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The Israel Defense Forces represent one of Israel’s crowning achievements. The second largest citizens’ army in the world (after South Korea), more than twice as large (together with its reserves) as the French and British armies combined, it is widely revered for its innovative prowess and esprit de corps. Beyond protecting the country from multiple and relentless threats, though, the IDF has proved essential in absorbing new immigrants, forging a sense of social cohesion, rescuing disaster victims, and instilling Israeli values in all of soldiers, irrespective of their religious, racial or ethnic background. Those principles are especially embodied by the reserve units that historically spearheaded Israel’s wars, which brought not only maturity and restraint but also a deeply ethical outlook to the battlefield.
All those virtues are now being questioned. Recent years has seen the rise of voices, including those of former senior officers, calling for transforming the IDF into a professional army not unlike that of the United States. With more than half of the population either exempt from or shirking service, they explain, and with fewer conscripts volunteering for combat units, the citizens’ army has become a myth. Instead of a universal draft which is at best selective and at worst prejudicial, the IDF should enlist willing recruits and pay them a respectable wage. And with only 25% of the eligible veterans reporting for periodic service, the reserve army, too, should be eliminated. A recent Israel Democracy Institute poll showed that, for the first time, a majority of Israelis favor getting rid of the draft.
The results would almost certainly prove disastrous. Within a generation, the ranks of the IDF would be filled by minorities and the socially disadvantaged, and its officer corps staffed by largely graduates of national religious schools. Moreover, the morale and fighting ability of such troops would become, in comparison to today’s highly motivated draftees, dangerously reduced. Battles would be fought not by reservists with ten or even twenty years’ experience, but by untried soldiers barely out of basic training. The check on military adventurism posed by an Israeli public invested with its parents and children will all but disappear.
Also eliminated would be the IDF’s historic role in absorbing immigrants, in settling the land, and uniting diverse segments of society. The army would also cease being an incubator for producing computer experts, engineers, and other technicians. Anybody who believes that Israel can privatize its military and remain the world’s leader in innovation is, quite simply, delusional.
Rather than transform the IDF, I maintain, Israel’s must reinforce its commitment to national service. This means investing heavily in educating Israeli youth about the virtues and benefits of such service. It means broadening the opportunities for all Israelis—religious Jews, Arabs, women and men—to devote at least two years to the betterment of their communities. Those who recoil from carrying guns must be able to wield a rake in a JNF forest, assist the elderly, or help operate a soup kitchen. They could work for the betterment of their own communities. And instead of dismantling reserve units, Israel must rebuild them and open them to veterans of civilian and humanitarian projects.
The IDF must remain the defender of our borders, the repository of our values, and the crucible for forging a cohesive Israeli society. The answer to the challenges facing the IDF lies not in reducing it to a voluntary franchise but in expanding it into a civic duty mandatory for all.
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