Joan ELBAZ, (2016), McGill University, Bachelor of Arts, Honors in Political Science.
The military has had a significant state-building role in Israel, which greatly facilitated the transition from Yishuv governance to the creation of a centralized state. Since 1948, the army, officially known as the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), has been a premier institution in Israel, besides the government and the Knesset. It formed following the establishment of the state and out of its predecessor body, the Haganah, which eventually integrated independent paramilitary groups, such as Irgun and Palmach. Not only does the military defend the country against external threats, it has an important social role as it is one of the main factors of integration in Israeli society. Indeed, it has contributed to creating a common national identity and political culture by uniting disparate groups within the Jewish population under Zionist symbols and aspirations. Through Ben Gurion’s efforts to rid the army of internal feuds, the IDF came to be dominated by Mapai until its defeat by Likud in the 1977 elections. The role of the IDF as a “People’s Army” has encountered a major change in the late 1960s, following the Six-Day War of 1967. The weakening of the national consensus on security matters and the emergence of cleavages within Israeli society, triggered by the war, have undermined the capacity of the military to unite everyone under similar views to promote Israel’s security interests. I thus argue that the role of the military in Israel can be expressed through four principal channels: its function as an integrating institution in society; its role in shaping a common Jewish identity; its capacity to build a national consensus and to influence security policy under the domination of Mapai; and its more recent diminished ability to unify the entire nation over defense matters.
First of all, the Israeli army has, since the creation of the state in 1948, served multiple social functions: it integrated new immigrants from different backgrounds into society, provided educational resources for disadvantaged Israelis, mobilized the young for the war effort and gave a more important role to women in society.
Since the draft is universal for young males and females alike at 18 years old, the military was an opportunity to integrate immigrants, who came from various cultural, political and ideological backgrounds, into Israeli society. The large number of migrants coming from North Africa and the Middle East had previously lived in polities where there was little political participation, and lacked knowledge of the Hebrew language and of Jewish history. Moreover, among those who emigrated from Eastern Europe, many could not relate to Jewish or Israeli history. The military was thus an instrument that contributed to “weaving together disparate strands” of society to create a new civil society, according to Elazar in “Israel: Building a New Society”. The army thus became “the major embodiment of Jewish political culture”, as it focused on unifying disparate groups of the population around a common set of values and aspirations.  Although there is a today a lower immigration rate to Israel compared to the early years of statehood, there has been a rise in the proportion of immigrants enlisting in combat roles. For example, since 1995, the number of Ethiopian Jews in these roles has risen by 11%. After the breakup of the Soviet Union, the army has also focused on integrating Russian Jews immigrating to Israel. Because they had lived in environments that did not encourage the expression of religious beliefs, most of them could not identify with Jewish symbols. By being enrolled in the IDF, the military had an important socialization mission and thus produced a new generation of Russian Jews. On top of this, non-Jewish communities have had the possibility of volunteering in the IDF, such as Christians or Druzes, which allowed them to be integrated into mainstream Israeli society. At the 2014 IDF Christian Recruitment forum, Prime Minister Netanyahu claimed “We are brothers, we are partners – Christians and Jews and Druze and Muslims who defend the State of Israel”, which clearly shows that commitment to defense in Israel can transcend religious barriers.
Since the creation of the IDF, the integration of citizens by the military has gone through various educational programs, beyond the professional training required for military purposes. Much of these educational resources go to immigrants and the disadvantaged strands of Israeli society. The army provides them with Hebrew language classes as well as Jewish and Israeli history or geography classes. The goal of these programs is not only to teach them knowledge about the country’s language and culture, but also to instil Zionist values and ambitions in them, in order to further the interests of the state as a whole. The IDF also set up a special program, called “Yeshivot HaHesder” in the 1970s to allow yeshiva students to pursue religious studies while being conscripted in the army. This is in line with the state’s will to respect the Status Quo Agreement with Israeli religious authorities, which aims at reconciling the interests of both the religious and secular communities in the country.
