Home inFocus Israel: Refuge and Renaissance (Spring 2018) A Prism on the Diversity of the Israel Defense Forces

A Prism on the Diversity of the Israel Defense Forces

Maj. Gen. Gadi Shamni Spring 2018
Two Israeli soldiers of Ethiopian heritage participate in a unit commander’s course in 2006. (Photo: Flickr/IDF)

Editor’s Note: The Israel Defense Forces (IDF) not only defends the borders and people of Israel, it helps integrate newcomers into Israeli society and provides resources to diverse communities. inFOCUS editor Shoshana Bryen spoke with Maj. Gen. Gadi Shamni, IDF (Ret.) former Commander of Israel’s Central Command and Defense Attaché in Washington, about the role of the IDF in today’s Israeli society.

Shoshana Bryen: Considering Israel’s population growth in recent decades, does the IDF still play a role as the leading institution in Israel to create a sense of national unity?

Maj. Gen. Gadi Shamni: Israel is constantly growing – and the force will also continue to grow. The IDF is always examining the best ways to utilize this human resource, the human quality that is in them. The goal is to get the maximum out of the potential of Israeli youth by directing them into military and national service; missions that reflect our – and their – understanding of the importance of the IDF and the service to the State of Israel as the superior social value.

Bryen: Do you have more young people than you can take into the military?

Shamni: I don’t think we have too many. Fitting the people to the mission is more comfortable when you have a lot of candidates. It is great for the IDF now – in the past few years new units were established in the IDF and there are new needs in technology, intelligence, a lot of things. I don’t think we will reach a point where there are too many young people. And if there’s no need in the military service, there is a mission in civilian service. 

Bryen: All Israeli officers come from the ranks of the drafted men and women. Do you ever think about the military academies or officer training separate from the drafting process?

Shamni: We have talked about it but concluded that the right way for us is the way we do it. We bring people up from the ranks and then later in their careers we make similar investment to what is done in U.S. in military academies. We do it when they are lieutenants. Before that, when they are platoon leaders, they have mainly practical missions; they don’t really need to start on big strategic issues.

Bryen: After the initial adjustment, the American military is very happy that we ended the draft and created a strictly professional military with no conscription.

Shamni: There’s always a debate about  that. Our conclusion, after years of dealing with this issue at the tenured command level, is that Israeli society still needs the qualities and the commitment of Israeli youth in the IDF, which is still considered to be the melting pot of Israeli society. It is also true that the IDF has additional roles, not only the military role. The IDF has a social role at the national level; the integration of different people, immigrants from different societies and cultures, into one Israeli culture. It is a practical issue.

Bryen: You formed among the first Haredi [ultra-religious] units of the IDF. How did the IDF integrate Haredim from Israel into the military?

Shamni: The first Haredi soldiers came into the IDF in 1999. When I came to it, it was under the Central Command. We had a battalion of soldiers, but the battalion was very small. The companies were not full. The soldiers suffered from a lack of legitimacy when they went back to their homes and their neighborhoods and their society.

We decided to boost the understanding that it was essential for Israeli society to have them in service, not only militarily but socially – because the percentage of Haredi people and religious people is on the rise in Israeli society. The idea that those people would not be part of the most important national effort in the State of Israel was an important concern.

First, we decided to change the battalion to a full-scale battalion with four companies. We decided to invest money to keep at least a percentage of people for long-duration service, which means that they become professional soldiers. And there was a need for that. When they came into the battalion, into the military, they saw something they really liked. They understood that they were defending their country, their homes, their family. They were totally dedicated. Many of them wanted to stay as professionals.

In addition, we created a unique service model for them, which means that not only will they serve in the IDF, but they will also get a civilian, general education that they didn’t get in the Yeshiva [religious school] in order to better integrate later into Israeli society. This is much more expensive for the IDF, but I think that you can’t measure the importance of the mission by counting chickens.

Bryen: When the Haredi soldiers leave the IDF, do they work in the civilian non-religious sector?

Shamni: To be honest, I don’t have a survey that follows them after they leave the military. But I’m sure that they see the world differently after two years of service and the studies that they go through.

Bryen: How did you convince  the rabbis to move people from what they do traditionally to do something else?

Shamni: It wasn’t easy. I reached out to the chief rabbis in Israel and they supported it explicitly. And what I heard from the rabbis in the schools was that those who are the best Talmud [religious studies] students, who really took their studies seriously, would remain and study. But there are many who were not really studying hard – those should contribute to the State of Israel. So, that’s how it started – by picking up those who were not best suited to being in the Yeshiva, who didn’t like what they were doing. We gave them something else.

Bryen: We read here that there’s an increase in Christian Arab men joining the IDF. How do you deal with Arab citizens?

Shamni: It’s not easy. There aren’t many Arabs – let’s say Muslims – in the IDF. The largest minority serving is the Druze. There are 3,500 Druze in the IDF, excellent soldiers. The rate of conscription from Druze society is the highest in Israel, if I’m not mistaken. Everyone goes to the military. The number of Arab Christians is smaller: About 200 Arab Christians serve in the IDF; about 1,300 Bedouins and Muslims; about 100 Circassians.

These are not big numbers. The Druze are all over, in all our best units: pilots, navy SEALs, everything. The rest of the minorities are more complicated. But they do serve, we encourage them to volunteer. The Bedouins see it as a place to work, a career. There are differences between the Bedouins who live in the northern part of Israel and the southern part. The IDF makes an effort to bring them in. They also get special models of service with education, professional education, support after they are released such as housing, and other things to encourage them to serve.

