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Israelis Share the Stories They Made Up to Dodge Military Service

In a country with conscription for every man and woman, you have to tell tall tales to get out of the army.

by Dalia Mandel
09 July 2016, 12:00am

Illustration by Dan Evans

Not everyone in Israel is terrified of conscription. For many people, the mandatory call-up to the army at the age of 18 is a rite of passage, a way to prove their patriotism and love for their country. Everyone in Israel, apart from Israeli Arabs, has to serve: women for two years, men for just under three. Not everyone fights on the front line—while many take combat roles, others take a wide variety of supporting positions, from cooks to medics. There are even official army radio DJs, photographers, and an army pop band.

But not everyone is so willing for the best years of their young lives to be spent in uniform, often in dangerous armed conflict, taking part in an aggressive military policy that many Israelis disagree with.

Every year a sizable minority try to get out of conscription. There are a few options: You can get pregnant, stay in education indefinitely, or become a conscientious objector—although many of these options still involve a period of enforced community service. If you leave the country to avoid the draft, you can be arrested if you ever return, even on vacation.

Before you join the army you have "Tzav Rishon." This is when you go to an army base for a medical exam, general logic exams, and personal interviews, followed by a psychological evaluation. The final scores of these tests give the candidate a score that determines which unit he or she can be put forward to join. Those with the highest scores end up on the front line, while only those who are deemed medically or psychologically unfit are spared the draft.

Short of breaking your legs, a fake psychological illness is the easiest way to get out of the draft. Here are three stories of people who tried to get out of military service by purposefully attempting to fail the psychological evaluation. For obvious reasons, the names have been changed.

ALISSA, 26

If someone really wanted to get out of the service, his or her first port of call would be to totally fuck up the initial tests and be deemed unfit for any job, as Alissa did:

Born and raised in peaceful Europe, the idea of being forced to join an army was against everything I'd ever believed in. When I moved to Israel in my 20s, I didn't think I would receive a call-up. I'd just dropped out of art school and was living in a commune in Tel Aviv. In the two years I'd been in the country, I had moved apartments several times. The commune I was living in didn't have a post box, and the front door was actually at the back of a shop. Most of my friends couldn't find it, so I didn't think the state bureaucracy would be able to track me down.

The letter that eventually arrived was in a red envelope with "FINAL" printed on it. It said that they had been trying to find me for two years, and I had been invited to several initial call-up days. It said if I didn't go to the next one, I would be arrested and put into army jail. It was time to face the music and work out how to get out of this.

I knew a lot of people who had managed to avoid their service, so I spent the next few days accumulating lots of advice and putting my secondary school drama classes into practice. I started to revel in the challenge ahead of me. It was to be the performance of a lifetime.

Two days prior to the call-up, I tripled my caffeine intake, leading to two almost sleepless nights. I ate a sharing bag of Haribo on the way to the base so that'd I look wired. I think I overdid it a bit, as I managed to take three wrong buses in a row.

Eventually I found myself circling the perimeter of a huge army base. My Hebrew was weak, and I began thrusting the letter into the face of whoever passed me, seriously worried that if I didn't make it, I would be thrown into jail. Every passerby gave me different directions, but after a number of failed attempts, a guy who was taking his son to the same place offered me a ride. He took pity on this frazzled foreign mess.

After I had passed all the security checkpoints, I met a female soldier whose job it was to show everyone where to go. I told her that I wasn't going to go to the army, and asked who to talk to about this. She laughed in my face, and said, "You're going to the army, honey." She was just a kid, a few years younger than me, no doubt a conscript herself, but I wanted to hit her in her smarmy face.

The building looked like a school, and in every classroom, a different test was taking place, with a huge line outside each one. I was shuffled from room to room, and tried my hardest to fail every exam. The logic exam was the kind I would revel in usually, but I just pressed the same button in answer to all the questions.

A few weeks later, I returned for the psychological exam. Once again I deprived myself of sleep and ramped up on caffeine. I had a copy of Animal Farm with me, which I read out loud and laughed to myself. I was greeted by looks of bewilderment by anyone walking past. Perfect.

Young soldiers in the IDF via Wikipedia

A soldier popped his head around the door and called out my name. I sat down in a small messy office with a man sitting opposite me at a desk. He asked me all kinds of questions, and I exaggerated everything. I didn't talk to my family, I had no friends, I had tried to kill myself before, I was broke, I didn't speak Hebrew. I left jagged pauses between everything I said, but said the words very quickly and stared hazily out of the window as I spoke. The next thing I knew I was told to wait outside and then escorted to a different office, this time with a panel of people in front of me. It was the same situation, same questions. I was told I would receive an official letter with their results. A few weeks later, I was told I was mentally unfit to serve in the IDF, and that was the end of that.

MICHAEL, 34

A lot of people only realize they want out of the army once they're already in it. After his basic training, Michael became so socially withdrawn and depressed that he started a process to try to get the army to release him.

