Hazing in the IDF

The hazing rituals in the IDF come at a time of increased reports of lack of discipline.

idf soldiers 311 (photo credit: ASSOCIATED PRESS)
idf soldiers 311
(photo credit: ASSOCIATED PRESS)
Earlier this week, the army announced that eight soldiers from the Kfir brigade’s Nahshon battalion had been suspended and were under investigation for a brutal hazing incident that left another soldier so badly beaten he was hospitalized with a ruptured spleen.
This is not the first case of hazing to come to the public’s attention. In March and May, the Givati brigade was hit with two hazing scandals. The hazing rituals that have come to light fit the model of abuse that other institutions, including militaries around the world, have faced.
In one case, the new soldiers were placed in a “container” where they were kicked and beaten. They also had disgusting liquids poured on them and were subject to regimes of “tradition” meant to instill respect, or fear, of the veteran soldiers. For instance, they could not shower when the older soldiers were in the stalls or, in the recent Kfir case, they could not touch a special stick that the senior enlisted men had.
In 2009, a Northern Command court noted that a long tradition of hazing had existed in the Armored Corps 74th Battalion. Two soldiers – both staff sergeants – argued that they subjected junior soldiers to hazing rituals which they themselves had submitted to.
Some of the soldiers who suffered wrote to the IDF Military Advocate General that the story had been “blown out of proportion.” They had come to the unit having heard of the “folklore and tradition.”
One “tradition” involved having coffee prepared in a new recruits mouth. Those accused of hazing and their families often feel they are singled out for punishment and that a culture of hazing has existed for years, and only the most egregious cases are prosecuted.
Michelle Finkel, a doctor and expert on the subject, defines hazing “as committing acts against an individual or forcing an individual into committing an act that creates a risk for harm in order for the individual to be initiated into or affiliated with an organization.”
Danny Kaplan of Tel Aviv University, who investigated hazing in the military, writes that “hazing rituals are often applied to new rookies, to soldiers beginning a new posting, or to regular group members as part of the power struggle between cliques.”
It is a common phenomenon that afflicts militarizes around the world. A recent case in the US, in which a soldier committed suicide after constant abuse by his comrades, has drawn attention to the problem.
Kaplan, however, relates that some of the Israeli victims didn’t always understand it in a negative way. One soldier felt that it “was all out of love... These things would look crazy to people from the outside.”
The hazing rituals in the IDF come at a time of increased reports of lack of discipline. Alongside disciplinary problems there is the army’s frequent resorting to sending soldiers to short spells in military prison.
According to a recent report a total of sixty percent of Ethiopian soldiers spend time in prison, while 25 percent of all male soldiers spend time in the brig. This is an abnormally high number; other militaries do not incarcerate their soldiers so often. A pattern emerges of an IDF with increasing indiscipline, an overly corrective use of prison and a tradition of hazing rituals that may be growing more flagrant over time.
Because military service is mandatory for most segments of Israeli society, it is highly problematic that some soldiers may be subjected to abuse during this service. Yet stamping out hazing is not a simple action.
Giving harsh prison terms to the few soldiers who are caught is only a partial solution. At the same time there is no reason that unit traditions, as silly as they may seem, such as having a special stick that some may not touch, should be ferreted out as if they are the only source of the problem.
The problem has to do with actions that create risk and harm to the individual, as well as those carried out only to humiliate. These actions often give rise to arrogant displays of indiscipline, such as the four paratroopers jailed in April for refusing orders by an officer to carry out cleaning duties because they were not “rookie” soldiers.
The army must take seriously a program for breaking the cyclical curse of harmful hazing, while maintaining unit cohesion and positive traditions that make soldiers feel part of the whole. A process by which soldiers can report their problems anonymously is important to encourage, alongside a systematic study of how widespread the phenomenon is and how foreign militaries have successfully dealt with its most obvious manifestations.