Opinion |

Cyber Units Saved Israel's Military Draft

Yagil Levy
Yagil Levy
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Israeli soldiers roll up an Israeli Defense Force cyber unit flag in 2017.
Israeli soldiers roll up an Israeli Defense Force cyber unit flag in 2017.Credit: REUTERS/Amir Cohen
Yagil Levy
Yagil Levy

In recent months public criticism of the Israel Defense Forces technology sector, symbolized by the elite intelligence unit 8200, has intensified. The sector is being attacked as one that under tough competitive conditions is gathering in the sons, and gradually the daughters, of the wealthier classes, providing them with economic advantages that are not available in other army positions, and at the same time weakening the motivation to enlist for combat roles. This criticism was also echoed in Chief of Staff Aviv Kochavi’s message slamming the notion that “the best go into cyber.”

The criticism is well taken, but an unintended consequence of the army’s ways should be pointed out, and the point should be made simply: The technology sector has saved Israel’s draft army.

The legitimacy of the draft has been eroding since the 1990s. A system that temporarily denies young men and women their freedom, imposing forced labor on them to deal with an external threat that is seen to be gradually diminishing, and imposing this unequally, is a contradiction in a society where liberal civic values and neoliberal economics are growing stronger.

The crisis of legitimacy was reflected in the erosion of motivation among the working class to serve in combat roles, greater attempts to avoid army service and a loss of shame in doing so, as well as the increasing calls to eliminate compulsory military service. What’s happening in the rest of the world is also happening in Israel. The secular middle-class is the locomotive colliding with the draft army.

Under these circumstances, the technology sector has provided the draft army with a lifeline. It has enabled the formation of an elite branch that offers the well-to-do an internship in the high-tech industry for a token salary, but with a promise of sorts of future economic gain. The alternative was to deal with the current pressure to give soldiers a respectable salary.

It was the increasing reports about the sector’s turning into the bastion of the wealthier classes that gave it the image of a new elite, a kind of closed social club. In its attempt to foster elitism, the army had a built-in interest in encouraging the channeling of financially secure young people into this sector, in part by allowing it to choose its soldiers, even at the price of reducing the chances of the social periphery to become integrated into army high-tech.

The military-classification industry, which, for a fee, helps inductees get into the unit of their choice, and which the army has learned to live with since it began flourishing in the 2010s, has created the necessary competition to establish the elitist image of technological roles. For the prosperous classes, which the army noticed a long time ago are interested in military service that serves their personal ambitions, the technology track has become a legitimate alternative to exemption from service, or to shortening the period of service, or to service in Home Front administrative jobs, and has curbed criticism of “draft evasion.”

The army has also done its part by boosting the technological sector’s invaluable role in national security. The concept of “cyber fighters,” for example, did not come from the slogan of a high-tech firm in Herzliya, but from a (controversial) redesigning of military roles. This arrangement also helped the army preserve its alliance with society’s centers of power, which have increased their criticism of the economics of the army, presenting compulsory service as wasteful. There is a reason why Kochavi recently told how the army is training people in technological roles to boost the country’s economy. (He didn’t mention the combat roles.)

In that case, 8200 and the like have provided breathing space for the draft army's continuity. In the absence of an elitist track, the well-to-do would have intensified their direct and indirect opposition to compulsory service, and accelerated its collapse.

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