From the moment of Israel’s birth, the army has occupied a central role in society. In 1948, with the country in the throes of its War for Independence, the interim government ordered the establishment of one unified military that was called Tzvah Hagannah L’Yisrael—abbreviated to Tzahal—Hebrew for “Israel Defense Forces.” Within months, Jewish underground movements that had fought the British Mandate were dismantled and assimilated into the new military whose job it was to fend off invading Arab armies.
A Jewish Military
During the first decades of the country’s existence the IDF was lionized by the public as the embodiment of Zionist values. The first Jewish military in 2,000 years was charged with protecting a nation still reeling from the genocide of European Jewry. And the stunning success of the small motivated army while surrounded by bigger enemies gave the military the image of a mythic David against Goliath.
The army’s code of ethics features a section on “purity of arms,” reinforcing the image among Israelis that their army upheld humanistic universal values even under fire. This concept—called “toharat haneshek” in Hebrew—refers to a code of honor of the Israeli Defense Forces that states that arms are to be used only in defense, and even then judiciously with great care that innocent civilian lives be protected.
The army also performed (and continues to perform) in an important social role as a primary melting pot and equalizer for a country of immigrants. From the age of 18 every Israeli male and female is required to serve three and two years, respectively, of compulsory military service. That requirement brought the rural kibbutz resident together with the Tel Aviv urbanite, the modern Orthodox together with the secular, and the Sabra (native Israeli) together with the immigrant. The army was decidedly informal, with enlisted men of different ranks dispensing with the salutes and formal greetings of other militaries. This also served to reinforce the country’s egalitarian spirit.
Did you like this article? MyJewishLearning is a not-for-profit organization.