A Tribute to the Israeli Defense Forces

The Israel Defense Forces are so much more than the picture of raw power perceived in news stories and war-centered history books.  The IDF functions on a daily basis employing stealth and deception in the battle against Israel's unremitting enemies.

Pre-1967, the state and military were perceived as underdogs fighting the good fight against all odds.  The devastating effectiveness and efficiency with which the IDF knocked out and embarrassed Arab armies changed the perception of the IDF and the Jewish people into a conquering military machine.  The success was so decisive that it altered the mindset of the Jewish people from ragtag refugees and the world's piñata into a "don't mess with me" poster child.  Jews are now tough and invincible.

Centuries-long persecutions of the Jewish people, the Enlightenment culminating in the Holocaust, paved the way for implementing the revolutionary thinking called Zionism.  A homeland by legal authority, defended by a Jewish army, morphed into a political ideology, then a state.  Yet there is room for those who also believe in diplomacy, democracy, and prayer.

Security and safety are the central missions, but the IDF is also the vehicle to assimilate and acculturate refugees, immigrants, and native residents of other races and faiths.  The IDF accepts people from disparate cultures arriving from the far corners of the world...white, black, brown, religious and secular, Jew, Bedouin, Arab, Christian, or Druze, educated and illiterate, survivors and sabras.  They meet in IDF tents, on IDF training grounds.  Their lives literally depend on one another.

It's the IDF that is responsible for the Jewish condition today that among the world's 65M refugees, there is not one Jew for the first time in 2,000 years.  Yoav Limor and Ziv Koren offer the best examination of the IDF in their new book, Snapshot: The IDF as Never Seen Before.  "Either [the IDF] is fighting, or else it is preparing for war."  In between battles, "the purpose of this state is to carry out quiet activity to eliminate the enemy's capabilities and prevent an all-out war."  Special units travel the world and inside the country to fulfill this mission against unremitting enemies.

The 2017 Democracy Index pins the IDF by Israelis as the most trusted institution, vastly exceeding the number of Israel's citizens who declared their trust in any other institution of the state – more than the presidency or the Supreme Court.  There are plenty of structural cracks: enormous stress from supporting a high-tech volunteer military, diminishing domestic needs and priorities, costs to morale, and shifting agendas from pressures by decorous political and public relations vagaries.

For instance, military commanders worry about why some people serve in the IDF and others are exilic, willing to risk government benefits and jobs in civilian life.  Military service, largely accepted as the ultimate contribution to society, is shattered when resistance to military service grows.  Without a volunteer army, Israel will be vastly different.  Limor and Koren retell a conversation between Brig. Gen. Eran Shani and his daughter: if there was no mandatory service, would she enlist?  "Maybe I would contribute to society in another way – science, medicine, or academia."  The conversation about eliminating the draft in favor of an all-volunteer military is gaining traction, with one candidate in the next election making this a cornerstone of his campaign.

There is barely debate in Israel about the IDF budget for 2019, topping $116B, nor a blink of the eye when the prime minister decides to authorize an additional $8B missile defense plan.  Then there are donations from Friends of the IDF in the Diaspora, like the Beverly Hills division that raised $54M and the N.Y. division that raised $35M.  Why?  Because supporters of Israel realize the omnipresent existential threat, notwithstanding Israel's critics, who perceive the state as invincible and thus immoral.

The rule of engagement in the Middle East is that for every action, there is an unintended consequence.  Hamas building attack tunnels stimulates new technologies to destroy tunnels.  But tunnels were one of the considerable factors contributing to the military collapse in Vietnam.  While tunneling terrorists are not an existential threat, they have a powerful demoralizing effect on the population.  Moreover, Israelis live with a siege mentality, evidenced by politics shifting more to the right over the decades.  It is not uncommon to hear calls for wiping out Hamas kite attacks.  Who can say where that will lead?  Perhaps political decisions like giving no more quarter to Hamas will push for Israel to take on nuclear Turkey and Iran?

Israel requires clear-headed explanations about security and safety, military technology and prowess, and the military's impact on social and political institutions.  The IDF is, to paraphrase, a lurching work in progress.  While politics may be a poisoned chalice, the IDF is what protects the state, thus the Jewish People, from becoming an endling.  Behind every weapon is one of Israel's children, and it is in their hands that we put our faith.

A final story.  My 20-year-old soldier son once called and said, "I won't be calling you for a few days.  We're going somewhere, and we can't take our cell phones.  The Arabs track our phones just as we track theirs."  Two nights later, he called and whispered, "Hi, Dad."  Surprise in my voice, I asked him why he was calling, why we were whispering, and was he in danger?  "Yeah, but you know this isn't a real army.  They're all kids.  My commander is 19, and all of us are calling our moms and girlfriends.  Don't worry; I'll be fine."  

Harold Goldmeier (harold.goldmeier@gmail.com) is a public speaker on business, social, and political issues.  He is an award-winning leader, teaching international university students in Tel Aviv.  He was a research and teaching fellow at Harvard.

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