More equal than others

In Israeli public discourse, military service is often associated with equality: The call to force conscription on social groups that resist or avoid it goes under the slogan of “equal sharing of the burden” (there is, apparently, only one burden to bear in the Israeli society), and even under the slogan of “equality in blood”. Welfare authorities, schools, and community organizers often sincerely believe that the best way to ensure social mobility for underprivileged youth is through getting them all enlisted. The military is still viewed by many in Israel – in a mood of nostalgia for the old “melting pot society” Israel claimed to be in the 1950s and 1960s – as “the great equalizer”. This, however, has always been a myth, and the lie behind this myth becomes ever more visible as time goes by. Military service is in fact among the central generators and perpetuators of class, gender, and ethnic inequality in Israeli society, on all levels, and the militaristic social order it preserves only benefits the few in power at the expense of all the rest.

Whose blood is thicker?

Let us begin with the most emotionally charged part of the myth, that of “equality in blood”. All the young people who join the army – so the story goes – equally risk their lives for the protection of the homeland, and those who don’t join the army – don’t. Leaving aside the claims about protecting the homeland (which is not really the project the Israeli military is engaged and invested in), and the risk to soldiers’ lives (in recent years, the leading cause of death among Israeli soldiers has been suicide, followed by accidents and illness; actual combat, in the conditions of asymmetrical “low-intensity warfare” Israel carefully maintains, is, paradoxically, relatively safe, and by now lags far behind other causes of death for conscripts), let us focus on the claims about equality. Is the risk of death in combat really equally distributed among all the social groups represented in the Israeli army?


Israeli sociologist and political scientist Yagil Levy conducted a groundbreaking study that broke down the numbers of Israeli soldiers who died in combat according to social group (the English version of that study was published in: Yagil Levy. 2006. The war of the peripheries: A social mapping of IDF casualties in the Al-Aqsa Intifada. Social Identities, 12(3): 309–324; page references below are to this article). The study is groundbreaking not least because, “Unlike [in] other armies, the ethnic stratification of the IDF is one of the ‘sacred cows’ and no official statistics regarding the representation are available, as part of the discourse that portrays ‘the people’s army’ as being above the ethnic division in Israeli society” (p. 312).


In fact, though, Levy was able to find a clear pattern in where the casualties came from, and a stark difference between how that pattern looked in the first week of the First Lebanon War (June 1982), when the military command temporarily lost control over the situation (this happened again, to some extent, in the Second Lebanon War in 2006), and how it looked between 2000 and 2005 – a period during most of which the Israeli army conducted a business-as-usual policing operation in the West Bank and Gaza (“low-intensity warfare”, low-intensity for the Israeli side, that is). It turns out that despite there being universal conscription in Israel, most casualties came from among recent immigrants (mainly from the former USSR and Ethiopia), Palestinian citizens of Israel, and, to a lesser extent, from oriental-Jewish working class and lower middle class families (West Bank Jewish settlers were also over-represented among the casualties, but this has much to do with the fact that they reside in the main conflict zone, and many of them are organized as a local militia force under the auspices of the Israeli army).


Levy explains “the army’s tracking policy”: The riskier kinds of encounter with the occupied population are handled by “the Border Guard and the special policing units set up specifically for this purpose. The ranks of these units were filled with relatively high ratios of peripheral groups”, i.e. “groups with relatively low education” (p. 314). As for young people from higher-income and more educated families, especially of Ashkenazi-Jewish origin, many of them still joined combat units, but not the ones where there is serious danger of being killed or injured. “[T]hese youngsters maintained their aura of combat service but avoided the risk that that aura naturally entails” (p. 316).


As groundbreaking as Levy’s study is, though, it still bypasses the elephant in the room – the peculiar ethnic and religious distinction between Jews and non-Jews. Levy does mention one non-Jewish group in his study, namely, Israel’s Palestinian citizens. Conscription is de-facto not implemented to the bulk of Palestinian Israeli citizens, but men from two smaller Palestinian communities – the Druze and the Israeli Circassians – are conscripted. In addition, there is a small number of Palestinians (mostly Bedouins), who join the Israeli military as volunteers. In Levy’s data, Palestinians account for 7.5% of Israeli military casualties between late September 2000 and July 2005. This does not seem much (and in fact, this is a very low figure; Levy’s methodology was to use a rather inclusive definition of military casualties that counts in, e.g., those killed in training accidents, and probably also soldiers killed in Palestinian attacks on civilians in Israeli cities – groups from which Palestinian Israeli soldiers are almost absent). But what is the proportion of Palestinians in the ranks of the Israeli military in general? Well, in the period in question, the number of Palestinians who joined the army every year was around 1,000 (based on official demographic statistics, some media reports, and data reported by the Druze Initiative Committee). The overall number of conscripts who joined the Israeli army every year, on the other hand, was around 62,000. That makes Palestinians only about 1.6% of the total number of conscripts. Even if we count only men (around 36,000 a year; Palestinian women are not conscripted and none is known to have volunteered), Palestinians only make up about 2.8% of the force.


