Lately a number of prominent chareidi politicians have called for Israel to move from an army based on conscription to a professional army. The advantage for the chareidi community from such a proposal is obvious enough: If military service were no longer mandatory for most of the population, and the IDF had to rely on economic incentives to attract soldiers, there would cease to be any basis for attacks on yeshivah students for not serving.
The goal is certainly a worthy one, but the solution strikes me as impractical in the extreme. I would go further and argue that it would result in the end of the State of Israel.
First, let’s consider the impracticability of the suggestion. Because Israel is numerically dwarfed by the populations of its immediate neighbors and is incapable of maintaining standing armies remotely close to the size of those of its neighbors, the IDF has always relied on a large number of reserves in combat situations. Even in confrontations confined to a single battlefront — the Second Lebanon War, Operation Defensive Shield in the West Bank, Operation Cast Lead in Gaza — the IDF was forced to call up large numbers of reserves.
But reserves require training. Each reserve combat soldier has previously done combat service in the regular army, and received extensive training over the period of regular army service. The cost of a standing army equal in size to today’s regular army plus reserves would be prohibitively expensive. Nor does Israel have that kind of manpower available. One of the reasons that Israel was forced to launch a preemptive attack in the Six Dar War was that it could not afford to keep reserves mobilized for weeks at a time. The accompanying economic loss to the country was simple unsustainable.
Nor can Israel afford what it would cost to recruit the quantity and quality of soldiers it would need. To an ever-growing extent, the most important soldiers in today’s IDF are not in the elite combat units, but those in technical and intelligence units. As Start-Up Nation describes, much of the impetus for Israel’s astounding high-tech success and innovation has its roots in the years of regular army service.
Those who comprise those technical units could be well on their way to their first million dollars, even first ten million, while still in their late teens. If they had a choice of serving or not, it is doubtful the IDF could possibly compete with the private sector for their services. And without them, Israel’s qualitative edge over its enemies would shrink.
WHILE THESE ARGUMENTS are, in my mind, sufficient and compelling, the greatest cost to Israel would an intangible, but very real, blow to its human capital. Among Western democracies today, Israel is the only one in which the natural human instinct towards self-preservation has not atrophied. Israel is unique among Western democracies today in its willingness to defend itself. In both the United States and Europe, military service is confined to a very small segment of the population. Among this small segment the concept of “serving one’s country” still exists. The rest of the population — and this is especially egregious in the European social democracies — conceives of the state almost exclusively in terms of the benefits it confers.
Those who have willingly turned themselves into dependents on the state lack the will or energy to defend themselves. Europe long ago stopped spending on its own defense, and has relied on the American defense umbrella for decades. Nowhere has the failure of will manifested itself more clearly than in the pusillanimity of European elites with respect to the Islamic takeover of their countries.
While Israelis have been swept up more than once in messianic hopes for peace, when reality has reared its ugly head in the form of bellicose neighbors, they have looked it in the eye and done what needed to be done.
True, the dangers confronting Israel are more immediate and obvious than those confronting Europe (economic collapse aside). But I don’t think that fully explains the difference. Europe has been sapped of its energy, even to the point of being unable to produce another generation of non-Muslims. Israel, by contrast, is full of energy and dynamism, and, despite all the threats, optimism about the future. The birthrate among Jewish women is the highest in the developed world — and that would be true even without large Orthodox families.
Israelis are not servile in the manner of Europeans. And part of that surely has to do with the fact that they spend years fighting for their country. They learn early on that existence cannot be taken for granted but must be defended and fought for. That lesson does not intrude on the consciousness of Western youth for whom national defense is just another service that the government provides.
A sense of duty, the willingness to be moser nefesh for something bigger than oneself are not qualities that frum Jews have to be taught. Nor does a yeshivah student who learns 15 hours a day lack discipline. But until all Israeli Jews have found their way to Torah, it is crucial for Israel's long-range viability that there be other sources of these qualities.
THE SHARED EXPERIENCE of military service also creates a level of national cohesion in Israel absent in other Western democracies. As an expatriate observing the national dialogue in the United States from afar, I’m appalled by the vitriol traded by Left and Right — from talk radio on the Right to those on the Left who view those who do not share their political views as sloped-foreheaded, knuckle-dragging morons.
Part of the problem is that many Americans go through life without meeting anyone different from them. One can pass four years on elite university campuses without ever getting to know someone who does not share one’s unexamined liberal politics. Ruth Wisse, a professor of Yiddish at Harvard, told me recently about a Jewish student who told her that she felt guilty about working on the 2008 Obama campaign. When Professor Wisse asked why, the young woman replied, “Because I’m for McCain.” But she felt she could not let anyone know, lest she find herself totally ostracized by her peers.
The American military is drawn almost entirely from certain geographical regions and population groups. One could spend many years in the armed services without meeting anyone from an upper-middle-class suburb of a major city, especially if the city is in a blue state.
In Israel, almost every military unit includes those of diverse political, social, and, to some extent, religious views. In combat, one’s life may well depend on those from very different social or cultural backgrounds. One can never hate or even dismiss others from different backgrounds in the same way after they have been comrades in battle.
FINALLY, THE CONFRONTATION with death tends to produce more serious people. Some of the most impressive baalei teshuvah I have ever met were former combat pilots. During their years of training and service, pilots live with the awareness that at any moment, the slightest failure — whether theirs or of their plane — can result in instant death.
About 30 years ago, a reporter from Time Magazine came to Ohr Somayach to interview some students on the baal teshuvah phenomenon. I chirped away harmlessly trying to prove to the reporter that becoming religious was not a contradiction to intellectual sophistication.
Then the only Israeli in the group told the reporter that there is something akin to a powerful chemical reaction when a Jewish soul first confronts Torah. The reporter replied, “So you like learning Torah very much.”
He looked at her with eyes that I was sure would turn her to a bag of bones, and responded, “You didn’t understand anything I said. I’m telling you that just as certain chemicals will react under certain conditions, so there is in the metaphysical realm such a relation between the Jewish soul and Torah.”
Though he and I were approximately the same age, I felt like a silly high school sophomore in his presence. The difference, I concluded, was that I had coasted all my life, while he had faced death as the commander of a navy patrol boat.
Obviously military service in Israel does not cause everyone to become religious. And the virtues instilled in service – courage, teamwork – are not automatically transferred to the civilian realm. But, on average, I do think the experience does make Israelis deeper people than their secular counterparts elsewhere in the world.
Those are not qualities we can afford to lose.
Love that UN
Sometimes you want to pinch yourself from happiness to make sure you are not dreaming. I experienced that feeling upon reading of the UN’s appointment of Robert Mugabe as an International Envoy for Tourism.
Not that I’m a particular admirer of Mugabe, the long-time dictator of Zimbabwe, who has developed a nasty habit of imprisoning political opponents — if they are lucky — or otherwise eliminating them, and seizing any private property that catches his fancy or can be used to pay off his goons. Even the left-wing Guardian describes him as a serial human rights violator, “accused of ethnic cleaning, rigging elections, terrorizing opposition, controlling media, and presiding over a collapsed economy.”
Moreover, he is an odd choice as a champion of international travel, inasmuch as he is subject to EU and US travel restrictions, which greatly limit his own travel options.
Nevertheless, I view this as the greatest appointment since Libya headed the United Nations Human Rights Council. For it reveals the true nature of the United Nations: a body the majority of whose members do not meet minimum standards of democratic government.
The appointment raises, in the sharpest possible fashion, the question: How can the Obama administration continue to treat resolutions of the UN — even the Security Council — as a necessary or sufficient condition for the legitimization of international action?