David Ben-Gurion's model of the "people's army," on which the Israel Defense Forces was set up, played a central role in shaping Israel's state and society. The state's protection was based on compulsory military service, prolonged reserve duty and seeing the army as an integrating agent that brought together people from different countries, from the center and periphery, both rich and poor, secular and religious, Jewish and Druze.
Ben-Gurion believed in the uniform's power to turn a migrant people into a new, Israeli, Hebrew-speaking nation that would fight for Israel's survival in a hostile environment.
The model had its limitations and never achieved total equality, but as long as the compulsory service encompassed the overwhelming majority of Israeli youth, the army preserved its central status and benefited from a reserve of combatants and volunteers to the career army and elite units.
In recent years, following demographic changes, the rise in the ultra-Orthodox community's power, dwindling immigration and shifts in social priorities, the army has found it difficult to keep the ethos of comprehensive service and equality.
These changes are making it hard for the army to fulfill its goals and is showing the people's army ethos as a fiction. On Wednesday, Anshel Pfeffer reported in Haaretz that the IDF was freezing the quotas of draft postponements for fear of falling short of combatants (though the decision was later reversed ). The army's original move to block volunteers for social service - most of whom eventually join combat units and take up command posts when they enlist - should serve as a wake up call to the defense establishment and state leadership.
It is time for a penetrating debate on the IDF service structure. Ben-Gurion's old model must be adjusted to narrow down the growing gap between conscripts and draft evaders and between soldiers in combat and service roles.
We must not give up the value of military service, but we should consider giving those who serve a more fair reward and expanding enlistment options for parts of the public that avoid it.
Israel needs a high quality army. The army cannot be allowed to fossilize and have difficulty functioning merely because of conceptual rigidity and fear of change.
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