Text size

Some 5,000 new immigrants from Western countries are currently serving in the Israel Defense Forces, according to IDF data published here for the first time. Yet, the officer in charge of immigrant absorption says the army has no specific plan for dealing with the needs of Western conscripts.

"There is no specific plan because there is no need for it," head of the IDF Immigrant Absorption Department, Lieutenant Colonel Moshik Aviv, told Anglo File in a special interview for Independence Day in his Tel Hashomer army base office. "Most conscripts from Western countries have no inherent service issues, and their overall absorption is successful." He added, "It's not that service is particularly easy for new immigrants from the U.S. and Europe. They face the usual set of challenges as all other immigrants who join the ranks."

The Immigrant Absorption Department is run by some 20 soldiers, and it occupies a top floor in one of Tel Hashomer's old but well-kept buildings. Its main goal is to analyze data from the field to draw up plans, programs and policies to make the absorption of immigrant conscripts as successful and easy as possible.

According to data compiled by Aviv's unit, the IDF has more conscripts from the West than soldiers of Ethiopian descent, who number about 4,500. Russian immigrants number approximately 24,000. More than 20 percent of them immigrated to Israel in the past six years.

Many Western conscripts are "lone soldiers" ("Hayalim Bodedim" in Hebrew), leaving the comforts of well-to-do homes for a testing, arduous and often thankless training course in combat units. Yet, Aviv is quick to point out that no one changes their mind after induction, and if someone did the IDF probably wouldn't show special consideration. "Every case is examined individually, but generally speaking, conscripts cannot leave regardless of the circumstances leading up to their decision to immigrate and enlist," Aviv says. "They're just like any other soldier in mandatory service. The army puts a lot of resources into training them and they can't just get off before the end of their service."

The past 20 years have seen a surge in the number of young Israelis who avoid the army, making it more socially acceptable not to serve. But Aviv says he believes a teen immigrant could never fully fit into Israeli society without serving. "Forget that I am wearing a uniform for 30 seconds," he proposes. "As someone who has talked with many immigrants who served and with ones who didn't, I can tell you that service is a meal ticket into Israeli society. If you want to lead a normal life here, you need to serve."

He adds: "Those who don't serve may well go on to be successful people, working in Hi-Tech and so on, but they still lose out on the ultimate formative experience here. It will remain unnoticeable only if they choose to live in a bubble and stay within their own ex-pat community. But, of course, for that there's no real need to immigrate."

Yet Aviv says that the former approach that saw the IDF as a melting pot breaking down foreign cultural affiliations to create a homogenous Israeli society has been abandoned. "The melting pot approach was a mistake," he says. "We've come to realize it's impractical, wrong and produces poor results. In the 1990s commanders wouldn't let new immigrants speak Russian amongst themselves. Today we encourage immigrant soldiers to develop their own identity. People have a right, and perhaps a duty, to preserve their heritage and values. We will strive to help them become absorbed while retaining their identity."

Some prospective Western conscripts fear their foreign-born status could deny them security clearance for serving in meaningful positions in elite units or in sensitive intelligence-related posts. According to Aviv, "immigrants from the West can get almost any post available to Israeli-born conscripts." He says that because the screening and candidacy process for certain "high-quality" positions in the intelligence corps is conducted in the two years before enlistment, people who do not live in the country are excluded from certain posts. "But this is for technical reasons, and not a part of a field security policy," he stresses.

On the whole, Aviv says, immigrants from the West usually pass a "quick and painless" security clearance, making them eligible for sensitive and classified positions in all the corps and various units. "Go visit the bases," he urges. "I promise you will find many Western immigrants spearheading those units into excellence."

Things are different for other immigrant groups, though, and particularly for immigrants from Ethiopia. Unlike their Western counterparts, they are the subject of several special IDF advancement and service programs.

In fact, Aviv says that Ethiopian soldiers constitute the main focus of attention for his unit. There are also different procedures in place for soldiers of Ethiopian origin. For example, any soldier whose parents were born in Ethiopia is automatically defined as a new immigrant - even if they themselves were born here. "The conscription rate among young men from Ethiopian backgrounds is one of the highest in Israel, with 90 percent of all candidates enlisting," Aviv says. "But many drop out. Many also land in military jail or end up discharged after having wasted years of their own and the army's resources."

To deal with the problem, Aviv is currently preparing a training program for commanders which will help officers better understand where their Ethiopian subordinates are coming from. "The objective is to optimize service and keep them out of prison," he says. In parallel, Aviv's unit is busy assembling teams of officers from Ethiopian origins, to talk to candidates and conscripts and serve as role models. "Our aim is also to get to know the problems candidates have at home before they enter the army. That way, when they enlist the system is already mindful of their needs." The IDF is applying the same model, he says, with immigrants from other countries. "It helps reduce frustrations and improves chances for a successful absorption into military life."

Language is another high-priority for Aviv's department, which operates under the Education Corps. The army's absorption department holds intensive ulpan courses in every one of the IDF regional commands (Southern, Central and Northern) and in the various branches (Air Force, Navy, and Border Police). Civilian professional language instructors conduct the courses. "It's true that if you take an 18-year old guy who doesn't speak a word of Hebrew and have him spend every second of every day with 20 other guys who do, you'll usually find that within a couple of months he's completely fluent," Aviv explains. "But he'll probably lack the foundations. And that's that my unit is all about - laying foundations."