By: Jonathan Kaplan

The army (officially known as the Israel Defense Forces or IDF) is a central institution in Israeli society. The majority of Israelis serve in the military, and most men continue to serve in the reserves until middle age. In addition to defending the country against prolonged hostility and violence, the army carries out important social and economic functions, and it serves as a symbol of Israeli strength, efficiency and effectiveness. What impact does the military have on Israeli society? Has Israel become a militarized society due to the army's central role?

Who Serves?
Aside from ultra-orthodox yeshiva students and a small group of delinquents, all Jewish men are required to do 3 years of regular army service. Religiously observant women are not compelled to serve (although some modern religious women do), and married women and mothers are also exempted. The roughly 50% of women who do enter the regular army now serve approximately 20 months. Most non-Jews are not required to serve in the army although Druze men are conscripted in the same fashion as Jews. Nonetheless, some Arab and Bedouin men do volunteer for army service.

Regular, Permanent and Reserve Duty After completing their regular service, some men and women decide to make the army their career: these so-called "permanent" soldiers usually fill higher command positions or jobs that require special training and experience. Members of the permanent army usually retire by their mid-forties, a fact which leads to considerable mobility and dynamism throughout the military hierarchy. The regular and permanent soldiers together form Israel's standing army. However, to cope with the vastly larger Arab armies, Israel had to rely on a system of reserve forces. After their regular army service, men are taken for roughly a month of reserve duty every year. During this time they leave their families and their civilian jobs in order to carry out military functions, which for some means front-line action. In times of war, the reserves are called up for active duty. Thus, Israeli Jewish men continue to serve in the Israeli Defense Forces until their mid-forties or early fifties.

The IDF was formed out of a number of armed groups which operated before 1948. The Haganah (Defense), the semi-legal defense organization of the Jewish Yishuv in Palestine, was established in 1920 to defend Jewish settlements from Arab attacks. During the Arab Revolt which began in 1936, differences of opinion emerged within the Haganah regarding defense policy. While the Haganah followed a policy of restraint and carried out only defensive actions, those who called for retaliatory measures broke off in 1937 to form the Irgun Zvai Leumi (National Military Organization) or IZL. When the IZL decided to cooperate with Britain after the outbreak of the Second World War, a small group seceded and created the Lochamei Herut Israel (Freedom Fighters for Israel) known as the Lechi. During the spring of 1941, the Haganah formed the Palmach (Striking Companies), a mobile force of full-time soldiers, in order to assist the British in defending Palestine from Rommel's offensive which by this time had reached the borders of Egypt. These various forces, which continued to exist until 1948, maintained separate political allegiances. The Haganah, formed by the Histadrut (the Jewish Federation of Labor) and taken over by the Jewish Agency after the Arab riots of 1929, enjoyed the widest support within the Yishuv. The IZL had close connections with the non-socialist Revisionists and most of the Palmach leadership was associated with Achdut HaAvoda, the Labor Party's primary rival from the left. The Lechi included individuals from across the political spectrum who were united by their support of an unrelenting struggle against the British administration in Palestine. On May 26, 1948, the Israeli Provisional Government issued Order No. 4 which established the Israel Defense Forces and explicitly prohibited the maintenance of any other armed forces within the territory of the state. During the following months, the IZL, the Lechi and the Palmach were absorbed into the IDF, which became a non-political, tightly controlled and centralized body.

Social Functions of the Army: 
The Israeli army is generally perceived as a "nation builder" - a school for national identity and unity. Thus, in addition to its primary role of defense, the army has taken on many other social tasks. Through the "Nahal" (Hebrew acronym for Fighting Pioneering Youth), the army established in outlying and border areas, military settlements that combined farming with regional defense. These settlements were usually founded and maintained by Zionist youth groups that spent time in a more established kibbutz before moving to the new outpost. After an initial period, these outposts were turned over to civilian groups and generally became kibbutzim or moshavim. Many of the Israeli settlements in the Jordan Valley and the Arava were established by the Nahal.

The "Gadna" (lit. Youth Brigades) played an important role in the War of Independence, but afterward dealt primarily with the preparation of Israeli youth for army life. In this capacity it operated summer courses and camps as well as classes in Israeli schools.

The IDF has also taken an active interest in the education of new immigrants, especially in the teaching of the Hebrew language. Army instructors were sent to centers of immigrant absorption, Field Schools and other educational institutions. Special army programs for teenagers from disadvantaged backgrounds combine classroom instruction with work on an army base. It should be emphasized that these programs are not designed for soldiers but for marginal sections of Israeli society.

The education offered Israeli soldiers goes beyond the professional training required for the effective execution of military objectives. Much of the army education goes to people who are of marginal military importance: immigrants and disadvantaged Israelis. There are special Hebrew language courses for new immigrants in the army. During their military service, disadvantaged Israelis can acquire basic skills such as reading comprehension and elementary mathematics. In addition, during their regular service, soldiers participate in week-long educational seminars which focus on Jewish history and the history, geography, nature and society of the State of Israel. The army has educational units located at Yad VaShem (main Holocaust museum in Israel) and the Diaspora Museum.

A special program was established in the 1970s for yeshiva students who wished to continue their religious studies while serving in the army. Soldiers in the "Yeshivot HaHesder" (Arrangement Yeshivot) combine yeshiva study with service in a combat unit. In developing the program, the army was sensitive to the needs of this particular group as well as to the benefits of their participation in the IDF.

The army cuts across ethnic (edah), religious and socio-economic boundaries. Israelis from all walks of life meet in the army, and are forced to find a way to live together. Thus the army is a major source of lasting friendships and contacts, many of which are renewed periodically during reserve service. The military has provided another important function: a considerable number of Israelis have found marriage partners while in the army.

