Mandatory Military Service Works in Israel

A rite of passage in Israel, when one turns 18, is being drafted into the military. Men serve three years and women normally serve half that long. Officers (men or women) are signed for an additional year, for the privilege of attending the Officers’ Training School. Some (men and women) then remain in service as a vocation and are entitled to early retirement at the age of 40, at which time they typically embark on a second career.

This was the way the system used to work. After completing the matriculation exams, a young person, fresh out of high school, would undergo exams and screening, go through boot camp, and start the most influential period of one’s life. These soldiers and their commanders are entrusted with the safety and security of the Jewish Homeland. They carry out the policies of the Israeli government. Whatever the composition of the ruling coalition, the military is there to execute its decisions, with the goal of defending the Jewish State.

Once, if a person did not serve as everyone else, he would be ostracized from society. The chances of getting a job dissipated, life was unbearable. The exceptions were the ultra-orthodox Haredi Jews who do not serve men study at Yeshivot (religious seminaries) and women are to be married at a very early age and raise children. In the Jewish state, this exemption became an entitlement, causing a rift between the secular and religious sectors, the former enraged by the lack of equal burden under the law.

Over the past 20 years, things have changed. First, there was a massive immigration from the former Soviet Union, followed by immigration from Ethiopia. With an ever-increasing number of enlistees among the new immigrants, the military could afford to become more “selective.” That proved to be a mistake. It happened at the same time that another worrying trend emerged: a new fashion not to serve. Various teen idols avoided service; a phenomenon that gained more and more acceptance, until matters reached a critical level that could no longer be ignored. Last year, the military began fighting this phenomenon and named it a top priority.

Second, a segment of the religious sector had the courage to stand against the tide and declare that serving in the Jewish army of the Jewish state is a privilege and a duty. First God, then Country: not mutually exclusive rather both a reflection of the same belief in the God of the Hebrews and His promise to His people. In the military, all meals are kosher, time is given for the daily prayers, the Sabbath and the Jewish holidays are all strictly observed and most importantly if not I for myself (and my countrymen), who is?

This segment of modern orthodoxy, usually described by the type of yarmulkas worn by the men (“Knitted Yarmulka”), has become dominant. A very high percentage (some say a majority) of all elite units comes from this segment of society. The “Knitted Yarmulkas” replaced the members of the Kibbutzim of yesteryears, becoming what Israelis call “the salt of the land,” its essence, prime and best examples.

With the new generation of draftees this week, motivation to serve in the most elite combat units is at an all-time high. Many compete for every available spot. Morale is high. Just three years ago, the military failed in the Second War in Lebanon. The blow was so rough that to this very day, comparisons are being made to that bitter failure, to the mistakes and faults that led to Israel’s loss of deterrence.

One of the lessons learned was soldiers should not be carrying cell phones. The cost in human life was grave and soldiers can, actually, be on the front line without reporting home every few minutes. Another lesson was officers at all levels should not be interviewing on local and international media silence is immensely important. The Israel Defense Forces (“IDF”) follow a clear hierarchy. There is one face and voice, although multiple languages may be used. Another “discovery” was that there must be a censor whose guidance and supervision lead to saving lives instead of disseminating classified information. Seemingly, “Military 101” had to be re-learned.

There were other problems: Logistics fell behind those forces at the very front, causing shortages previously unforeseen. Equipment taken out from warehouses was either not functioning properly or in less than desirable condition. Many reserve units did not train or were trained to fight a different scenario (urban vs. open warfare, for instance). Complaining aside, these were short-term obstacles that could be overcome. Israel is very good at improvising, and she learns and improves especially when the toll is heavily felt.

