February 24, 2010

Working Introduction

February 22, 2010

       A provocative but poignant Israeli joke jests that Israel is not a state with a military, but rather a military with a state. In this paper I will examine the roots of this age-old camaraderie in assessing the ideological evolution of the Israeli Defense Forces in its formative years, 1947 to 1949. I will identify notable individuals and groups who contributed to establishing a national sentiment that embraced martial policy and eventually fostered the establishment of formal armed forces; transforming a victimized nation into a state that boasts one of the most powerful armies in the world. I will pay particular attention to the institution of universal conscription in binding the entire citizenry to this violent mode of conflict resolution. This research will be conducted in order to glean insights regarding the Israeli military’s place as an inextricable force within contemporary Israeli society, and often as a roadblock within the floundering peace process. In order to grasp the ideological evolution of the IDF and how it became inextricable from the state of Israel, I will examine the birth of military conscription as it coincides with the inception of the state of Israel. I hope to encourage future research on the premise that it is in Israel’s best interest to explore the realm of conflict resolution outside of the military framework. In an appendix I will attempt to locate other means of maintaining security, and harnessing civilian service such as formal establishment of universal community service, but will not delve into formal policy suggestions. Instating community service as an alternative to military service would give life back to the human right of choice in Israel, and provoke pursuance of alternative more effective methods for assuring security in Israel.

            2009, a full decade after the first protracted peace effort between Israel and Palestine, marked yet another wave of violence in the form of Operation Cast Lead, or The Gaza Massacre. Once again, the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) and Hammas aggressively butted heads at the cost of hundreds of civilian lives. Given the recurrence of such outbreaks, it is becoming dubious whether the Israeli and Palestinian governments indeed want to arrive at a peaceful resolution. The ratio of militaristic confrontations to diplomatic endeavors is at best 10:1. Due to Israel’s perpetual existential threat (in that it is deemed an illegitimate state by most neighboring Arab countries), national security is the state’s priority. In this respect, the IDF is seen as an undesirable but necessary reality in Israel, It has inadvertently become the latent crux upon which Israeli society functions, serving as the prime arbiter in Israeli-Palestinian relations. The vast majority of Israeli human resources and energy is channeled into its army, not to mention the state budget. Israel’s loyalty and commitment to its military is so strong that ever since its inception it has maintained a policy of universal military conscription. As a result, year after year, tens of thousands of 18-year-old Israelis are required to serve this institution, breathing life into the reservist army (Rolbant 79). 

            Despite Israel’s steadfast faith in its military institution, the IDF has not succeeded in achieving its official mission for the sustainable security and eventual peace of the state of Israel (dover.idf.il/doctrine). Contrarily, after over sixty years of existence, it often creates conditions for just the opposite. With well over a dozen wars and military confrontations in its fledgling existence, the IDF has arguably perpetuated violent relations between Israel and its neighbors. It has functioned as more of a short-term palliative for security and ephemeral peace, executing wars and staving off those to come. Each injustice committed that passes by without recompense or accountability fuels the fire of animosity and the desire for revenge.

        Palestinian opposition movements that are founded on militaristic principles are equally as detrimental in working toward a peaceable resolution, yet this paper will focus on the founding of the IDF, as many studies have been conducted to trace the roots of Palestinian use of violence to groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood (Hirst, 34). The ideological foundation of violence amongst the Jewish nation in Israel is not as widely examined. Questions examining the Jewish immigrants who founded the first “defense” organizations in Palestine, the countries from which they emigrated, and their use of violent conflict resolution, are not as widely researched. One notable commonality between Israeli and Palestinian employment of violent tactics is each respective nation’s desire to rebrand itself in a sense, from a weak defeated group to a strong and vigilant force. This concept will be explored in more depth later in this essay.

            I reference interdisciplinary sources including Israeli military history, social psychology, and peace and conflict studies (in which political science plays a role), using a historical lens. I source scholarly articles, essays, and history books, some of which are published by the non-military serving demographic, others by military and government officials. I selectively supplement my research with personal testimonials in order to accentuate the individual voices that are being agglomerated within the greater context of the soldier or resister identities, or cite public opinion polls. These personal accounts will serve to emphasize the human voices behind the statistics, but will not be used to directly claim or disprove the cases proposed. I anticipate counterclaims that violence is the only language that Israeli opponents in the Middle East speak, and to this I argue that diplomacy has not been sufficiently attempted. I also foresee assertions that once army service is made optional, within the century very few Israelis will enlist, and that the country is too small too afford such a loss of human capital within its army. To this I suggest, that within the century, with a shift toward civil service, Israel may know fewer wars, be less acquainted with violence, and have less of a need for armed forces. 

         Value of militarism is rooted in the founding of the state in 1948, yet today nearly 50% of the population does not enlist for various reasons; a decisive indication that it is high time for a change in tactic (Zelikovich, ynet). I argue that national security is better served in the long-term by a sustainable peacekeeping force. I am not concerned with abolishing the military altogether, or even downsizing it significantly, as I acknowledge the existential threat that Israel faces, and see the value of maintaining a strong, but not belligerent, security force. Rather, I would like to see choice and promise for peaceful alternatives infused back into Israeli society; opportunities availed for youth to contribute to their country through routes dissociated from the military. In Israel of all places, at age 18, a number that represents life in Judaism, youth should be agents of their own paths. Now more than ever, in light of Hamas’ unrelenting violence and potent hatred, the use of excessive force in the Israeli offensive on Gaza, international criticism of Israel’s military actions, an ever increasing number of youth resistors, and a confrontation with Iran in the future possible, the institution of military conscription in Israel is in urgent need of reevaluation. 

