In an Independence Day interview two days ago, the IDF Chief of Staff, General Benny Gantz insisted that he has "nothing personal against [supermodel] Bar Refaeli". She is "a talented woman but she isn't the issue with which we are dealing", Gantz insisted, "we are talking about military service and giving to one’s country". A couple of days earlier, I heard similar words from IDF spokesman, General Yoav "Polly" Mordechai- "I don't want to talk about her personally", he told me, "I want to talk about the principal of one having to serve and about the message that Israel is sending to its citizens regarding the centrality of military service". The IDF has a problem with a decision made by the Foreign Ministry to make Refaeli a representative of Israel, not with Refaeli herself– that’s what they say. I actually think they have a problem with both, but their real problem is with the FM. A couple of days ago I wrote an article about this story for the IHT-NYT (read it here). This is a somewhat different and longer version of that article.
Supermodel Bar Refaeli is one of Israel's most famous international celebrities. So it was natural for the Foreign Ministry- always concerned about Israel's image abroad, always looking for ways to make Israel's image trendier- to ask Refaeli to lead an ad campaign promoting Israeli technology and innovation abroad. Refaeli agreed to do it, free of charge. So one would think that Israelis should be thankful.
Alas, we aren't. Not all of us. That is, because when the now 27 year-old Refaeli was just becoming a supermodel (and the girlfriend of Hollywood megastar Leonardo DiCaprio), she also dodged her draft, evading the compulsory two year military service by getting married, and divorcing soon after. So the more famous she got, and the more Israelis followed her with pride (and maybe a shred of jealously), the more annoyed other Israelis became by her celebrity status, especially military officials.
Three years ago, the armed forces human resources director, General Avi Zamir, urged young Israelis not to buy the products that Refaeli promotes. "We are a society that has an army", he said, "if she advertises [clothing company] Fox, then you shouldn't buy their products". Obviously, the frustration of the military became much more painful when the "product" Refaeli began promoting was the State of Israel. And it became public when the spokesman for the IDF sent a letter to the Foreign Ministry last month, slamming the Refaeli campaign. "The choice… conveys the message that we ignore and forgive evasion of enlistment, and encourages identification, among youths of both sexes, with the success of those who did not enlist", wrote Brig. General Yoav "Polly" Mordechai. The FM hit back: "There is no reason to bring up the past when it comes to a campaign of public diplomacy of this kind", it said. Speaking to a FM official on Sunday, I was told that the Ministry "doesn't do boycott", a loaded term for Israelis. Refaeli, the official kept reminding me, willingly volunteered for this campaign.
I called the IDF spokesman too, on a very busy day: Israel marked Memorial Day on Monday and Independence Day on Tuesday – the worst time for such a conversation (and the best time for such a conversation). In a time when the IDF and the country are engaged in reflection and mourning the dead, is it not self-evident that using Refaeli to officially boost Israel's image is “sending the wrong message"? As Israelis celebrate their Independence is it not obvious that they should be looking for “other heroes” who aren’t draft-dodging supermodels?
In recent months, Israelis have demonstrated a newfound determination to enlist ultra-Orthodox men to military service, and have had a heated debate about the "equal share of the burden". Thus, the FM campaign could not have come at a worst time. The FM official was trying to convince me that "maybe the message of this campaign to Israelis is that people can correct their past mistakes". And this indeed could have been convincing had Refaeli not said in 2007 that she doesn't "regret not enlisting, because it paid off big time" (she has never repented since then).
The military acknowledged that international campaigns “are not within our purview". The fact that institutions devise their policies wearing narrow lenses has always been a problem, and Mordechai recognizes it: The military is obviously less concerned with international opinion and more with keeping Israeli society committed to the draft and to the value of military service. The Foreign Ministry is more worried about international opinion and has made the best choice for this purpose, disregarding the impact it might have on Israel. Refaeli herself made a similar point on her instagram account as she was responding to criticism: "You can use the clip for the Foreign Ministry or drop it, but my Instagram feed has more readers than Israel’s most popular newspaper".
When we think about the competing narratives of these two institutions, it is tempting to dismiss the military’s complaints and take this opportunity to argue – to rightly argue - that it's time for Israel to make the military less central to its culture. Tempting, but misleading. My own discomfort with the Refaeli choice is not because of the overwhelming importance of the military, but rather because I want the people who officially represent my country to be exemplary citizens. Or, to put it more bluntly: On Independence Day it would be nice to know that in Israel the number of Instagram followers you have can't be enough of an excuse for avoiding your civil duties.