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IDF on 'hunt' for draft dodgers, deserters

According to Israeli military records, there are a 2,700 deserters and 1,780 draft dodgers in Israel. In the last week alone, the IDF has arrested 474 of them as part of its largest-ever operation to apprehend them. Who are these “deserters”and in whose interest is it to invest so much of the military’s resources to hunt them down?  

By Sahar Vardi

The month of May brought tidings of the Military Police opening its “hunting season.” In recent days the IDF has been tracking down hundreds of the 4,500 deserters and “draft dodgers” it has identified. Temporary detention facilities have been erected for this purpose, other prisoners released from military jails to make room. The press has made threats that detainees will be tainted with criminal records for the rest of their lives, and hundreds of military policemen will raid civilian homes throughout the country to haul in their prey.

The question that remains unasked is: Who are they? Who are these “deserters” and “service shirkers” (a relatively new term for what used to be called “draft dodgers” – people who were not exempt from military service and still did not report for conscription on their due date), to be hunted all over the country? And also, perhaps, who benefits?

In my young life I have run into quite a few “deserters” of various types, some of them during my time in military prison for refusing to serve in the army, others in my ongoing activity in New Profile (a feminist organization that supports the demilitarization of Israeli society). I have met amazing people and heard shocking stories that taught me more about our society than any class at school or university and all my volunteering in the community combined.

So who are these “deserters?” Here are a few examples:

The “deserter” is the young woman who, throughout her military term, would spend one month on the base, then several months at home to help her family make ends meet, then some months in the army jail, and so on and so forth. She and many others like her.

The “deserter” is the fellow who tried to commit suicide twice, and whose commanders still refused to take him seriously, so he went home instead of trying to kill himself again. He and many others like him.

The “deserter” is the combat soldier stationed in the Occupied Palestinian Territories whose commander did not let him see an army psychiatrist (mental health officer) to cope with what he’d seen there, so he went AWOL in order to get sent to jail, in order to see a psychiatrist there and have someone to talk to. He and many others like him.

The ‘”deserter” is the new immigrant who did not fit in, left the country, and when she came back to visit her family, discovered she was a “draft dodger.” She and many others like her.

The “deserter” is the soldier whose military service circumstances were fine, but did not manage to get a work permit. And when his mother called to tell him the confiscators were at the door, he went home and back to work, as he had done since the age of fifteen. He and many others like him.

The “deserter” is the young woman who was sexually abused by her commander, and when she was refused an assignment-transfer, went AWOL in order to be thrown out of her unit. She and many others like her.

The “deserter” is the Druze who completed his full three-year term in the army just to realize that Israeli society still considers him an “Arab”, a second-class citizen who does not even have a street name and address where he lives to receive his reserves call-up orders, and twenty years later a policeman arrested and informed him that he has been a reserves-dodger for 20 years. He and many others like him.

A ‘”deserter” is one of your daughter’s girlfriends, or a distant relative. The “deserter” is your kid brother, or the son of your friends. A “deserter” could be anyone who cannot cope with the military system, and especially the kind that this military system does not know how to handle.

And now I ask who profits from this “hunting” season? Whose interests does it serve? Certainly not all those 4,500 “deserters” who live in fear of arrest, or who have already become used to arrest as part of reality, and will be hunted down and incarcerated. It certainly does not benefit their parents, their families, and their friends when military police raid their homes and comb room after room in the attempt to catch someone.

Is it in the interests of the army to now invest extensive manpower just to hunt down these people? Does it benefit an army that in any case exempts 56% of the population prior to their conscription or at some point during their term of duty? Is it in the army’s interest in spite of the fact that a military committee created to examine the conscription pattern, has recommended transforming the army into a professional one, but its conclusions have never been implemented?

There is one single “social” advantage in this waste of resources and harassment of these youngsters, and it is made quite obvious in the campaigns advocating universal draft: those who have served in the army do not want to be “the suckers.” What they cannot understand is that they already are. The superfluous law of mandatory conscription for everyone is that which harms them, their rights, their freedom. Not the people who cannot afford to obey it.

So here is an original idea: Instead of the Israeli army spying on girls on Facebook, instead of hundreds of (wo)man-hunters spreading their nets all over the country and setting up new incarceration facilities, instead of youngsters being forced to choose between their lives and families and military service, instead of governments rising and falling and rising again while wheeling and dealing to draft the (until now exempt) ultra-Orthodox, and instead of those who do serve feeling like suckers – perhaps the time has come to admit that the “people’s army” is dead, and to abolish the law of mandatory conscription. For everyone.

Sahar Vardi is an active member of New Profile – a feminist organization for the demilitarization of Israeli society. She refused her military service in 2008. This piece was originally published in Hebrew on Haokets.org and translated into English by Tal Haran.




