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Israel: The IDF As A Socializing Factor
Country Study > Chapter 5 > National Security > Armed Forces and Society > The IDF as a Socializing Factor


The tradition of the IDF as a social service institution dates from 1949, when it played a major role in tackling sudden and widespread epidemics in transit camps for the flood of immigrants to the new nation. In the same year, Ben-Gurion envisioned a vital educational mission for the military. The IDF has fulfilled this mission both indirectly and directly. The common experience of conscription for about 90 percent of Jewish males and 50 percent of Jewish females has itself fostered the homogenization of disparate elements of Israeli society. The IDF made a concerted effort to integrate within its various units persons from different social backgrounds. Sephardim and Ashkenazim, men and women from kibbutzim and cities, and sabra and immigrant Jewish youth often mixed for the first time in their lives in the IDF.

More specifically, the IDF administered an educational program that helped immigrant Sephardic youth, many of whom had been deprived of basic education as children, to integrate into the Ashkenazi-dominated society of Israel. Perhaps the most important educational function of the IDF was the teaching of the national language, Hebrew. Young immigrants could defer their entry until they had an adequate grasp of the language and if needed could be assigned to a three-month intensive course in Hebrew at the beginning of their service.

Conscripts who had failed to complete grade school attended a special school prior to discharge in order to bring them to junior high school level. In 1981, 60 percent of conscripts had the equivalent of a high school education. It was estimated that by 1990 this percentage would increase to 80 percent, while those insufficiently educated for military service would diminish to almost none. A variety of other educational opportunities, including secondary and vocational school courses, was available to soldiers. The IDF educational system also extended to civilians. Gadna and Nahal members were deployed in rural settlements of recent immigrants, where they taught material similar to that taught immigrant soldiers and informed the new arrivals of state services available to them.

Some Israeli sociologists, however, have criticized the IDF's treatment of immigrant Sephardim. A 1984 study found that new Oriental Jewish immigrants held lower ranks than did sabra Ashkenazim of similar qualifications. Oriental immigrants also tended to be assigned to the least prestigious IDF corps. A disproportionate number of new immigrants served in peripheral support corps, such as the Civil Defense Corps, the Guard Corps, and the General Service Corps. Oriental immigrants were underrepresented in the air force and in glamorous elite units, and those who served in combat instead of support corps were overrepresented in the Artillery Corps and the Combat Engineering Corps, where they were relegated to the most dangerous and physically laborious positions. These newer immigrants also were more liable to serve in units posted far from their homes and to be taught skills that could not be transferred to the civilian job market. The study concluded, however, that this situation was caused not by prejudice in the IDF but, on the contrary, by regulations permitting a shorter period of service for those who were beyond the regular recruitment age of eighteen or who were married and had children. The majority of newer immigrants served less than one-third the time that nonimmigrants did, and most remained at the rank of private. The brief service experience limited their absorption into military life and mobility within the defense organization. Their immigrant status and their adjustment to Israeli society were thus prolonged and the likelihood of improving their status later as civilians was reduced.

A newer aspect of the social impact of the IDF was its role in the socialization of delinquent and formerly delinquent youth. In the early 1970s, the IDF reversed its previous policy and began conscripting all but the most serious offenders among delinquent youth in an attempt both to increase its manpower pool and to provide remedial socialization in the context of military discipline. By 1978 it was clear that the policy was only partially successful. Approximately half the youths (generally the less serious offenders) released from detention to join the IDF had adjusted successfully; the other half had been less successful. Many returned to criminal activity and contributed to growing disciplinary problems within the IDF that included rising drug use among soldiers and thefts and violent crimes within IDF units. Others could not adjust to army life and simply left or were expelled from the IDF. Despite the problems associated with the new policy, IDF officials were proud of their role in youth rehabilitation and felt that the opportunity afforded delinquent youth to be reintegrated into society outweighed the associated disciplinary problems.

Data as of December 1988

Last Updated: December 1988

Editor's Note: Country Studies included here were published between 1988 and 1998. The Country study for Israel was first published in 1988. Where available, the data has been updated through 2008. The date at the bottom of each section will indicate the time period of the data. Information on some countries may no longer be up to date. See the "Research Completed" date at the beginning of each study on the Title Page or the "Data as of" date at the end of each section of text. This information is included due to its comprehensiveness and for historical purposes.

Note that current information from the CIA World Factbook, U.S. Department of State Background Notes, Australia's Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade Country Briefs, the UK's Foreign and Commonwealth Office's Country Profiles, and the World Bank can be found on

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