Why Do U.S. Jews Join the Israeli Army? New Study Offers Surprising Answers

Many enlist because they don’t feel ready for college, according to a study in the journal Sociological Forum that challenges the notion that most 'lone soldiers' join Israel's military for ideological reasons

Judy Maltz
Judy Maltz
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Soldiers at the Western Wall in Jerusalem
Soldiers at the Western Wall in Jerusalem Credit: Jose HERNANDEZ Camera 51 / Shutt
Judy Maltz
Judy Maltz

At any given time, around 1,200 American Jews serve in the Israeli army, roughly a third of them the children of Israelis. The conventional wisdom is that these volunteer soldiers are motivated by Zionist ideals and a desire to show solidarity with their brothers and sisters in Israel.

A new academic study suggests that this isn’t necessarily the case.

In fact, it found that many joined because they weren’t performing well in school and didn’t feel ready for college. They saw service in the Israeli military as something meaningful to do while mapping out their lives – effectively an extended gap-year program.

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These young volunteers were motivated, according to the study published in the latest edition of peer-reviewed journal Sociological Forum, “by a search for belonging, opportunities and struggles of meeting conventional middle-class goals in the U.S.”

Ideological motives “were mostly subsidiary” for them, concluded the study, the first to delve into the motivations of American Jews who join the Israel Defense Forces.

Lior Yohanani, a doctoral student in sociology at Rutgers University and the author, based his findings on interviews with 55 second-generation Israeli Americans who had either joined the Israeli army or been active in the Israeli Scouts (tzofim), a popular youth movement for children of Israelis living in the United States. Most grew up in nonreligious and highly educated homes.

Yohanani also interviewed eight officials in the Israeli Scouts and Garin Tzabar, an offshoot of the movement that provides orientation and support services to so-called lone soldiers during their military service.

The study was undertaken as part of Yohanani’s doctoral dissertation, which also explores the impact of IDF service on the desire to settle permanently in Israel among people with families abroad. Yohanani also considers the role played by certain organizations in recruiting army volunteers from the United States, home to the largest Israeli expat community in the world.

American Jews account for about one-third of the lone soldiers in the Israeli military at any given point. Another third come from the former Soviet countries.

Yohanani’s interviewees consisted of three groups: Israeli Americans who served in the army and had been active in the Israeli Scouts (and therefore were presumably more connected to their Israeli identity), Israeli Americans who served in the army but had not been active in the Scouts or any other Zionist youth movement, and Israeli Americans who had been active in the Scouts but opted not to join the IDF.

About two-thirds of those who enlisted in the Israeli army said they felt unready or unwilling to go to college after graduating from high school. “Unlike other Americans, they had another path available, which allowed them to question the American straight-to-college path,” the study noted. “IDF service served as a means to delay decision-making about future life, take time off and mature.”

About a quarter of enlistees said their poor performance at school had pushed them toward service in the IDF. This was particularly true among those who had not joined the Israeli Scouts or any other Zionist youth movement.

Some respondents in this group cited a serious life crisis such as mental health issues or drug abuse as the factor behind their decision to enlist. “Such circumstances prompted the need for a new beginning, and IDF service was a place to gain discipline and learn how to handle stress in a supervised and protective environment,” the study found.

Respondents who had been active in the Israeli Scouts were more likely to cite their disillusionment with American college life as a reason for joining the Israeli army. “They associated college life negatively with frat houses, parties and drinking,” the study added.

“This was often coupled with a broader dissatisfaction with American culture and way of life. College was deemed as being more of the same, an extension of high school, where you do not venture too far from your comfort zone. They found the prospect of going to college just because everyone else does dull. Joining the IDF, on the other hand, was adventurous and authentic and an opportunity to grow up, gain personal skills and independence.”

More than three-quarters of enlistees said they saw their IDF service as a ticket into Israeli society. This was especially true among those who planned to settle permanently in Israel. The others tended to see their IDF service as an insurance policy letting them return whenever they wanted and still feel part of Israeli society.

While the respondents were well aware of the army’s importance for Israel’s national security, they rarely mentioned this as a reason for enlisting. About half of enlistees, however, said they were driven by a sense of fairness and commitment to Israel and its people, presumably because their peers in Israel are obligated to serve.

Most of those who enlisted had little interest in Israeli politics and lacked basic knowledge about the country, “sometimes, on simple matters (to Israelis) such as Israel’s borders, or the difference between Arab-Palestinian citizens of Israel and Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza,” the study found.

Among respondents who did not join the army, about half said they had considered doing so and about a quarter said they felt guilty for staying out. Almost all said they thought college would serve them better than a stint in the IDF, and the vast majority said they knew exactly what they wanted to study.

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