Is It Time for the IDF to Stop Hugging Its Teddy?

The ubiquitous puffy winter jacket that once personified Israeli equality has become an anachronism.

“Where have all the heavy winter jackets gone?” nine soldiers stationed on the Golan Heights wrote in an open letter to the Hebrew daily Maariv in 1974. At the time newspapers were reporting daily on the serious dearth of this item, popularly known in Hebrew as a dubon, which also means “teddy bear.”

Because the Israel Defense Forces had not manufactured them quickly enough, a group of concerned citizens got together to import dubonim from abroad. A fruit shipping company brought them into the country and its directors announced that they would contribute matching funds to any public donations raised. The price of a coat was about 200 lira at the time.

Other than the IDF uniform itself, it’s hard to think of another item of clothing more locally iconic than the dubon. And yet, four decades later, the IDF winter jacket is not in such high demand. Last month the IDF declared its intention to purchase a new type of jacket after it was realized that most soldiers prefer to do without the tried and true dubon. It turns out that commanders and ordinary soldiers alike agree that the clumsy, hooded three-layered coat with its synthetic insulation and glorious military heritage has become a burden.

The head of the IDF’s discipline branch, Lt. Col. Oren Avraham, says the new model will be manufactured from thin, lightweight material that will provide the same warmth and water resistance as the old style, sans the puffy, padded silhouette. He expects the changeover to be completed within two years − about a year to develop the new model and another year to distribute it to all units, and that both models will be in use during this time.

Where did the cuddly Hebrew name dubon come into use? No one knows (not even the IDF Spokesman’s Office), just as few know its original official name “padded ambush coat.” The exact date when the coat came into use is also not clear. Common wisdom places it in the early 1970s, first to soldiers stationed in the north and later throughout the army. The dubon, in green for land forces and blue for the air force and navy, replaced the long woolen overcoats and the U.S. “battledress”-style short woolen coat that was worn in the 1950s.

But the dubon may have come into use even earlier. It is mentioned in an article in the Hebrew daily Davar as early as 1968, as “the new ambush coat which makes slender young men too like teddy bears.”

But the date when the coat became an icon of Israeliness is known. For many years it represented turning our backs on elegant European style and helped meld together immigrations from many countries into a shared appearance reflecting the choice of Israeli society of the utilitarian and the practical: Kibbutzniks and farmers adopted it, hikers took to it naturally and later, hesder yeshiva students and settlers began to wear it.

The ability of the dubon to cross political lines and pad both ends of the political spectrum in Israel is surprising. But more ironic is the fact that its identification simultaneously with public figures like the late Prime Minister Menachem Begin and the late IDF Chief of Staff David Elazar, as well as Arab laborers, who contributed their slightly less heroic part in the building of the country.

Singer-songwriter Yehonatan Geffen’s song “Ballad to a Druze” succinctly expressed the power of the dubon to create a quintessential Israeli look back in the day. Geffen wrote about the how easily a Druze can slip from one ethnic-national category to another by donning that particular military jacket. When the Druze figure in the song joins the army, Geffen rhymes the Hebrew for Druze the iconic submachine gun ubiquitous in the Israeli army of yore, having the Druze commanders’ proudly state: “With a dubon and an Uzi who can tell he is a Druzi?” But when the subject is wounded in battle stones are thrown at his brother because “without the dubon and without the Uzi, everyone saw how much he was a Druzi.”

The appearance of the coat at critical moments on the stage of history gave it special respect. During the Yom Kippur War and the first Lebanon war it had an aura of heroism; photographs of settler leaders Hanan Porat and Rabbi Moshe Levinger being carried on the shoulders of their supporters wearing identical dubonim on the day in 1975 the settlement of Sebastia was founded engraved it in our memories in the context of the early settlement movement; a decade later, with the release from Soviet prison of Natan Sharansky, he too was carried aloft on his way to the Western Wall wearing a blue dubon.

But the national reputation of the coat was linked no less to civilian uses. Although in the late 1970s, in reports that Israelis were discovering ski vacations abroad, it was noted that they were wearing lightweight ski jackets (“definitely not dubonim”). But through the 1980s and 1990s it was adopted by students as practical, inexpensive and widely available cold-weather dress, while Israeli musicians turned it into civilian dress as a desirable item in their wardrobe and a unique class and style statement.

And yet, as the years passed, the aura of the dubon faded. The exact time that occurred may have been during the murderous terror attacks at the beginning of the 2000s, during the second intifada. The fact that terrorists used it to conceal suicide belts soon turned it into a threatening garment. But that was not the main reason: It has been two decades now that soldiers in the north have not worn the dubon, and prefer thermal outer garments made of fleece.

Among non-combat units the dubon did undergo some changes. It was made shorter and sometimes the hood was removed or concealed. And yet, like the IDF-issue sweater, it lost its charm. Now it turns out that the army marches on its style no less than on its stomach.

“The issue of presentable appearance carries decisive weight with us,” Lt. Col. Avraham says, adding that he considers the aesthetic dimension of the new coat important. The fur-trimmed officers’ coats have also been phased out recently, because according to Avraham it created a lack of unified appearance among soldiers. With the production of the new coat he hopes to create a more unified look to the IDF among the various units and ranks.

“Every item of dress to be used in the IDF is also scrutinized in terms of its look,” says Avraham. “Dress and discipline are significant in every army in the world. That is a basic military value and one of dozens of values that guide the IDF. In fact, if we look at soldiers and see that one of them is dressed sloppily and improperly and another is dressed presentably, we can know that the second soldier is the one who can perform better operationally when the need arises.”