We hear it all the time: American society is becoming increasingly polarized. Haves and have-nots, right and left, choice and life…the list goes on and on. America is hardly homogeneous and it is composed of over 300 million people, so this disparity is hardly surprising. But underlying our country’s broad divergence of views lies America’s foundational philosophy: the sacredness of individual liberty. That might sound corny, but I believe in it. Hoodies Up, Westboro Baptist Church, and Scientology all exist side by side, largely without conflict. In short, Americans are free to believe and say what they want and are forced into very little (depending on who you ask, of course).
After concluding a 10-day trip to Israel, what stood out to me most about the country was the exact opposite. From what I saw, Israeli society was marked by continual, participatory or coerced (depending on who you ask) collective effort. Again, this is embedded in the history of the country. Many people who moved to Israel did so not only to escape persecution but also to participate in the building of a Jewish state.
The easiest way to think about Israeli collective effort is by looking at the Israeli Defense Force (IDF). In Israel, military service is compulsory: Two years for women and three years for men. Yes, that’s right, women serve in the IDF — and in nearly every position too.
The IDF was established in 1948, in close concert with the establishment of the State of Israel. This is no coincidence. Many Israelis consider the IDF central to their conception of the state itself. Given the number of conflicts that Israel has been involved in during its history, this should come as no surprise.
On my trip, I befriended a soldier who was in the midst of his three-year service. My new friend proved to be an excellent resource on the subject of the IDF and Israeli society in general.
Given the intense partisan views on the subject of Israel (see above: polarization), this article is not about my stance on Israel. Besides, who cares about another American’s view on the country? Instead, I offer an interview I conducted with my Israeli friend.
Alex S: Since I can’t ask you any personal questions, we can skip the opening trivialities and get right to the good stuff. I know you’ll appreciate this, given your (and the general Israeli) penchant for directness.
As we talked about many times, America is strongly marked by the idea of individual liberty. Israel, on the other hand, has a history of collective effort. Over the past century, many who have moved to Israel did so to be part of the nationwide project that is the building of a Jewish state. Is this brief history accurate? Does the characterization still hold true today?
Amos L: During the 65-year project that is Israel, it's safe to say that Israeli society's idea of individualism has greatly changed. It began as a society based on fusion between people from different countries and cultures to promote the cause of an independent and safe state. It has become one that is generally homogeneous in culture but extensively varies in political identity. Throughout this change, what certainly has been preserved is the DNA of involvement. Israelis are extremely keen to be involved in public affairs and consider their political opinions to be a key part of their identity. The current Israeli idea of individualism is largely based not only on one's ambitions for oneself, but on one’s ambitions for the overall society. I think this property distinguishes Israeli society from many other societies in the Western world.
AS: The IDF seems more in line with the idea of “old” Israel — social fusion. The IDF brings together Israel’s disparate population and puts them to work in close quarters for two/three years. For example, you told me about befriending a very Orthodox couple in your unit. The wife wasn’t even allowed to high-five you, since touching a man beside her husband is forbidden, but you’re still friends. It’s hard to imagine any place in the U.S. where an old Harvard Square hippie would be high-fiving a strictly observant Mormon wife. Do you find that the IDF is, in fact, a binding force in Israeli society? Or does it bring people together only for a couple of years and then send them back to their respective communities?
AL: The kind of encounters you have with people during your military service is very unique. You do very challenging work and experience extreme situations with them. So whether you like it or not, you get to really know people who are sometimes very different from you. It mostly binds, but sometimes it alienates even further. One thing it certainly does is help you develop your social identity and figure out your place in society. For me, getting to know many religious people made me recognize the differences and similarities between us, which made it easier for me to connect with them. I would imagine that's also true on their end. That feeling is something we will keep with us after we finish our service, even if you don't stay in touch. That is what makes the IDF a strong binding force in Israeli society.
AS: On the other hand, because the IDF binds many people together, it leaves others out. Indeed, the IDF is not required for ultra-Orthodox Jews, Arab-Israelis, or Bedouins (there are other exceptions, read here). What do you make of that? Does that isolate some already isolated communities even further?