The army also had an important role in state-building by mobilizing the youth to promote social cohesiveness. Indeed, Ben Gurion counted especially on them to identify with the state’s interests and to participate fully in the transformation of Israeli culture and society. For this purpose, the military established various organizations for young Israelis, which contributed to defending the country. Gadna, for example, was first created in 1939 and placed under the supervision of the Ministry of Defense and the Ministry of Education and Culture after independence. This program prepared young Israelis through paramilitary training, before their military service, and inculcated patriotic values through the teaching of Zionist thought. The ultimate objective of Gadna was for military officers “to uncover those who have the psychological, intellectual, and physical makeup required by the army”, according to Ayad Al-Qazzaz in “Army and Society in Israel”. Another program called Nahal also reflected the importance of the army within young generations of Israelis. Established in 1948, it combined advanced military service with agricultural training. Since its creation, Nahal has founded about 108 kibbutzim and moshavim, mostly on the peripheries of the country. Not only did this foster patriotic sentiments in young Israelis and develop the country’s agriculture, it also contributed to its defense. Indeed, Nahal settlements in the Jordan Valley deterred Jordan to attack Israel during the Yom Kippur War alongside its Arab neighbours.
Another major social role of the military was to give importance to women in the war effort of the country. In point of fact, the IDF is the only army in the world that drafts women on a compulsory basis. As a result, women have fully participated in the state-building effort after 1948. Even before the establishment of the Jewish state, women could already serve in the Haganah and about 3,000 of them fought alongside the British during World War II. As David Ben Gurion explained in 1948, “security will not exist if our nation’s women do not know how to fight”. They first occupied non-combat roles, which ranged from “teachers of Hebrew to truck drivers and clerks”. The involvement of women in the army helped them acquire a sense of independence and made them more aware of the realities of war in their country. Their conscription also contributed to changing attitudes in the population, especially within Oriental communities, which have historically and culturally given a minor role to women in society. However, it was not until the late 1990s that female soldiers were allowed to occupy combat positions. In 2000, the Equality Amendment to the Defense Service Law laid the basis for gender equality in the IDF, as it allowed them to take over nearly all combat roles. As of August 2016, about 2,100 women serve in these combat positions, which represents a 400% increase compared to a decade ago. Today, women represent 25% of Officers and 20% of Career soldiers, and overall comprise more than a third of all IDF soldiers. This therefore clearly demonstrates that the integration of women by the army has made them crucial actors in the building up of military forces and in the relentless efforts to protect Israel against external threats.
Secondly, the army has contributed to the creation of a common Jewish identity and culture, an objective that was central to Ben Gurion’s “Mamlachtiut”. This “political religion” saw the centrality of authority and of its institutions as the only way to unite everyone around the symbols and values of the new state.
As a result of the army’s success in integrating various groups of society within its ranks, military service has become the hallmark of Israeli citizenship. Not only does it represent individual affiliation to the political authority, it also symbolizes “membership of the social collective”, according to Yoram Peri in “Political-Military Partnership in Israel”. This is especially true since Israeli Arabs are exempted from serving in the military, although they are citizens of the country and enjoy the same rights as Jews. By exercising this social function, the army is a vehicle for positive national values and thus enjoys a higher social prestige than armies in Western countries. This high prestige was especially fostered by the great victories in the 1956 Suez War and the 1967 Six-Day War, and by the many myths developed around the IDF’s successes. Serving in the military is not simply a duty to ensure the protection of the state, it is rather a “social reward”, since it allows citizens to participate in shaping a national destiny. Consequently, those who do not complete their military service tend to be on the fringes of society, as they are seen as free riders who enjoy the benefits of security without actively participating in it. The social cohesiveness created by the army is not only evident during military service, but also after it. Indeed, it is the source of long-lasting contact between soldiers who develop friendships and even sometimes meet their marriage partner while serving. Networking opportunities also arise as many people use their connections to create business partnerships, especially in the flourishing high tech sector.
