Opinion

The IDF Is the World’s Biggest Jewish Organization — but Should Be for Israelis Only

Allowing the Israeli army to be a draw for young foreign Jews is building the connection between Israel and the Diaspora on very problematic and narrow foundations

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu smiling for a photograph with a lone soldier at an event in Tel Aviv, January 2019.
Marc Israel Sellem / Pool

Ever asked yourselves what the largest Jewish organization in the world is? If you’re Jewish, your first answer to that question will be another question: What do you consider a Jewish organization?

Well, does an organization count that has over 95 percent Jewish membership, maintains thousands of synagogues and kosher kitchens, observes Shabbat and all the festivals, and has thousands of rabbis in its employ? If so, there’s no question that the Israel Defense Forces is the largest Jewish organization the world has ever known.

Haaretz Weekly Ep. 37Haaretz

The IDF is not a state institute. It is a state religion. A new stream of Judaism, with its own Hebrew dialect, rituals and high priests, or generals, whose authority is higher than that of the rabbis (who only perform a clerical function in military rites and don’t call the shots). It has some half a million Jews in either active or part-time service, and millions more beholden to it as former members and in thrall to it as partners, siblings and children of members.

>>> What's killing Israel's lone soldiers? An investigation

Many of those members may also be members of religious communities and have their own civilian rabbis back home. But their first allegiance is to the IDF. When rabbis told their students in 2005 not to take part in the eviction of settlers from the Gaza Strip, only a tiny handful obeyed while thousands of yeshiva student-soldiers carried out the IDF’s orders. A third of all young women who graduate from the national-religious schools, where the rabbis tell them to go to nonmilitary national service, still choose the IDF.

The IDF is Israel’s true state religion and the largest Jewish organization in the world. And as my colleagues Judy Maltz and Yaniv Kubovich highlighted in their excellent Haaretz investigation last week (“What’s killing Israel’s lone soldiers?”), the IDF is a big draw to non-Israeli young Jewish men and women as well.

And why shouldn’t it be? An exciting gap year in Israel with no strings and full board, serving in one of the world’s best and most prestigious militaries. But as Judy and Yaniv point out, the IDF doesn’t really need them; their own needs as lone soldiers place an unnecessary burden on their already stressed-out commanding officers; and the system isn’t geared up to providing them with the kind of support they need.

What’s worse, while for Israeli soldiers the IDF has a reasonably good apparatus for finding out if its potential recruits are suffering psychological and other personal problems, the 3,500 lone soldiers who are serving at any given time are not properly screened for these issues before joining up.

They comprise barely 2 percent of all IDF soldiers, but in the past five years about 12 percent of all those who committed suicide while in military service were lone soldiers. The inevitable pressure of getting used to life in a combat unit, their lack of Hebrew and knowledge of Israeli society, coupled with whatever adolescent problems they may have been escaping back home and the absence of a family support structure that their Israeli comrades have to fall back upon, can often be too much. A high percentage drop out. And the suicides (in a period when overall suicide numbers in the IDF are actually dropping) are almost inevitable.

Why is the IDF even prepared to be a “Jewish Foreign Legion” if it doesn’t need these soldiers, who just place an extra burden on the system, serve short periods (which mainly consist of basic training and advanced training, but little active service) and, with the exception of those who later emigrate and become Israeli citizens, won’t continue as reservists?

Sara Netanyahu attending a fundraiser in Jerusalem for lone soldiers, March 2017.
Emil Salman

Strictly off the record, many IDF officers regale you with stories of having to conduct live fire exercises with soldiers who barely comprehend the Hebrew orders and the time spent dealing with their personal issues, and admit that they’d much prefer not to command foreign lone soldiers.

They will never say so openly, however. The reasons for their reticence are varied. There is a real appreciation for the sacrifice these young men and women make, far from their homes — and who would want to look churlish? Then there’s honor for tradition: The IDF sorely needed the thousands of Jewish volunteers who arrived in 1948 to boost a fledgling army fighting a war of survival. Then, it was they who came with the professionalism and experience, gained on the battlefields of World War II, who were teaching the Israelis how to fight.

But there are less honorable reasons too. The IDF’s professional officers won’t speak out because the politicians love the young foreign Jews who come to serve in the IDF. What better proof of the centrality of Israel and its state religion to Jews everywhere? It’s a hasbara coup, especially when there are so many reports in the media about young American Jews being indifferent or even hostile to Israel. Small wonder that President Reuven Rivlin and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu both addressed a ceremony for 300 of these new recruits earlier this month. Unsurprisingly, Jewish philanthropic organizations have also piggybacked on this to create even more organizations. One of the main ones that bring new recruits over from North America has Miriam Adelson and Sara Netanyahu as its honorary presidents.

This shouldn’t be just about politics, though. And while immediate changes are necessary to improve lone soldiers’ welfare and psychological support, it should be about the role played by the IDF in the connection that Jews have to Israel.

The army is a place where you work with guns and can get killed. And yes, it also devotes a major part of its resources and personnel to maintaining a military occupation of another nation. Allowing the IDF to be a draw for young Jewish men and women from the Diaspora, whether or not they are planning to become Israeli citizens themselves in the future, not only endangers them personally. It also builds the connection between Israel and the Diaspora on very problematic and narrow foundations.

And what does it say about Israel that the most compelling attraction it offers to young Jews is its army?

Emigration is never easy. Certainly when it entails moving from a Western country with a higher standard of living and fewer security concerns. And in some enlightened corners of the West, even having a commitment to Israel can be socially awkward. Beginning one’s new life in Israel as a soldier, or expressing that commitment by coming over to volunteer in the IDF, is simply the wrong way to go about it.

Conditions for new recruits, and the care taken of them, has vastly improved in the last couple of decades. But military life and combat service in any serious army is positively brutish and inevitably fraught with pressure. Eighteen-year-old Israelis have at least spent their young lives preparing for it, and are surrounded by friends and relatives who have been through the meat grinder before them.

There are more useful and meaningful ways to show a commitment to Israel. Membership in the largest Jewish organization in the world should be for Israelis only, and new immigrants must spend a significant period getting used to civilian life in Israel before being subjected to the rigors of military service. This is for their own good, but also because there should be so much more to Israel than just the IDF.