Israel's wealthiest are abandoning IDF combat units

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Israel's secular elite has lost its enthusiasm for combat service and now targets intelligence units, such as Unit 8200.

Illustration | Flash 90

Like every round of revisions desperately trying to correct the unjust inequality in drafting haredim (ultra-Orthodox Jews) into the army, the current round has restarted a witch hunt driven by a rather shallow discourse on this complex issue.

It seems that there will always be a yawning conceptual gap between those supporting the new-old draft format containing no substantial change in the rules of the game. Other than the haredim themselves, the plan's supporters regard it as an essential compromise facilitating an increase in the existing momentum towards large-scale recruitment of young haredim. Many others, however, regard the plan as just another surrender to insatiable haredi politicians and wheeler-dealers.

There is, however, an alternative explanation for the relative indifference on the part of representatives of the Zionist public and third sector organizations to the current draft plan. Although the people's army ethos is still an important part of the collective Jewish identity in Israel, the extent of belief in it by the upper social and economic echelons has been severely eroded and undermined.

Some of the secular elite spend huge amounts of money on increasing the chances of their sons to serve in elite intelligence units, such as Unit 8200, on the IDF technological front. These units serve as an excellent springboard for entry into the desirable high-tech industry. Among many young people, especially from the secular elite, combat service in field units is taking second place to the technological units, and the purpose of service has become more and more utilitarian and economic.

IDF figures reflect these changes. Willingness to serve as combat officers declined from 33% to 23% in 2014-2016. Accordingly, only 40% of IDF combat soldiers believe that serving in a combat unit contributes more to the army and the country, compared with 54% two years ago. The army therefore now has much less of a selection of high-quality officers.

This situation has occurred because a utilitarian, selfish, and economic attitude to military service has gained much ground among the elite, which in the not-too-distant past constituted the backbone of the IDF combat apparatus. This attitude weakens the legitimacy of the people's army model in Israel, which is often perceived as being outmoded in a materialistic and competitive era.

Simultaneously with these processes, the proportion of combat officers from the modern Orthodox sector has been increasing in recent years. This process represents a military equivalent of the exchange of elites in politics and public service. The secular neo-liberal elite has lost its enthusiasm, while the new elites no longer regard themselves as an important part of the struggle over the image of the people's army. Postponement of the current bill until after the upcoming Knesset summer recess also indicates a relative lack of public interest in this key issue.

The lack of involvement in the struggle for equal share of the burden of military service among large sections of the elites serving in the IDF, especially religious Zionists, identified with the people's army is a critical blow to the ability to preserve Israeli solidarity and unity. An elite should lead and show the way, but the secular elite has lost its focuses of power and leading positions in the army and is not supplying the goods, while the religious Zionist elite is now remaining aloof from the defense and civilian struggle.

If these two elites do not lead a firmer and more egalitarian stance than the proposed compromise army service plan and do not unite in a political and public struggle, the people's army, which is essential to Israel's security and social existence, cannot be preserved.

The author is a researcher at the Israel Democracy Institute and a coordinator of Haredi studies at the Ministry of Labor, Social Affairs, and Social Services’ Research Administration.

The article was first published in Globes.