close-up of soldiers in the desert
Soldiers of the Caracal co-ed battalion during a platoon exercise in southern Israel. (Flickr/Wikimedia Commons)

The Israel Defense Forces

Service is compulsory for most Jewish Israelis.

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 — “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) 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.

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.

Some soldiers decide to make the army their career. Professional soldiers get a host of fringe benefits, including generous pension plans that begin when they reach their mid-forties. Probably the most important benefit of the career service track is the network of acquaintances formed during the service that often opens up doors for prominent jobs for soldiers after they leave the army.

The army also has made an invaluable contribution to Israel’s economy. The premium placed on preserving Israel’s qualitative edge over superior enemy forces has made the army seek out cutting edge technology and has encouraged soldiers to use the equipment creatively. Many of the innovations that come out of the army are later used by decommissioned soldiers for civilian applications, a phenomenon which became the basis for Israel’s burgeoning high tech industry. Many elite units even developed a reputation for producing the whiz kids who left the army to establish start-ups or become project managers at existing companies.

One profession where famous soldiers are sought after is politics. The name recognition that goes along with become high ranking generals and the security credentials make military men attractive assets to political parties. Chiefs of staff and other top generals often make a smooth segue from IDF headquarters in Tel Aviv to the cabinet room in Jerusalem. Three of the last four Israeli prime minister came to politics directly from the army. For all of the country’s idealizing of the military, some have lamented the lack of civil servants and professionals in the government positions occupied by generals. Yet despite this, Israel’s ongoing military concerns make army service not only de rigueur for politicians, but for most Jewish Israelis.

Discover More

Black-Jewish Relations in America

Relations between African Americans and Jews have evolved through periods of indifference, partnership and estrangement.