Female doctors, once exempt, might also have to serve

IDF bid to recruit older immigrant doctors halted amid backlash

Army floats proposal to raise age cutoff for mandatory military service from 32 to 35, sparking concern and confusion

Judah Ari Gross is The Times of Israel's religions and Diaspora affairs correspondent.

Illustrative. Two IDF doctors perform 'surgery' during a field hospital exercise in Beit Naballah, in central Israel, on December 9, 2013. (Israel Defense Forces)
Illustrative. Two IDF doctors perform 'surgery' during a field hospital exercise in Beit Naballah, in central Israel, on December 9, 2013. (Israel Defense Forces)

Young doctors thinking about moving to Israel face a growing chance that they will have to serve in the army, and for a longer period of time than in the past.

The military is considering raising the age at which immigrant doctors get exemptions from serving in the Israel Defense Forces and lengthening the service time, as well as requiring female immigrant doctors to serve — something they have not had to do until now.

The proposal was set to go into effect beginning January 1, 2018, but following significant pushback from groups that represent immigrants, like Nefesh B’Nefesh, it was put on hold.

Two IDF doctors perform ‘surgery’ during a field hospital exercise in northern Israel in September 2016. (Israel Defense Forces)

“The IDF is currently considering changing the maximum age at which new immigrants with medical degrees will have to perform military service,” the army said in an email on Sunday.

Under current regulations, men 32 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 have to perform reserve service when called upon.

The new proposal would require men, as well as women who are not mothers, to serve in the army up to the age of 35 for a period of 24 months, instead of the current 18.

Immigrant groups, notably Nefesh B’Nefesh and Qualita, as well as the government’s own Immigrant Absorption Ministry, presented their case against the proposal in the Knesset’s Immigration, Absorption and Diaspora Affairs Committee on December 20, arguing that the change would dissuade people from moving to Israel and not have a significant impact on the number of doctors serving in the Israel Defense Forces, said Ronen Foxman, of Nefesh B’Nefesh, who was at the Knesset meeting.

New immigrants from North America land at Israel’s Ben Gurion airport after a Nefesh B’Nefesh chartered flight from New York, July 19, 2016. (Yossi Zamir/Flash90)

“If you raise the bar from 33 to 36, you maybe get another 10 [doctors] — at most — a year. But by doing that, you might put off the aliyah of another hundred,” Foxman told The Times of Israel on Sunday.

He stressed that the issue was being discussed amicably and “wasn’t a fight.”

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 on Tuesday, January 2, at which anyone who wants can submit a proposal.

One of the main complaints from the immigration groups is not exactly with the army’s bid to change the requirements — that is well within the military’s purview, Foxman said — but in the way it is conducting itself on the matter, namely haphazardly and with insufficient warning.

The sense of confusion evoked by the proposal is evident in the fact that on the day military officials and immigrant groups met in the Knesset, Lt. Col. Tzachi Revivo of the IDF’s Manpower Directorate maintained that the army was still discussing the proposal; meanwhile, the IDF’s own website was presenting the proposal as official policy.

When Myriam Leser, deputy CEO of Qualita, a group that helps French immigrants, told Revivo as much, the officer denied it. It was not until she showed him a printout of the site that he said that it was published by mistake and would be changed immediately.

The IDF website has indeed since been updated. It now says only men up to age 32 will be conscripted, but that this “policy is dynamic and can change in accordance with the army’s needs, at any time.”

For many would-be immigrants, the decision to move to Israel is one that requires years of planning, so a sudden curveball — like two years of army service — can derail such preparations, especially in the case of young doctors who can have hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt from their student loans.

“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 on Monday, 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.

Nefesh B’Nefesh’s Foxman said his immigration aid group and others were demanding some kind of grace period, so that the change would not go into effect for people already in the process of immigrating to Israel.

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

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’ll 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 said.

“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.”

The Nefesh B’Nefesh official said Sunday that the discussions between the army, the immigrant groups, and the Immigration Ministry are ongoing, with the hope that a compromise will be reached in the coming weeks.

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