National Defense Education: Compulsory Conscription Policy in Israel

By MA Yijie

Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. Background

3. Sustainable Impacts

4. Unsustainable Impacts

5. Discussion and Conclusion

6. References

 1.     Introduction

National defense education has various names and forms in different countries as it targets citizens of different gender and age groups depending on the country’s context and situation. For instance,in Sweden, national defense education ranges from compiling brochures of military thought to organizing conscription. In China, military training is provided to undergraduate students at the beginning of their university life to cultivate a sense of patriotism and collectivity.In the context of Israel,according to Israeli ‘Defense Service Law’ (Consolidated Version, 5746-1986), all citizens aged 18-29 for men and 18-26 for women, except those who qualify for exemptions, have to enlist in military service. The length of service differs on the basis of gender: 30-36 months for men and 24 months for women. National defense education includes military training and learning of military thought. 

Some exemptions are permitted. For example, people who have a mental health challenge or come from ultra-Orthodox groups do not need to serve in the army. The Israel Defense Forces (IDF) does not conscript Arab citizens of Israel who are Muslim or Christian; however, an increasing number of people from these groups choose to volunteer for military service. Many Bedouins enlist on a voluntary basis as well(Kershner, 2012).

From the perspective of the state, this kind of national defense education contributes to national and social development as it strengthens national defense and societal stability (Cohen, 1995). Also, the country believes that military education can cultivate their young citizens’ sense of patriotism and will guarantee their loyalty to the country (Bussel, 2009). From the individual perspective, military training can be seen as education for emergencies which cultivate young people’s quick reaction tosurvive in emergency situations. 

However,sucheducation and compulsory conscription can have negative impacts on macro- and micro-level development of the society. These impacts on national economy, religion, health, and politics are evaluated in this entry. By discussing the nature of defense and national defense education, this policy will be critically evaluated, and recommendations will be provided for the future of the policy.

2.    Background

From the historical perspective, Israel has been a controversial context. The conflicts for territories and between religions (that include the 1948 Israeli war of independence, the 1973 Yom Kippur War, the 2006 Lebanon War,and others) have not stopped (Sanshez, 2017; Stanton et al., 2012). The wars between Israel and Palestine are the most complicated. The roots of Israeli-Palestine conflicts can be traced back to the late 19thcentury. Migration of Jews from other parts of the world to Palestine started in 1881 led to the increase of Jewish population. This situation created tension between Jews and Palestinians that gradually ratcheted up (Harms and Ferry, 2017). In 1922, under the British mandate, Palestine was divided into two parts: Jewish residence in the west and Palestinian in the east (Harms and Ferry, 2017). As the numbers of Jewish immigrants grew steadily, the UN General Assembly voted to partition Palestine into two states, one Jewish and the other Arab (Gelvin, 2014). However, the Arab League refused to accept the partition which led to military conflicts between Israel and the Arab countries. The Oslo Accords promoted peace talks between Palestine and Israel during 1993 and 2000 but conflicts never stopped (Gelvin, 2014). 

A key controversial issue in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is land ownership. From the Israeli perspective, as Jewish people lived in the territory centuries ago but were forced to leave during the occupation by the Roman empire, they now can come back (Gelvin, 2014; Shafir, 1996). Palestinians argue that since the Jewish left the land, they do not have the right to occupy it now (Laqueur andSchueftan, 2016). 

To secure the nation and defend their state fromPalestine and other Arab countries, right after the establishment of Israel in 1948, IDF was founded and given authority to enlist any citizen who met their requirements(Defense Service Law, 1986). From then on, the policy and system of conscription in Israel gradually became compulsory (Defense Service Law, 1986). Nowadays, young people who finish senior high school and qualify must begin their service in the IDF.

3.    Sustainable Impacts

For Israel, the role of national defense education is to ensuresurvival and development of the nation. Since mandatory conscription prepares a powerful reserve force for Israel by providing military education to young citizens, this type of national defense education guarantees higher survival rate in wars which leads to the security and stability of the state and society. After completing the 2 to 3 years’ compulsory service, some soldiers will stay in the army to continue their service based on their test results and their aspirations, while others will go back to civilian life with the premise that they should keep in touch with the departments where they serviced in case of an emergency. Once an emergency takes place, IDF officers call up relevantpeople depending on the nature and scale of the emergency (Al-Qazzaz, 1973). Based on the fact that the state of Israel is a small country with a small population, the compulsory mobilization policy provides it with the core of sustainable development and survival in the world. 

Israel is a melting pot as it is a country of immigrants from different parts of the world with different cultures and religions (Tsameret, 2002). Each year, IDF welcomes compulsory and voluntary soldiers of different religions (Cromwell, 2017) and skin colors, who speak different languages and comefrom different countries. Regardless of their past experience, background, and former political opinions, once they enter the army, they become family members for at least two years. Conscription policy contributes to young soldiers’ sense of collectivity and cultivation of patriotism as they receive military training that contains not only practical skills but military doctrines and thoughts. Suchtraining improves societal stability. From another perspective, as a tourist attraction famous for its biblical remains, tourists are inspired to discover this mysterious country with less worries about their safety, because most citizens are able to provide guidance in an emergency. 

4.    Unsustainable impacts

Through the lens of the state, the nature and functions of compulsory conscription policy seem to benefit the country by making it secure and easier to defend. However, when analyzing its impacts on other aspects, this policy is doing harm to the country’s economy, society, and citizens. Seen thusly, the national defense education is more unsustainable than sustainable. Not enough attention, however, has been paid to the economic dimension of compulsory conscription policy in Israel. On the one hand, this policy provides ‘a sort of hidden tax’ (p. 28) to the government as some soldiers could be earning money in the workplace, but have to be in the army. On the other hand, this situation promotes inequality between soldiers and those who are exempt from military service. Also, citizens lose freedom in choosing their occupationwhich can lead to inefficiency or a waste of national resources. In addition, compulsory conscription calls for large costs for manpower. It may be more sustainable to organize a smaller but more professional voluntary army instead of the current large but less efficient ,conscripted one (Alpher, 2005). 

