Anshel Pfeffer / Israel Minorities See IDF Service as Key to Social Mobility

It is too early to say whether increasing numbers of minority groups, women in combat units, officer roles will change army's demographics.

You wouldn't believe which unit in the IDF's Southern Command routinely receives the highest points for Kashrut observance in its catering facilities. It's the Bedouin desert patrol battalion.

Not only does the crack unit, of which 99 percent of the soldiers are not Jewish, scrupulously uphold every prohibition on the separation of meat and dairy and only allow rabbinate-supervised products into its field kitchens, no food from outside is allowed during Pesach and Yom Kippur is a day of quiet and peace on base. "On Shabbat they all stand, their heads covered, for kiddush," says the battalion's commander, Lieutenant Colonel Yariv Elbaz, one of only three Jewish officers in the unit, with a broad smile.

No, they're not converting to Judaism, the battalion's soldiers are all proud of their Bedouin heritage. "This is just part of being a regular unit in the IDF," explains Elbaz, "and they don't want to be different from any other soldiers."

Like other front-line units, the Bedouin desert patrol battalion is proud of its operational record. One of its companies led the force that operated in the southern sector of the Gaza Strip during Operation Cast Lead two months ago. But ask Second-Lieutenant Muhammad Hujeirat, the battalion's medical-organization officer and the first Bedouin soldier to fill this role in the IDF, to describe his biggest personal achievement, he will say "attaining my entry ticket into Israeli society."

Since its inception in 1987, the battalion has had a checkered history. For many years its image was of a group of undisciplined rowdies, with dubious operational effectiveness. The unit was unpopular even within the Bedouin tribes, and only 16 or 17 youngsters joined in each triannual recruitment intake.

In recent years all that has changed. The unit has acquired a reputation for calm and professional operation ability, its equipment has been upgraded and the disciplinary problems belong to the past. Recruitment has grown threefold.

Despite the requisite mantras you hear from its men about "defending the country," you won't hear the word "Zionism" from them. It's not about that. The real reasons for the recruitment surge of Bedouin youngsters - and their desire to sign up for more years of service once their mandatory three years are up - are financial and social.

A quiet revolution is sweeping the IDF. More and more groups that have grown used to living on the sidelines of society are looking to the army as a platform for social mobility.

Last week, the head of the IDF's Personnel Department, Major General Avi Zamir, announced that from this year, the army would induct twice the previous number of young ultra-Orthodox men into the Netzah Yehuda battalion, which only a few years ago was on the brink of disbandment. This along with new projects for recruiting men from the Haredi community into technical positions.

Recent data also shows that for the first time in living memory, the number of 18 year-olds preferring yeshiva studies over army service actually went down in 2008. In my meetings with the Netzah Yehuda soldiers over the last decade, I have never heard them speak of Zionism either - it's all about social inclusion and mobility for them also. They see the IDF as a way out of the poverty trap of the yeshiva world, and their best opportunity for employment afterwards.

Another group that recently reached a significant milestone in their IDF service are women. While not being a minority in society, they have performed little more than supporting roles in the IDF. Despite many more positions opening up to women in recent years, they remain virtually excluded from the combat front-line. In the Second Lebanon War, a small number of women, mainly doctors and paramedics, were allowed across the border, but only with special permission. In Operation Cast Lead, the number of women serving alongside the fighting units within the Gaza Strip increased dramatically, and they no longer needed permission. For the first time the army operated by a policy that whoever was needed in the field, regardless of gender, went in.

This week I met three munitions officers of the fairer sex. Zionism didn't come up there, either, in any of their reasons for choosing a difficult and complex position. Neither did feminism. It was all about aspiration and making the best of their options.

It is too early to say whether the increasing numbers of minority groups and women in combat units and officer roles will change the IDF's demographics, as have the explosion in the proportion of national-religious soldiers in the elite units and their inexorable rise through the ranks over the last couple of decades. But the fundamental difference between the two processes is that the national-religious populace was not disenfranchised and its young men viewed military service in an ideological light.

The upside of this ongoing process is that more groups might indeed use the IDF as a channel for social acceptance, but on the other hand, it also threatens the ethos of "the people's army." That ethos was never a reality, but conscription and the fact that all officers had to start on the bottom rung like everyone else meant that the IDF was, at least, a great social equalizer.

If the veteran, secular "mainstream" of the population gradually ceases to see the IDF as a central part of their life and an attractive career option, if the army becomes increasingly the preserve of low-income and disadvantaged groups with a small class of sons of military families filling most of the senior officer positions, as is the situation in most western countries, this will be mirrored by significant changes in wider Israeli society.