The Israeli Defense Forces

Service is compulsory for most Jewish Israelis.

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Enlistment is a milestone for the Israeli teen, with families throwing parties and videotaping farewells with children at induction centers. Like any army, the service offers a broad range of jobs, ranging from infantry, to intelligence, to the military band. Membership in an elite commando unit carries the most prestige. Competition to get into these units is often fierce, especially to become pilots of combat jets in the vaunted Air Force.  At the same time soldiers who work in an office are often referred to derisively as "jobniks." 

Becoming an Officer

Outstanding soldiers are invited to become officers, which requires a minimum commitment of signing on for an extra year of service. Officer Cadets from diverse units are thrown together for several weeks at the army’s training academy, and emerge with the rank of second lieutenant and an elevated status that will follow them throughout their career. 

The army is run by a general staff that includes the chief of staff, the top officer, and about 30 other generals who preside over the major operational branches which include the air force and the navy. The army has three separate commands for battle theaters in the south, center, and north of the country. There is also a Home Front Command which oversees civilian military duties like distribution of gas masks. The other major branches include personnel, logistics, intelligence and planning. The Israeli army also has an education unit and an entertainment unit, as well as media-related units which offer positions such as "army photographer."

In an attempt to give all Israelis a chance to perform national service, the army offers several tracks for the country’s different population groups. The earliest example of this is the Nahal units in which a group of people interested in establishing a kibbutz or moshav would serve as infantry soldiers together and then establish an agricultural settlement alongside a remote military base. The hesder program was established to allow Orthodox soldiers to continue religious studies after high school at designated yeshivas, which would then send the students to serve together.

For Orthodox women who want to contribute but are reluctant to fully integrate into the secular corps, the army established Sherut Leumi, literally national service, in which particpants volunteer full-time for one or two years, mostly in schools but also in other locations such as hopsitals or nursing homes throughout Israel. Sherut Leumi is now open to any Israeli man or woman who does not serve in the army. The army has even tried to accommodate the ultra-Orthodox -- most of whom get exemptions to allow 18 year olds to continue with yeshiva studies -- by setting up special units called Nahal Haredi.

Who Gets Drafted?

The question of the ultra-Orthodox draft exemptions has stirred bitter controversy with secular Israelis who see themselves as carrying most of the burden. In the late 1990s, the Supreme Court ordered that the Knesset must come up with legislation regulating the issue. The result was the Tal Law, which essentially codified the draft exemption practice, outraging secularists even more. The Tal Law was ruled unconstitutional by Israel's High Court of Justice on February 21, 2012.

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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.