Moreover, the continuous influence of the army on civilians demonstrates that this institution has been crucial in shaping the Israeli identity and way of life. On top of the regular military, the army has a reserve group, which consists of individuals who have finished their service and who are called every year for a month to train. This system of military mobilization throughout one’s life serves as a constant reminder of the importance of security in the state. The result of this is that almost all families in Israel have some sort of connection, be it direct or indirect, to the army, which explains why the norms and values of this institution are so integral to society. As a matter of fact, it seems that the penetration of the army within the population is so deep that “it begins at the very onset of socialization”, according to Arian, Talmud and Hermann in “National Security and Public Opinion in Israel. Indeed, the knowledge of military service as a duty and a right seems to be in place from a very young age, before military service even starts. Besides, the fact that soldiers regularly go home to visit family and friends, or vice versa, has entrenched the notion that the IDF is a people’s army that continuously seeks to maintain a connection between military and civilian life. The influence of the military in the civilian sphere can also be seen when looking at the cultural impact that it had over the years. Whether in times of peace or war, the military has been at the centre of movies, novels and songs, although these channels of artistic expressions are means to promote peace rather than to glorify war.
The army also had an important role in shaping political culture in the newly founded state. This is visible in the way the IDF reflects the democratic and populist character of Israeli society. Indeed, core values of the Israeli army include the devotion to the defense of the state’s democratic principles and the protection of human life regardless of origin, religion, nationality, gender or position. A notable democratic element is that the army is accountable to the civilian political leadership, which explains why citizens are highly committed to the defense of the country. Military service indeed embodies “popular loyalty and commitment” to the state of Israel, which was central to the Zionist project of the founding fathers. Moreover, the army has shaped political culture in that it achieves discipline through consent rather than coercion. As Elazar puts it, “No Israeli feels compelled to do anything; rather he or she exercises freedom of choice in responding to requests for action”. As a result, conflict within army ranks is often solved through compromise and this had led to the institutionalization of bargaining in society. This is in line with the high degree of informality that exists in IDF and the Jewish population, which is partly due to the fact that relations between officers are often characterized by camaraderie and familiarity, regardless of their respective rank. This follows the deeply egalitarian dimension of the military, which mixes citizens from different backgrounds into its ranks, to give them the same formative army experience. As Yaniv writes, it was agreed from the onset that the IDF was to “evolve as the most egalitarian avant-garde of society”.
Thirdly, the ability of the IDF to create a common identity favoured the emergence of a national consensus on security matters. It also anchored the fundamental role of the IDF, an institution that was to be under the influence of the dominant party, Mapai. This special relationship between political and military elites in turn set the conditions for the army to shape defense policies to an important extent.
The relatively high degree of unity in Israeli society and the quasi-universal nature of the draft created the conditions for Mapai to face little political opposition until 1967. Indeed, a national consensus emerged during the early years statehood, which greatly strengthened the military and political leadership. Ben Gurion’s Mapai party ruled the country for the first three decades of statehood and had no serious challengers from the right of the political spectrum. It thus gained absolute control over the military, allowing Ben Gurion to integrate all independent fighting groups into a unique army and to develop its forces considering the urgency of the security situation after the Declaration of Independence. Achieving unity in the military sector was fundamental since the army was seen as the mailed fist of the Jewish state. This institution genuinely proved to be of a foremost importance when the armies of five Arab states invaded the newly created state, on May 15, 1948.
According to the Prime Minister’s dictum “Mimamad leam” which meant “From class to nation”, the only way to unite disparate groups in the population was to promote statism over partisanship. Adopting this statist ideology was very advantageous for the dominant party: Mapai sought to speak in the name of the entire nation, which allowed Ben Gurion to refer to any opposition voices as sectarian. This focus on statism was reflected in his efforts to end the rivalry between paramilitary groups, that had characterized the Yishuv period, and to give a non-partisan image to the IDF. Although certain senior officers were active in Mapai, “five of the six IDF Chiefs of Staff who served under Minister of Defense Ben Gurion were nonpartisan”. Thus, from the onset, it was agreed that the army would become professionalized and that it would be kept from engaging in party politics. This can be clearly summarized in a statement made by Ben Gurion that “one should not let the army become a ring for political and ideological wrestling for parties and factions”.
