In Other Words

Israel’s Rough Draft

Israel’s Rough Draft

Hamagash Vehakesef (The Israeli Army: A Radical Proposal)
By Ofer Shelah
143 pages, Or Yehuda: Kinneret Zmora-Bitan, Dvir 2003 (in Hebrew)

"The civilian is a soldier on 11 months’ annual leave." That sentiment, once expressed by Gen. Yigael Yadin, a former chief of staff of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), has prevailed throughout Israel’s history. Israelis have long viewed the IDF as more than simply the military; in popular mythology, the IDF is "the people’s army," a crucial institution both for the defense of the state and the self-image of the nation.

David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s first prime minister and the IDF’s principal architect, considered the military the most efficient nation builder for a new immigrant society, and he therefore assigned soldiers to develop agricultural settlements and teach Hebrew to young immigrants. In this manner, the IDF cultivated its image as a universal militia standing above the class divisions of the young Israeli-Jewish society — meritocratic, depoliticized, and socially engaged. Together with a militaristic political culture and the ever present Arab threat, the IDF’s populist glow made compulsory military service an article of faith in Israel and, for many years, placed it beyond debate.

During the last decade, however, conscription has become a live issue. Ofer Shelah, a leading Israeli columnist who writes for the mass-circulation daily Yedioth Ahronoth, eloquently advocates reform of the IDF in his pioneering new book. Hamagash Vehakesef (The Israeli Army: A Radical Proposal) addresses the various challenges to the people’s army model and proffers a comprehensive — if not quite radical — reform plan.

The book landed on bestseller lists for several weeks in late 2003 and has sparked debate in a society newly receptive to criticism of the once untouchable institution. Failures such as the war in Lebanon in the 1980s and 1990s and the interminable Intifada have shattered the IDF’s image as an omnipotent force and fostered doubts about its effectiveness. At the same time, the secular Ashkenazi (Jews of European descent) middle class has begun to abandon the military. Once the army’s social pillar, this group has led protests and peace movements — including those advocating refusal to serve — and increasingly rejects the military as a career path.

The army has responded piecemeal to the increased criticism by, for example, significantly downsizing the reserve army. But it clings to the rhetoric and doctrine of a people’s army, the source of its preferential status in Israeli society. The depiction of the military as the "embodiment of the virtues of the Zionist project and the laudable traits of the ‘new Israeli’ gives the IDF inappropriate power in the conduct of the state’s affairs." The army’s influence reached unsettling heights during this decade’s Al-Aqsa Intifada, when the IDF instigated what Shelah calls a "silent putsch." By responding to the Palestinian disturbances with excessive deadly force, the military obstructed the government’s pursuit of a more flexible solution.

To curb the military’s power, Shelah contends, one must first strip away the myths surrounding it. He proposes gradually abolishing conscription to transform the IDF into a professional organization open to public scrutiny. He expects that this change will prevent politicians from using the IDF as an "elegant cloak to camouflage issues in debate." In Shelah’s view, the army’s status has sheltered certain policies — such as the occupation of Palestinian territories — that should have generated much deeper political controversy.

Shelah highlights how the concept of a people’s army has tightly linked military service and citizenship, thus marginalizing social groups that do not serve. In theory, conscription applies to almost everyone in Israeli society —  men and women, natural-born citizens and new immigrants alike. The only broad exceptions have been Palestinian citizens, ultra-Orthodox Jews, and married and religious women. In fact, Shelah shows that the IDF’s claim of being a people’s army no longer stands; only about 50 percent of the population now completes military service. In the last several years, the army has shifted to semi-selective conscription by shortening women’s service as well as exempting many ultra-Orthodox yeshiva students, young people disqualified for various reasons (mostly psychological), and elderly new immigrants.

Israeli society similarly exaggerates other alleged virtues of the people’s army. While claiming to protect equality within the ranks, the IDF has in fact promoted members of Israel’s social elites (mainly the Ashkenazi) and marginalized female soldiers. Because women are easily exempted from service, those who remain often have difficulty advancing within the army. Their lesser status in the IDF then seeps into the civilian world. Discarding the notion of a people’s army may redefine substantive citizenship and open doors for groups that have not moved ahead in the military.

Shelah runs into difficulty, however, when he suggests that abandoning conscription would necessarily remedy the shortcomings of the current force. Conscription is only one ingredient in the mix, and the IDF was a people’s army in many ways even before the government introduced mass conscription during the late 1940s. In a highly militarized society, even a professional volunteer military can embody the "popular spirit" and assume a position above scrutiny. The shift to a professional military will not necessarily enhance civilian control.

Shelah’s excessive focus on conscription obscures how several cultural strands in Israeli society, old and new, have come together to lift the IDF into its lofty position. A collectivist mindset, the nature of the Jewish community’s encounter with the Palestinian population, the socialization of Jewish immigrants from Muslim countries and the former Soviet Union, and the injection of religious-messianic values into politics have all played important roles. The IDF undoubtedly had a hand in nurturing this culture, but the culture’s impact on the IDF is far more significant.

Shelah also overlooks a potentially important, if unintended, consequence of shifting to a professional force. A volunteer army would draw the bulk of its personnel from Israel’s lower middle class. Material rewards, the potential for professional and social mobility, and militaristic values already attract this strata to the military more than other parts of the population. Ending conscription would sharpen that bias. The result could be an army filled primarily by politically conservative groups. In the last decade, an ethno-nationalist coalition has emerged in Israeli politics, which includes Oriental Jews from lower socioeconomic rungs, the national-religious and ultra-Orthodox communities, and immigrants from the former Soviet Union. This odd alliance wants to slow globalization’s impact on Israeli society, exclude Palestinian citizens from full citizenship, and retain much of the West Bank — including the holy sites and Jewish settlements. The predominance of these groups in the army would inevitably heighten militarism and aggravate tension between the IDF high command and Israel’s civilian elites.

Ironically, while Shelah sees professionalization as the route to a more accountable military, many Israelis want to keep conscription precisely to ensure that the IDF remains politically balanced enough to control. Allowing civilians to be more than soldiers on leave may be less important than ensuring political diversity in the ranks.