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IDF: Bar Refaeli May Be a Model, But She's No Model Citizen

It is no mere chance that the Israeli Foreign Ministry is happy to use the services of the Israeli top model Bar Refaeli, while the military establishment calls for boycotting her due to her evasion of military service, writes Michal Aharoni.           
Model Bar Rafaeli arrives at the amfAR's Milan Fashion Week Gala in Milan September 23, 2011. 

She is one of the world's most successful models. She starred in a sexy Super Bowl ad and received millions of views on YouTube, Facebook and other social networks. She was even Leonardo DiCaprio's girlfriend. Israeli top model Bar Refaeli is the coolest girl in the world, but in Israel, she is generally considered to be a most annoying person.

And it is not because she forgot where she has come from — not at all: In fact, only recently she participated in a fundraising evening for the Variety Children's Charity and in a Passover fundraiser, and she regularly takes part in many other charitable events. Her appearances in the international media draw enthusiastic response. Her English is excellent. She is lovely, funny and full of grace. And she is always emphasizing that she is an Israeli. Thus, for instance, in a TV reality show she hosted in Germany, she insisted on shooting a fashion production in Israel, so as to reveal the “beautiful face” of the country to the world. But one thing Bar Refaeli has never done — military service in the Israel Defense Forces (IDF).

As a matter of fact, Bar Refaeli deliberately avoided military service. She fictitiously married a man double her age and once she got the desired exemption from military service, she was quick to say goodbye to her fresh spouse. She did it to promote her career, as she did not wish to “waste” two years of her life in the service of her country. And it should be borne in mind that in Israel, military service — even for women — is considered a seal of approval, while those who avoid service are looked down upon as outcasts who have lost their legitimacy.

Thus, in the eyes of the establishment — the Israeli, military, male establishment — Bar Refaeli is seen as lacking legitimacy. A few days ago, when it transpired that the celebrated model was featured in a PR video clip produced by the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs, IDF Spokesman Brig. Gen. Yoav “Polly” Mordechai burst out in sanctimonious rage. Mordechai appealed in a letter to the Foreign Ministry Deputy Director-General for Public Affairs Gideon Meir, harshly criticizing the selection of someone who had not serve in the army to officially represent the state of Israel in a PR campaign. 

Under the heading “The need for awareness of and sensitivity to the issue of enlistment and service in the IDF,” the military spokesman wrote: “Her participation in the PR video clip conveys a message of tolerance towards the evasion of military service.” 

That Bar Refaeli appeared in the video clip free of charge was not of much help to her. Nor were the variety of her other voluntary activities on behalf of Israel. As far as the military establishment is concerned, her failure to serve in the army is a sin that outweighs any grace. The time that elapsed since she was due for enlistment has not softened the stance of the military establishment, nor has her standing in the world earned her its forgiveness, as the military establishment felt betrayed by her behavior.

It is not the first time that those who avoided military service have drawn fire and ire. The vilification campaign against local celebrities who failed to fulfill their duty and enlist in the army was launched by former IDF Spokesman Avi Benayahu, along with student groups such as the Im Tirzu Movement, one of whose goals is to glorify the duty of military service.

Thus, the actors starring in [the 2007 Israeli war movie] “Beaufort,” which was nominated for an Oscar, were denounced as pariahs, since most of them avoided military service. One of them, Itay Tiran, who is regarded as one of Israel’s outstanding actors, has become a symbol against his will when acclaimed Israeli playwright, screenwriter and director Shmuel Hasfari, who is known for his leftist positions, announced that he would never work with Tiran because he was a draft dodger.

At the height of the campaign, municipal and local councils declared that no IDF draft dodgers would be invited to entertain their residents. The performers concerned began to fear for their livelihood and many of them decided to keep quiet and wait for it to pass. One of the most successful singers in Israel, Maya Bouskilla, who had dodged draft at the mandatory draft age of eighteen, went as far as to [voluntarily] enlist in the army more than ten years later, albeit for a shortened four-month service in the IDF Education Corps. The army turned the event into a media festival.

However, what Bar Refaeli did was for the Israeli military establishment like a red rag to a bull. Not only did she fail to show any sign of remorse, she has even dared to make a name for herself in the world — and this, flaunting her national identity as an Israeli. While many Israeli artists and performers have realized that the anti-draft dodging campaign is gaining momentum and is therefore liable to harm their future careers, public sentiment against evasion of military service seems to have skipped Bar Refaeli.

She was the ever beautiful and radiant supermodel and continued to make a fortune, posing for leading international brands. With nearly half a million followers on Twitter and Instagram, Bar Refaeli has become one of the most successful Israeli brands in the world. For some reason or another, the Americans and Europeans don’t mind the fact that the beautiful Israeli model has never served coffee to any army officer or tried to make it as a pilot in the Israeli Air Force – an opportunity which is open to women in Israel.

Even the Israeli Foreign Ministry officials, so it seems, have not been bothered by Refaeli's evasion of military service and, out of all potential candidates, picked her to star in the national PR campaign they planned. Being well aware of the image of Israel in the world and sharing in the responsibility for its standing in the international arena, they were smart enough to appreciate – from the vantage point of view of the global milieu, which is home to them – the buzz around the Israeli top model and the impact inherent in the brand name Bar Refaeli. Unlike the military establishment officers, the Foreign Ministry officials have been for years in the forefront of the struggle against the anti-Israeli propaganda campaign; and à la guerre comme à la guerre – they would thus readily use any available means to ward off the attack. The Foreign Ministry officials have realized that “Bar Refaeli” is a very strong brand; the military establishment, on the other hand, takes into account only the less flattering facet of that brand. And this is the main reason for the conflict between these two powerful bodies. They differ not only in their point of view, but also in their target audience.

The IDF is concerned with the effect the Foreign Ministry’s PR campaign may have on Israeli young men and women, whereas the Ministry of Foreign Affairs is targeting its campaign at the international arena. That’s what it is supposed to do. The IDF deals with soldiers. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs has to do with ambassadors and tourists. For the IDF, Bar Refaeli poses a threat. For the Foreign Ministry, she presents hope. It is interesting to note in this context that the Ministry of Tourism recognized already a few years ago the potential inherent in Refaeli's face. Then-Tourism Minister Isaac (Buji) Herzog recruited Bar Refaeli at the time to represent Israel at the London World Tourism Fair in 2006.

Refaeli's success, and the fact that she has been chosen to represent Israel, only go to show that one can succeed even without serving in the IDF, even without being part of the Israeli melting pot, even without sharing in the burden. Military service is still considered an admission prerequisite in large parts of the Israeli labor market. The option of draft dodging has always been seen in Israel as liable to affect “your future career and the rest of your life.” And here comes Bar Refaeli and pulls the rug out from under this argument. And coming to her aid is none other than the Israeli Foreign Ministry, which does not regard failure to serve in the army as a critical issue, especially not as long as Jay Leno is glad to have you on his The Tonight Show.

The Foreign Office has chosen to show the world the other face of Israel — that wearing sleek evening gowns rather than army uniforms, the Israel that does not necessarily idolize the army, but rather treasures individualism and believes in just having fun and enjoying life. And to that end it selected Bar Refaeli, who best represents all these values, which the military establishment cannot comprehend.

Michal Aharoni is a public relations professionial, playwright and columnist. Aharoni earned her theater degree from Hakibuzim seminar in Tel Aviv, followed by a master of arts degree from Middlesex University in London. For the past years she was working for many Israeli politicians as a spokeswoman. She currently writes for Maariv and for its Nrg website.  

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