military rules

The military’s ubiquitous in Israel. Troops patrol the streets, many of which are named famous battles and generals. Uniformed soldiers work as teachers in remote schools, and playgrounds feature tanks along with the more innocent swings and slides. It’s something that I just couldn’t get used to.

One of the country’s most popular radio stations is owned by the military. And there is mandatory national service for all 18-year-olds – except those of Palestinian descent (referred to as Arab Israelis) or certain ultra-orthodox Jews. Even after their three years of service, men continue to serve a month each year as reserves until they’re in their forties.

An illustrious army background can be a ticket to success, with many senior officers moving into politics after retirement.

Questioning the status quo is not a popular thing to do in a country whose identity is so entangled with the military. Helping concientous objectors to avoid the draft is seen by many as the ultimate tretchery to a nation that perceives itself to be under threat by any number of enemies – both outside its borders and within.

This is exactly what New Profile is known for doing. The group has outraged the Israeli religious right (ironic considering the orthodox exemption), and is now being targeted by a government that is struggling to deal with a spiralling number of teenage refusniks. In 2007 almost 28 per cent of eligible young men evaded enlistment. Even the daughter of a spymaster in Mossad recently ended up in jail for refusing to serve.

While I was in Israel, a criminal investigation was launched against the NGO by the attorney general, following a request from the IDF. It centres on information New Profile gives about how to fail psychological tests carried out as part of the enlistment process. The government has now appealed to the Israeli High Court to close the group.

Aside from these activities, the small but group works to persuade Israelis that over-militarisation must be addressed and the army restricted to defence. Member Ronit Marian-Kadishay believes it’s a throwback to Zionism and that her country needs to move on.

She says: “Israeli culture generates an image of the world in which war was, is and will always be inevitable – a necessary and acceptable way of solving our problems.
“The army permeates our whole society. Our children’s textbooks are full of army imagery, there are tanks in their playgrounds and soldiers are used as teachers when staff can’t be found.

“Pictures of soldiers are used all the time in advertising. Battlegrounds have become memorial sites. It’s completely normal to see uniformed, armed soldiers everywhere.”

The effect is to perpetuate the belief that Israeli lives are in danger, and that a strong military is the only way to keep them safe.

“We would argue that this feeling that we are living among enemies and must be strong to survive is outdated and actually harmful,” she says.
“If Israelis believe everyone else is against us, they don’t want to know about ‘the other’ and continue to fear our neighbours. This mindset has to be changed because it simply drives us from one war to another.”