These data also receive support from more local and anecdotal evidence. Thus, military trackers are, according to standard military procedure, the first to make contact with suspicious persons and objects, making the tracker perhaps the most risky job in the military under the conditions of “low intensity warfare”. But the Israeli army recruits trackers exclusively from among the Bedouins (or so it did until recently; see: Anshel Pfeffer. Ethiopians replace Bedouin as IDF trackers at Dimona nuclear site. Ha’aretz, Nov. 1st, 2009). The job of the tracker becomes even more hazardous because the military command does not really trust Palestinian soldiers and withholds from them significant information about its own operations and plans in the areas they are stationed in (Anshel Pfeffer. IDF keeps Bedouin trackers in dark about Egypt border ops. Ha’aretz, April 7th, 2009). Druze soldiers, and especially Druze members of the Border Guard, are often put at the first line of contact with the occupied Palestinian population in the West Bank. The Desert Reconnaissance Battalion – a military unit composed almost exclusively of Bedouin and Druze soldiers (the few Jews are all among the unit’s commanding officers) – has received a large number of casualties during the Al-Aqsa Intifada (see, e.g., Nir Hasson. Bedouin unit has suffered many losses. Ha’aretz, Dec. 13th, 2004). And indeed, while for other combat units the Israeli army has a policy of rotation, where each unit is stationed in a given area for no more than a few months in a row, the Desert Reconnaissance Battalion was stationed in the city of Rafah, split by the border between the Gaza Strip and Egypt (perhaps the single most flammable spot of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict until the Israeli withdrawal from Gaza in 2005) for four straight years (see: Editorial. Discrimination in life and death. Ha’aretz, Dec. 15th, 2004).


Yagil Levy’s data lists immigrants from the former USSR and Ethiopia as accounting for 14.5% of the casualties, but he does not provide a breakdown of his data to distinguish between those among the immigrants who are considered Jewish according to religious law than those who are not. The latter group, making up about a quarter of the immigrants, does seem to be very prominently represented among the casualties. Or at least so it appears from the accounts often published in the Israeli media after incidents in which immigrant soldiers were killed – stories about these soldiers being buried outside the fence of a Jewish cemetery, or about their parents not being granted (or being now granted by special ministerial order) Israeli citizenship, or about their bodies being flown to this or that former-Soviet republic – all indicating that the soldiers were not Jewish. Unfortunately, the Israeli military is not keen to provide statistics to either support or refute this impression.


It should be stressed that we are not suggesting this pattern of casualties is the result of deliberate action by the military command, with some dark sinister motive behind it, not in most cases, anyway. It’s just that the social elites have quite some influence and bargaining power. They know how to influence their children’s (and their own) placement within the military. Moreover, the military command knows there is a differential political price to Israeli war casualties. Bereaved parents from Tel-Aviv could stage a political protest (the outrage over one incident in particular, in which soldiers from upper-middle class families were killed in Gaza in May 2004, was a major catalyst for the subsequent withdrawal from Gaza in 2005). Bereaved parents from a Bedouin unrecognized village in the Negev desert, on the other hand, wouldn’t stage a protest that mainstream Jewish society in Israel cares about, not to mention parents living in Russia. A military operation that results in the death of relatively many middle-class soldiers (as was the case in the Second Lebanon War) is perceived in the Israeli public and media discourse as a failure. It is therefore the explicit policy of the military command (as was the case, e.g., during Operation Cast Lead), when deploying regular forces on a mass scale, to avoid military casualties at all costs – even at the cost of increased risk to Israeli civilians in the (usually lower-class) communities located near conflict zones, not to mention the lives of Palestinian civilians. Thus, most of the actual risk in combat military service falls on a few special units that are stationed at or immediately next to zones of contact with the occupied Palestinian population, and the more troubled of Israel’s international borders. We already saw who usually staffs these units.

