Save the Citizens’ Army

By Michael B. Oren, Benjamin Balint

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magine for a moment that Israel’s existence is once again threatened by a hostile coalition of armies, or struck by a spate of large-scale terrorist attacks. But instead of sending in forces comprised of conscripts from all segments of Israeli society backed up by highly motivated reservists, Israel deploys professional troops. Logistical support—food, supplies, and transportation—is outsourced to international security corporations. The majority of Israelis, meanwhile, remain at home watching the conflict with a sense of distance, if not detachment.

Realizing this scenario would require a radical transformation of the IDF and its role in Israeli society, and some Israeli experts have lately suggested sweeping military reforms that would bring about just this state of affairs. They recommend abandoning the notion of a “citizen army”—a paradigm that has made the IDF not only the guarantor of the physical survival of Israel, but also a foundation of its democratic culture and a central pillar of the Zionist mission of empowering the Jewish people.
As originally conceived, all Israeli Jews—with the exception of limited numbers of haredi students and those deemed either psychologically or physically unfit—were expected to serve several years in the regular army and thereafter to do annual stints on active reserve duty. The IDF, on this model, worked not only to protect the country’s territory and population, but also to absorb immigrants, to instill Zionist values, and to galvanize a spirited Israeli identity.
This paradigm proved immensely successful over the first five decades of Israel’s existence. In wartime, an effective division of labor enabled regular forces to hold the line for forty-eight hours until reserves could be mobilized. And aided by the belief that the army exemplified the Israeli ideal, successive waves of immigrants learned Hebrew and were integrated into Israeli society through their military service.
Over the last two decades, however, the ideological foundation of the IDF—and with it Israelis’ willingness to serve—has been eroded by a number of factors, including the internally divisive conflicts in Lebanon and the territories; the increasing numbers of exemptions granted to religious students; and Israel’s cultural shift from collectivism to individualism. Along with these profound social and economic transformations, the nature of warfare—and of Israel’s enemies—has likewise changed. With the elimination of Saddam Hussein’s army and the aging of Syria’s arsenal, and following peace treaties with Egypt and Jordan, Israel today no longer faces the immediate threat of massive armored formations crossing its borders. The immediate peril now comes from terrorist cells based in the West Bank and Gaza, and from missiles launched from Tehran.
The effects of these changes can already be seen. Observers point to a drop in motivation to serve, reflecting not only ideological factors but also the increasing frustration of soldiers with the waste and inefficiency they often encounter in the army, particularly in the reserves. Exemptions from service are more widespread than ever, with fewer than 60 percent of eligible Israelis completing their military service—a number that continues to fall—and only 12 percent doing regular reserve duty. The IDF, meanwhile, is mothballing entire brigades of tanks and artillery. The citizens’ army, it seems, no longer conforms to Israel’s reality.
In response, a growing number of experts are proposing that Israel adopt a new paradigm. Ofer Shelah, journalist and veteran paratroops officer, for instance, has argued that we should abandon the pretense that the IDF is a citizens’ army and work instead toward a professionalized army cleansed of ideology and what he calls an “Auschwitz mentality,” or one that is obsessed with survival. A study by sociologists at Ben-Gurion University, meanwhile, suggests modeling the army on the security companies that guard malls and restaurants. Such businesses, they say, could do the job more efficiently than an army run by the government. And Emmanuel Marx, an esteemed sociologist at Tel Aviv University, has called for canceling compulsory service altogether.

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