Despite Ben Gurion’s will to rid state institutions, including the military, of political feud and opposition, one can argue that the army was not an apolitical body, since it was, to a great extent, associated to Mapai. Indeed, the IDF remained under the Prime Minister’s jurisdiction, as Minister of Defense, and he exerted control over the military in key areas. First, he created a cabinet in the Defense Ministry, which was composed of personal advisors, close cabinet members, the army’s Chief of Staff, and several senior officers. Ben Gurion saw the army as an actor that could “determine the fate of the nation”: it was thus crucial to manage security and defense matters together. Second, he approved appointments and promotions of all officers in the army, from lieutenant colonel to Chief of Staff, which gave him significant control over the internal affairs of the military. Therefore, one could say that the IDF’s important influence on foreign affairs matters is due to Israel’s constant struggle to survive in a hostile environment and to Ben Gurion’s legacy of domination over the army.
The army’s role in shaping security policy can be seen through various channels. First, the unclear limits of authority between the Prime Minister, the Defense Minister and the Chief of Staff, and their close relationships tend to increase the influence of the military on the cabinet. Then, the social linkages between military and political elites have allowed senior military officers to access high-ranking positions within the government. Also, the military’s ability to impact public opinion through diverse means of communication has proved to be determinant. Indeed, not only does the IDF have its own radio station “Galei Zahal” that broadcasts news, music and educational programs, it also publishes a weekly newspaper “Bamahane”. There are many instances in which the army used one of these means to encourage civilian decision-making bodies to adopt a certain military strategy. For example, members of the General Staff attempted to lobby the government in May 1967, so that the IDF would launch an immediate pre-emptive strike against Egyptian airfields. It should however be noted that, although the army did have an important impact on decision-making, the “supreme authority of the cabinet over the military has never been challenged in Israel”.
Finally, despite the crucial role played by the IDF for Israel’s security, the patriotic values promoted by the army that pervaded society in the first decades of statehood started to erode in the 1970s. The following years were characterized by a crisis in values, which translated into a weakening of the influence of the army and of the commitment to military service. Specifically, the 1967 war shattered the national consensus, leading to the emergence of deep cleavages in society. The army inevitably came to be impacted by these deep divisions, and this undermined its role as a unifying institution of Israeli society.
In the last decades, a major development in Israel has been the erosion of the “almost sacred status once enjoyed by state institutions, and especially the military”. This is concomitant to the shift in focus from collectivism to individualism in various spheres of Israeli life. Indeed, the growing cleavages in society since the 1970s, have led to a “diminution of social solidarity in the population”, and this had an inevitable impact on the army. The diminishing influence of the IDF can be illustrated by a new a norm: the tendency of wanting to avoid military service, especially among secular Ashkenazim. This has not posed major manpower issues but it is definitely a worrying trend, which illustrates a broader social phenomenon: the disillusionment of younger generations towards the military. This can be illustrated by the 1987 movie “Late Summer Blues”, which tells the life of young Israelis during their last summer before joining the army, as each of them are become more cynical about the idea of dying for their nation. Moreover, several revelations coming from military circles have contributed to reducing the legitimacy of the IDF. For example, there have been proofs of contact between senior officers and leaders of organized crimes in the late 1970s. Also, in 1979 alone, there was a 35% increase in “convicted users of drugs among conscripts”. These various scandals have led many parts of the population to question the professionalism of the military, and this has participated in the decline in motivation of citizens, especially since 1973. This decrease in morale is also due to the fact that after the Yom Kippur War, Israelis realized that they “had paid a heavy prize in the long-standing conflict with the Arab world”. Indeed, the heavy losses endured by the IDF ended the complacency that had dominated the minds of most Israelis following the staggering victory of the Six-Day War. The weaker social role of the military is thus evident insofar that it has, in the last several decades, lost its ability to unite Israelis under a common ideal, compared to the early years of statehood.
