Reversing the tide of Jewish history: Culture and the creation of Israel’s “people’s army”

Stuart A. Cohen

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapterpeer-review


Why retain a “people’s army”? In immediate terms, the enlistment policies and practices thus adopted undoubtedly served their purpose. Even when due note is taken of recent revisionist history, which considerably modifies the view that Israeli forces in the War of Independence were massively outnumbered and outgunned by their enemies (Kadish 2004), the military utility of the draft during the crisis years of 1948-9 remains undeniable. What is not at all clear, by contrast, is whether the retention of conscription thereafter was quite as inevitable as is sometimes suggested. If anything, once the fighting had died down in 1949, almost precisely the same sets of considerations that had initially underscored the need to establish a massbased army began to work in favor of its dismantlement. For one thing, there were the economics. It has been calculated that at the height of the war over 30 percent of Israel’s workforce was mobilized, with the result that GNP dropped by over 12 percent (Barkai 2004: 760-5). Ben-Gurion’s attempt to solve this problem by dispatching “labor battalions” to industry and agriculture (a device that he had picked up from Trotsky’s initiative in the 1920s), proved to be a short-lived failure and collapsed in a bureaucratic shambles (Greenberg 2006). Ultimately, only massive demobilization in 1949 enabled the economy to rebound by 20 percent, and even then the Treasury felt it necessary to impose a regime of strict austerity. Under those circumstances, the continued diversion of labor from industry and the farms to the barracks made necessary by conscription could only prolong and make more painful the road to economic recovery. No less compelling were the military arguments in favor of a reconsideration of the universal draft. Clearly, Israel had to maintain a high level of mobilization. As early as October 1949, Ben-Gurion was convinced that the Arab states were preparing for a “second round, " and hence insisted on the need to “educate a fighting people, and prepare every man and woman, young and old, for selfdefense in the hour of need” (Ben-Gurion 1955: 138-9). So self-evident was this imperative that the National Service Bill, which introduced conscription, was voted into law in 1949 by the Knesset almost without demur. But the operational disadvantages of the service system thus established became apparent almost as soon as the procedure was put into effect. Between 1948 and 1953 Israel’s Jewish population more than doubled, principally thanks to the arrival of almost 750, 000 new immigrants, about half of whom were Holocaust survivors from Europe and the remainder mostly refugees from Arab countries. Neither background proved conducive to satisfactory absorption within the new Israeli military framework. On the contrary, in both cases conscription, rather than providing a military asset, soon proved to be a disadvantage. One early indication of the extent of the problem was supplied in the spring of 1949 by the IDF’s own fledging psychological research unit. Surveys showed that the low morale found to be prevalent among the 20, 000 Holocaust survivors who had been hastily drafted into IDF combat units was proving infectious, and hence impairing the fighting spirit of native sabras (Yablonka 1995: 562-5).

Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationThe New Citizen Armies
Subtitle of host publicationIsrael’s Armed Forces in Comparative Perspective
PublisherTaylor and Francis
Number of pages19
ISBN (Electronic)9781135169565
ISBN (Print)9780415565462
StatePublished - 1 Jan 2010

Bibliographical note

Publisher Copyright:
© 2010 Selection and editorial matter, Stuart A. Cohen; individual chapters, the contributors.


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