Psychological Effects of Military Service: 
Soldiers are given considerable responsibility: control of powerful weapons and machinery, command over other individuals, and challenging tasks that cannot be shirked. Most soldiers report an increased ability to cope with difficulties and hardships as a result of their army experience. They also feel a "widening of horizons" due to the many different people and situations encountered during their service. As these situations may include danger, injury and even loss of life, the sense of growth is sometimes accompanied by feelings of having lost one's youth. Individuals usually come out of the army with a stronger sense of independence, although this does not generally revolve around sexual intimacy, revolt against the parents, career selection and economic independence as it does in North America. Strong familial ties are maintained during army service and parents are expected to support their children while in the army through visits, care packages, laundry and financial assistance. Soldiers also develop an increased concern for wider social issues and a broader understanding of moral, political and ideological matters.

Civilian Influences on the Army: 
The Israeli army is very much a "people's army" and there are many contacts between the IDF and wider society. Soldiers go home regularly - most visit their families and friends at least once a week in addition to longer furlough every three months. On special occasions and especially in the early months of service, parents usually visit their children on the army base. Regular soldiers are given opportunities to call and write home and soldiers in training or on active duty are encouraged to do so. Reservists repeatedly make the transition between army and civilian life. Permanent soldiers in advanced stages of their military service generally cultivate contacts with the civilian world outside in preparation for their second career. Outside experts are brought in for educational seminars and some forms of professional training.

Due to these contacts, there has been considerable civilian influence on army life. No real "barracks sub-culture" has developed in the country. Aside from basic training and certain courses, the atmosphere in the IDF is generally informal. Only the highest officers are referred to as "commander" and everyone else is literally on a first name basis, as in other sectors of Israeli society. Most orders are given as directions, and disagreement and discussion of such directions are not uncommon. Soldiers in command are expected to be able to explain their orders. Once given however, orders are followed. Army dress is functional and simple: there are few insignia, battle decorations or medals. Within certain boundaries, the soldiers' appearance (dress, hairstyle, footware) is affected by broader trends in Israeli fashion. Military ceremonies and rituals are minimal. In recent years, parents have become increasingly active in intervening on behalf of their children with military authorities.

Military Influences on Society: 
The national security effort in Israel in the early 1980s constituted between a quarter and a third of Israel's GNP, about half of the government's budget, and a fourth of the labor force. In addition to direct defense outlays, the period of compulsory service means delaying one's entry into the labor market or postponing the acquisition of higher education. Reserve duty can also hinder professional advancement and business profitability.

Reservists continue to be subject to military jurisdiction even when not on active duty. In mobilization exercises, reservists must drop what they are doing and report to their base or meeting point, irrespective of the resulting personal, professional or economic inconvenience. Until recently, men eligible for reserve duty required an army permit in order to go abroad.

Israelis who serve in the army may be exposed to physical danger. However, those who have served in the army also gain certain benefits: some jobs are open only to veterans and certain welfare benefits are available only to veterans and their families. Army service also provides a degree of prestige: some use their rank or position to enhance their professional and personal status.

The military has tremendous influence on defense and foreign policy in Israel. High officers often present information and advice to the Israeli government, and military recommendations have been central in many important government decisions. The Intelligence Branch of the IDF alone provides the overall national intelligence estimate. Over the years, much of the contact between Israel and Arab states has been handled by high-ranking members of the military. Through the Military Government, the IDF actually governed the predominantly Arab areas of Israel between 1948 and 1966 and, from 1967, the various territories taken during the Six Day War. A considerable number of ex-generals (Yigal Allon, Moshe Dayan, Yitzhak Rabin, Ezer Weizmann, Yigal Yadin, Haim Bar-Lev, Arik Sharon, Ehud Barak) have gone on to become cabinet ministers, and others lead smaller political parties. Retired Generals have also headed a large number of state-owned corporations and agencies. The military and political elites are linked socially, giving high officers direct access to political leaders.

The military has several forms of communication at its disposal. It operates its own radio station, staffed by well known Israeli broadcasters as well as soldiers in regular service. Unlike army stations in many other countries, Israel's "Galei Zahal" (IDF Waves) has a large civilian audience. The IDF publishes a popular weekly as well as a more in-depth monthly magazine. The army controls press censorship through the office of the Military Censor, and the IDF Spokesman's office provides information on army and security related issues.

A Summing Up: 
The army undoubtedly wields considerable influence in Israeli society. In matters of security and foreign affairs, military involvement has been seen as essential and legitimate. Following the Yom Kippur War of 1973, there was a considerable increase in the economic role of the defense establishment with the growth of Israel's military-industrial complex which includes the IDF, government defense industries and public as well as private firms that produce defense-related equipment. Such role expansion gave the military added influence on a number of levels. However, this trend has been reversed in recent years due to the end of the cold war and the acceleration of the peace process in the Middle East. Budget constraints and increased controversy in Israel over certain security issues have also caused a reduction of military influence in society. A more active press and increased exposure to foreign mass media have led to a loosening of censorship restriction. Moreover, social policy and domestic politics have always been clearly off limits as far as the army is concerned. In its various activities, the army is careful not to advocate a particular social or political view. Top officers have joined all of the various Zionist parties and the extra-parliamentary groups. Even before the state was established, the military followed the directives of the political leadership, and the principle of military subordination to civilian control has been internalized by the military elite. Israel has not become a "garrison state" ruled by the military, in spite of the fact that the country has had to contend with prolonged conflict and war. Although it exercises considerable influence within the country, the Israeli army is part and parcel of Israeli society. It continues to be perceived and to perceive itself first and foremost as the army of the people.

Questions for Discussion:

  1. In what areas is civilian supervision of the military most needed?
  2. In what way is the Israeli Defense Force the army of the people?



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27 Apr 2015 / 8 Iyar 5775 0