Even more so, the Six-Day War has brought about significant divisions in Israeli society and put into question the unifying role that the army had previously been attributed. The outcome of the 1967 war was the acquisition of territories by Israel: by the end of the war, “70,000 skm had been added to the 26,000 skm of the original area of the State of Israel”, which brought more than one million Arabs under Israeli territory. Although the military has always been connected to the political sphere in Israel, the IDF’s political role became more explicit following the Six-Day War. Indeed, the army was tasked with the establishment of a military government in the West Bank, the Golan Heights, the Sinai and the Gaza Strip. As a result, the questions of the state’s borders and of the administration of the territories became subject to intense debate, which eventually led to the emergence of two distinct camps: the doves, who encourage withdrawal from the annexed territories, and the hawks who lead a more aggressive foreign policy with the Palestinians. After the army’s capture of historical Jewish areas, it became possible for the once weak challengers of the Left to voice their ideas in a more concrete way. The erosion of Labour’s hegemony was enhanced with the Yom Kippur War in 1973: the traumatic losses suffered on the Israeli side led to the questioning of basic assumptions of security policy. In the long run, the normalization of dissent from the Mapai-led majority provided the conditions for the emergence of new parties on all sides of the political spectrum. These include Gush Emunim, a right-wing movement calling for the establishment of Jewish settlements in the West Bank, or Peace Now, an activist group pushing for a two-state solution. The debate over which of “Arab hostility or the erosion of democracy through continued military occupation”, represents the biggest threat to Israel, is thus reflective of the sharp departure from the pre-1967 period, which was characterized by a broad consensus on security issues. Military strategies, which previously received quasi-unanimous support from the population, were now having more difficulty to bring all Israelis together under the banner of former Prime Minister Ben Gurion’s “Mamlachtiut”.
As security policy was central to the decision-making inside government cabinets, the army thus became a key actor in the negotiations process with Arab countries and the United States. The increased political polarization in society and the rise of Likud, culminating in its 1977 electoral victory, eventually had an impact on the military leadership: even security experts’ military opinions came to be influenced by their political beliefs. This phenomenon can be seen as a number of retired Generals joined the political ranks: Rabin, Barlev and Yariv became the allies of Golda Meir’s Labour Party, and Weizman and Sharon supported Begin’s Likud Party. Others joined a new party, the Democratic Movement for Change: 7 out of 20 senior members of the party were ex-generals, led by former Chief of Staff Yadin. Another important proof of how the role of the military was shaped by the political debate of the time was the declaration by the new Chief of Staff, Rafael Eitan, in 1978 that Israel should always retain control of the West Bank. For the first time since the Six-Day War, a Commander-in-Chief had publicly expressed his opinion on the territorial issue. Although this surely did not reflect the views of the entire army, the Chief of Staff is a supreme commander and thus, to a certain extent, represents the IDF as a whole. Despite the public indignation provoked by this declaration, the government supported him and his position was left intact. This anecdote is significant since it had a major impact on civil-military relations. Indeed, opinions on foreign policy were now voiced freely from different sides of the political spectrum, and not just from the left like at the time of Labour domination. All in all, this shows that the military was having a harder time uniting all citizens under a common direction of Israel’s security policy.
To conclude, one could argue that the role of the military has greatly evolved over time. In the first decades of statehood, the army imposed itself as vehicle of social norms and values as Ben Gurion sought to create his ideal of the “new Jew”. By integrating immigrants into Israeli society, providing education programs, mobilizing the youth and giving a more important role to women, the IDF managed to unite diverse strands of the population under common ideals, to promote the goals of the Zionist project. As a result, the military has become the hallmark of Israeli citizenship, has had a deep influence on civilian life and has contributed to shaping political culture to an important extent. In turn, the social cohesion created by the army favoured the emergence of a national consensus on security matters and allowed Ben Gurion to place the IDF under exclusive Mapai control during the first decades of statehood. The Six-Day War was a watershed as it marked the beginning of the shattering of national consensus, leading to the formation of important cleavages in society. The traumatic Yom Kippur War of 1973 further entrenched these divisions as it has undermined the capacity of the army to unite everyone and allowed diverging voices to be heard from left to right. Moreover, the diminution in social solidary in Israeli society in the last several decades, has translated itself into a loosened commitment to military service and a relatively undermined legitimacy of the IDF. Despite these more recent evolutions, one could still argue that the role of the military is overarching in all areas, as it has been one of the main vehicles for the creation of a national culture and identity. However, this does not imply that Israeli society has become militarized, insofar that no separate cast of soldiers, with a distinct barracks sub-culture, has emerged. Israel has thus managed to maintain a deeply embedded democratic ethos while keeping an important focus on security matters. This might just be one of Israel’s many traits of uniqueness, all of which contribute to making it the only Jewish state in the world and the sole democracy of the Middle East.