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    1. caden

      If Israeli society is “militarized it’s by necesssity, not choice. But I digress. The army is a rite of passage in Israel and the fact that it is not universal anymore is an argument for tightening things up, not letting the whole thing fall apart

      Reply to Comment
    2. Mitchell Cohen

      Some of the individuals mentioned in the above column (albeit anonymously) might have compelling reasons to not serve or continue to serve. However, not everybody who simply thinks “the army is not for me” should be exempt. Maybe sometime in the future Israel will no longer need mandatory military conscription. That day has not arrived yet.

      Reply to Comment
    3. In some cultures ‘rites of passage’ involve adolescent circumcision and spending the night tied to an anthill that is home to hungry and overly inquisitive ants that try to scamper up your backside. “It’s a rite of passage,” is hardly a justification for making people do something that they’d really rather not.
      Some of conscription’s most fervent supporters seem to be American Jews who have never had to serve in the IDF themselves and have certainly never had to face any of the difficulties Sahar outlines. It sounds as though you are enamoured of the idea of the army, and it is not reasonable to expect all these people to complete service purely for the sake of preserving your image and vision of Israel. What about them?

      Reply to Comment
    4. max

      Pretending that all deserters do it because of acceptable reasons is akin to pretending that all criminals have justifiable reasons for committing crimes (and no, the actions aren’t comparable, only the reasoning).
      Claiming that no deserter had a good reason for it is as foolish, and akin to sentencing before judging.
      Making desertion an ideal and deserters a beacon of justice is neither smart nor democratic.
      Expecting the army to do nothing about desertion is not reasonable.
      So what’s the big deal?

      Reply to Comment
    5. caden

      Ok, Vick, let me put it another way. The thing that really made Jews part of the American main stream was military service in ww2. One of the few things that bind a Russian, an Iranian, an American, and an Ethiopian Jew in Israel is service in the IDF. I know you are against the existence of Israel but right now military defense is necessary.

      Reply to Comment
    6. XYZ

      There is one interesting thing about this. In Europe, as I understand it, the Progressive/Left was in favor of compulsory military service. This was called “the nation at arms” and it was designed to prevent the creation of an elite military clique that would have an ideologically-based armed force that could impose its will on the country anti-democratically.
      If Israel would go to a volunteer army, it would presumably look a lot like todays combat units….a lot of religious Israelis, Ethiopians and Russians and other “Right-wing” types. Would the Left/Progressives then start moaning about that fact?

      Reply to Comment
    7. sh

      “The army is a rite of passage in Israel ”
      Passage to what exactly?
      Passage from childhood to adulthood, is – at least for Jews – the bar/bat mitzva. Even in Israel.
      Or do Israelis need two to shift them?
      Takhlis: the army in Israel is a right to, not a rite of. And in certain well-known cases not even that.

      Reply to Comment
    8. Piotr Berman

      Caden observes that militarization in Israel is a necessity. That is the case, but there is an unfortunate “feedback loop” in which a group obtains high social status because of the militarization and pushes it beyond the initial necessity. And this feedback loops develops virtues like vigilance, viewing external opponents as enemies (rather then neighbors with whom you should resolve differences), internal opponents as traitors (rather than political opponents). Also, there is a “mission creep”. All those checkpoint, demonstration controls and demolitions require a lot of manpower, but if you have a lot of manpower that you want to be busy you design all these missions.

      Two countries represent the “terminal stage” of that: North Korea and Eritrea. Both countries survived a war for independence/separation and a subsequent war, and remain armed camps ever since. Eritrea has 7 years of compulsory military service which may be a key factors why many young people flee, compared with Ethiopia which is ruled by people with the same ideology but where both militarization and internal repression are at much lower level. But in Israel vigilance/enemies/traitors meme complex is very strong too and it seems to grow without much of threat in evidence.

      Reply to Comment
    9. Piotr Berman

      I got interested in the photo illustrating this article. Women play important role in IDF. Something I do not understand is why Haredi girls are exempt from service: the men are exempt if they are engaged in Torah study, but from what I have read, women may study Torah but are not obliged to (unlike men who should study at least a portion each week). And with at least 10,000 more conscripted girls IDF could have more female battalions which are extremely impressive on parades.

      If you check YouTube, North Korean soldiers look quite similar to the photo, except that their skirts are a bit shorter. But PLA, People’s Liberation Army, uses a much bolder approach. Skirts are yet shorter and different color combination are used. Pink with white accessories (including high boots) seem particularly lethal.

      Interestingly, pink/white combination is also in Iranian arsenal, although the troops there are 100% male. Uniforms look like pink dresses and hats look like enormous white wigs. One can perceive a different military philosophy: PLA goes for lethal looks, while Iran troops are more charming. On parade, they do not use goose step but something like dancing and singing. Also, the uniforms are costumes of various nationalities, pink/white combination belongs to Turkmen.