On the basis of Israeli ‘Defense Service Law’ (Consolidated Version, 5746-1986), no Jewish group can be exempt from military service due to their religious beliefs. However, a special exemption rule is enjoyed by ultra-Orthodox Jewish groups (Røislien, 2013) to guarantee their family-centered life style and their full-time Torah study (Lehmann, 2010). The premise is that thoseexemptcan only study in yeshiva (an academy for the advanced study of Jewish texts), substituting for conscription (Stadler, 2009). The exemption ‘saves’ ultra-Orthodox Jewish young people from conscriptionbut at the same time limits their religious lifestyles. This is not sustainable for the development of the religion. 

More broadly,Israel is sometimes considered as an ‘inhuman’ (Redden, 2016; Rudoren, 2015) country with amilitarized character and is criticized by mass media and human rights organizations. On the one hand, the numbers of injuries and deaths in every conflict are shocking, especially for the Palestine side. For example, in 2014 Israel–Gaza conflict, more than 1,900 people were killed and 97% of them were Palestinian (Yakovv, 2014). Therefore, Israel is condemned by other countries which call for a peaceful resolution and retraining of combat power to change their behavior (Gold, 2009). On the other hand, training young people to use rifles, making them shoot at others, and instilling military thoughts in them are considered inappropriate, and Israel’s government is condemned for it as these young people get tragically involved in wars (Moskowitz, 2014). 

Orr et al. (1986) conducted a survey in which 225 Israeli students in grade 12 were studied to find out why they were worried about military service after graduation. The results showed three main causes of anxiety. First, as ordinary teenagers, they do not have confidence in performing well in the army, especially when they are going to play important roles. Secondly, since obedience is the duty of soldiers, the youngsters are afraid of being deprived of self-expression. Lastly, fear to failto complete tasks makes them avoid conscription (Orr et al., 1986). Additionally, the length of service is a threat. The ‘Defense Service Law’ (1986) states that a person who fails to fulfill his/her duty will be liable to imprisonment for two years. Although the price is high and IDF makes every effort to prevent this phenomenon, young people make many excuses to escape enlistment(Elran et al., 2016). The country may regard these draft-dodgers as ‘traitors’, but what about the pressure on these young people? If young people have no impetus but are stressed to enter the army, impacts of psychological damage to them will gradually emerge during their individual development process. Trauma after their service is even more alarming. During and after service, when young soldiers are involved in conflicts, physical injuries may occur. Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) will torture young people in their whole life (Amir and Sol, 1999). Malkinson and Bar-tur (2000) conducted interviews with parents whose sons were killed in service and the results showed that they could hardly recover from losing children. Many families in Israel live with this kind of stressevery day and more will be in the future if this extreme form of national defense education continues.

5.     Discussion and Conclusion

Israel sees mandatory conscription and national defense as protecting itself from other countries’ aggression. The countries that criticize this policy may hold the opinion that instead of appropriate self-defense, Israel starts conflicts and wars. The objective of Israel in this case is to achieve its own goals, one of which is targeted killing of Hamas[1]leaders. However, little if any considerationis given to innocent citizens living in targeted areas. In this case, defense becomes an attack.

Israel benefits from the universal conscription while peoples and countries on the other side suffer from it.From the Israeli perspective, compulsory conscription, as a part of national defense education, is an important aspect in sustainable development of the country. The positive impact for the country is that its national security and societal stability are guaranteed. Besides, during the service, young soldiers gain a sense of patriotism and loyalty to their country. However, voices from both inside and outside the country regard this policy as economically unsustainable, inhumane, and cruel, as many get injured and diein the conflicts and young people get trained to kill others. National defense education and mandatory conscription require more attention, consideration, and examination, to prevent the situation wherein self-defense becomes offense. 

6.     References

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Alpher, Y. (2005). The Strategic Interest: The Conscription Prescription.New York, N.Y.

Amir, M., & Sol, O. (1999). Psychological Impact and Prevalence of Traumatic Events in a Student Sample in Israel: The Effect of Multiple Traumatic Events and Physical Injury. Journal of Traumatic Stress, 12(1), 139-154.

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Cohen, S. (1995). The Israel Defense Forces (IDF): From a "People's Army" to a "Professional Military" - Causes and Implications. Armed Forces & Society21(2), 237-254.

Cromwell, C. (2017). The Army is Considered Israel’s Melting Pot. What You Should Know About Israel’s Mandatory Military Service for Men and Women. Retrieved from

Elran, M., Sheffer, G., Eiland, G., Lifshitz, Y., Tamari, D., Gal, R., . . . Bagno-Moldavsky, O. (2016). Military Service in Israel: Challenges and Ramifications. Tel Aviv: Institute for National Security Studies.

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Røislien, H. E. (2013). Religion and Military Conscription. Armed Forces & Society, 39(2), 213-232. doi: 10.1177/0095327X12449429

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Stadler, N. (2009). Yeshiva Fundamentalism: Piety, Gender, and Resistance in the Ultra-Orthodox World. New York University Press.

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Tsameret, T. (2002). The Melting Pot in Israel: The Commission of Inquiry Concerning Education in the Immigrant Camps During the Early Years of the State. Albany: State University of New York Press.

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About the Author

MA Yijie

MEd, The University of Hong Kong