain anonymous :

Regarding the videos, it's fascinating that the scene takes place in India, and includes conversation with non-Israeli women. This is symbolic of the dialectal relationship between Israeli society (especially its youth) and globalization as a cultural and all embracing reality. When the young Israelis convey to these girls the gist of the Israeli condition in a military context, they essentially convey the complexities and gravity of the society in which they live.

Youngsters in Israel are expected to do things that no other democratic country asks of its youth. To give years of their lives, sometimes to kill or risk being killed, and deal with acute moral dilemmas, as the second piece vividly exemplifies. The first piece is simplistic; it distorts reality by avoiding all the moral and existential political dilemmas which the second piece so acutely articulates. Both pieces portray a society which is perplexed, confused, troubled. The second one appreciates the moral complexity of the situation, while the first one is sheer propaganda, and is one dimensional.

The slogan of the first piece is nationalistic, with quasi fascistic overtones. The second one stresses the multi faceted nature of this societal question. It dares to look reality in the face. Namely, that Israel asks its young men and women for incredible sacrifices, in a way that no other country does. That Israel is a society which fails and betrays some of its citizens on socio-economic grounds. That Israel is an occupying force. That the army is often a traumatic and totalitarian experience (the sociologist Emil Durkheim calls the army a total institution, and renders it analogous to prisons, a place in which one is often utterly devoid of autonomy). That on average every four weeks an Israeli teenager (18-19 years old) commits suicide in the army, sometimes due to societal pressures. This is a somewhat repressed and sensitive point in Israel. Some psychologists and psychiatrists would argue that such individuals were prone to suicide on account of the makeup of their personality, and would have ended their lives in other circumstances too. While it may well be true in some cases, it definitely does not account for all of them. So as one girl intimates in the second piece, sometimes Israeli teenagers kill themselves in the army because they fear precisely the type of violent and ultra-nationalistic judgment which the first piece seeks to promote.

Recently there has been a witch hunt against artists who didn't serve in the army - singers, actors etc. Rather than realize that such creative, sensitive souls are veritably ill equipped to deal with the oppressive and de-individuating nature of military conditions, and that they contribute to Israeli society in countless other ways artistically and culturally, some elements in Israeli society simply seek to achieve 'character assassination' of such talented and sensitive souls. This is yet another aspect of the sordid, violent and tragic state of contemporary Israeli society."

Video campaign against abstention, launched by the Israeli government

The video features a group of Israelis sitting in a café in India proudly regaling stories to foreign women about what they did in the army. Yet among the group there is one Israeli who did not serve, and when asked (in Hebrew) "Brother, where did you serve?" he freezes in embarrassment. The commercial ends with the words: "A real Israeli does not evade the Army. The campaign was set up by two well known Israeli advertisers, Rami Yeoshuah and Zvi Vilder.

“A real Israeli does not evade the truth”

In response to the campaign, independent filmmakers put together an advert in which Israeli youths sit around a table and explain why they rejected the army. Turning the first commercial on its head, the one Israeli in the group that actually completed his military service is asked: "Did you go to the army?" Feeling out of place, he is unable to answer. The commercial ends with the counter slogan "A real Israeli does not evade the truth."

“You see the slogan everywhere”

Commentary from one of our Observers for Israel, Roi Ben-Yehuda:

In a throwback to the ideology of 1948 Zionism, the video is part of an aggressive public relations campaign launched by the government. You see the slogan everywhere; on billboards, buses, bumper stickers, and most recently in this TV commercial.

This is the result of a fraught society where military service and citizenship are interlinked. Abstention has created a serious problem - those who sacrifice their time and talents to serve end up resenting and socially marginalizing those who are exempt.

“I refused to serve”

Commentary from our Observer Joel Schalit, an Israeli-American writer who specialises in Middle-East politics and currently lives in San Francisco:

I came of draft age in 1985, when I turned 18, but decided to not do my service for two reasons: Firstly, because I was angry about the conflict in Lebanon, and did not feel that the occupation was legitimate; and secondly, because I thought that getting a good education at a university in the US was something as patriotic as serving in the army.

Needless to say, this was, especially at that time, a particularly difficult decision to make, for social reasons, obviously, and also for personal reasons. My family arrived in Palestine in 1882, and everyone, on one level or another, had done their so-called time in one form or another. To be the first to break ranks, so to speak, after a century, was exceedingly difficult and traumatic.

Nevertheless, I've never regretted my decision one bit, though it forced me to stay out of the country for a number of years. Now, I feel almost conservative, in the sense that so many other Israelis staked out even more radical positions (take some of my anarchist colleagues, for example) than I did. Thus, if there had been an alternative service option at the time, I would've taken it.

Seeing the first commercial made me cringe, but the message wasn’t particularly surprising either. What's most interesting is the fact that this messaging is being employed at all at this point in time. Very few Israelis, even conservatives, buy this kind of American-style patriotic polemics anymore, even if they believe in the importance of obligatory military service. So, to use it in this light seems cheap, out of touch, and totally disingenuous.

Another aspect that I found interesting is that the directors of the video think that foreign girls are impressed by counter-cultural Israeli guys who've also experienced the reality principle of military service, rather than a good liberal arts program in the US or the UK. Unfortunately, the fact is that European girls hanging out in India would actually be less impressed by such Israelis, because of a clear, knee-jerk discomfort felt amongst young Europeans today towards Israelis in general.”

France 24 report

After this article was made the story was picked up by France 24's The week in the Middle East. See Joel Shalit's interview.