Never the Twain

Israel's desire for a 'Western' army in the early years of the state blocked opportunities for generations of soldiers with Mizrahi backgrounds - to the detriment of society at large. A new study shows how it happened

During the 1967 Six-Day War, considered the most outstanding military accomplishment in Israel's 62-year history, all of the Israel Defense Forces' major generals were Jews of Ashkenazi descent. This same Ashkenazi monopoly controlled the country's military and political leaderships at the time of the 1973 Yom Kippur War, the worst military setback Israel has ever suffered.

PM Ben-Gurion at a ceremony marking the end of an officers course, 1952.Cohen Fritz

During the past three decades, social activists, politicians and sociologists have converted what used to be a subversive hypothesis about structural ethnic discrimination in the IDF into a prevailing axiom. The personal experiences of hundreds of thousands of solders have been confirmed by a series of studies, which relied on data kept under lock and key by the IDF. But now, the information is available to any reader willing to visit Tel Aviv University's social sciences faculty and study a doctoral thesis prepared by Lt. Col. (res. ) Zeev Lerer. Until recently, Lerer, whose doctoral work was supervised by Prof. Yehouda Shenhav, was head of research for the chief of staff's adviser on gender issues in the IDF. One does not have to agree with Lerer's analysis to realize that the materials (figures, statements, quotes ) he has extracted from the IDF information mines are diamonds in the rough.

The title of Lerer's thesis is "Quality Groups: A Social History of Classification in the IDF." The main player in the doctorate's drama is the kaba (Hebrew acronym for "quality groups" ) measurement of soldiers' aptitudes and potential. The kaba rating, Lerer says, purported to be a measure that could predict which recruits, out of a sea of newcomers, ought to be cultivated as future commanders. In reality, he argues, kaba serves as a socio-civilian measurement that is a composite of pre-military considerations, including the new recruit's ethnicity.

Relying on the kaba measure, classification experts have nudged aside the opinions of field commanders who demanded a more serious assessment of soldiers who seemed worthy candidates for officer training. These commanders have often felt themselves at odds with military bureaucrats when the latter pointed to the kaba score as proof of a soldier's lack of suitability for an officers course. In this way, the IDF has over the years lost droves of promising potential officers who were confined to army roles that made little use of their abilities - and who left the IDF for civilian roles feeling ill appreciated.

What is today liable to sound like racism, was in the early days of the IDF a product of cruelly utilitarian logic. Lerer mentions that David Ben-Gurion wanted to build a "Western" army as the polar opposite of "Arab" armies. A Western army - in its dealings with the enemy and its designation of war aims - imitates or incorporates norms and procedures current in the British, American, South African and even German armies. The command and organizational structures of such an army rest on the viewpoints of experienced officers from these Western armies, as well as on lessons learned from World War II. Its equipment comes from Europe or America. In Israel, such a sophisticated army requires its first-rank soldiers to have a high school diploma, speak fluent Hebrew, be involved in Israeli affairs and culture, be open-minded and highly skilled - in a word, Western.

Ethnic variable

While Kaba data from the late 1940s through the 1973 Yom Kippur War support this description, it remains simplistic and one-dimensional. From the start, Israel's security doctrine, formulated by Ben-Gurion and top IDF officers from Yigael Yadin and Moshe Dayan through Yitzhak Rabin, was forced to take into account geographic and demographic realities. Israel is a small, narrow country that shares borders with four hostile neighbors. It maintains (for economic reasons ) a relatively small standing army that trains a large pool of reservists - primarily infantry - for service at times of emergency. In light of the imperative of maintaining warning systems and a capacity for quick response, the IDF came to nurture in particular three main foundations of defense: intelligence, the air force and special forces (infantry or otherwise ). Following the 1956 Sinai Campaign, a fourth, the tank corps, was cultivated. All of these required a technological and human infrastructure whose code names are "quality" and "Western."

"Western" has another connotation. It alludes to a democratic and decentralized character, rather than tribal qualities and submission to a centralized command, as in the Iraqi and Syrian armies. The latter were copied from the Soviet model; they minimize the capacity for flexible response and improvisation, owing to the fear that soldiers and weaponry might be used to revolt against the ruling regime.

The idea of building an army whose officers come from the West and whose soldiers have roots in Arab lands is embodied in the army of the IDF's rival on the eastern border, the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan. Jordan's Arab Legion, perhaps the best army in the Arab world, was built up from British commanders and local soldiers, primarily Bedouin. With this composition, Jordan's army essentially fought the IDF to a draw in 1948, managing to conquer settled Jewish areas and capture hundreds of soldiers. Jordan's King Hussein lost East Jerusalem and the West Bank in 1967, after he had removed the British from the Legion.

