Written by: Erin Parfet

Israel Defense Forces

The Israel Defense Forces (IDF) emerged from various pre-existing Jewish armed organizations and played a pivotal role in several significant conflicts,  the War of Independence, the Six-Day War and the Yom Kippur War. Over time the IDF has evolved over the years to include advancing military technologies and adjust to various geopolitical dynamics in the region. Its primary mission is to ensure the existence, security, territory, and sovereignty of the State of Israel while deterring enemies and eradicating terrorism within Israel’s borders.

Prior to the Statehood of Israel in 1948, there were various independent armed groups that provided military defense to Israel: the Haganah, Palmach, Lehi, Etzel, and the Irgun Zavai Le’ummi. After Israel became a state in 1948, the newly formed government determined it was appropriate to establish a single military force that would represent the government of Israel.

Dubbed Ordinance Number 4 and signed into provision by Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion on May 28, 1948, this single, unified force comprised of land, naval, and air forces would become known as the Israel Defense Forces. Other armed and resistance groups in Israel then disbanded per government court orders, and participants in those groups then joined the IDF. This would become the first Jewish military in more than 2000 years.

Israel designed its military so that no other armed military group could come into existence and compete with the Israel Defense Forces. Conscription would be required in a state of emergency, and those serving in the Israel Defense Forces would be required to pledge their loyalty to the State of Israel, its laws and associated legal system. The process of establishing the Israeli Defense Forces would be greatly accelerated by the fact that Israel was in the process of fighting invading forces from neighboring Arab countries at the time the Israeli Defense Forces came into existence. It was then the IDF that would take on the Arab Liberation Army and the Fedayeen (military groups willing to sacrifice themselves) and liberate Israel from the control of Mandatory Palestine using any combination of cross-border night raids, ambushes, covert operations, and surplus military equipment from the Second World War.

Today, there is a relatively small standing army, a standing navy, and a standing air force. Then there are reservists who periodically attend training or other mandatory service requirements but are not called up for actual service unless there is a national crisis or declaration of war. Women will often serve for two years, while men will actively serve for three years. In terms of the reserves, single women are only required to serve in the reserves until age 24, whereas men will be required to standby in the reserves until upwards of 51 years of age.

This resulting military would uphold a code of ethics (“toharat haneshek"), including the “purity of arms,” or essentially a concept declaring that the IDF would only utilize arms in the case of defending the Israeli homeland, and even in that case, with meticulous care and precision, to protect innocent civilian lives to the greatest extent insofar as is possible. The goal of the IDF is to be defensive rather than offensive, rapidly mobilizing forces that can overwhelm Israel’s enemies, with a focus on protecting innocent lives even amid conflict.

There are a variety of posts one can serve, even down to the military band, while the elite commando unit is the most prestigious and therefore one of the most competitive service opportunities available to young Israelis serving their nation. Teenagers who are enlisting in the military are often celebrated with great fanfare within their families. There may be parties and emotional videotaped farewells.

From a social perspective, the military has functioned as a social and cultural equalizer for immigrants who have come to Israel and for Israelis from all walks of life, whether it be the kibbutz or suburbia, given that all individuals, male and female, immigrant, or Sabra (native Israeli), are required to enlist and serve two years in the military. The requirement to enlist and serve extends to Jewish people as well as secular people, including males who are of other ethnic or cultural heritages such as Druse or Cherkessian, while Israeli males who are Bedouin are more inclined to volunteer for drafts.

An exemption for compulsory military service is for the ultra-Orthodox citizens of Israel, as these individuals are often studying at yeshivot (religious academies) at this chapter in their lives. Some Israeli citizens are not thrilled about and even bitter over the exemption for religious studies, especially among those Israelis who happen to be more secular in their beliefs, believing the secular people are carrying the military weight and burden of the religious people within Israel. Originally, the military exemptions for the ultra-Orthodox may have also been instituted to help generate ultra-Orthodox support for the State of Israel and its military; originally, David Ben Gurion exempted a few ultra-Orthodox students, but a couple prime ministers later, the exemption applied to all the ultra-Orthodox citizens of Israel.

There was enough contention over the issue that the Israeli Supreme Court ordered the Knesset (oversees Israel’s government work) to try to resolve the matter through official state legislation in the late 1990s under the guise of “equality.” This resulted in Tal Law, which was basically legislation cementing the exemptions for military service for those participating in Jewish religious life, and this outraged the secular civilians of Israel even more. This outrage led to the Tal Law being deemed unconstitutional in 2012.

The matter is likely to never resolve, with the Ultra-Orthodox resisting and openly dissenting any requirement that they serve in the military, while the secular demographics of the country remain bitter at what they perceive as unfair advantages extended to the Ultra-Orthodox but not their own children or their own lives. Approximately 10 percent of the ultra-Orthodox participate in IDF service, compared to roughly 88 percent of those who do not come from ultra-Orthodox backgrounds.