Al-Qazzaz, Ayad. “Army and Society in Israel”, The Pacific Sociological Review (University of California Press, 1973) Vol. 16, No. 2, Military Sociology, pp. 143-165.
Arian, Asher, Hermann, Tamar and Talmud Ilan. National Security and Public Opinion in Israel (Boulder, Colorado: Westview Press, 1988).
Ben-Ari, Eyal, Maman, Daniel and Rosenhek, Zeev. Military, State and Society in Israel (Transaction Publishers, 2001).
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Diskin, Abraham. The Last Days in Israel: Understanding the New Israeli Democracy (Taylor & Francis Ltd., 2003).
Elazar, Daniel. Israel: Building a New Society (Indiana University Press, 1986).
Horowitz, Dan and Lissak, Moshe. Trouble in Utopia: The Overburdened Polity of Israel (State University of New York Press, 1989).
Katz, Samuel. Israel’s Army (Novato, California: Presidio Press, 1990).
Lomsky-Feder, Edna and Ben-Ari, Eyal. The Military and Militarism in Israeli Society (State University of New York Press, 1999).
Peri, Yoram. “Political-Military Partnership in Israel”, International Political Science Review (Sage Publications, Ltd., 1981) Vol. 2, No. 3, Civil-Military Relations, pp. 303-315.
Perlmutter, Amos. “The Israeli Army in Politics: The Persistence of the Civilian Over the Military”, World Politics (Cambridge University Press, 1968) Vol. 20, No.4, pp. 606-643.
Sasley, Brent and Waller, Harold. Politics in Israel: Governing a Complex Society (Oxford University Press, 2016).
Shapira, Anita. Israel: A History (Brandeis University Press, 2012).
Yaniv, Avner. National Security & Democracy in Israel (Boulder, Colorado: Lynne Rienner Publishers, Inc., 1993).
 Daniel Elazar, Israel: Building a New Society (Indiana University Press, 1986) 185.
 Ibid., 188.
 “The IDF’s Role and Impact on Israel’s Society” Israel Defense Forces Blog
 “Israel Defense Forces: History and Overview”, Jewish Virtual Library
 Ayad Al-Qazzaz, “Army and Society in Israel”, The Pacific Sociological Review (University of California Press, 1973), 160.
 Ibid., 149.
 David Ben Gurion, Letter to Karaite community.
 Al-Qazzaz, Army and Society in Israel, 148
 “Israel Defense Forces: History and Overview”, Jewish Virtual Library
 “The IDF’s Role and Impact on Israel’s Society” Israel Defense Forces Blog
 Yoram Peri, “Political-Military Partnership in Israel”, International Political Science Review (Sage Publications, Ltd., 1981), 313.
 Peri, “Political-Military Partnership in Israel”, International Political Science Review, 313.
 Asher Arian, Tamar Hermann and Ilan Talmud, National Security and Public Opinion in Israel (Boulder, Colorado: Westview Press, 1988), 66.
 Elazar, Israel: Building a New Society, 191.
 Avner Yaniv National Security & Democracy in Israel (Boulder, Colorado: Lynne Rienner Publishers, Inc. 1993), 93.
 Anita Shapira, Israel: A History (Brandeis University Press, 2012), 189.
 Ben Gurion, Army and Defense, 141.
 Amos Perlmutter, “The Israeli Army in Politics: The Persistence of the Civilian Over the Military”, World Politics (Cambridge University Press, 1968), 628.
 Dan Horowitz and Moshe Lissak, Trouble in Utopia (State University of New York Press, 1989) 213.
 Horowitz and Lissak, Trouble in Utopia, 212.
 Eyal Ben-Ari, Daniel Maman and Zeev Rosenhek, Military, State and Society in Israel (Transaction Publishers, 2001), 5.
 Brent Sasley and Harold Waller, Politics in Israel: Governing a Complex Society (Oxford University Press, 2012), 65.
 Peri, Political-Military Partnership in Israel, 314.
 Abraham Diskin, The Last days in Israel: Understanding the New Israeli Democracy (Taylor & Francis Ltd., 2003) 16.
 Peri, Political-Military Partnership in Israel, 305.
 Eyal Ben-Ari and Edna Lomsky-Feder, The Military and Militarism in Israeli Society (State University of New York Press, 1999), 38.