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Israel's military shame campaign

In an example to youths, celebrities who don't serve are barred from performing for troops.

August 21, 2007|Richard Boudreaux | Times Staff Writer

jerusalem -- Ivri Lider, one of Israel's most popular singers, has given dozens of benefit performances at military hospitals and bases to entertain the troops. On stage he often wears a T-shirt that reads, "I love my country."

But three days before a gala concert for 10,000 soldiers Sunday night, the 33-year-old star was dropped from the lineup.

The abrupt cancellation was a result of the army's disappointing call-up this summer, which yielded the fewest draftees in five years. Worried Israeli leaders are now moving to stigmatize entertainers and other celebrity role models who have failed to complete mandatory military service. Lider, who was discharged from the army after serving one month, is one of the first to feel the backlash.

"The fact that those who do not serve in the military can become cultural heroes is worrying," Maj. Gen. Elazar Stern, the army's personnel director, told a recent meeting of state broadcast regulators.

Stern has barred draft evaders and army dropouts from performing at military functions. Army Radio has followed suit, canceling teen favorite Aviv Geffen's popular weekly program because of the singer's failure to serve in the military.

Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's office is lobbying mayors to join the boycott ahead of festivities next year marking Israel's 60 years of statehood.

Vered Swit, an Olmert advisor, told the Jerusalem Post that some mayors were asking for names of artists deemed offenders.

Israeli officials voiced alarm last month about the decline in the call-up. It was seen as a blow to Israel's traditional image of its army as the defender and unifying force of a diverse society.

Officials say the army does not face an immediate shortage of combat troops or other personnel. But the slack call-up was the first since security setbacks in Lebanon and the Gaza Strip caused a crisis of confidence among Israelis about their country's long-term capacity to defend itself.

The campaign to tighten conscription, the most concerted here in years, has stirred a national debate about security and values. Blacklisting is the most controversial part of it, widely criticized as a witch hunt. Some of those singled out were legally discharged from the army but are nonetheless being branded as evaders.

"Artists are constantly being asked to perform for the public benefit, but on a hot-potato issue they can become easy targets and be branded as public enemies," said Rami Fortis, a prominent singer not on the blacklist. "What is happening is frightening."

Draft dodging became a hot potato with the summer conscription slump. A record 25% of Jewish Israeli men who had turned 18 over the last year did not enter the army for their required three years of service. Among women, who are required to serve two years, 43% avoided the call-up.

Counting the army's dropout rate, just under half of Israel's draft-eligible men and women now start and finish their full terms in uniform.

The percentage of those not conscripted, which does not take Israel's Arab citizens into account because they are automatically exempt, has doubled since the 1970s, as Israeli society has changed.

The collectivist spirit of Israel's Zionist founders, who fought wars of survival in 1948, 1967 and 1973, has given way to individualism. Wars of occupation in Lebanon, the West Bank and Gaza have dimmed the army's luster. Within its ranks, the military today faces left-wing resistance to operations against Palestinians in the West Bank and religiously motivated disobedience of orders to uproot Jewish settlers.

And it faces a me-generation of young adults such as Yael Skidelsky.

"I didn't want to waste my time in the army, in a place that oppresses one's personality," said Skidelsky, who claimed depression and suicidal tendencies to get an exemption and now works as a dresser at the Tel Aviv opera house. "I wanted to get on with my life."

Such exemptions became a concern for Israeli military planners after last summer's debilitating war with Hezbollah in Lebanon.

One lesson they drew from that stalemate and from Hamas' recent conquest of Gaza over rival Palestinians is the continued need for large numbers of combat troops to protect against Islamic enemies.

Former Prime Minister Ehud Barak, who as chief of staff in the early 1990s envisioned a slimmed-down high-tech army, took over as defense minister this summer with a new emphasis on boosting the current personnel levels.

"From the army of the people, the Israel Defense Forces are gradually becoming the army of half the people," Barak declared in response to the shortfall. "A soldier must not feel when he goes to battle that in the eyes of part of our society he is a sucker."

Israel, he said, "must return to the days when evading the draft was akin to wearing the mark of Cain."

Critics say Barak is over-dramatizing the shortfall, much of which was foreseeable.

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