An Army, Not a Melting Pot

The IDF has turned itself into a giant classification machine that decides who is worthy of the title of citizen and who is not.

"Would you rent an apartment to an Arab?" "Would you rent an apartment to an Arab who served in an elite unit?" The identical answer to both of these questions fully reveals the great hoax of the "Israel Defense Forces as melting pot."

The state did not establish the army only as a force to protect its borders. It is a social (and economic ) agent to which the state passed on the authority to bestow the title of good citizen. Basic rights like national insurance, as well as preference in the employment market and discounts in tuition, are determined by the correct answer on a form to the question that distinguishes between good citizens and bad ones - "military service." This table of rights then determines our social and economic status until the day we die.

The result is that military service, which was awarded the national mission of creating a new, melded Israeli, in whose being all cultures, histories and identities are blended into one entity, has turned itself into a giant classification machine that decides who is worthy of the title of citizen and who is not.

Anyone who has not gone through this classification machine will be tossed onto the refuse heap of citizenship. When it comes to Arabs, the machine works in an even more distorted way. First they are classified as good Arabs - Druze, Circassians and many Bedouins - who serve in the army, or bad Arabs - all the rest. But when they are released from the melting pot, they go back to being "Arabs," whose service in the army does not help them rent an apartment in a Jewish neighborhood.

But who is talking about "melting" the Arabs into the pot of Israeli society anyhow? Instead, the discussion now focuses on "equally sharing the burden." The demand to "equally share the burden" sounds better and is not as threatening as "melting pot," which could create a toxic alloy of Arabs who resemble Jews. It seems like a blanket under which all citizens can cuddle, feeling not only that they are equal in their obligations, but as a bonus, they can also have the "Israeli experience" of blending. In such a society, the majority recognizes the inherent differences between itself and its minorities, all the more so when that society contributes significantly to the differentiation of those minorities.

What is true for the Arabs is true for the ultra-Orthodox. The difference between them is the way the Israeli-Jewish consensus treats them. Jewish society in Israel is willing to suffer and even to support the non-service of the Arabs in the army, while the refusal of Haredim is perceived as treason and a sin against citizenship. Because it is "natural" when an Arab does not want to protect a Jew, but intolerable when a Jew refuses to protect a Jew. We may, therefore, also suspect that the "concession" to the Arabs with regard to military service stems not only from their branding as a fifth column, a local branch of the Arab enemy, but also because of the way they strengthen the sense of Jewish unity in Israel.

This contains an even more prickly paradox: The people who demand that the Arabs be left alone magnify and perpetuate their differentiation, while the people who demand that they be included in the law mandating obligatory military service might run into a wall of hostility that feeds the differentiation even more. In both cases, the cost of sharing the burden equally is intolerable.

This paradox can be overcome in two ways. Instead of talking about sharing the burden equally, or "national civilian service," it would be better to adopt the term "civil solidarity." This is not a semantic trick. It is about moving the focus of the argument against the Arabs from "lack of loyalty to the state" to the demand for partnership among citizens. But this fundamental shift will come with a shift in understanding of the character and essence of the army. This is a change that does not involve the Arabs; it involves the Jews. It requires the establishment of a professional army whose prestige depends on its ability to face external threats and not its skills as a social or educational agent. It is an army that carefully filters into its ranks and its payroll those who are worthy and needed, and is not a pot in which citizens are melted into a collective identity.