The IDF: All Conscripts, All Volunteers, Or Something In Between?

Haim Watzman

One of Israel’s least-known secrets is that it no longer has a people’s army. I don’t say best-kept secret because no one is trying to keep it a secret. It’s a secret simply because it so clashes with the country’s mythology, and with the image it projects, that many of its own citizens and boosters prefer not to think about it.

But the question of whether the process by which the Israel Defense Forces has become less and less broad-based and more and more professional should be encouraged or decried is the subject of lively debate in the academic community. Most of the speakers at today’s  conference on the subject sponsored by Bar-Ilan University’s Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies sought to dispel some of the more hoary parts of the myth and to suggest that the old model of an army in which everyone serves might not be the only or best option for Israel today.

Keep in mind-this myth-bashing and iconoclasm was sponsored by Bar-Ilan, probably the most conservative, patriotic academic redoubt in Israel. We’re not talking about a group of effete post-Zionists but rather about academics solidly in the political and cultural mainstream.

As the Center’s Stuart Cohen and Haifa University’s Gabi Ben-Dor noted, even in its heyday the IDF was not really a citizens’ army-simply because entire groups of Israeli citizens were exempted from service. These citizen non-soldiers included virtually all the country’s Muslim, Christian, and ultra-Orthodox Jewish population. Even in the 1950s through 1970s, when a very high proportion of the country’s Jewish men and women were conscripted, the fighting units were socially stratified. The pre-state Haganah and Palmach were effective fighting forces in part because they were lean and elitist; upon absorbing the population at large in the early days of the IDF, quality and military effectiveness quickly eroded. So the army created lean and elitist commando units to carry out the real fighting. The citizens’ army was thus socially stratified and many parts of it were not representative of the population.

Since the 1980s, however, even the Jewish population has served less and less. As Israeli society came to acknowledge and value its social and cultural diversity, as the economy improved, bringing new opportunities, and as the existential military threat lessened, the need to serve became less obvious. Increasingly, no stigma was attached to those who did not serve. Furthermore, the IDF’s increasing reliance on advanced weapons rendered the simple soldier with a rifle less valuable; capital investment became more important than labor. Facing budget cuts, the IDF preferred to invest in sophisticated materiel and in specialized and highly-trained personnel. It was no longer worthwhile for the army to invest resources in forcing the recalcitrant to serve.

The figures Cohen cited are not new. At present some 25 percent of military age cohorts in the Jewish population do not enlist. Some of those are ultra-Orthodox, others are physically unfit, but man are young people who simply don’t care to serve and arrange an exemption of one sort or another. Another 17 percent are discharged by the army well before completing half the required three years of service (for men). Less than half the women age cohorts serve in the military.

The effect is even more notable in the reserves, where only a small fraction of men perform significant duty in combat units. Every young Israeli knows that it’s easy to get out of both regular and reserve duty. This being the case, Cohen and many others think that Israel might consider ending the draft and creating an all-volunteer force.

Many Israelis, and admirers of Israel, decry this state of affairs and see it as a threat to Israeli society. Without military service to unite it, and without the kind of collective spirit that universal military service creates, the country cannot survive, they worry.

But Ronald Krebs of the University of Minnesota noted that the concept of the citizen-soldier is far from dead in the Unites States, which has had an all-volunteer army for much of its history, most recently since 1973.

Consider the other side of the coin: even in a culture which promotes self-fulfillment and the pursuit of wealth, the great majority of young Israelis are motivated to serve. In fact, IDF elite units have far more applicants than they can use and this same phenomenon usually extends to regular combat infantry units as well. Motivation remains high and Israeli society continues to accord respect and admiration to those who serve.

For political and cultural, as well as military reasons, it’s unlikely-and it would be incorrect-to adopt the American model of an all-volunteer army. The draft will remain in force. But neither Israeli society nor the IDF can or should revert to the values and realities of three decades ago. The IDF will remain a conscript army whose soldiers are citizens, but the people’s army will necessarily be a lot more flexible about service than it used to be.

4 thoughts on “The IDF: All Conscripts, All Volunteers, Or Something In Between?”

  1. Haim: As a former conscript, who later got dragged back into Viet Nam out of the reserves I don’t understand why Israel exempts Moslems,Christians and ultra-orthodox members of the society,especially ultra-orthodox.Aren’t they getting a “free ride” from the sacrifices of the rest of the society including death and severe injury?I don’t see where scripture gives the most devout believers the option not to protect his fellow Jews from the forces of the enemy or enemies.
    The all volunteer army here in the U.S.is a disaster.Yes ,the equipment is better but the quality of the fighting man is mediocre in many instances The academic basic requirements have been eroded to the point that they are hardly utilized in accepting or rejecting applicants and in fact ex-felons can now apply.The “weekend warriors” from the individual states’National Guard are making up a big portion of the fighting force in Iraq; so much for the professional army. Israel should stick to the conscript program but tighten up on the exemptions,make it everybody’s army.

  2. Haim:

    Your post reminded me of the contrast between 300 professional Spartans holding off thousands of Persians and 400 New Hampshirites touching off the American Revolution by overwhelming six (6) British soldiers at Fort William and Mary.

    I Agree . . . the unorganized militia of the U.S. is the supposed cushion until the professionals show up . . . supposing Canada ever invaded. In Israel, geography doesn’t allow for much of a cushion. Keep your draft, put weapons in the hands of every non-felon adult, and put the ultra-orthodox on the front lines with a prayer book and a pistol. My two cents.

  3. “Many Israelis, and admirers of Israel, decry this state of affairs and see it as a threat to Israeli society. Without military service to unite it, and without the kind of collective spirit that universal military service creates, the country cannot survive, they worry.”

    This is quite terrible–the idea that a society has to unite through military experience to survive. Why not unite through something else? I don’t know… Great successes in sports, for instance? Common language and culture? Why arms of all things? If Israeli society could not survive without a military base unity (which I don’t believe is true) then there would be something very wrong about this society.

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