In the Jewish state, crisis management might be called the national pastime, and
adrenaline the national addiction. Jabotinsky once wrote sardonically that Jews
learn not by way of logic but from catastrophes.
That’s why creeping
problems without the glamor of full-blown crises are particularly dangerous in
These problems are always known, at least to some people, at
certain times. But because they accrue bit by bit or only intermittently, the
crisis levels of adrenaline Israeli leaders require to tackle them are
The IDF has for years been facing a progressive breakdown of
order and discipline among the troops. Drug and alcohol use is widespread and
growing, violence among soldiers is no longer rare, and soldier rebellions make
the news every other month.
The problem is, it’s not yet a crisis. Here
and there headlines jar the public, for instance: “The IDF’s alcohol plague,”
which ran last month in Yediot Aharonot
According the article, about 10
percent of IDF soldiers drink on duty, sometimes while on high alert and
“including elite units.” The article did not mention what the whole army knows:
The higher command has significantly increased drug and alcohol testing in
recent years, but lower ranking officers prefer to turn a blind eye or even to
protect their soldiers from exposure.
They have nothing to gain from
losing their soldiers to jail-time and making themselves unpopular.
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month 15 soldiers, some from elite units, were arrested for using and
trafficking drugs. The charges included taking drugs during
The public was disturbed, but thereafter the Defense Minister
preferred to again remind the public of the intolerable burden of responsibility
he faces in deciding whether to bomb Iran, rather than address a situation that
so far has failed to produce a crisis.
THE IDF, of course, has never been
an especially disciplined army. Orde Wingate, the great British soldier and
Zionist whose guiding influence is still felt in Israel’s military culture,
despised all military pageantry. Wingate’s notion of taking serious things
seriously and forgetting the rest perfectly suited the character of the new
Jewish army. In an army where soldiers have always called their officers by
first name, hierarchy never mattered much.
That is incontestable, but it
is only half the truth.
Since the 1950s Israeli society has evolved in
myriad ways. Soldiers inducted into the army today are still motivated,
dedicated and sometimes even passionate.
But it is no longer possible to
expect a monolithic adherence to a single set of values, or shared ideological
norms of service. And we too quickly forget that these were precisely the
virtues that made formal discipline unnecessary in yesteryear’s
Today anarchy grows in Israel’s army and finds no fitting response
from above. Into that void, illicit power structures are born from
Over two decades a makeshift hierarchy has taken shape between
rookie and veteran soldiers in combat units. Rookie soldiers wash, scrub, take
the less desirable assignments and forgo sleep. Veteran soldiers have no duties
on base, get their food served to them in bed, and are allowed to pick and
choose their missions. The yearslong hazing and servitude of new recruits to the
veteran soldiers has become so extreme as to demand publicized intervention from
officers, though usually only partially successful.
Every one of the half
dozen so-called “soldier rebellions” reported in the press over the past few
years has its origins in a defense of this institution. Most recently, in
October reports reached the public of an entire contingent of veteran soldiers
from the Paratroopers division abandoning their base in Hebron over demands they
empty garbage containers, considered work for the fresher recruits. After pleas
from their officers, all but eight of these soldiers returned to base and were
not punished. In a puzzling and chilling statement, the army declared the
incident grave, “especially in light of [the soldiers] abandoning the base
during operational duties and not during training.”
increasingly find themselves powerless before an entrenched hierarchy of
veterans over whom they have little influence. At the same time, flare-ups of
gang-like violence between different units as they vie for supremacy are no
longer very uncommon.
The structural breakdown in the army is serious but
far from hopeless.
The IDF has recovered from the shock of its poor
performance in Lebanon. Its training regimen has been set on a new and improved
footing. The discipline problem, though much more complex, can be solved if
seriously and patiently confronted.
Soldiers who refuse the most
rudimentary dress code imposed by their officers, themselves impose informal
dress codes on one another. Veteran soldiers who speak to their superiors like
old friends demand ostentatious respect from rookie soldiers. It no longer
suffices to excuse insubordination by saying “the IDF is an informal army.” The
IDF has outgrown its traditional informality.
This might indeed be cause
for lament, but it can no longer safely be ignored.
Working together with
the school system in an intelligent and considered manner, the IDF must find a
new formulation for its command structure. Without abandoning the flexibility
that continues to make it one of the world’s strongest armies, it must
internalize the need to formally empower its commanders against the gang law
threatening from the ranks. This will not be a popular action, because no
particular group can be singled out for blame. It will probably even be
unpopular, because the hallowed public is to blame.
It’s not a crisis,
yet. Let’s prevent it from becoming one.The writer is a public relations
professional and freelance writer, based in Jerusalem. He has served in the IDF
for ten years.
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