How the Israel Defense Forces Got Dragged Into Israel’s Culture Wars

How the Israel Defense Forces Got Dragged Into Israel’s Culture Wars
Israeli border police officers next to a supporter of Sgt. Elor Azaria during a demonstration by hardline nationalists outside the Israeli military court, Tel Aviv, Jan. 4, 2017 (AP photo by Oded Balilty).

The Israel Defense Forces (IDF) have long enjoyed a unique role in Israeli life, unlike that in any other liberal democracy. The IDF is the most influential force in the national security decision-making process, the one “neutral” player that Israel’s fractious politicians are usually willing to heed. The IDF has also contributed significantly to the development of Israeli society and its national identity, helping forge Israel’s disparate immigrant communities into a still discordant, but fundamentally united whole.

As Israel enters its 70th year, public trust in the IDF remains remarkably high, to the point that it has been referred to as Israel’s “civil religion.” In 2014, a remarkable 88 percent of Israeli Jews expressed strong trust in the IDF in one poll, far higher than any other public institution.

This support has not prevented the IDF from becoming an important locus of Israel’s domestic culture wars in recent years, with the contending forces in Israeli society—right, left, religious and secular—seeking to make use of its role and prestige to promote their respective agendas. This was evident most recently in the conviction for manslaughter earlier this month of an Israeli soldier, Elor Azaria, for fatally shooting a disarmed Palestinian assailant after he had been captured in the West Bank city of Hebron. The Palestinian, Abdel Fattah al-Sharif, had, along with a second attacker, stabbed and wounded another Israeli soldier at a checkpoint.

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