A People’s Army Amidst Social Change

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A round-table discussion with Prof. Yuval Shany, Maj.-Gen. (ret.) Orna Barbivai and Prof. Amichai Cohen

Picture by: Mark Israel Sellem

Against the backdrop of significant — and often dramatic social changes, which Israel is experiencing, it is striking that the IDF is still perceived as a People’s Army. Military service continues to be a rite of passage for young Israelis, and as revealed in the Israel Democracy Institute’s annual Democracy Index, the IDF retains its status as the most trusted government institution in the eyes of the public. Social change notwithstanding, it continues to be perceived as non-partisan, apolitical, and serving the common good.

“I think this is to the military’s credit,” says Prof. Yuval Shany, Vice President of Research and Director of IDI’s Center for Security and Democracy. “The army gives Israeli society a sense of security. It protects the public and provides something which is truly lacking in our political landscape, a well-functioning government institution.”

In a roundtable discussion, Israel Democracy Institute researchers concluded that the relationship between the IDF and Israeli society, while being as strong as ever, is nevertheless evolving and undergoing significant change.

In Israel, army service is compulsory for both men and women. For decades the IDF was perceived as something of a melting pot, with its activities extending far beyond core military tasks. These included, among other things, teaching immigrants Hebrew and cultivating a shared ethos. Furthermore, army service opened up opportunities for young people growing up in disadvantaged circumstances to “make it” in Israeli society, with a prominent example being Major General (ret.) Orna Barbivai, who made the long journey from the large Mizrahi (of Asian or African origins) family in which she grew up, to the one of the highest ranks in the IDF.

At the same time, Prof. Shany ponders whether the IDF, which has been so successful in adapting itself to a wide variety of security threats, will be equally successful in adapting to major changes in Israeli society.

“Israeli society is a lot more divided than in the past; Some say it’s now just a confederation of different tribes, each of which subscribes to its own world view. The common ethos is much narrower than in the past,” Shany says.

Prof. Amichai Cohen, a Senior Fellow and Co-Director of the Amnon LipkinShahak Program on National Security and Democracy at the Israel Democracy Institute, notes that IDF’s status and prestige should not be taken for granted, particularly when there are growing attempts at its politicization.

“We have seen politicians try to dictate a political agenda when it comes to the army, and this could undoubtedly shake the public’s confidence. Once the IDF is perceived as a political institution, confidence in the IDF (will decline),” Cohen says.

He added that this was evident in the case of Israel’s Supreme Court which has come under incessant fire from politicians, causing the public’s confidence in it to shrink.

Until now, the IDF has managed to avoid such politicization, but the influx of more religiously observant soldiers into IDF’s higher ranks over the past 20 years has generated anxiety as to the danger of the army becoming “God’s Army”, in which rabbis, rather than generals, have the final say.

“The IDF has been very successful in integrating different groups in Israeli society into the military, and we have not seen any dramatic shift, despite the warnings, in the way that officers treat civilians, adhere to the military code of ethics or to the rules of just war,” says Cohen, who is himself Orthodox, and until recently served as the Dean of the Faculty of Law at Ono Academic College.

Defiance of a military command, for example — soldiers refusing to participate in the 2005 disengagement from Gush Katif, or soldiers opposing the dismantling of illegal Jewish settlements in Judea and Samaria — is relatively rare.

“We have seen refusal here and there. But the IDF has learned how to deal with this so far,” says Shany, former Dean of Hebrew University’s Faculty of Law.

Where the transformation of Israeli society has had a greater impact on the IDF is in the draft of ultra-Orthodox (Haredi) soldiers. From Barbivai’s perspective, as former head of the IDF Personnel Directorate, she notes that the decision to draft Haredim required the army to create conditions that would ensure that a proper balance be maintained between respecting the ultra-Orthodox soldiers’ way of life and the requirements of military service. She noted that the army was successful in meeting the specific challenge of integrating Haredim into its ranks, while at the same time creating more opportunities for female soldiers, despite the issues which women’s’ service creates for Haredi soldiers.

Still, today only roughly half of women who are eligible for military service, do indeed serve; and about a quarter of eligible men don’t serve, mainly for religious and health-related reasons.

