The Hebrew word for army, tzava, has the same root as the word "gathering," a place where people come together, and that is an apt description of what happens in Tsva Hahagana leYisrael, the Israel Defense Forces, often called the "army of all the people."
In contrast to other armed forces, the IDF is not one employment option among many: it is the place where all of the nation's young people come together to protect the State of Israel and its citizens.
An army made up of the entire Nation of Israel creates a special reality in which all IDF soldiers sleep in the same tents, ride in the same patrol jeeps and tanks, sail in the same missile-firing boats, whether they were born in Israel or immigrated to it, whether they are religious or secular, kibbutzniks or city-lovers.
Israel's first Prime Minister David Ben Gurion and founder of the IDF, was fond of saying that IDF units are the melting pot of Israeli society, the place where the vast cultural and economic differences between the sectors of Israeli society are blurred.
He was right, even though nowadays every group preserves its own cultural identity as well.
In the IDF, every soldier can learn from the other fighters in his unit as well as influence them. Empathy and respect are natural results of carrying a stretcher together, especially when a friend from that unit lies in it. Soldiers from all facets of Israeli society help one another get through strenuous marches, difficult maneuvers and the resulting exhaustion.
This is a blessing for Israeli society, because without the ethnic mixing in the army, the discord between population sectors would be much more serious than it is today. We will soon witness that the gradual absorption of hareidi soldiers into the IDF, now in progress, will not only end the resentment many secular Israelis feel towards that sector, it will familiarize them with a lifestyle about which they know little or nothing.
An additional positive result of army service in Israel stems from the egalitarian conditions that prevail in the IDF. In contrast to other armies, the US Army for one, where officers earn their stripes after graduating from West Point without going through basic training with the rank-and-file, in the IDF all enlisted soldiers have an opportunity to prove their ability, from basic training to officer's courses and all the way to the highest command posts. It is often the ideas of rank-and-file soldiers that affect decisions in the field and effect change.
This has a tremendous effect on Israeli society. Young people from every background can attain officer status, using that success as a stepping stone when they re-enter civilian life, allowing them to try out for key positions in Israel's employment world.
IDF service also plays a special part in the absorption of immigrants who move to Israel and join the army. These soldiers are often heard claiming that the fact that they succeeded in integrating into Israeli society is due to their serving with soldiers who were born in Israel.
Sam (Samantha) and Mickey are two young immigrants who came on aliyah about four years ago and have been married for several months. Sam is from Las Vegas; Mickey hails from Michigan. Although as immigrants, they were entitled to a shorter term of service, Mickey decided to join the tank corps, did basic training and an officer's course and is now commander of a tank platoon! Sam volunteered to serve as a lookout on the Lebanese border for two years, the same length of service as her Israeli girl friends.
This couple told me that they were able to blend into Israeli society easily because of their army service, adding: "Had we not served in the army, we would have remained Americans who can hardly get out a sentence in Hebrew."
More significant than the absorption of Western immigrants is the positive effect of IDF service on immigrants from countries such as Ethiopia. In the past, soldiers whose families made aliyah from North Africa, the Middle East and Asia were successfully absorbed in the IDF and are now serving in the army's highest echelons, their ethnic roots having ceased to play a role.
Although Ethiopian absorption still has difficulties to surmount, the IDF is an entirely different story. Soldiers of Ethiopian origin advance according to their merits, with a growing number welcomed into elite commando units and the Air Force.
The IDF offers soldiers who are not halachically Jewish the opportunity to study Judaism and register for seminars that prepare them for conversion in the "Nativ" program, which has the Israeli Chief Rabbinate's backing. Every year, close to a thousand soldiers take advantage of the program and complete the conversion process during their military service.
Once the years of compulsory service are over, every soldier must spend several weeks a year on reserve duty. The IDF preserves the integrity of each soldier's original unit, so that long term friendships are formed, soldiers network and help one another, with informal social contact continuing outside of the army. A common Israeli saying is "we have eaten from the same mesting, a corruption of the word "mess tin", a metal dish used to warm food in the army.
Israeli biographer Shlomo Rosenfeld writes that "the mesting has come to mean nostalgic comradeship. In Israel, the entire nation is the army, and every Israeli has a few friends with whom he dragged stretchers and ate from the same mesting. They were a group that traveled a good part of the way together, until they separated – one became a taxi driver, another became a bank clerk, another ran a company and one became a factory worker, one opened a grocery store and one continued to climb the ladder and became a general in the IDF or a high-ranking minister in the government. But when they started out, they were all of equal status. After all, they all ate from the same mesting."
The friends with whom I served in the IDF forty years ago meet every week to hike along Israel's trails, the soldiers who served under my command include me in their get-togethers, as the barriers between officers and regular soldiers are almost non-existent in the IDF.
While it is true that an army is not a goal in itself in Jewish tradition, and the Jewish people would prefer to see a world without violence and warfare, the Israeli army serves a purpose beyond that of security. It plays a major and significant part in building a healthier society in Israel.
Brig. Gen. (res.) Rabbi Avichai Rontski served as IDF Chief Rabbi from 2006-2010 and heads the Itamar Hesder Yeshiva.