Middle East | July 8, 2012 at 3:34 pm

The Israeli Defense Force and National Identity

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Israeli soldiers raising the flag at Eilat, 1949.

As my research in Israel on philosophical issues surrounding military conscription progresses, I have begun to reflect on my experiences thus far. One particular idea that I have repeatedly encountered in both my research and everyday conversations with Israelis is the role that the military service plays in forming the bonds that underlie Israeli society. In fact, the friendships formed while serving together continue to play an important part in the lives of Israelis even after their service has ended. It appears to me, however, that an additional bond is forged as a consequence of the military, namely that between the individual citizen and the State.

Due to more or less universal conscription, it is safe to assert that the Israeli military is truly a citizens’ military—with most eligible citizens choosing to serving in the military. To most people, military service represents the most conscious experience of the state they will ever have: with an actively engaged military, the very lives of some conscripts are conditional upon the success of the State and fellow soldiers. That is, combat units oftentimes depend on the State and fellow citizens to optimize military institutions, provide accurate intelligence and undertake diplomatic efforts. This society-wide cooperation that forges bonds among citizens with widely differing socioeconomic backgrounds also seems to profoundly influence Israeli perceptions of identity and citizenship.

The notion that the military can influence national identity is not new: historian Erez Manela presents an interesting theory in arguing that Theodore Roosevelt and his generation experienced a sort of inferiority complex by comparison to the previous generation that had proven its manliness by fighting in the Civil War. Manela’s gender argument concludes that the military served an important role in forming the national identity of the generation succeeding the Civil War, during the Spanish-American War. The experience of war provided Roosevelt and his Rough Rider companions with the opportunity to become national symbols for a United States that was emerging as a global power.

Approximately half a century earlier, the ascendant German state of Prussia would come to rely heavily on the military in its quest to shape a national identity. It is questionable whether Prussian general Carl von Clausewitz considered the implications of his famous work On War in forming such identity. Nevertheless, three decades after its publication in 1832, Otto von Bismarck’s appointment to Prime Minister of Prussia would come to mark the beginning of the unification of Germany. The years preceding Bismarck’s appointment had witnessed perpetual ideological clashes between German liberals and conservatives; using the rhetoric of unification and the military as a political instrument–the latter being one of Clausewitz’s main philosophical ideas–Bismarck was successful in unifying most German speaking peoples under one banner. The role of the military in achieving political unification was crucial, and as a consequence Prussians and foreigners alike have attributed military greatness as foundational to the national identity of the Kingdom.

From Spartans at Thermopylae to Rough Riders at San Juan, history abounds with examples in support of the thesis that a strong military presence exerts a strong influence on notions of national identity. However, what makes Israel a particularly interesting case of the relationship between military, state, and national identity is the recent date of Israel’s formation. Although most Israeli Jews can trace some sort of bond back to ancient times, their divergent experiences among different cultures mean that a more recent notion of national identity is necessary. To the early state builders who declared Israeli independence on 14 May 1948 in the wake of a profound trauma, the basic idea of establishing a Jewish state might have been sufficient. However, with sixty-four years of ensuing significant population growth, globalization, and new sorts of challenges to Israeli statehood, the role of a unifying national identity has become increasingly important. Furthermore, some Israelis have expressed the increasingly difficult enterprise to square this goal of unification with the quest for individuality.

It cannot be denied that one important purpose of the Israeli military service appears to be to bring together Israelis with often vastly different backgrounds in a multifaceted national bond. Moreover, the military service constitutes one collective, extended experience of political participation. Those opposing the official state vision for Israel’s future, meanwhile, tend to find the military to be exerting a detrimental influence on national identity. Whether one approves or disapproves of its methods, the success of the Israeli Defense Force in shaping Israel’s national identity and perceptions of statehood and forging bonds among citizens and their state under trying, unique circumstances ought not to be dismissed.

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