In 2021, the Israeli government briefly convened without any religious parties in representation, and some anticipated that it might be a rare moment in history that legislation would be passed that would require the military service of the ultra-Orthodox. This composition of the government quickly dissolved, however, and the government that arose in its place did consist of significant representation by two major religious parties that resisted mandatory military service. This resulted in conversations about potentially lowering the age of exemption or increasing benefits to those who do serve rather than whether the ultra-Orthodox should be required to serve in the military or not. The Ultra-Orthodox have wanted the government to officially recognize Torah study as a sufficient alternative activity to replace either national service or military service.

Orthodox women who may be hesitant to participate in a secular military force may have the option of volunteering 1-2 years of their time in Sherut Leumi. Sherut Leumi is a national service opportunity focused on volunteer opportunities in hospitals, nursing homes, and similar opportunities.  It serves as an alternative for any Israeli citizens who cannot or choose not to serve in the IDF. 

Another exception for compulsory military service is extended to the Arabs who call Israel home because of potential struggles with fighting friends and relatives who are serving in the militaries of neighboring Arab nations. Some view this as a negative thing from a social and economic perspective for Arabs living in Israel, because some view Israeli military service as a place of job training and social connections that benefit participants long beyond the two years in the military, and those exempt from such a requirement miss out on a foundational social and vocational training opportunity that could serve them well in future civilian careers and trades.

There are also  specific exemptions granted to individuals studying in certain programs within Israel’s universities and to some immigrants. The eligibility for these exemptions depends on factors such as when they come to the country and the status of their overall immigration situation. As a result, some immigrants may be exempt from mandatory military services, while others may serve for shorter periods of time depending on their individual circumstances. 

As an alternative, some have proposed various forms of national service that allow these Arab citizens living in Israel a chance to meaningfully contribute to their country of citizenship, even if that service is outside the realm of the Israeli military, but largely, these ideas have not gained meaningful traction in any demographic within Israel.

Christians have been increasingly represented in Israel’s military service since there has been greater focus on soliciting their participation since 2012, but their numbers are very low, perhaps only a few hundred.

Soldiers may then go on to become officers, which may obligate an individual to an additional year of service beyond the required years. There is a hierarchy within all the different branches of the IDF, as well as different geographical divisions of the IDF that focus on either the northern, central, or southern portions of the small, New Jersey-sized nation. Additional opportunities may be available in logistics, personnel, distribution of gas masks to civilians, medical services, media and communications, education, photography, and so forth. During one’s military service, there may also be opportunities to establish new agricultural outposts adjacent to some military bases, often in the more rural portions of the country.

Some choose to make a career out of the military, and there are some decent benefits and pension plans available to those who choose to make a vocation out of the military. Educational, recreational, and social support services are available to those who serve in the IDF as the nation tries to somewhat more holistically provide assistance to their men and women in the military. In many cases, there might be Hebrew language instruction available to immigrants or remedial education provided to those military servicemen and women in need of such additional educational benefits, especially if those individuals came from other countries and did not have the best educational opportunities available to them as children.

There might be military operations that focus on humanitarian efforts or disaster relief within Israel, dispatching educational services to disadvantaged areas, or helping recruit teachers for  underserved schools.

For those who choose to leave the military after their two to three years of service, it is often the training, the responsibilities, and the friendships forged during these years that open doors to future job opportunities. There is some prestige associated with those who make it to the higher-ranking positions within the military, and that prestige, along with social connections and the training and know-how in security, often paves the road to political careers in Jerusalem for those who are so inclined and who don’t pivot into careers in the IDF headquarters. The road to the Prime Minister’s office, for example, is often paved through connections and opportunities forged during compulsory military service.

Volunteers from more than 70 countries around the world (with a large representation of the United States) have come to Israel to help fight in the IDF. Because these individuals are coming to Israel and do not have a family, social support, or knowledge of Israel in most cases, they are often based in certain battalions and positions, as Israeli citizens participating in the military are orphans, otherwise lacking family, or may have family alive but their family does not live in Israel whether year-round or for part of the year. Jewish volunteers wanting the opportunity to serve in the IDF have also hailed from such diverse places as China, Thailand, Honduras, and France, primarily within the past decade.

As we trace the contours of the relatively short history of the Israeli Defense Forces, we gain insights not only into the military itself but also into the ongoing narrative of a nation’s unwavering dedication to protect its people, relentlessly pursuing peace and security in a region that is a geopolitical tinderbox. The IDF’s success is attributed to not only its advanced weaponry and the caliber of its soldiers but also to the belief that it has been further aided by the “God of angel armies” over the years.

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