AL: One of the principles of the IDF is that it is "the people's army." This is no cliché since every Israeli citizen can, and is welcome to join the lines. Although it's not mandatory for everyone, the IDF makes great effort to make it possible for all parts of society to join. This is true for disabled people, new citizens, as well as for people whose communities don't tend to join the military. For some of them, the fact that they do not serve is partly the cause and partly the symptom of the general isolation that characterizes their communities. Large parts of them don't vote, don't pay many taxes, and generally don't abide to the rule of law, following instead instructions from their community leaders. Of course, since most Bedouins, Israeli-Arabs, and Orthodox people are very well integrated, I'm referring only to certain parts of these communities. Integrating these parts into Israeli society is a long process that will take much effort, and it's true that the IDF could play a key part in it. A good example of this is the Druze minority in Israel, which has integrated very well in society largely because of their willingness to join the IDF. Some of the highest ranked generals currently in service are Druze. The same happened with large parts of the Bedouin community. Unfortunately, this is unlikely to happen with the Israeli-Arab community in the near future, as many of them deeply identify with people in the Palestinian territories, and will refuse to take part in the IDF actions there.
AS: The IDF was founded in the aftermath of the Holocaust with the notion that Hebrews had to defend themselves, since no one else would do it for them. Indeed, an Israeli teenager told me that the IDF was central to his very idea of Israel. When pressed, he told me he could possibly imagine a day when the IDF wouldn’t be necessary, but that day was surely not in his lifetime. Do you think the IDF is central to a concept of Israel?
AL: The important thing here is not to confuse cause with necessity. The IDF is essential to Israel in the sense that it ensures the safety of its people, but should not serve as a national cause. I've mentioned earlier the concept of "the people's army." One of the ideas that it implies is the notion that every citizen should join the IDF if he or she is able to, because the IDF is one of the things that bind us as a nation. It also implies that it's immoral to make only a part of the people carry the burden of national security. I do not agree with that idea. I think the IDF is a great tool for integrating different parts of the population together but that is not a justification for forcing the service on everybody. For instance, I'd prefer that the Orthodox community become more involved in public matters through community work rather than military service, if their presence is not critical in the IDF’s ranks. I'm also a fan of the policy of letting gifted musicians, dancers, and athletes serve for a shortened period of time in order for them to pursue their career at a young age. I think this should apply to other fields as well. Of course, this would harm the idea of equality that the army holds dear, and it might lower the soldiers' morale, but I don’t think the IDF should take precedence over all other aspects of society.
AS: Could you imagine a day when the IDF will no longer be a mandatory service? Is anybody, any political party, in Israel fighting for that to happen? Or does it seem like required service is something that will be in place for the foreseeable future?
AL: This idea has been brought up many times by different organizations. There were even a couple of governmental committees which discussed turning the IDF into a professional force, like in the U.S. The reason why it is not implemented is mainly practical. In case of overwhelming war, Israel simply does not have territory, and therefore time, to draft and train many people. So, keeping a constant force ready at all times, and a large reserve force for emergency, is crucial. This does not mean that the IDF can't be smaller and more efficient, but considering the constantly shifting environment that we live in, it unfortunately doesn't seem possible for the near future.
AS: In the U.S., the four years spent at college often have the effect of making people more liberal. Then, as people age, they grow more conservative. Are there certain prevailing opinions in the IDF? Is there a similar effect after serving in the IDF? I.e. it makes people more patriotic, or conservative, or conversely, more rebellious and independent.
AL: Generally speaking, being constrained by the military into a certain lifestyle for a long time makes you want to be more independent. While serving, you come to better appreciate the experiences that you actually choose to get yourself into. That's why most people go abroad for a long time after they finish serving. They try to experience as many different things as they can after this very limiting routine. Also, I mentioned earlier the effect that serving in the IDF has on shaping one's social identity. This is also true for shaping their views and values. Having such meaningful encounters with so many different people challenges your perspectives and makes you mature much more quickly. In effect, you are forced to begin taking on views that you will develop as an adult. I guess that's true for any intense and challenging experience, like going to college, travelling, or starting a new job, but as an Israeli, service often serves as this first intense experience.
AS: One Israeli described his time in the IDF in the following way: Imagine if you were stranded in the Sahara with a little food and a little water. Imagine then, that you somehow made it out alive. The entire time you would have been starving, thirsty, exhausted, and on the verge of death. Immediately upon making it home, imagine someone asking you, “Would you like to do that again?” Surely, you would say, “Absolutely not.”
But then imagine, especially given some time to reflect on the experience, someone asking you about your time in the Sahara. With the bad parts of the experience softened, you would probably say you did some things you never thought you were capable of and, in retrospect, are proud of what you accomplished.
This is obviously a bit extreme, but it seems to make a fair point. What do you think about this analogy? You’re still in the service, so perhaps it’s a bit hard for you to speak on this perspective, but I'm curious anyway.
AL: That's a great way to describe things. There's a saying in Hebrew that goes something like, "An ‘experience’ is 'struggle' in retrospect." Even while I'm still experiencing it, I can safely say that being faced with challenges that are unique to military service have shaped some important aspects of my character. When I was younger I felt a great need to make an impact on something bigger than myself. Serving in the IDF has filled some of this need, so I now feel more ready to go on with my own life, but I wouldn't trade the things I learned in the process.
