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Israelis Fume Over Smoking Ban on Army Bases

Tel Aviv – Mutiny is brewing in the Israeli army. The protest isn’t political, like past incidents of disobedience by hard right-wingers who refuse to evacuate settlements, and hard left-wingers who refuse to serve in the Palestinian territories. This rebellion is bubbling up across the political spectrum.

Under Fire: An Israeli soldier smokes a cigarette as he waits for orders to enter southern Lebanon during the war against Hezbollah in 2006

Smoke Break: The Israeli army has long been a breeding ground for smoking, but the Knesset is vowing to end that.

The anger is directed toward the Knesset and a law it has just passed making smoking illegal in all indoor areas on army bases. The law is set to take effect in the summer.

The ban seeks to bring about a major cultural change in an army where cigarettes are so commonplace that they are almost part of the uniform.

“Historically, cigarettes have been at the center of day-to-day life in the army,” said Baruch Levi, head of the Israel Defense Forces Veterans Association.

“In the first days of the IDF, they were distributed formally,” Levi said. “They are part and parcel of the culture. In times of tension, when decisions needed making and plans formulating, it was done among smoke.”

In fact, as recently as 2000, in the early days of the second intifada, the army gave out free cigarettes to soldiers who were protecting settlements — despite the protests of then-health minister Ronni Milo.

Proponents of the new ban blame this smoking culture that is encountered by nearly every Israeli, because of universal conscription, on the fact that one in four Israelis smokes. But on bases, many feel that service is a tense experience and believe that if cigarettes offer relief, the Knesset has no right to interfere with this.

Levi was reluctant to take a public position on the ban. The military itself was rumored to have raised objections before the law went on the statute books, but its public position was straightforward: “The political echelon gives the directions and the IDF follows them”; however, plenty of soldiers, past and present, were eager to comment.

“I cannot believe that we are being told that one of the few ways of relieving stress is against the rules,” said one soldier from Haifa who, due to army regulations, could not give his name. “We will ignore this.”

“Feeling is so strong against this, it can’t be enforced; we will continue to light up,” a soldier from Tel Aviv said.

According to Orahn Press-Bloom, an immigrant from New York who was discharged from the army in January, there are “a lot of rules in the army that people already ignore, and it would not surprise me if this becomes another.”

The weakness of this law, Press-Bloom added, may be that officers ignore it, motivated by a desire to keep their units running efficiently.

“It will end up wasting a lot of time, because people will end up demanding breaks to go outside and smoke every three minutes,” he said. “You could be planning an invasion of Lebanon, and have to stop so that people can smoke outside and not inside.”

Another veteran, Reut Malka of Jerusalem, discharged five years ago, predicted a command problem. “The problem as I see it is that officers, even high-ranking ones, tend to be smokers themselves, meaning they have the same problem with this law as others,” she said. This will make it difficult to implement.”

The story of how Malka became a smoker is one told by thousands of former soldiers. Malka joined the army as a nonsmoker, but she took up the habit in response to the tensions of service — and because it is so commonplace. Though she has since quit, many have not and will not.

The Kadima party’s Yoel Hasson pushed the new ban. Six months ago, Hasson helped to enact the Knesset ban on smoking in other public places, such as restaurants.

“I see it as an educational process, a move to make smoking unfashionable, and it is working,” the lawmaker said. “In the half-year since the original ban came in, cigarette sales have fallen by 12%.”

But he came to regard this first law as a hollow victory. As he saw it, it ignored the root of the problem, since the army, which was exempt from the law, was the place where people were taking up the habit.

“With a ban on army bases, I believe army culture will change and you will see fewer and fewer people in Israel smoking, as fewer people are taking up the habit as soldiers,” Hasson said. “It will make for a healthier army and a healthier nation.”

As for the argument that smoking provides stress relief, one of the leading campaigners for the law, anti-smoking activist Ruth Shekedi, said this makes a ban more necessary, not less. “If you start smoking in the army to deal with stress, it is not just that you will not stop afterwards, but every situation of stress will encourage you to smoke,” she said.

Hasson is quick to dismiss his critics. The new law will not make the army less efficient, he said, since “people have breaks anyway,” and it will be enforceable because the law requires the army to appoint inspectors.

Regarding the charge that the law restricts freedom, Hasson had a ready retort, saying it was “smoking that restricts freedom, by forcing others to inhale passive smoke.”

Secondhand smoke is a major problem in the Israeli military, Hasson claimed. In fact, he said he made his decision to enact the new smoking ban after serving reserve duty in smoke-filled rooms. “If somebody else is smoking and I suffer from his smoke,” he said, “that’s against my freedom.”

In civilian Israel, many are bemused by the legislation. At a Tel Aviv café, where patrons stood outside smoking, one of the smokers, David Bergman, said: “These smoking bans are doing strange things to this country. There are more people outside this café than inside. And the army, which sends people into situations of danger, is now the guardian of their health. What next?”

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