“The question on this 70th anniversary of the State is: Has the time come for the army’s role to change?” says Barbivai. “I personally believe that the army is the glue that keeps Israeli society together, and if it changes its character as a People’s Army to something else, then not only will we not be the same army, we won’t be the same nation.”

But Cohen believes the IDF is slowly moving away from a People’s Army to a professional one, with more soldiers required to extend their period of service in order to serve in top units. Cohen believes that this issue needs to be opened up to public debate, and should not be regarded as an internal military issue.

“I think that for Israeli society there are clear advantages in having a military that enjoys broad public support. In a way, this represents our common fate as Israelis,” says Shany. “If you take that away, we would lose our sense of unity, one which makes it possible for us to see ourselves as interdependent. In that respect, the army serves a very important social purpose. Maybe in the long run, when the situation improves and we no longer need such a level of social cohesion and solidarity, I would certainly be open to reconsidering this question. However, at this point in time, as the State of Israel celebrates 70 years, this may be premature.”

Shany’s words echo those of the Chief of Staff, Gen. Gadi Eizenkot who at a workshop recently held at IDI said, “if there is anything that could jeopardize the IDF’s ability to fulfill its mission, it would be loss of the public’s trust. This trust is crucial to our ability to recruit young people every year and demand that they serve in the best units and risk their lives to protect Israel’s security”.

What they all agree on, is the profound impact that service in the IDF has on Israeli society, its economy and its capacity for innovation.

“I don’t think there is any domain of Israeli society in which the army doesn’t play an integral role. Look at our leadership — youth go into the army and undergo a fasttrack process of leadership development. Once they are released, the skills they acquire are put to good use in civilian life.” Barbivai says. “Look at the technology industry. Everyone agrees that our identity as a Start Up nation is strongly rooted in the transformation the army underwent to succeed on the battlefield”. Noting IDF’s work in areas such as teaching Hebrew to immigrants and enabling soldiers to complete their high-school diploma , she said, “I have no doubt that the impact of the army is very great”.

Since its very inception, Israel has been in a state of conflict with its neighbors and yet it has been able to maintain itself as a democracy. Barbivai says she can’t imagine any scenario in which the army would not take its orders from the government. Actually, the reality is quite the contrary. “They (the government) expect the army to display more activism”.

“The army doesn’t choose its assignments. It has developed a combat doctrine, though sometimes, when it comes to the West Bank, it is not always clear how the army should enforce that doctrine”, Barbivai says.

She noted the incident in which a Palestinian teenaged girl (Ahed Tamimi) slapped an IDF commander in order to deliberately provoke him to retaliate.

“This aroused a great deal of public debate. Was his restraint one that reflected weakness? How could he not react? Or, was his restraint a sign of strength because he was committed to refraining from the use of force against a minor? What matters is the fact that an army operating in this sort of reality must develop the capacity to cope with a wide variety of situations, and in my eyes – copes with them very well.”

In some cases, the IDF has chosen to take the moral high ground, particularly regarding the ongoing conflict with the Palestinians. Prof. Shany spoke in particular of the Azaria affair, in which IDF combat soldier Sgt. Elor Azaria shot an incapacitated Arab terrorist in the head after an attack in Hebron. He was court martialed in a highly public trial that deeply divided the nation.

“In the Azaria affair, military leadership spoke of values like the purity of arms, military ethics, and restrained use of lethal force,” Shany says. “The politicians actually took a very different line of argument, and in a sense, criticized the military for upholding human rights. This was quite an exceptional turn of events.” How to resolve these tensions between national security and human rights, while retaining public trust are the focus of IDI’s Center for Security and Democracy.

Clearly, no army is devoid of problems or violations, especially when subject to complex situations, as it encounters in the West Bank. The IDF’s leadership has developed over time greater sensitivity to such issues and to the need to take strict measures and disciplinary procedures against soldiers who violate orders or disobey the law” says Shany.

All in all, Cohen, Shany and Barbivai agree that the IDF needs to adapt both to changes in Israeli society and to the nature of modern warfare. But the IDF still stands out among Israeli institutions for its excellence in pursuit of its mission. 

The article was published in the Jerusalem Report