The Israeli Defense Forces

Service is compulsory for most Jewish Israelis.

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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.israeli soldiers

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.

Jewish Israelis are required to serve, as are male Israelis who are Druse and Cherkessian, two non-Jewish minority groups who are faithful to the state of Israel. Male Bedouin Israelis--members of semi-nomadic tribes in the southern portion of Israel--often volunteer for the draft. Most haredi (ultra-Orthodox) Israelis are exempted from service because they are studying at yeshivot (religious academies), a point of contention between secular and religious Israelis.

The nation's Arab-Israelis are exempt from compulsory army service due to the consideration that their military service might put them into a situation where they would be forced to engage in combat with relatives from neighboring Arab armies. While most Israelis--both Jewish and Arab--remain satisfied with this status quo, some have expressed concern that Arab-Israelis' exclusion from mandatory military duty puts them at a distinct social and economic disadvantage because many Jewish-Israelis make social connections and receive training in the army that lay the foundation of their careers after the army service. Some Arab-Israelis now serve in a program similar to the one designed for Orthodox women--Sherut Leumi, or national service--that allows Arab-Israelis to contribute to their country and derive some of the benefits of army service. However, this idea has not gained much acceptance in either the Jewish or Arab sectors of Israel.

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Joshua Mitnick is a freelance journalist living in Israel. His articles have appeared in The Chicago Tribune, Newsday, The Toronto Star, The Newark Star Ledger, and The Washington Times.