Big news: public trust in the Israel Defense Forces dropped a full three percentage points in the last year. Now only 71 percent of Israelis (all Israelis, including non-Jews) trust their army, as opposed to 74 percent last year. The figures come from the Israel Democracy Institute’s annual Democracy Index. I would guess that the generals are not exactly quaking in their boots. But given the damning criticism of the army included in the Winograd Report (available in Hebrew here) on the Second Lebanon War, issued earlier this year, it’s rather surprising that the IDF remains so popular. Or is it?
In fact, the army remains far more popular than every other public institution in the country. Only 35 percent trust the Supreme Court (a drop of 12 points), only 17 percent the prime minister, only 37 percent the media.
Does this mean that Israel is a modern Prussia, taking glory in the macho military values embodied in its armed forces? Not exactly. Israelis are hardly alone in admiring their fighting men. In fact, armies tend to be wildly popular institutions in most countries. I recall an essay by Jorge Luis Borges (I can’t find the specific reference right now) in which he explained the central place of the army in the society of Argentina and the admiration in which it was held-despite that army’s penchant for staging coups d’etat and pushing those who don’t admire it out of airplanes.
In Israel, an embattled country where the army is omnipresent and most citizens (still) serve or at least know many who serve, the army is not only seen as the shield of its populace-it’s also the place where most people grow up. We have a tendency to be nostalgic about the institutions in which we make the intense friendships of youth, where we experience self-discovery, face challenges, and first fall in love. Just look at homecoming weekend at any American university and imagine it in uniform.
So Israelis’ admiration of their army is only weakly connected to the army’s success or failure. The fact that it failed to take out Hezbollah in Lebanon two summers ago is not what most people here think of when a pollster asks them if they trust the army. They think about their son or daughter’s swearing-in ceremony or their buddies in the reserves.
Nevertheless, a society that trusts its army twice as much as its most popular state institution is in danger-especially a society that feels as chronically insecure as Israeli society does. Such a situation means that people are liable to look to the army to solve problems that other institutions don’t seem able to deal with. In the 1980s, when surging hyperinflation and Palestinian terrorism frightened many Israelis (even though the level of violence then was much lower than what we’ve experienced in this decade). Time and again I heard people talk seriously about a military coup as the only way to extricate the country from its impasse. I haven’t heard such talk recently, but it will come if people’s faith in their civilian institutions remains perilously low at the same time that the external threat remains high.
The IDF is, in fact, a good army all in all, and the great majority of its soldiers and officers are honorable, intelligent, talented-and committed to democracy. But, as the old Hebrew adage has it, kabdahu ve-hashdahu. Respect it-and suspect it. Don’t love it to death.