AS: Just for fun – What’s the worst job in the IDF? The one that everyone jokes about or complains about. How about the best? The one that everyone would love to have.
AL: I hope I'm not insulting anyone, but I think the lamest one must be serving in the army police. Some of these guys' jobs focus on punishing other soldiers for things like not being shaved close enough or not having their shoes shined. I guess these things are important to keep discipline up, but these poor guys are the ones that everyone hates, fears, and mocks. As for the best ones, there are a couple of jobs that really let you bring out your unique talent. If you're a good instrument player, you can join the army orchestra and spend your time traveling from one gig to another, only you get salutes instead of cheers, and generals instead of groupies. There are also army theatre actors, band players, and journalists. The army radio is the most popular radio station in the country and doesn't broadcast nearly anything that has to do with the army. It's basically a bunch of young reporters, editors, and producers who are fortunate enough to get through their military service while making cool content for millions to tune in to. By the way, I heard the army newspaper is looking for some new journalists. Care to take one for the team?
On Israel in General
Two-state solution. You had to know I was going to ask something about it. It’s back in the news, with John Kerry declaring that peace talks are back on. On my trip, it seemed to be on the tip of every Israeli’s tongue. Your thoughts (somewhat briefly, if that’s possible)? Will foreign diplomatic intervention help at all?
AL: The two-state solution is the one that almost all political forces in Israel strive to implement eventually. The full complexity of the difficulties that have prevented its implementation so far are impossible to describe in this rather short interview. One of the factors that have held it back in recent time is the turmoil in the Arab world. For example, Egypt, an ally of Israel for almost 35 years, is reshaping as we speak, and its ability to keep co-operating with Israel in order to prevent terrorist attacks is in flux. In fact, the unrest all over the Arab world serves as a good way to think about Israel’s worry. Israel fears that the same could happen in the newly established state of Palestine. The current Palestinian authority's peaceful and diplomatic way to handle the conflict might shift into one similar to that of Hamas' terrorist regime in the Gaza Strip. If that happens to the Palestinian state, Israel will find itself with another enemy country, only one hour drive from Tel Aviv. Despite the recent complications, the future peace process is still a place for optimism. As you suggested, third party aid might really make a difference not only in diplomatic efforts, but also on the effort to ensure a secure border between the two states in the long run.
AS: I heard from many Israelis that they feel like they have a bad reputation abroad. Indeed, an Israeli friend told me that he often lied about his country of origin when traveling in Europe — he never knew how strangers would react to his being from Israel. How do you perceive Israel’s perception? Is it something you think about often?
AL: Judging by my experience, when people from Europe or the U.S. meet Israelis they are often surprised by the cultural similarities. I think this has to do with the somewhat narrow aspect of Israel that most people abroad are exposed to through the media. I can easily see how in many people's minds, Israel mainly relates to security issues in the Middle East. This fact bothers me, so my way to deal with it is trying to communicate with people from abroad as much as I can and being open about both of our perspectives on all matters, including on Israeli issues.
AS: Besides questions of national security, what are some of the hottest political issues in Israel right now? Much of the world is in economic crisis, particularly nearby Europe. How is Israel faring?
AL: Israel has held up pretty well during the economic crisis. Recently though, some cuts on government spending were employed, including major cuts in the IDF budget. Meanwhile, taxes were raised. Every one of these moves is obviously raising major public discussions, especially in light of a series of protests that have taken place in recent years, our version of Occupy Wall Street. Other than that, there were recently many discussions on actions to be taken in order to integrate the Orthodox community into the work market and into the IDF. This process is very touchy and challenging, but there seems to be more progress on it than in the past. I think that the next few years will bring about a turning point in the relations between the Orthodox community and the rest of the Israeli society.
AS: What about political issues that you think should get more emphasis than they do now?
AL: I'd like the Israeli political world to be more affected by the recent worldwide rise in the call to allow gay marriage. I think that most Israelis feel that this subject is very important, but it doesn't seem to draw much action from our politicians. This is probably due to the major control that religious bodies have over the institution of marriage, making it seem impossible to touch the issue. Hopefully, this will change in the future.
Well, that was a lot. If you have any other things you want to tell our audience, feel free. Favorite book? Favorite Russian-American female political philosopher? Best place to SCUBA in Israel? Thanks so much for your time and thoughtfulness!
I'll take the stage to invite readers to come and visit Israel. Believe me, the only ones that don't like the Israeli summer are the ones that have to wear uniform in it.