Many armies adhere to values that differentiate them from those of other countries. The Kurdish fighting forces of Syria, for instance, have a brigade of female soldiers making up almost half of the army because of their government’s liberal, progressive leanings.
On the other hand, some armies are more religiously inclined. The Egyptian army, for example, officially observes the Ramadan fast, which is one reason it could surprise Israel in the Yom Kippur War, which fell out during Ramadan—by granting soldiers religiously sanctioned permission to break the fast early.
While armed forces worldwide tend to stand for certain principles that distinguish them from others, perhaps no army demonstrates inclusivity and unity for as wide a variety of its country’s citizens as do the Israel Defense Forces (IDF).
While working for a non-profit organization that provides humanitarian assistance to IDF soldiers, I was privileged to witness this for myself. The organization, Yashar LaChayal, runs many programs that benefit the young men and women defending Israel. One of Yashar LaChayal’s claims to fame is that a generous family pays for its overhead expenses, ensuring that all other donations can be dedicated to the welfare of IDF soldiers.
For an army pledged to defend a country that is the nation-state of the Jewish people, the IDF is amazingly diverse—it is truly an mosaic of the many varied segments of society that make up Israel. People from all religions, ethnicities and genders come together as one to protect the state of Israel, including some groups that may surprise you!
One of the most burning issues in Israel today is the debate on the participation of the ultra-Orthodox community in public life, specifically vis-à-vis their historically low rates of enlistment in the army. To ensure that military service does not preclude a strictly religious lifestyle, the IDF is constantly forming additional battalions that adhere to the most stringent practices of Jewish law. Whether by only serving the highest standard kosher food in the lunchroom, or allotting soldiers legally mandated breaks to study Torah, the army is doing its part to ensure that those on the far end of the religious spectrum can feel as comfortable as possible while defending their country.
Meanwhile, units are also being formed to accommodate the growing number of Israeli women who want to serve as combat soldiers. Several coed infantry battalions have been created in the past few years, including Arayot Hayarden (Lions of Jordan). It is virtually unheard of anywhere else in the world for an army with such a strong religious component to also oblige the desire of liberal, patriotic women to protect their country in the same way men do.
Much more can be said about the other unique groups that are part of the IDF. There are units manned mainly by Bedouin, a subculture of Muslim Arabs who serve loyally in the army as trackers and combat soldiers. The Druze, another religious group that has pledged loyalty to the state, have a higher percentage of their youth going into combat units than do the Jews, and Arab Christians are serving in increasing numbers. Furthermore, a program has been created to provide a military framework for Israelis with special needs who wish to contribute to the army in whatever capacity they can.
Each of these groups does their part in defending the state of Israel, and Yashar LaChayal does all it can to support their efforts. Special support is provided to Arayot HaYarden, to ultra-Orthodox “lone soldiers” (who have in some cases been estranged from their families because of their decision to enlist), to Druze and Bedouin soldiers and to those with special needs who volunteer to serve. Whether by providing assistance to soldiers from lower socioeconomic backgrounds, building rest stations for those on patrol, or hosting units at professional basketball games in their off-time, Yashar LaChayal will always be there to show support and pride for the IDF—an army truly unlike any other in the world.
By Amichai Bacharach