            David Hirst somewhat dramatically, but poignantly, describes the gravity of the conflict and forebodes a potential international future in his book, The Gun and the Olive Branch:

…the acts of violence here described are no more than episodes in an inexorably unfolding drama which, more than any other conflict of our times, raises passions among ordinary people—in the West, the Soviet bloc and Asia—far beyond the arena in which it is enacted; a drama, almost Lilliputian in origin, whose ever-widening dimensions could eventually plunge mankind into World War Three. (12)

Autobiographical Ramble

September 9, 2009

I was born to an Israeli mother and a North American father. My mother’s mother was born in Iraq, and her father in Bulgaria. My father’s parents hail from Pennsylvania, and his grandparents from Latvia, Lithuania, or Belarus. Their geographic point of origin has become hazy over time and with border shifting. So hazy, in fact, that we have taken to branding them with the terribly ambiguous title, “Eastern-European.” My parentage though, is lucid and accessible. While Pennsylvania is rich with history in its own right, the potency of the seemingly unsolvable riddle in Israel/Palestine, has continually called out to me.

As an avid follower of the machinations of my gut, I have come to know its personality well. I am quite easily seduced by different fields of study, and am quick to decide to explore new terrain. Once I’ve arrived, I have a difficult time settling and immersing myself in a field before something else catches my eye. I’ve dabbled in everything from theater, to South Asian studies, to environmental studies, to international relations, to art history. Yet, throughout my topical meandering, my gut will wrench without fail when I hear the words “Israel” or “Palestine.” After three years of pursuing an ever-evolving major, I am anxiously relieved to commit to a topic.

Maybe I have been lured by the authenticity of descent. Knowing that though my gut may lead me down divergent roads, my roots will ground me. Maybe I am too wary of pursuing a right or wrong career track, and in my cautious bandying about have landed on the one field I know to be ceaselessly relevant to my person. Or maybe this conflict really is as enthralling as I perceive it to be. I’m currently honing in on how I feel I can best contribute to its resolution.

Universal military conscriptiton was instituted in the state of Israel along with its birth in 1948. For over 60 years it has been mandatory for every 18 year old Israeli citizen to serve in the army for 2-3 years depending on gender and religion. Muslim Arabs, Orthodox Jews, and physically/mentally ill youth can be exempt. Once released from the army, most citizens are obligated to remain in the reserves for 30-40 years.

Throughout a semester studying in Tel Aviv, I met a fascinating group of young people. Youth who had found an avenue out of serving in the military. Not a subculture per se, not even a movement, really. Rather, a group of adolescents (18-24) who frequented the same cafes, bars, and cultural venues, and who all happened to have weaseled their way out of military service. Some feigned mental illness, others spent a short period in jail. I had easily dodged the draft years earlier, as I was not a resident of the country. Their stories are much more complex than mine, often involving a series of interviews, hiring psychologists to prescribe fake diagnoses, and a good deal of acting. Some choose not to serve on an ideological basis, others because they wanted to play music in New York, or study art in Paris. 

Regardless of personal justification, statistics affirm that there is undoubtedly a mounting resistance to serve. Approximately 50% of the population did not enlist in 2008. This is an incredibly taboo choice, and the country ostracizes the “shirkers”, prohibiting them from partaking in national events or applying for certain jobs. Beyond this particular group, there also exists a population of Israelis who consented to serve, but in retrospect wish they had had an alternative option. There has been an increase in soldiers leaving the army prematurely, and soldiers lashing out against the institution retrospectively. This trend has even entered popular culture, made most popular by Ari Folman’s animated documentary Waltz with Bashir. Furthermore, the large Muslim Arab population in Israel is unable to attain certain benefits as they are not required (arguably, not allowed) to serve, and this only serves to nurture disunity between Jews and Arabs. This societal division is hugely unjust, and warrants an entire thesis project in and of itself. 

I don’t feel it is my place to make judgments about the necessity of military force. I do not live in Israel, and I cannot attest to feelings of increased security and national solidarity. I do feel comfortable asserting that not everyone who lives in the country believes in the institution, therefore not everyone should be compelled to support it. Many proponents of military service argue that there is a role for everyone in the army, in that one can choose to play in the military band, write for the newspaper, work for the radio station, fly planes, etc. Even with a plethora of roles to play in the army itself, there is no place for someone who simply doesn’t want to enter into that world. It is my intention to try and locate how this military world came to dominate the state of Israel, and how the state can evolve into a more peaceable place. 

I plan to approach this topic by researching the establishment of the military in the state of Israel. I would like to use that period as a point of departure, as I cannot begin to make suggestions for institutional military reform, before I have a grasp on the origin of the institution itself. This foundation will inform any future research in the field as I explore universal civil service paradigms. I hope that readers of all stripes will relate to this topic in identifying with the humanistic principles of the rights to individual agency and ethical resistance.


September 6, 2009

This blog is an organizational tool for Talia Krevsky’s senior thesis project evaluating the policy of universal military conscription in Israel and exploring the realm of possibility for universal civil service. Its contents will reflect her creative process as it takes shape, which is likely to be quite amoebic. Feel free to glimpse meandering musings at your own discretion.