I think, and this is something that I don’t have numbers on, but, more and more Arabs are joining the national civilian service in their communities. That’s the leadership in a shift right now. They say, “Okay, we will serve.” They have a problem with us calling it “national service” because it’s the nation of Israel. It’s politics, it’s pure politics. If you talk to the youngsters, they speak differently. But the older people, the politicians, are very problematic. They hold them back and the trend now is to volunteer to the national service in their own communities.

Bryen: That makes sense.

Shamni: It makes sense as a first step, but no doubt in the future it will have to change – you’re not only supposed to support your own community. If you enjoy the benefits of the national service, you should serve the nation. And the nation should tell you where to serve. You are not supposed to choose. You should go wherever the nation wants you to go.

Bryen: How have the Ethiopian soldiers done over time?

Shamni: Ethiopian soldiers are getting better and better. The number, for example, of drop-outs among Ethiopian women was about 13 percent dropped out of service in 2014. Not from particular units, but from the IDF as a whole. In 2016 it was 7.5 percent. For Ethiopian men, in 2014 there was 24.4 percent dropout rate. In 2016, 14.8 percent.

And it is still moving in the right direction. If you take, for example, the percentage of Ethiopian soldiers who go to officer’s school, it was 15 percent in 2014; in 2016 it is 24 percent.

They’re moving up in the IDF, as they move up in Israeli society. That’s a good way to show that the IDF is the crucial phase in integrating into Israeli society. That’s where you learn the “Israeli” language – not Hebrew.

Bryen: “Israeli” is much different than Hebrew. Can you talk about any special consideration that you give to soldiers that are gay or lesbian?

Shamni: We just treat them normally. If you need to give somebody special treatment, it means you don’t see them as a normal soldier; and that’s not the way we feel. We think that they can and they do contribute a lot. And at the end of the day, that’s what you are looking for. To contribute, to serve, to be a good friend to your friends, to be devoted, to be committed. And if you do, you’re like everybody else.

Bryen: But there are other people who are not like everybody else. There are people who have physical disabilities, or autism, or other emotional disabilities. And some of those people also would like to serve in the IDF. What do you do with them?

Shamni: The policy of the IDF is that everyone who wants to join the IDF can join – as long as he is not risking his own health, or his surroundings. So, if you have disabilities and you want to join, you can join. If you risk your health by joining, you can’t join. If you risk the health or safety of others you cannot join. But otherwise, yes. And there is one more condition: you have to be independent. If you need somebody to always escort you and support you, that’s usually not accepted.

Bryen: What does Israel do with kids that either fail high school, have drug problems, other issues, but still they want to join the IDF?

Shamni: The IDF doesn’t check grades from high school at all, only the number of years you studied; ten years, eleven years, twelve years. And the influence of this is not crucial when defining the qualities in order to weigh different levels of quality. We don’t want to see how much you succeeded in the past; we want to evaluate your potential for the future.

Bryen: Are there still areas of the IDF that are off limits for women?

Shamni: There are a few things. Like… actually you know, we have women in tanks, infantry unit, air force, the artillery corps, intelligence, all over. I can’t think of one. We don’t have Navy Seals. I think that most of the tracks are open for women.

Bryen: I’m coming to the end of my questions, and here is what I’ve learned. We’ve looked at separate elements inside Israel: Haredim, Muslims, Ethiopians, gay and lesbian Israelis, women, and people with different abilities. What I hear you saying is that it is the job of the IDF to accommodate different people, different levels, different skills, different backgrounds. You take different people from different places with different skills, and you make soldiers out of them. You make everybody feel that they’re necessary to the project.

Shamni: Yes. The military is a reflection of Israeli society and you have to take into consideration that people are different.  There is a lot of investment in that regard. We have to keep studying the characteristics of each new generation in order to call out and utilize the best qualities of our young men and women.

At the same time,  the so-called old slogans area still relevant in Israel. “Defending your country, defending the home land, fighting for your family.” The contribution to the security of the state is something that is really clear to young people before they come. The majority (there are exceptions) come to the IDF with a very, very high levels of motivation. The challenge is to keep their motivation. When they see the real world, sometimes things look different, you know?

It’s not what they saw in the movies or in the papers or video games. Sometimes life is grayer, and military life it is often boring and routine, and there is a lot of what appears unnecessary that soldiers have to do. But we have to keep up their motivation and keep good soldiers with us through officer schools and beyond. There are a lot of challenges.

Bryen: Last question. How good is the IDF?

Shamni: The IDF is an excellent military. First and most important is that the IDF can take the best of everyone in our society and implement their quality wherever they’re needed. So, the sky is the limit.

Second, Israelis are very advanced technologically. We use that in the IDF and the military is very flexible. The soldiers are young, which is an advantage and disadvantage. Advantage because they have a lot of energy and they are willing to do things older people might not. They do it. They’re determined. On the other hand, it might be dangerous, so you have to balance it.

The U.S. military has a great military. But I think we are more flexible – that’s the advantage of being small; our threats and challenges are relatively known. We know where our battlefields are. Not like in the American case.

And we don’t deploy overseas, thank God; we don’t need to. We defend the state of Israel, and that’s enough.

Bryen: I think that’s all you can ask is that they be best at their mission. On behalf of our members and readers, Gen. Shamni, thank you.