Minorities in the IDF

By Aryeh Tepper
Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Recently, while driving by the Israeli settlement of Nokdim (where Avigdor Lieberman lives), I picked up a hitchhiking soldier. We started chatting, and I asked the soldier his name. "Mustafa," he said. "You're a Muslim?" I asked. "Yes," he answered, "from Haifa." As our conversation progressed, I asked him his thoughts about Lieberman's criticism of Arab-Israeli society, saying that I thought the foreign minister wouldn't have any problem with an Arab-Israeli who serves in the army. Mustafa demurred: "Lieberman only loves me so long as I'm in uniform."

When most people think of the conflict in the Middle East, they naturally enough imagine Israeli Jews fighting Middle Eastern Arabs and Muslims. But non-Jews from the Muslim, Druse, and Christian communities in Israel serve in the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) alongside their Jewish peers. After completing their basic training, these soldiers swear fealty to the state of Israel on a copy of the Quran or the New Testament instead of the standard Hebrew Bible.

But soldiers like Mustafa are still very rare. For various reasons (including security concerns), Israeli Arabs are not drafted—though some still do serve voluntarily. A recent documentary film, Ameer Got His Gun, explores the decision of one eighteen-year-old Arab-Israeli Muslim to voluntarily enlist in the IDF. The film is a bit saccharine, following the trajectory of Ameer's untested idealism, but the (Jewish) producer and director thankfully refuse easy moralizing, and let the characters speak for themselves. The film's most touching scene follows the intense preparations of Ameer's family for what turns out to be a sparsely-attended enlistment party. Why throw a party? "To show everyone that you're not ashamed," says Ameer. After all, in the eyes of many Arab Israelis—Palestinians, according to their own self-definition—Ameer and his fellow Muslim soldiers in the IDF are nothing less than traitors.

Obviously, this attitude is not held among all minority groups. The Druse, for one, offer a radical counter-example. An offshoot of Shi'ite Islam, Israeli Druse number approximately 115,000, and aside from the Golan Druse who maintain their loyalty to the Syrian regime, the overwhelming majority of men proudly serve in the IDF. This has been so since 1949, when the Druse leadership requested that military service be obligatory.

Not only do they serve, but they serve with distinction. When the second Lebanon war broke out in 2006, an all-Druse battalion was the first unit to enter Hizballah country (on the first day of the war), and the last to leave.  After a month of combat, the battalion took down 15 Hizballah terrorists, with no casualties of its own. 

Like the Druse, the Sunni Muslim Circassians (of whom around 4,500 live in Israel) also loyally serve in the IDF. The Circassians, who practice a moderate, consciously non-nationalistic Islam, established good relations with the Jews in Israel at the end of the 19th century, thanks in large part to the language and culture they shared with Jewish immigrants from Russia. Since 1958, again at the request of their leadership, all Circassian men have been conscripted into the Israeli military. 

The Israeli Bedouins pose a more complicated case. Also Sunni Muslims, the Bedouins distinguish themselves from mainstream Arab society by their more rural (and sometimes desert-dwelling) ways. While not obligated to serve in the IDF, it's estimated that between 5 and 10 percent of draft-age Bedouin youth volunteer for army service, often as trackers. Amos Yarkoni, one of the most celebrated trackers in the history of the IDF, was actually a Bedouin named Abd el-Majid Hidr. In recent years, enlistment has fluctuated wildly, likely because of the increased influence of the Islamic movement among Bedouin communities.

Which brings us back to the larger Israeli-Arab communities. Each year, only a few dozen Arab Christians volunteer to serve in the IDF.  The army, which believes that the number could be much higher, has been redoubling its recruitment efforts in the community. One sign that the policy might be bearing fruit is the career of Cpl. Elinor Joseph, the first Arab woman to become a combat soldier in the IDF. But among Arab Muslims, while there are families like Ameer's, some boasting three generations of IDF fighters, voluntary enlistment remains low.

What drives minorities to volunteer their service? On the individual level, some are motivated by a sense of duty to defend their country, an idea that permeates the air of Israeli society. Druse and Circassian Israelis often identify deeply with the state. Others make a pragmatic calculation that serving in the IDF will ease their social and economic integration into Israeli society (as Mustafa's complaint demonstrates, this expectation is sometimes frustrated). On the communal level, groups who send their sons to serve in the IDF gain a greater hearing in their demand for government resources.

In many respects, the IDF's efforts among minority groups resemble the efforts under way with the ultra-Orthodox. While also exempt from military conscription, many in this group are increasingly sending their boys to units specially designed to meet their religious needs. In both cases, the army is reaching out to communities located along the margins of Israeli society in order to fill in the gaps created by a general shortage of manpower. It's intriguing to imagine the day when both the ultra-Orthodox and, as Efraim Karsh has speculated about, all of Israel's Arabs are drafted into the IDF. But that day won't be arriving in the foreseeable future, and so, for now, young soldiers like Mustafa remain few and far between.

You can find this online at: http://www.jidaily.com/minoritiesintheidf

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