“Quality” and inequality

But enough about casualties. Enough about blood. Let’s talk about money instead. After all, many Israelis who completed their term of conscription (that’s about 45% of a yearly cohort of Israeli citizens) complain that they have been put at a disadvantage – in the two or three years they spent in the army, their “draft-dodger” peers could have worked and saved money, or could have gotten a degree. To compensate for this perceived loss (and out of a desire to promote ethnic discrimination), Israeli politicians have enacted and proposed a variety of measures that reward Israelis who served in the army through the tax code, through various state benefits, and also thought denying those who did not serve in the military access to basic rights and to employment opportunities (the only proposal that for some reason was never seriously discussed is direct remuneration to soldiers from the defense budget in the form of a decent salary). On the other hand, as mentioned earlier, immigrant youths and youths from disadvantaged communities are encouraged to join the army – the “melting pot”, the “great equalizer” – as a way to become part of the mainstream of Israeli society, to get ahead.


These two views seem incompatible: is military service a boon or a bust? And indeed, these views are incompatible. The funny thing, though, is that they are both wrong. With some caveats, it would be fair to say that military service is a sound investment for the haves and a waste of time (with some added trauma) for the have-nots. In many ways, the Israeli military exploits, but also perpetuates and exacerbates, economic inequality in Israeli society.


Units and functions in the Israeli army significantly differ from one another not only in the amount of risk they involve, but also in the amount of benefits they provide. At one end of the continuum, the few who reach senior ranks in the military get the best bargain any job in Israel can offer: They get to retire in their 40s, and keep their five-digit pensions while starting a new high-paying career – in the top echelons of national or local politics, as directors and CEOs of major Israeli firms or heads of various public administrations, as school principals, journalists, academics – you name it. As the blurb on a website of one prestigious military academy goes, “all the doors are open”. Being drafted into one of the military units that works with computers is also quite useful: a high-paying career in the high-tech sector awaits you upon your release; no need to go to college (see, e.g., United Press International. Unit 8200 and Israel’s high-tech whiz kids., June 4th, 2012). The military print magazine, and especially the two (extremely popular) military radio stations are also a charm – the vast majority of journalists, presenters, and editors in the Israeli national press, radio, and TV started their careers there. Joining a military band is not as sure to produce a glamorous show-biz career as it did 40 years ago, but it still helps. The benefits of serving in the intelligence corps, the air force, the navy, or in one of the combat army units mainly staffed by the elites are perhaps less immediate, but no less tangible. The social ties developed in these military units are later realized in the job market and mentioning such units always looks good in a CV. The old boys’ network works very extensively in Israel.


Of course, it doesn’t work all that well if you are a woman or a Palestinian – even the few women and Palestinian who reached senior military ranks had to settle for relatively lackluster second careers. It also doesn’t work all that well in the Border Guard and in other combat units to which the less fortunate are channeled. Here, the best soldiers can hope for, career-wise, is to stay on as career soldiers (or police officers in the Border Guard), in the lower ranks. But then, young people from immigrant and working-class families, as well as young Druze and Bedouin men, would often still view this as a lucky turn of events, given the few career options many of them have. Serving in a blue-collar type of job (a driver, warehouse worker, junior technician, etc.) is almost a waste of time in career terms. At most, you may have slightly improved chances at getting the same type of job later as a civilian, or having been trained in handling firearms in boot camp, you may earn some peanuts as a security guard.


Women also have very limited opportunities available in the military. Some will receive basic training in teaching or some sort, leading to a low-paying career in the education system, if they want one. Almost all others will end up doing office work. Only rarely will this yield any useful contacts for a future career. If they want to get ahead in life, they should do it the hard way. Given the high rates of sexual harassment and other sexual violence female soldiers are exposed to (see, e.g., Dana Weiler-Polak. Few sexually harassed female IDF soldiers report abuse. Ha’aretz, Jun. 9th, 2010; Yuval Azoulay. Don’t report sexual harassment, many female soldiers seem to think. Ha’aretz, Jun. 24th, 2009), many of them lose the drive to do so. Military service does much to put women “in their place” – that is, in the place the patriarchal and militarist social order assigns to them.

