Israel's Soldiers Deserve Salaries, Not Pocket Change

Pay real wages to soldiers in order to recognize their true value, and the true cost of conscription.

The bill proposed by coalition chairman MK Yariv Levin, granting special benefits to military veterans at the expense of Israeli Arabs, should surprise no one. It is in keeping with his character and his (racist) beliefs. The problem is that what he says is basically correct. The state really does discriminate, blatantly, against its draftees, making them the most deprived group in the country.

Not only do they serve - three years for men and two for women - risking life and limb and losing a few years of study and work (as well as carrying the burden of reserve duty) when compared to people their own age who do not do military service; the state adds to their abuse by “paying” them what amounts to pocket change - just NIS 352 a month for non-combat soldiers and NIS 708 for combat soldiers.

The government adds insult to injury by stopping child allowances when they turn 18. It’s as if it is telling the parents, I’m taking your children, putting their lives at risk, terminating the allowances you received for them and also forcing you to support them yourselves. The law permits us to turn the soldier into the perfect freier, the perfect sucker, and that’s what we do. And you, the parents, can petition the High Court of Justice until the cows come home.

Two days ago the defense establishment informed the High Court that after “extensive study” it had decided to raise the allowances it gives to soldiers by NIS 70 to NIS 150 a month, after 11 years without a raise! It said “budgetary constraints” made it impossible to give more. How cynical, coming soon after a demand to raise salaries for career officers. Only for conscripts is there no money, because by law these soldiers are available nearly free of charge and the defense establishment takes full advantage of the situation.

In this distorted situation, many soldiers must work during their service, even without the army’s permission, and are sent to military prison if discovered. Some soldiers even desert so that they can work and bring a few shekels to their families. Others feel betrayed and angry because they can’t enjoy themselves a little while on leave, buy new clothes or pay their cellphone bill – because their parents don’t have it to give to them.

The anger increases when they realize that ultra-Orthodox draft evaders who study full-time in a kollel (a yeshiva for married men), get a monthly stipend of NIS 900 from the state and another NIS 2,000 or so from the kollel, most of whose funding comes from the state. So draft evaders deserve more than draftees? Isn’t that the height of absurdity?

Some people will claim that paying a decent wage to conscripts (say NIS 3,000 a month) would cost the state billions and force it to raise taxes for everyone. So what? After all, an economic analysis of the injustice indicates that we are presumably paying a decent wage to these soldiers, but then taxing them at 90 percent, the highest tax burden in the world. Thus, if we pay soldiers a decent wage we will in effect replace a draconian tax on them with a fair tax on the entire population. Isn’t that preferable?

Levin is right, then, when he speaks of injustice. The army and the Finance Ministry in fact cynically exploit the Defense Service Law, which affects only part of the population. But his solution is wrong. He wants to score political points, but the proper solution is to pay soldiers a fair wage.

There's another benefit to that: Paying soldiers a fair wage will force the Israel Defense Forces to realize that soldiers are not free goods. The moment a soldier costs money, the IDF will begin to use its manpower more efficiently, until it eventually realizes it should reduce the length of service – to save money. Shortening military service would benefit the economy tremendously, since the real cost of compulsory service is not the wages paid to soldiers but rather the loss of productivity during their service.

Ilan Assayag