Israeli Icons Dodge Military Service

A growing number of Israeli celebrities are dodging compulsory military service, prompting increasing calls for strict draft rules putting all Israelis on equal terms.

"It does bother me that so many celebrities did not serve because children look up to them and emulate them," Ilit, 23, who had just finished her army service, told The Observer in an interview published on Sunday, August 5.

"One of my friends did not serve because she did not see the point in it," she added.

Among Israeli icons who evaded military service are model Bar Refaeli, the girlfriend of American superstar Leonardo diCaprio, and pop star Avi Geffen.

Israeli Chelsea footballer Ben Sahar was exempted to pursue his career in the British league.

It was discovered that five out of eight contestants in the famous talent contest A Star is Born, an Israeli version of the American Pop Idol, had not served in the army.

The military evasions are not limited to celebrities but became a social phenomenon in Israel.

According to The Observer, increasing numbers of young people are evading military service by claiming to be religious or pretending to be mentally ill.

Figures cited by the paper indicate that 43 percent of women and 25 percent of men do not perform the military service, compulsory on all Israelis once turning 18.

Men serve three years in the army while women serve only two.

Male soldiers continue to perform annual reserve duties till they reach 45 years.

Israeli Arabs and ultra-orthodox Jews are exempted from the army duty.

The celebrity maneuvers drew fire from activists.

"We don’t want two societies," Miri Brown, a member of the Forum of Parents for Equally Sharing the Military Burden, told the Israeli daily Yedioth Ahronoth.

"We want people to share the burden, either militarily, or through civil service," Brown said. "We are all in the same society, and there need to be equal rights and duties."

On Friday, August 3, Israelis took to the streets of Tel Aviv in protest at draft dodging.

They demanded lawmakers to pass a new law to end the phenomenon.

Actor Shlomo Vishinski, whose soldier son was killed last year in the Israeli war on Lebanon, accused the government of discrimination for failing to take an action against dodgers.

"The country boasts something it doesn’t have, saying the draft is mandatory," Vishinski, who led the Friday’s march, said.

"Those who can’t accept orders aren’t responsible enough to drive a car either," added a disgruntled Vishinski.

Defense Minister Ehud Barak has vowed to take a firm action.

"I will act to reduce draft dodging. As a society, we must not turn draft dodgers into heroes."

Military service dodging is not the only problem the Israeli army has been grappling with.

Erlik Alhanan, the public face of Israeli refuseniks, has said that the number of Israeli reservists who refuse to do their military service in the occupied Palestinian territories is on the rise.

Alhanan said at least 80 percent of reservists have lost confidence in the declared moral principles of the Israeli army due to the aggressive policies against the Palestinians.

Twenty-seven reserve and active duty airmen signed a letter in September of 2003 addressed to then Premier Ariel Sharon, refusing to carry out "immoral and illegal" raids on Palestinian civilians in the occupied West Bank and the Gaza Strip.

They warned that the occupation of Palestinian territories was eating at the moral fabric of the state of Israel.

( + Agencies – August 6, 2006)

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