How does the army determine whom among the conscripts to send to the more rewarding units and jobs, and whom to send to the less rewarding (and sometimes more risky) ones? Well, as noted above, gender is one consideration – while the Israeli army has moved (following a Supreme Court ruling) in the direction of allowing women greater access to combat units and roles, this only applies de facto to a small minority of young women (and, from a feminist perspective, has had rather dubious effects – as reflected in studies by Israeli feminist scholars: Orna Sasson-Levy. 2003. Feminism and military gender practices: Israeli women soldiers in “masculine” roles. Sociological Inquiry, 73(3): 440–465; Noya Rimalt. 2007. Women in the sphere of masculinity: The double-edged sword of women’s integration in the military. Duke Journal of Gender Law & Policy, May). Most female soldiers in Israel are still placed in one of the traditionally “feminine” units and jobs. There are also some units and functions specifically designed to be staffed by particular social groups. We already mentioned that Bedouin soldiers are placed as trackers and noted the overwhelmingly Palestinian Desert Reconnaissance Battalion. To this we may add the recently-formed special combat units that host those among the ultra-Orthodox Jewish men in Israel who decide to enlist (most use the option they have to indefinitely defer military service, under the condition that they don’t work and devote their time to religious study).


But above all, military placement is based on the military authorities’ assessment of the young recruits’ “quality” (military officers, even today, commonly speak of people and social groups as having a higher or lower intrinsic level of “quality”, without appearing politically incorrect), as initially determined in a brief series of tests administered in the course of the so-called “first call-up”, which most Israelis pass at the age of 16 or 17. “First call-up” procedures include medical tests, intelligence tests, a personal interview (optional for women), and a more formal interview, in which personal and demographic information about each potential conscript is added to her or his military record.


The precise formula according to which conscripts’ “quality” rating is determined has never been made public. It has long been thought (see, e.g., Meir Amor. 2010. The mute history of social refusal in Israel Defence Forces (IDF). Sedek, 5: 32–41 [Hebrew], also on the Mizrahi Democratic Rainbow Coalition’s website) that such factors as class (directly, or by referring to place of residence as proxy) and ethnicity (for Jews – the country of one’s own or one’s parents’ birth) figure directly in that formula. There is some anecdotal evidence to support this. Thus, some especially poor quarters in Israeli cities have traditionally had distinctly low enlistment rates, due to most young people there being “below the enlistment threshold”. Raanana (pseudonym), a former instructor in the Naale program (which encourages adolescents, mainly in the former USSR, to immigrate to Israel without their families) told New Profile about this program’s policy: “They encourage the participants to take the sorting tests for the military in their native language, usually Russian, even though many are quite fluent in Hebrew as well, saying it will be easier for them. But the army has a policy that if you take the tests in a language other than Hebrew you’re automatically put in a lower classification, which means that many of the programme’s participants who join the army can only serve in menial jobs like drivers and cooks” (The New Profile report on child recruitment in Israel, p. 26). But even if such demographic factors do not figure directly in the way conscripts’ “quality” is calculated, it is evident and well known that conscripts’ “quality” is neatly correlated with their parents’ social status. It is also well documented (see, e.g., Orna Sasson-Levy. 2002. Constructing identities at the margins: Masculinities and citizenship in the Israeli army. The Sociological Quarterly. 43(3): 353–383) that it is above all this measure of “quality” that determines the placement of conscripts within the military, and placement within the military, in the highly-militarized Israeli society, strongly affects one’s social status and chances of social mobility.


And it is not only within its own ranks that the Israeli military engenders inequality. It is no coincidence that the two poorest groups in Israeli society – Palestinian Israeli citizens and ultra-Orthodox religious Jews – are groups most of whose members are not conscripted. There are many official and unofficial forms of discrimination against people who have not served in the army in Israel, in the job market in particular. Where these forms of discrimination really start to bite, though, is when they combine with ethnic and other discrimination and prejudice. The Israeli state and most of its Jewish population discriminate against Palestinian Israeli citizens in thousands of ways. But the excuse that “they don’t serve in the army” does much to make this discrimination seem legitimate, even fair, to many. Thus we see many Israeli employers advertising jobs for which applicants are required to be “after military service”. The subtext, in many such cases, is “we don’t employ Arabs”, but the framing allows such employers to state their bigotry in socially acceptable, even “politically correct” terms.


So, in the end, there is a basic fault with attempts to promote equality through and in military recruitment. Militarism, in its very essence, generates and promotes inequality – between “us” and “them”, between “the fighter” and “the woman at home”, between those fit to fight and those not, and through the rigid hierarchical structure of the army itself. The road to greater equality passes through demilitarization.