How not hierarchical is the Israeli military


Gisela badger

Dr. Gisela Dachs is a publicist, social scientist and lecturer at the DAAD Center for German Studies and at the European Forum of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. She was the exclusive Israel correspondent for ZEIT for two decades and works as a freelance writer in Tel Aviv.

People who immigrate to Israel from various regions of the world and encounter the native population of Palestine make integration into the community both a challenge and a priority for the state. Service in the army is an important collective experience for both men and women.

Passers-by populate the modern inner city of Jerusalem in May 2017. (& copy Reuters)

Social visions, values ​​and ideals

For decades before the Shoah, the visionary of the state, Theodor Herzl, considered the normalization of Jewish existence to be inevitable. Israel should be a response to persecution and minority existence around the world. When Herzl wrote his famous book "Der Judenstaat" at the end of the 19th century, he had a model in mind that would be an alternative to both the assimilated way of life of the West European Jews and the traditional way of life of the East European Jews, which was strongly influenced by religion. One of the basic principles of this new - Israeli - collective was the abandonment of a persecuted diaspora past.

Integration successes
Conceived as a safe haven and place of longing for Jews and their descendants from all over the world, the State of Israel was challenged from the start to accept and integrate people from a wide variety of countries of origin. In many ways, this has also succeeded in an astonishing way. In the first years after the founding of the state - between May 1948 and the end of 1951 - almost 700,000 Jews were drawn to Israel. That was more people than the entire Jewish population counted on May 14, 1948. At the end of 1968 there were already 2,841,000. It will be almost nine million in 2018. But the much-touted melting pot never actually existed.

In addition to the various immigrant worlds, there are other social structures today. Diverse fault lines run between secular, religious and ultra-orthodox Israelis, between left and right, poor and rich, center and periphery, long-time residents and newcomers. Finally, there is the gap between the Jewish majority and a non-Jewish minority: In addition to the traditional Arab Israelis, there have recently been migrant workers from Asia and refugees from Africa.

It therefore seems more appropriate to speak of a mosaic society whose social cohesion is constantly challenged. There are now increasing tensions between liberal Israelis, who are campaigning for a more democratic state, and those who are satisfied with the latest developments that point in a different direction. Ultimately, there is no consensus on what Zionism means, or what is permitted or required on its behalf. Nowhere else can there be so many citizens who are constantly upset about the conditions in their country and argue about how things could or should be different.

Political commitment
This generally shows a high degree of active participation, which at the same time signals belonging. It applies to a national project that is still an endeavor "in the making" ongoing project, which is characterized by a lot of dynamism. After the youngest Economist Intelligence Unit’s Annual Democracy Index, which examines 167 countries that are considered to be modern democracies, ranks Israel only in 30th place overall, but it is among the top four countries (alongside Norway, Iceland and New Zealand) when it comes to "political participation". This includes factors such as voter turnout, as well as participation and representation of women and minorities, public engagement in politics, freedom of demonstration and adult reading skills.

Ideals from the pioneering days
Collective values ​​are still very important in Israel. It took decades for the various immigrant cultures and their traditions to find a place in the national narrative, which wanted to convey a sense and orientation that strengthened the community of Israeli society. It was not until the 1990s that people began to look at their own family histories in the diaspora, for which there was little public space until then. Since then, students have been studying their origins for an entire year as part of their lessons. They ask grandparents and great-grandparents about their childhood experiences - wherever they come from.

The Zionist pioneers before the state was founded came mainly from Russia and Eastern Europe; they and their families form a kind of Israeli "aristocracy" to this day. Posters that were published in the Yishuv show a young man and a young woman with blonde hair and Slavic facial features, in work clothes and with a hoe shouldered. The descendants of Jewish immigrants born in the country even had a collective name that is still relevant today: Zabar (or Saber) they were called, which is the Hebrew word for "prickly pear". This fruit, which is grown in almost all countries around the Mediterranean, is prickly on the outside, but sweet and unique on the inside. This created a whole new Jewish community with norms turned upside down. From then on, farmers and soldiers were at the top of the social hierarchy.