For the millions of Israeli citizens drafted into the Israel Defense Forces over the past 60 years, military service has involved patriotism, community, self-sacrifice—and Loof, Israel's kosher Spam. But, with the IDF updating its battle rations, a new generation of soldiers is about to experience military service without the familiar pink meat. And the end of Loof may portend more drastic changes in Israel's military.
According to Gil Marks' Encyclopedia of Jewish Food, Loof has been around for nearly as long as the IDF itself. Inspired by Spam, a culinary mainstay of the U.S. Army during World War II, the IDF developed its own meat product in the late 1940s; the name apparently stems from a distorted pronunciation of "meatloaf." Edible, durable, and kosher, Loof satisfied military and religious requirements. No one asked the soldiers.
Loof looks like ground beef cross-bred with a sponge, it doesn't taste particularly good, and it smells . . . well, unpleasant. Yet, generations of IDF soldiers came to tolerate it. Not that they had much choice. Loof was the primary protein source in manot krav, the IDF's MRE, which also included pickles, hummus, tuna, and chocolate spread. Over the course of their service, out of desperation rather than enthusiasm, hungry soldiers wolfed down countless Loof sandwiches and Loof salads, and even Loof straight. Inevitably, they came to crave it. Loof has left its mark on the Israeli national consciousness. It has a Facebook page, a Wikipedia entry, and a film credit—a memorable cameo in the Israeli comedy Halfon Hill Does Not Answer.
In 2009, however, the IDF's Logistics and Equipment Division announced that Loof was on its way out. Why? According to Colonel Ziv Gafni, the company that manufactured Loof had ceased production; the IDF was dipping into inventory to feed its soldiers. As consumer tastes moved toward fresher, healthier alternatives, non-IDF demand for Loof practically vanished. By the end, the IDF was responsible for nearly 100 percent of Israel's Loof sales.
Israelis reacted to the news with nostalgia, wistfully reflecting on a bygone heyday of the Israeli military and society. Active-duty soldiers, in contrast, were thrilled. And, trivial though Loof's interment may be in isolation, it may presage an attempt to extract the country from another longstanding institution beset by problems of insufficient supply and public unease—the military draft.
The draft is older than the State of Israel itself: It was instituted in 1947 by the nascent Israeli military in anticipation of the coming conflict. After independence, conscription was formalized to require 30 months' service for men and 18 months for women. After the 1967 Six-Day war, the term was increased to 36 months for men and 24 months for women, where it remains today.
Conscription was more than just a military necessity; it was a social policy designed to protect Israel's shared identity as well as its borders. The IDF became the "people's army," a melting pot of soldiers religious and secular, rural and urban, sabra and oleh, left and right. Draft-dodging was taboo, discouraged by social more than legal consequences.
In the last 20 years, however, these attitudes have changed. A 1988 poll of Israeli high school students found that 94 percent would volunteer for the IDF even without the draft; today that number is 58 percent. In 2007, Haaretz reported that 27 percent of conscription-age men and 40 percent of women managed to avoid the draft entirely; another 18 percent dropped out during service, typically within the first year. A Haifa University study found that 54 percent of recruits managed "quasi-evasion," agreeing to serve only in risk-free positions. Today, fewer than a third of draftees complete the full 36 months of duty.
However, the news is not all bad. The most vital parts of the IDF—elite combat units, intelligence corps, technology—continue to attract more than enough soldiers. Meanwhile, despite reduced enlistments, the IDF has widespread "hidden unemployment": Many soldiers simply don't have enough work to keep them occupied. The current universal, undifferentiated conscription fails to account for the division of labor in a modern army. Combat soldiers must train for longer than schnitzel chefs. The IDF must invest more in an engineer than a secretary. Today's military cannot be egalitarian.
Universal conscription is also expensive, for soldiers and the State. According to the Ben Bassat Commission, appointed by the Defense Ministry to study the impact of mass conscription, a single year of IDF service costs each class of soldiers an estimated NIS 90 million in lost wages, education, and professional experience. The Bordet Commission, which conducted a comprehensive audit of the IDF in 2007, calculated the country's annual production loss from conscription at NIS 11 billion, 1.7 percent of Israel's GDP. The Ministry of Finance put the total loss at NIS 9 billion.
Of course, self-preservation trumps economics: If national security is expensive, it is also vital. Could Israel survive without a conscripted army? Is the current undifferentiated mass conscription sustainable? How should Israel balance national security against personal liberty, economic growth against self-defense?
There are no clear answers. The Ben Bassat Commission concluded that Israel should have more soldiers serve shorter terms. It called for closing draft loopholes, reducing the conscription period to 24 months, and paying fair wages to soldiers in roles, like combat and intelligence, that demand longer service.
Others are more radical. In their paper "Conscription Versus a Professional Army," economists Sasson Haddad and Asher Tishler say conscription is doomed. They estimate that by 2020 draft evasion will reach 43 percent, effectively eliminating a "people's army" and presenting a real national security threat. All Israel can do is to make the transition to a professional army as smooth as possible.
On November 14, the IDF's Loof supply finally ran out, unceremoniously replaced by a concoction of ground meat with tomato sauce. It is still unclear when the supply of draftees will run out; but, as with Loof, the timing may be beyond IDF control. Let's hope they're more prepared for this one.
Micah Stein served in the 92nd Samson Battalion of the IDF; he is currently a Fellow at the Tikvah Fund.
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