For more than a decade, Knesset member Eliezer Stern has been leading an aggressive campaign against local celebrities who did not serve in the IDF. In recent days, as we approach the Memorial Day for Israel's fallen soldiers and Israel's Independence Day, the loaded public debate is re-ignited in the yearly ritual: should performers who dodged the draft and did not serve in the IDF be permitted to perform in official events? Stern is a most vocal and prominent opponent of this phenomenon.
It began when Stern served as the IDF's chief education officer and prevented singer Eyal Golan from performing for soldiers in 2001. Although Golan had served in the IDF, he wangled an exemption from doing reserve duty. Later on, Stern also waged well publicized struggles against singers Asaf Amdursky, Ben Artzi and Aviv Geffen because they “didn’t do the army” (the popular label for shirking IDF army service) or because they only did partial service. In addition, Stern prevented them from entering the army bases.
As anticipated, the religious Zionist Stern was accused of populistic, fanatical and religious persecution of successful secular performers — a charge that only galvanized Stern’s motivation to give the performers hell in the media and continue to prevent them from setting foot in IDF bases.
Stern, the son of Holocaust survivors, is married to Dorit, who lost her brother in action. Today Stern is a Knesset member representing Tzipi Livni’s HaTenua party, but even as a politician he continues to harass those celebrities who preferred not to don uniforms.
To this day, Stern’s “blacklist” accords a place of honor to successful international model Bar Refaeli, who evaded army service by means of a fictitious marriage. Stern did not pass up an opportunity to speak out against her when he served as IDF’s head of human resources, and even after his discharge. Recently, he even sent a letter to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in which he joins the IDF spokesman’s request to cancel Refaeli’s participation in the Foreign Ministry’s advertising campaign.
On April 9, Eli Ben-Shem, chairman of the veterans memorial organization Yad Lebanim, demanded of the Tel Aviv municipality that they not allow singers Ivri Lider and Izhar Ashdot to appear at the traditional Memorial Day ceremony in Tel Aviv’s Rabin Square. Ben-Shem argued that it was inappropriate for Lider, who was discharged from the IDF after only three months of service, to appear in a ceremony memorializing those who gave up their lives. Ben-Shem’s reason for excluding Izhar Ashdot is a protest song that Ashdot co-composed and sang about IDF soldiers in the territories “who learn to kill as a matter of habit.” A media fracas erupted immediately, and was intensified due to the atmosphere of the memorial days for the Holocaust and IDF casualties. Stern, of course, thought that Ben-Shem’s demand was justified.
Most of the voices in the melange of responses to the words of the Yad Lebanim chairman were anticipated. But the words of highly regarded actor Shlomo Vishinsky stood out. Vishinsky, who lost his son Lior nine years ago in combat duty on the Philadelphia Corridor near Gaza, nevertheless asked to cease persecuting the singers. In his words, “To tell performers who didn’t serve in the army that they can’t sing on Memorial Day seems like a fascistic thing to do. Memorial Day belongs to all of us — including those who did not serve in the army.”
Vishinsky’s words made a big impression on me, both because of the noble soul reflected in these words, and because I find them to be correct.
In my eyes, Stern had, and still has, a major role in creating a witch-hunting atmosphere against the “draft-dodging” celebrities. He was the first to identify the tremendous PR potential that lies in the media treatment of singers and models who did not serve in the IDF — or those whose service was shortened — and made use of it.
In a conversation with Al-Monitor that was conducted on the eve of Memorial Day, Stern was convinced that the struggles he waged contributed a great deal toward creating the “proper atmosphere.” In other words, to make draft-dodging “not worth its while” for relevant performers.
Did you hear what Shlomo Vishinsky said? He is a bereaved father who thinks that this harassment on the eve of the Memorial Day for the fallen soldiers is fascistic. Also, these performers often represent us proudly, contribute to the community, and volunteer a great deal.