The IDF’s Unique Propositions

Since the issues that surfaced three years ago were symptomatic of an inner, much deeper problem, we must tie them into the rampant avoidance of service and ask if the IDF has lost its lure? The answer, one finds, is that the IDF continues to offer the following unique propositions:

a) The IDF is a melting pot. It is an army of all the people, those from rich and poor homes, religious and secular backgrounds, different shades of skin color, smart and slow, disabled and healthy, courageous and hesitant. Service pushes all through a mixer, treating them equally, placing the same demands and entrusting the same great responsibilities regardless of creed, ethnicity, or other labels or affiliations;

b) The IDF is a singular pivotal point in a young person’s life. Mandatory military service in the IDF creates a thinking, responsible citizen who has paid dues to society and is ready to assume a different role as an adult. In the United States, a youngster attends four years of college following high school graduation. Compare the person with a Bachelor’s degree with the person who finished military service, and you will find the latter more reliable, more responsible, with more practical abilities to face life;

c) The IDF is an army of all of Israel. By necessity and design, it is ISRAEL. Each family of this tiny country surrounded by enemies has a son, a daughter, a father or grandfather, a brother or uncle, a niece or a granddaughter who serves, thus creating an extended network;

d) The IDF is an army that is responsible for every one of his members. People often wonder why did Israel release hundreds of terrorists to get back body parts of two soldiers (for which she went to the Second War in Lebanon), or why is she discussing the possible release of a thousand more terrorists for one twenty some year old Gilad Shalit held in captivity in Gaza. Shalit’s captors have not allowed access to the International Red Cross even once for close to four years.

Saving One Life Is Like Saving The World

For Jewish people, saving the life of one amounts to saving the whole world. For an Israeli, there is an unspoken promise that every parent can sleep quietly knowing the son or daughter will always come back from the front, that Israel will ensure this happens. Indeed, every child in Israel knows the name of Gilad Shalit, the symbol of all that is wrong with Israel’s enemies and the aspiration of Israel for peace, normalcy and sanity;

e) The IDF is the embodiment of Jewish thought and wisdom, of honor and sense of humanity. The cleanliness of virtue, the pristine innocence of deeds, the ability to tell your soldiers “follow me” and lead, the knowledge that no soldier is left behind at the battlefield and the code of honor which is part of the IDF’s DNA are the founding blocks of the Israeli military.

The strength of these pillars is evident in the respect the IDF enjoys both by fellow professionals from around the world and from those who are at its mercy. They, more than anyone else, know that if the roles were reversed, murder for the pure enjoyment and exemplary effects (causing sheer fear and subjugation), killings without even a thought for human life, raping and maiming for the utter satisfaction and complete disrespect to other human beings would be rampant;

f) The IDF is Israel’s future. It enables Israel to focus on innovation and creativity, to flourish and thrive, to grow and succeed in the harshest of environments (climate, lack of resources, human enemies, etc.). By providing the deterrence and safety net, the IDF allows citizens not in active service to live their daily lives in the most unlikely and currently unfriendly of places their eternal homeland. The IDF is the cement, the building blocks, the embodiment of past, present and future of Israel.

As President Obama continues his deliberations about the future of our young men and women in Afghanistan, I am reminded of the following observation: As long as the burden is not felt and shared by all Americans, as long as we neither understand nor appreciate the sacrifices of our young men and women, they should not be in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Every fallen soldier, a precious life extinguished, is wasted if most Americans assign little if any price for the sacrifice made. Americans on the front lines overseas are willing to give their lives to uphold all that we take for granted so that others, their fellow Americans, can continue their daily lives. A day will come and by necessity we will return to these hostile faraway lands, but then the burden will be shared more equally by all, not only by some.

Israeli society provides an inspiring example how to turn a terrible necessity one of having to protect oneself for one’s continued existence into a benefit to the society at large, educating, preparing the individual for a meaningful life and letting one know that with rights come obligations.

May our young men and women come back home soon, may Israel continue to be strong, as it is the last fort standing and protecting the West. May there come a day that Micah’s prophecy becomes reality: “and they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore.” (4:3)

Ari Bussel

In the series “Postcards from Israel,” Ari Bussel and Norma Zager invite readers throughout the world to join them as they present reports from Israel as seen by two sets of eyes: Bussel’s on the ground, Zager’s counter-point from home. Israel and the United States are inter-related – the two countries we hold dearest to our hearts – and so is this “point – counter-point” presentation that has, since 2008, become part of our lives.