Anachronistic Ideas on the Military, Immigration Retain Surprising Power in Israel

Dateline Jerusalem

By Gershom Gorenberg

Published April 13, 2007, issue of April 13, 2007.
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Jared Diamond, author of the best-selling book “Collapse: How Societies Choose To Fail or Succeed,” could gain some sad satisfaction by reading Israeli news in recent days, especially if he reads between the lines. One of his central warnings keeps getting confirmed — for instance, by the report that the Israeli military plans to clamp down on psychological discharges, or by Prime Minster Ehud Olmert’s latest postponement of dismantling illegal settlement outposts. If Diamond feels any sympathy for Israel, the evidence for his thesis won’t cheer him up.

A professor of geography at the University of California, Los Angeles, Diamond writes about how societies fail to face ecological threats. But his warning can be applied to political unraveling, as well. “The values to which people cling most stubbornly under inappropriate conditions,” Diamond writes, “are those values that were previously the source of their greatest triumphs over adversity.” What once worked wonderfully can later turn destructive, unless people are willing to re-evaluate “sacred values.”

Universal military service has certainly contributed to Israeli triumphs. Israel once drafted over 90% of eligible men — more than any other country in the 20th century — and most women, as well. Across-the-board conscription, along with reserve duty, gave a small country the military it needed to defeat large enemies. It also acted as the great social leveler and taught young people to sacrifice for society’s good. And the draft ensured that elected officials knew the cost of decisions: Their sons, too, saw combat.

But for more than a decade, politicians have evaded discussing what every draft-age kid now knows: Universal service is a myth. During the 1990s, a post-1973 Yom Kippur War baby boom came of age just as immigrants poured in from the former Soviet Union. The army still needed all the combat-fit soldiers it could get, but it had a surplus of noncombat men and women. What to do?

The army rejected cutting the length of service, because training combat troops took so long. A few experts and pundits offered solutions. One idea: cutting noncombat service and giving combat soldiers greater veterans’ benefits. But that impinged on equality. Another idea: require civilian service for all who don’t don uniforms. But that might include Arab citizens and the ultra-Orthodox — and figuring out how to convince them that it was really their country, too.

With no formal change in policy, young people discovered that it was easier to avoid service altogether on psychological grounds, or to get an early discharge via army psychologists. By last year, 17.5% of all draftees were getting early discharges, most on psychological grounds. The informal solution rewards malingering, reduces the stigma for not serving and embitters those who carry the burden.

Now the baby bulge is past, and immigration is down. A Rumsfeldian faith in high-tech weapons instead of grunts collapsed in the chaos of last summer’s Lebanon war. Last week, news reports said that the army planned to establish new committees to screen soldiers seeking discharges. The committees will try to reassign rather than discharge those who suffer merely from low motivation — or, alternatively, to mark the reason for discharge as “bad behavior,” intended as a stigma.

It’s another sloppy fix. Some malingerers are unlikely to care, and some soldiers with genuine and dangerous disorders could be scared away from talking to an army psychologist. What’s actually needed is a real public debate on a new policy that can adjust for shifting military needs while reassuring combat soldiers that they aren’t suckers. Clinging to the old model will just cause more damage to the army.

Even more “inappropriate” is Israel’s evolving immigration policy. The sacred value here is that Israel is a refuge for those persecuted as Jews, and for them alone. The Law of Return, as amended in 1970, grants entry and citizenship to anyone with a Jewish grandparent, on the assumption that such a person could have suffered from antisemitism. The 1970 rule did not take into account several looming changes. One was pervasive intermarriage in the Diaspora. Another was the possibility that Israel might become a flourishing Western country that could attract non-Jews. In today’s Israel, some non-Jews with a tad of Jewish ancestry can become instant citizens, while the Interior Ministry battles bureaucratically to keep away other non-Jews.

In the latest example, a judge had to order the ministry to issue passports to two Israeli-born girls who are citizens by dint of their citizen father and have been taken by that same father to Azerbaijan against their will and that of their mother. As reported by Ha’aretz, the mother is in Israel illegally, not married to the father and apparently unable to claim a Jewish grandfather. The state argued in court that if the daughters return, the mother might claim citizenship. The judge, rejecting that argument, labeled the idea of sanctioning the father’s actions “unthinkable.”

Just as unthinkable, arguably, is the lack of an asylum procedure for several hundred refugees from Darfur who have managed to enter Israel, many of whom landed in Israeli prisons. Thinking is the key. To maintain Israel’s Jewish character — both in demography and in values — its elected officials need to do some serious rethinking of immigration: Who really deserves automatic entry as Jews, and how should Israel set humane criteria for non-Jews to gain residency and citizenship?

Yet another “inappropriate” Israeli value that retains surprising if anachronistic power is demonstrated by Olmert’s procrastination on evacuating West Bank settlement outposts. The value, central to every Zionist narrative, is settling the land.

Settlement unquestionably led to triumph in another era. In pre-independence days, Jews asserted their connection to their homeland through settlement. The location of Jewish settlements shaped the United Nations’ 1947 partition of Palestine. Outlying kibbutzim became military outposts during Israel’s war of independence and helped determine the postwar borders. After independence, children still learned in schools and youth movements about the ideal of settlement — but fewer settlements were founded each year, and fewer young people joined them.

Only with the conquests of 1967 did a new generation of Israelis seek to set borders through settlement. Often they defied the state in whose name they acted. The outposts are the latest example: Established since the late 1990s without government permission, they are intended to tie the government’s hands in future negotiations. Two years ago, the official Sasson Report detailed how state agencies had illegally helped the outpost settlers.

Removing outposts has been on the agenda of the Olmert government since it took office last spring, but Olmert and Defense Minister Amir Peretz only procrastinate. In a pre-Passover interview, Olmert said that evacuating outposts must “be part of a process in which the Palestinians [also] fulfill their obligations,” apparently a reference to fighting terror. That is, Israel links enforcement of its laws against its own citizens to Palestinian actions. This makes terribly little sense — were it not that Olmert and other leaders still see the outpost settlers more as patriots than as rebels.

Israel, to its credit, is an idealistic society. Ironically, that makes it easier for politicians to “cling most stubbornly” to outdated values, sanctified by past triumphs, than to reshape them. But Jared Diamond’s warning deserves attention: For a society, unwillingness to rethink old ideals can be the path to failure.

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