“I display a fundamental position based on the claim that in the State of Israel, you don’t decide how you contribute. It’s as if someone would say, ‘I pay more taxes instead of serving in the army,’ and someone else will say, ‘I establish an agricultural farm and in doing so, I contribute to the State.’ As individuals, we do not have the option to decide the manner in which we will serve the state. Besides, military service, in particular, involves risking your life — something you don’t have in other places. It is a fact that there are models who serve in the army as well as singers and athletes. In recent years, the army has become more aware of the importance of musicians and models and meets them halfway, the most important thing being that the ideal of ‘service for all’ be preserved.”
Hasn’t the time come to leave Refaeli alone? She is an excellent ambassador for us in the world. She does us honor.
“Not, not until she apologizes. Bar Refaeli lied to us, she got married for a few hours in order to dodge her service. If she will express regret, I definitely will agree that she shouldn’t be harassed. That will be sufficient for me.
“As opposed to Bar,” adds Stern, “there is a no-less lovely model and actress, Agam Rodberg, who served in the army. The blood samples that were taken from her during the enlistment track were added to the bone marrow donor repository, and recently it was discovered that she is a match. As a result, she happily donated her bone marrow to a patient in need. In my eyes, Agam Rodberg is much more representative of 'Beautiful Israel' than Bar Refaeli. She is the real face of Israeli society, to the world as well, and that’s why I proposed giving her the foreign ministry campaign instead of Bar.''
“In general,” adds Stern, “This is a problematic message – to come and say that because nature bestowed beauty on her, that we should allow her what we don’t allow others? How can you maintain the value of army service for all, under such circumstances?”
What is so terrible about allowing Ivri Lider, who is very popular among the youth and volunteers a lot, to sing in the Memorial Day gathering?
“This, in my eyes, represents a clash of values. As if we build performance stages for people who raise the middle finger [make rude gestures] at us. On Memorial Day, this clash of values screams to the heavens. We remember those who paid the dearest price of all, and then we bring someone who evaded this same mission to sing in their memory – and even pay him a lot of money.”
Independence Day is “money time” for performers and producers. Local authorities around the country pay sums that range from tens to hundreds of thousands of shekels to performers who roam from one entertainment stage to the next, and earn a pretty penny doing so.
Do you think you changed anything? Bar Refaeli is a thriving international brand name…
“I got Eyal Golan to return and do reserve service. When I found out that he doesn’t do reserve service, but even gets money from the army for his performances, I stopped it all. I told him that if he wants to perform in the army, he has to do reserve service, and that’s what happened in the end. I also met with Aviv Geffen and Bar Refaeli’s mother, but they didn’t cooperate. When Bar participated in the tourism ministry’s campaign, I called then tourism minister Isaac (Buji) Herzog and I told him, 'Why are you embarrassing us this way?' I don’t know who admires Bar – certainly not my children; she’s not a role-model for them. I don’t step foot into a store that she models for. She is not the embodiment of the 'Beautiful Israel' in my eyes.”
Why harass Refaeli when there are thousands of rabbinical college students who dodge the draft every year?
“I am familiar with the numbers. The thing with the rabbinical college fellows is that they do this legally, by virtue of an arrangement with the state, and they go to study. Bar Refaeli is like one of these students who evades the draft, but does not go study. She exploited the ‘marriage loophole’ and he exploits the ‘study loophole.’ In my eyes, they are the same.”
Are you worried?
“Yes. On my car, and on the plastic toy cars of my grandchildren, it says, ‘A real Israeli does not dodge the draft.’ I really believe in that and I think that we must not slacken our grip. It must be a permanent challenge. What we have here is not to be taken for granted. Luckily, we have not had major wars in recent years and the population of reserve soldiers is committed way beyond what you see in the rest of the world. It is an Israeli invention, and we must preserve and maintain it so that it doesn’t disappear.”
Mazal Mualem started her journalistic career during her military service in Israel, where she was assigned to the weekly army newspaper, Bamachane. After her studies, she worked for the country's second-largest Hebrew-language daily, Maariv. In 1998, she joined English-language daily Haaretz, covering local governance, and later, she was appointed chief political analyst for that paper. After 12 years with Haaretz, she returned to Maariv as their chief political analyst.
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