      In that spirit, one could have Haredi female brigade that would look charmingly modest on a national parade.

      Reply to Comment
    10. UmmEinav

      As the mother of an 11 year old who has already declared that she does not intend to serve in the army (and yes, I hope she won’t!) I think Israel needs to provide more choices. We don’t stay in jobs or in educational programs if we realize that they are not right for us. Why should we be compelled to serve in the army, if it’s not right for us either? Young people in Israel can just as easily serve the state by working, by volunteering in state institutions, and yes, even by volunteering within a civil society organization. From what I hear, the army as a “rite of passage” is total b.s. The real rite of passage of young Israelis is the year long trip abroad. Ideally, I wish that Israel could do away with their army, but at best, hopefully the Israeli army will become a volunteer army only, like the American army.

      Reply to Comment
    11. Rehmat

      Historically Orthodox communities around the world never supported the creation of a homeland for European Jews in Palestine, Uganda, Grand Island, Angola, North Africa, etc. The Ultra-Orthodox did not accept Stalin’s Jewish state of Birobidjan which was established on May 7, 1934 inside Communist Russia. The ‘Israel Poject’ was mainly carried out by secular and atheist Jewish leaders of World Zionist Organization. The new entity was supposed to be a ‘socialist state’ on Russian model.


      Reply to Comment
    12. XYZ

      Rehmat is wrong. The Hovevei Zion movement starting in the 1870’s IIRC had many top religious and secular figures together. Organized aliyah from Europe started before 1800 which at that time was completely religious.
      Amazing how much disinformation is spread here.

      Reply to Comment
    13. He’s not wrong. Each aliya had a different composition and a different motivation. The first aliya (1882-1903), as you say, was Hovevei Zion. The second aliya (1904-1914), however, was quite left-wing, and so was the third aliya (1919-1923). These were the seeds of the various Labour and Left parties. The fourth aliya (1924-1928) was more petit bourgeois, the seeds of Revisionism (what we now call Likud). In rough figures, 1st, 2nd and 3rd were about 40,000 each; 4th was about 80,000. The 5th aliya (1929-1939) was huge (estimated at 266,000) and completely mixed in composition.

      Reply to Comment
    14. max

      RB, and what in your list shows that “Historically Orthodox communities around the world never supported…” isn’t wrong?
      Is there ANY relationship between your 1st sentence and the rest?
      Unless – of course – by ‘he’ you meant XYZ

      Reply to Comment
    15. sh

      @Ummeinav – “The real rite of passage of young Israelis is the year long trip abroad.”
      Hmm, so now we’ve got three rites of passage. But the main reason the year-long trip abroad is required is army service, coming after demob as it usually does.

      Reply to Comment
    16. annie

      only 4,500? sad

      Reply to Comment
    17. annie

      20,000, now that’s a movement.

      Reply to Comment
    18. caden

      Good to knwo that the spiritual granddaughter of Ilse Koch has weighed in.

      Reply to Comment
    19. Leen

      Actually, Rehmat is not wrong about the orthodox communities and establishment of the state of Israel. There are different strands of zionism as we all know, and cultural zionism, atleast the historic one did not actually endorse an exclusive jewish state, they leaned more towards bi-nationalism, and were more interested in revival of Hebrew culture.
      Anyway the first aliyah came from Russia because of the ongoing persecution of Jews (plus it was where Zionism was born, Herzl was the one who formed a comprehensive concept of zionism, but zionism itself was born in Russia). Second and third wave were mostly secularists/socialists/leftists/atheist Jews who actually had quite a dislike for orthodox jewish communities. After all, Herzl wasn’t exactly fond of the Orthodox communities.
      But anyhoo, orthodox jews or atleast ultra-orthodox jews often describe themselves as anti-zionist, it was only after the 1967 war that they turned zionists or atleast non-zionist because they began to see Israel or zionists as instruments of God and establishment of Israel while before they did not really believe the state should have been established by themselves.

      Reply to Comment
    20. max

      Actually, Rehmat was wrong when he wrote “Historically Orthodox communities around the world never supported…” – s/he just didn’t leave any margin for error, and the error is there.

      Reply to Comment
    21. I still say Rehmat was not wrong to discount the Hovevei Zion in favour of the 2nd and 3rd aliyot, because it was these latter that built the kibbutzim and the roads, in other words, actually settled the land. What their behaviour was like vis-a-vis the Palestinian Arabs, I don’t know. Even “The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem” (by Benny Morris) doesn’t as I recall really give an account of settler (i.e. kibbutznik) behaviour; it is more about Haganah policy.

      Reply to Comment
    22. Ilse Koch

      Thanks for the wonderful article. The deserters are the true heroes, not the IDF

      Reply to Comment
    23. trikerider

      A “deserter” is someone who once read–maybe on a men’s room wall somewhere–“Thou shalt not kill”.

      Reply to Comment
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