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Israelis Show Declining Zest For Military Service

by Dion Nissenbaum

TEL AVIV, Israel - Throughout Israel's short, turbulent history, the nation has grown cynical about almost every sector of society but one: its military.

Though the Israeli military has been buffeted by political scandal, castigated for enforcing a 40-year occupation of the Palestinians, and humbled during its 34-day war in 2006 against Hezbollah fighters in southern Lebanon, most Israelis never seemed to lose faith in their citizen soldiers.

But, under the surface, something has been slowly shifting in Israel as the nation prepares to celebrate its 60th anniversary May 14.

More and more Israelis are avoiding mandatory military service - something long viewed in this country as a proud rite of passage.

"In the past, it is true that not serving in the military was considered the exception," said Dr. Rueven Gal, author of "A Portrait of the Israeli Soldier" and former chief psychologist for the Israeli military. "In more recent years it became more tolerable and more acceptable to people."

In 1997, according to army statistics, fewer than one in 10 Israeli men avoided their mandatory three-year military service. These days, it's closer to three in 10.

Women, too, are opting out at a faster pace: Over the last decade, the number of women avoiding military duty rose from 37 percent to 44 percent.

The steady decline in Israelis willing to serve in the army has generated a stinging new backlash against draft dodgers. And it has sparked renewed public debate over the dominant role the military plays in the nation's politics, culture and society.

Israel Defense Forces Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi set the tone last summer by declaring that the military should "bring the blush of shame back into the cheeks of the draft dodgers."

Israeli lawmakers soon began crafting proposals that would bar Israelis who don't serve in the military from voting or getting university scholarships.

Israel's Army Radio even stripped Aviv Gefen, one of the country's best known singers, of his popular show because he never completed his military service.

Around the time that Israel celebrates 60 years of independence in May, its military is expected to unveil its first-ever public relations campaign to combat draft dodging.

The initiative will include new gold, silver and bronze honorable discharge cards for soldiers who may be able to use them to secure everything from academic scholarships to special discounts at their favorite shopping mall.

Those who don't complete their military service won't get any card at all.

"Serving in the army is your entry card into society," said Maj. Rony Stoler, a spokesman for the Israeli army's human relations office who is helping to craft the new anti-draft dodging campaign. "And whoever serves more, gets more."

The attempt to shame Israelis who don't complete their military service has already drawn criticism that people are being unfairly labeled as draft dodgers when they use accepted exemptions for religious studies, health problems or living abroad.

The most recent salvo in the debate is an ongoing ad campaign produced by Yehoshua/TBWA, one of Israel's biggest advertising firms.

With the Israeli military's blessing, the private company spent more than $1 million producing billboards, bus ads and television commercials to discourage draft avoidance.

The centerpiece is a 30-second ad shown on television and in movie theaters across Israel.

In the commercial, a group of funky young Israelis on holiday in India - a popular post-military decompression spot - are chatting about their army service with a couple of pretty, English-speaking blondes.

The Israelis go around the table touting their time in some of Israel's most prestigious military units - until they get to one of their fellow travelers.

"Hey, brother," one of the Israelis asks the quiet guy, "where did you serve?"

The Israeli is speechless as he looks nervously at his dinner companions. The ad ends with the slogan: "A real Israeli doesn't evade."

"At the end of that day, it should not be the social norm," said Rami Yehoshua, who heads Yehoshua/TBWA. "Someone who is not serving should be ashamed before his friends, community and family."

By chance, the commercial was filmed in an Indian restaurant in Tel Aviv where several anti-militarism activists worked as waitresses and cooks. The activists were appalled by the ad. So they decided to use the same table as the setting for their own 90-second retort.

The commercials are nearly identical - except for the message.

In the alternative ad, all the Israelis, but one, proudly announce that they refused to serve in an Israeli army they saw as morally bankrupt and callous.

It ends with the slogan: "A real Israeli doesn't evade. The truth."

Both commercials have been seen on YouTube more than 16,000 times.

"A great part of what defines us is our military service," said Yfat Doron, a 30-year-old former conscientious objector who helped produce the alternative ad. "But now the army is panicking because so many people are not doing their military service."

The reasons for the declines are complicated and, in some ways, irrelevant to the national debate.

Academics in Israel disagree about the extent there is even a problem. Some researchers have pointed out that most Israelis who opt out of military service do so to study Jewish religion. Only a small percentage of Israelis opt out under the military's mental health exemption.

But the Israeli government is taking the issue very seriously. To raise the pool of potential soldiers, the Israeli military is considering lowering its standards to allow people with lower test scores and minor criminal convictions to join.

Along with the forthcoming military PR campaign, Gal is spearheading a new governmental plan to promote AmeriCorps-style civil service as an alternative for those who don't want to serve in the military.

"Serving Israel became synonymous with military service and I find this very appalling," said Gal. "I think there are many many ways that people can serve their country."

View an anti-draft dodging ad at

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=R0_M-2WO7pI

View the reply at

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GwTebMJtJPI&feature=related

© 2008 McClatchy

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