Such nuances mean little to Lerer, who reviewed all the documents found in archive of the IDF's Behavioral Sciences Unit, from 1949 to 1999. Out of thousands of documents, he focused on 250 that pertain to personnel classification. In IDF data bases and registries of soldiers who served from the 1970s through the 1990s, Lerer observes, the "ethnic origins" variable of a particular soldier is listed according to the birthplace of his paternal grandfather.

The ethnic origins variable was compiled and listed in terms of two main groups, Ashkenazim and Mizrahim; new immigrants from the former Soviet Union formed another important category. If they immigrated to Israel prior to 1989, Ashkenazi Jews were listed as Americans, Europeans, Australians and South Africans. The Mizrahi group included Jews from Asia and Africa. "To the best of my knowledge," Lerer circumspectly notes, "the army does not make any direct use of this ethnic variable."

As early as 1952, the IDF personnel directorate discussed a study that analyzed "whether there is discrimination in the IDF against soldiers of Mizrahi ethnicity." The answer was "yes, as there should be" - or, as a classification psychologist put it, "not discrimination, but significant ethnic differences." Relating to soldiers deemed ineligible for an infantry battalion, another document stated: "Most of them are from Mizrahi countries, have become used to a slow pace of life, and took very little from the world and returned very little to it; their mental level is low, and their past habits stopped them from acclimating to the new society. Some of them suffer from strong feelings of insecurity, which cause them suffering and are also liable to harm society at large. Under these circumstances, when they [the soldiers] had not yet come to identify with their new surroundings and lacked the training to become acclimated to it, they were brought into infantry units in the IDF; their motivation weakened, as did their ability to adapt to society's demands."

The editor of this internal IDF study on discrimination, Zeev Aharonson, warned about generalizations and superficial conclusions. "Immediate steps should be taken to stop the mobilization of soldiers from North African and Asian lands in a separate, foreign body within the army," he wrote. That year, 1952, the IDF's "preliminary psychological profile" ranked at the top soldiers from the U.S., Germany, Yugoslavia, France and Hungary, as well as sabras. Yemen ranked 20th on this list, right behind Morocco, Libya, Turkey, Iran, Tunisia and Syria. The middle portion of these psychological profile rankings included Russia, Bulgaria, Poland and Romania.

These psychological profile ratings were culturally biased, in favor of the West and against the East. Psychological classifiers who interviewed new recruits operated on the basis of this bias. "In certain periods," Lerer reports, "people from particular social groups - native-born Israelis who had high school diplomas, and people who came from kibbutzim and moshavim - received exemptions from the psychological profile interview, and were designated by the [Hebrew acronym] Tabirim, meaning 'good ones not needing interviews.'"

At the end of the 1956 Sinai Campaign, the same psychological assessment test was administered to Egyptian POWs who had been seized in the Gaza Strip and the Sinai Peninsula. The researchers equivocated about whether "it is feasible to examine Egyptians via a Western test, and make determinations on the basis of this test." In the end, the researchers concluded that an Israeli soldier of Mizrahi origins had aptitude levels that resembled those of the Egyptian soldiers more closely than those of Israeli soldiers of Western origin.

Native-born soldiers inducted into the army between 1959 and 1961 had an 8.5 percent chance of becoming an officer; soldiers born in Europe or America had a 5.4 percent chance. Only 1.4 percent of soldiers born in other Middle Eastern countries became officers, and the figure for other groups of Mizrahi soldiers was 0.5 percent. In this period, there were 16 native-born IDF officers for every officer born in Morocco. Discrimination in entry standards was particularly evident in the Israel Air Force pilot training course and in elite volunteer combat units.

The gaps lessened following the Yom Kippur War. That conflict's heavy casualties among field commanders and the subsequent skepticism among groups of veteran Israelis with regard to their army service as officers forced the IDF to loosen standards for officer training courses. Lerer indicates that after the 1973 war, officers of Mizrahi ancestry rose from 20 percent to 33 percent of the total, and the percentage of Ashkenazi officers dropped from 75 percent to 66 percent.

Most IDF major generals and brigadier generals today were born between the 1956 and 1967 wars. While Mizrahi men in this group may have faced discrimination, its effects have diminished in past decades. And although the IDF retains the authority to interview and classify youths and designate officers, the army's officer structure is ultimately fashioned by the country's civil society. Israel's civilian sector reached decisions about mandatory service and its duration, and on the way officers are selected from within the mass of new recruits - rather than by way of a separate cadet academy like West Point in the U.S.

If the state's political leaders had decided in the 1950s that conscription of immigrants who had yet to adjust to the language and culture of their new country be deferred by a year - or some length of time that would have helped them acclimate and reach a requisite level of cultural engagement - they would have enriched the quality of the state, its citizens and the army.