Should the IDF Be an Army of the People or Army for the People?

Those who still believe high concepts like 'the people’s army' and 'the melting pot' can only lament their own naiveté, or perhaps their stupidity

Police scuffle with ultra-Orthodox Jews as they block a main road during a protest against Israeli army conscription, in Jerusalem, Thursday, Oct. 19, 2017
Ariel Schalit/AP

There are no surprises in the draft exemption bill that the government has approved. True, the exemption is more sweeping; the teeth the previous law had, which included sanctions, have been yanked out; “equal bearing of the burden” has been buried deeper in the Knesset bog. But all in all this is another fast one the people’s elected officials are pulling on the people and the High Court of Justice.

We can gnash our teeth and feel our stomachs turn at the tricks the government is playing to survive a few more months in the corral that isolates them from the public. But anyone who doesn’t take to the streets, stop traffic and head out in droves to the Knesset plaza, cannot complain about this performance of contortionists. Those who still believe that high concepts like the people’s army and the melting pot impress the inhabitants of the glass menagerie can only lament their own naiveté, or perhaps their stupidity.

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In the face of the tyranny disguised as democracy, in the face of an irreplaceable supreme leader, there are two options: Get used to it or change approaches. Getting used to it has already become second nature, and anyone who is hanging their hopes on new wording to be inserted into the bill, as Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked has promised, or on elections that will completely transform the status of the yeshiva students, is like someone who watches a film, knowing the end and hoping the hero won’t die.

Then there is the option of changing approaches. But because of the original sin – giving the army the role of being a melting pot for Israeli society and turning it into a symbol of equality – the very thought of a professional army, one that wouldn’t have to depend on those who don’t want to serve but would instead grant proper benefits to those who really want a military career, raises shivers up and down the national spine.

The argument regarding the lack of equality is based on the accepted notion that the exemption law differentiates between those who head out to die for the country and those who find shelter in the tent of Torah. Equal bearing of the burden is presented as if it is the highest test of democracy. But the test of civil society — in which army service is not meant to be any more than that — is in providing equal opportunities and equal rights. The burden is born of necessity, but is not a value in and of itself. Moreover, the argument that service in the Israel Defense Forces gives veterans an entry ticket into Israeli society, should be revisited.

These two claims are half-truths. Only 72 percent of all those obligated to be drafted in 2017 actually went into the army. This was, as Amos Harel wrote (Haaretz, October 4, 2017) “the lowest rate ever.” More and more quality soldiers and those of combat caliber are entering the cyberwarfare units. Along with that, latent and manifest under employment on IDF bases has been a well-known phenomenon for years. That is, even in the army there are those who might have to shed their blood, and those who will never be in a dangerous situation. As for the melting pot, ask the soldiers who come from outlying regions, or those of Ethiopian origin, or Bedouin combat soldiers, how much their army service provided them with an entry ticket into Israeli society. Moreover, the task of democratization and socialization cannot be imposed on an entity that is not democratic in its essence, but rather built on a rigid, obedient, male hierarchy.

Even if it had not played a role in the political Rubik’s Cube, the distorted draft exemption billcalls for a re-examining of the basic assumptions that have given it its pervasively destructive political power. Is the assumption — that without the draft we will have no army — really true? Surveys suggest otherwise.

Can the army serve as a melting pot? The society it helped create is far from perfect, especially with regard to equality. The IDF itself is coming to terms with the possibility that in the not–too–distant future it will become a professional army. Now it’s society’s turn to start getting used to the idea.