Israeli teenagers agonize as military service beckons

JERUSALEM — Abigail Hoffman, a student at Jerusalem's High School of the Arts, is feeling a lot of pressure these days.

By the end of the school year, Hoffman, a high school senior with dreams of becoming a professional dancer, will be drafted into the Israel Defense Force.

Hoffman admits that she is dreading military life.

"I'm a dancer, and I dance most of the week," she says. "Dancing once a week, when I have a break from the army, won't be enough."

Even beyond her professional goals, Hoffman does not want to spend the next two years in khaki — which is one year less than her male counterparts — for an additional reason.

"I grew up around people who believe in doing what they want to do. This generation isn't the generation of the Yom Kippur War," she says. "We appreciate our quality of life. I want freedom. I just want to have fun."

Torn between her personal desires and her legal responsibilities as an Israeli citizen, she says, "I'm not motivated to serve. There was a time when I definitely didn't want to go, but now I think maybe I will. I'm not sure what to do."

One thing in this matter that Hoffman is sure of: "If everyone felt the way I do, it would be very dangerous for the country."

Indeed, with reports in the Israeli media on widespread motivation problems among teenage draftees and reserve soldiers, the IDF has been warning of dire consequences.

"This erosion in national motivation is dangerous," Defense Minister Yitzhak Mordechai told reporters in September.

"We not only reduce the national ability to defend ourselves, but we are sending a message of weakness to our neighbors."

According to opinion polls, the IDF has ample reason to worry.

Although the percentage of Israelis who actually serve — 82 percent — has not dropped significantly during the past five decades, the number of young men wishing to serve in combat units — the heart and soul of the IDF — has dropped significantly.

In interviews with teenagers, it becomes clear just how many hope for an exemption on medical or other grounds.

"I'm hoping I won't have to go, first on moral grounds and also for practical reasons," says an Orthodox 18-year-old male who declined to give his name.

"I'll do anything I can, except for getting a psycho exemption, because no one will give you a job if they think you're psycho."

Says 17-year-old Orly Nurany: "I'm not going into the army because I'm a pacifist.

"It's not easy being a pacifist in this country, and all my friends go into the army, but I just can't do it. I'm going to tell the draft board the truth, but if they still insist, I'll get off on the grounds that I have mental problems."

In the most comprehensive survey on motivation to date, the Carmel Institute of Social Research reported that only 52 percent of Jewish high school students would opt for combat assignments, compared with 63 percent in 1988.

The study, which reflects data from 1994, found that religious students who are not fervently Orthodox tend to be more motivated than their secular peers.

While 67 percent of religious students, as compared with 68 percent in 1988, would serve in combat units, only 48 percent of the secular respondents said they wanted to go into combat, compared with 60 percent in 1988.

On the other hand, the survey found that most young Israelis accept the need to do military service.

Of those about to be drafted, 86 percent said they "want" or "very much want" to join the IDF, compared with 84 percent in 1988.

While the IDF finds the latter statistics encouraging, it is finally acknowledging what most Israelis have suspected for years: that a large and growing number of draft-age teens would rather program IDF computers than command IDF tanks.

Many attribute this trend to the fact that Israelis, who no longer fear annihilation from their Arab neighbors, have embraced many Western values.

"What has happened is that many Israelis are drowning in a sea of indulgence," the late Zevulun Hammer wrote in a Jerusalem Post op-ed piece. "And the chief victim has been a widespread abandonment of our national and community responsibilities."

Army spokesman Oded Ben-Ami agrees. "The change can be seen in the openness of Israeli society.

"During the '50s, '60s and '70s, people felt the very existence of the state was in jeopardy.

"Since the mid-1970s, there has been no such fear, and individuals have been trying to improve their own personal situation," he says. "The state and security have taken second place on their priority list."

Ben-Ami says teenagers are not the only ones with motivation problems.

"The majority of soldiers called for reserve duty don't want to serve, and much of it is society's doing," he says, noting that employers and others, such as university professors, do not support the soldier who needs exemptions to serve.

For example, he says, "An employer will tell a worker, `Do whatever you can not to go."'