There is a public conception in Israel that people just "act out" to get out of service. This creates a cycle where every couple of years, the IDF makes the process of releasing soldiers with mental and social problems harder—which in turn results in a quick escalation of soldier suicide. In most years, suicide is the number one cause of death in the Israeli army.

I originally went into the army with the left-wing Zionist idea that one should join a combat unit to make a positive difference in the way the IDF treats Palestinians.

But within 12 hours, I knew I wasn't going to last. The first day in the army is pretty traumatizing: We got moved around through an endless line of bureaucracy, equipment, medical checks, and shots. After that we meet our sergeant. After the usual "welcome to the army" spiel, he asked the new recruits who got to fuck their girlfriends the night before—or in his words—"who dismantled a girl last night?" (מי פירק בחורה אתמול). From that point on, the relationship between me and the IDF was on a very steep relationship decline.

I was a socially awkward loner. The day-to-day drills just made me intellectually bored. I found myself craving book. I started using any free time—meal hours, bathroom breaks, night time just to read. I was reading between shots on the shooting ranges. Eventually my officer forbid me to read during the day. At that point I tried to get out of the combat unit. After a very brief discussion with an assignment officer, I was sent to be a computer technician in one of the field units stationed in Nabulus, in the northern West Bank, occupied territory. It was there that I decided I had to get out.

Before joining the army, I had quit smoking, but on my first day in the occupied territories, I smoked two packs of cigarettes. I lost quite a lot of weight and developed various ways of getting sick days by inducing vomit. I tried to stay out of the base as much as I could. Eventually I was granted a meeting with a psychologist.

I had started using medical excuses to get out of service, but by the time I met with the psychologist, I was feeling genuinely depressed. He was a complete asshole, rude and obnoxious. I am pretty sure that was a technique he employed to filter out people who came to him or "fakers." Being miserable for so long makes you pretty passive, so this went mostly over my head. For about 15 minutes, he ignored me, talked on the phone, and chewed gum. After that, he asked me a series of questions about my condition. I told him how I'd been feeling. Then he asked me why I joined the army. I had no idea what to answer. The army I'd seen was hierarchical, tyrannical, masochistic, and violent, it horrified me. But I didn't say any of this—I remember telling him that I just didn't want to feel miserable anymore. He told me that he would file a report saying I should see an army psychiatrist, who has the authority to petition for a release.

A week later, I had that appointment. But before the psychiatrist could ask me a question the asshole psychologist came over to speak to him. They discussed something between themselves, and told me I can go the next day to get a release form. A week later, I was outside the main recruitment base. It was 12 PM, middle of the day, and I was no longer a soldier.

ARIEL, 24

After getting his profile reduced following a psychological evaluation, Ariel served for a couple years in the theater, though he left a few months before the end of his service after being punished for his long hair and for directing a play that was too critical of the army's leadership.

I went to the base at 7 AM. There was a huge line of teenagers from all over Israel. You had to give urine samples. Afterward there's a vision test. There's a bunch of stations: an exam where they test how smart you are, a doctor who tells you to take off your underwear and feels your balls and tells you to cough, urine tests, this and that—they just check to see if you're fit. Finally you see the psychologist. At the end of the examination, you receive your profile assessment. They give you your medical profile, and your medical profile basically says what you can do in the army.

If you get a high score, you do combat, a middling score is combat support. If you get a really low score, you're declared unfit for the army.

I got high scores all my physical tests, but I was desperate not to get a high enough score to be a combat soldier. So I pretended I had severe psychological problems. Only that wasn't as easy as I thought.

At the first meeting with the psychologist, they ask you if there's been a death in your immediate family, what's the financial situation at home, and if you've been to a psychologist before. If there's concern, they send you to the kaban, the mental health officer. Only the kaban can reduce your profile. I wanted a score between 45 or 64 so that I wouldn't have to serve as a combat soldier. It doesn't suit me to shoot people.

About a year and a half ago, I saw the first mental health officer. I told them I have anxiety, that I don't sleep at night, that I'm depressive. It didn't help—my profile remained the same. They said they would disqualify me from certain kinds of fighting, but I could still be a combat soldier.

The IDF Givati Brigade via Wikipedia

A few months later, I tried again. I came to the officer with documents from a psychiatrist, and documents from my psychologist. They asked more questions: "How many friends do you have? Are you trusting?" They asked me if I've ever tried to commit suicide. I said no, but I'd thought about it. This time it worked, and they reduced my profile to a non-combat role.

I could have just gone all-out, pretended to be mad and been dismissed, but the thing is I do want to serve in the army. I don't want to be branded a "dodger" for the rest of my life, and I don't think I should get a free pass when all my friends have to do service.

But the army doesn't give me option to contribute with what I'm best at. It wants me to be a combat soldier or a plane technician. I'm not that kind of person. The army doesn't listen to you. So I told a white lie, so that they would reduce my profile, and hopefully now I'll get to do something that I'm actually good at.

In America, you go to college, you study, you have parties, get drunk, throw up on one another. Here, you complete your high school examinations, and they put a gun in your hand. Teenagers are not the perfect soldiers. Ideally this institution wouldn't be so blockheaded, and they would realize that.

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