The military this week reached a compromise regarding army service for immigrating doctors and dentists, raising the cutoff age by just one year for men instead of the proposed two, but extending the duration of service by six months, following backlash from groups that represent immigrants.
For the first time, immigrating female doctors will also be required to serve in the army in some cases, Ronen Foxman, of Nefesh B’Nefesh, who was at the meeting where the army presented the plan, told The Times of Israel on Friday.
This is, for now, a pilot program. It is scheduled to go into effect on July 1, 2018, and will last for two years, at which point the military will reassess the policy, Foxman said.
Under previous regulations, men 32 years old and under with medical degrees who move to Israel — or make aliyah, the term used to describe immigration to the country by Jews — are required to serve in the army for at least 18 months. Women are automatically given an exemption. Male doctors who immigrate between the ages of 33 and 38 had to perform reserve service when called upon.
The new policy will have male doctors and dentists up to (but not including) age 34 required to do military service for two years.
Late last year, the army proposed changing the draft to include all immigrant doctors, men and women, up to age 35 and beginning on January 1.
The proposal was halted after considerable criticism from the Ministry of Aliyah and Immigrant Absorption, as well as non-governmental groups that represent immigrants, like Nefesh B’Nefesh, Qualita and Gvahim.
The ministry and these organizations argued that raising the cutoff age would scare off doctors and dentists — many of whom are hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt from paying for medical school in the West — who were considering moving to Israel. They also called for a “transition period,” so that doctors already in the process of moving to Israel would not be affected by the change, Foxman said.
Following a heated discussion in the Knesset in December, representatives from those groups and the immigration ministry met with the head of the army’s Human Resources Planning and Management Department at the Kirya military headquarters in Tel Aviv on Wednesday in order to reach a compromise, Foxman said.
The groups presented data showing the potential negative consequences the new policy could have on immigration.
“We were aiming to have the whole reform canceled,” he said, but the groups instead reached a compromise with the army.
The duration of service will still be extended from the current 18 months to 24 months, as the army intended. However, the cutoff age was raised by one year instead of the initially proposed two.
The plan to require female doctors and dentists to serve in the military was significantly scaled back.
The army had planned to conscript female medical professionals who are not mothers up to the same age as men, 35. (Female doctors and dentists with children would have been exempted.)
Under the new pilot program, only women up to age 29 years old will be required to serve, which will likely exclude most female immigrating doctors and dentists because of the long duration of their schooling.
Immigrant doctors serving in the army would be paid the same salary as career soldiers, known in Hebrew as keva.
The representative from the IDF’s Manpower Directorate also said that the army would try to work with the immigrant doctors to place them in units closer to their homes — so a person living in the northern port city of Haifa wouldn’t serve in Eilat, at Israel’s southernmost tip — though this could not be guaranteed.
The IDF website has yet to be updated with the new policy. As of Friday, it still said only men up to age 32 will be conscripted, but says this “policy is dynamic and can change in accordance with the army’s needs, at any time.”
Foxman said the army invited the groups to come back toward the end of the two-year pilot program and share statistics on the impact it had on immigration.
But according to the immigration groups, it is nearly impossible to find meaningful data on how many people do not move to Israel each year and why. To wit, a doctor who considers moving to Israel, but sees the extended military service requirement online and decides against it, would not appear in any database or official record.
The military has faced significant difficulties providing medical care to all its soldiers, requiring it to roll out a number of new programs in recent years in attempts to both treat its current soldiers and attract new army doctors to prevent future shortages.
The problem has apparently gotten so acute that the IDF is crowdsourcing a solution, holding a public event in Tel Aviv last week at which anyone who wanted could submit a proposal.
The immigration groups say that while the army is entitled to change the draft requirements, it was handling the change haphazardly and with insufficient warning for those affected.
For many would-be immigrants, the decision to move to Israel is one that requires years of planning, so a sudden curveball — like two extra years of army service — can derail such preparations, especially in the case of young doctors who may find themselves hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt.
“I can’t decide to make aliyah a month beforehand,” an American doctor considering moving to Israel with his family told The Times of Israel last week, requesting anonymity.
“It all seems uncertain and arbitrary,” he added, noting that he has spoken to a number of immigration aid groups about the topic and received inconsistent answers.
The US doctor said two years of army service presented a “huge obstacle” for him, as he also has the welfare of his wife and young children to consider, unlike younger, single immigrants who do not.
“I would love to come as soon as I can and really establish my career in Israel, but that being said, I have three kids and I’ve got medical school loans,” he said.
The doctor said it might drive his family to wait until he is past the conscription age before immigrating, but acknowledged that the longer he, his wife and kids wait, the more deeply they become entrenched in American life and the less likely it becomes that they will move.
“I want to serve the country — that’s why I’m moving there — but I’m also in my mid-30s,” he said.
Such uncertainty drove another American doctor who is planning on moving to Israel in August to fly to Tel Aviv and then directly back to the US in late December in order to officially get his citizenship in 2017 and avoid the draft should the age requirements change, Foxman told The Times of Israel last month.
“He landed at 1:20 in the afternoon. After all the processing, he left the airport at about 7 p.m., he went to have dinner and he came back to fly out on an El Al flight at midnight. He just came to get his national ID card in 2017,” he said. “And I have two more stories just like that.”
Doctors considering immigrating to Israel also complain that the proposal would exacerbate an existing issue in the service requirement — that their specialty is not taken into consideration before they’re assigned a place to serve.
Psychiatrists, surgeons or anesthesiologists who have never professionally practiced general medicine can suddenly find themselves having to do so in the military.
For them, it both raises concerns that they may not be able to provide the full medical care that their patients require and, professionally, that it will prevent them from maintaining their skill levels.
Foxman recalled an orthopedic surgeon saying to him, “If you tell me that for two years, I’m not picking up a scalpel, then I’m basically doomed.”