Religious Diversity and Military Service: The Israeli Experience

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Miri Eisin
Retired Colonel in the Israel Defense Forces and Former Advisor to Prime Minister Ehud Olmert

Date: February 6, 2014

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In Israel, military service is a context for the expression and inculcation of core societal values. One of Israel’s values is respect for diversity and religious pluralism. The Israel Defense Forces (IDF) is working hard to make itself an institution that embodies those ideals, while operating under public scrutiny.

Speaker Bio

Colonel Miri Eisin

Colonel Miri Eisin (retired) served as deputy head of the combat intelligence corps, assistant to the director of Military Intelligence, and as an intelligence officer in combat and research units in the Israel Defense Forces. She served as the Israeli government spokesperson during the Second Lebanon War (2006), and as international press secretary to Prime Minister Ehud Olmert during the Annapolis process. She earned a B.A. from Tel Aviv University, an M.A. in security studies from Haifa University, and is a graduate of the Israeli National Defense College. She is currently working on her doctorate at Haifa University, writing about political narratives in post-modern conflicts.

Event Photos

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Retired Israeli colonel Miri Eisin speaking at a Boisi Center lunch event.

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Miri Eisin speaking with Erik Owens. (Photos by MTS photography)

Event Recap

The Boisi Center’s second lunch event of the semester featured retired Israeli colonel Miri Eisin, who spoke about religious diversity in the Israeli army. In seeking to be both a liberal and a Jewish state with a diverse citizenry, Israel faces many instances of rights in conflict. Its military is a poignant microcosm: it is a place where Israeli society’s diverse components are able to interact intimately, and because of this, it can also highlight stark differences among its different groups.

Eisin explained that the military is comprised of Jewish, Christian, Druze, and Muslim Israelis. Most soldiers are conscripted, while some volunteer.  Accommodations are made for each group’s Sabbath and holy days. Non-Jewish soldiers serve alongside Jewish ones and can be found in all ranks.

Jewish Israelis differ by religiosity—secular, traditional, Modern Orthodox, and Ultra-Orthodox—as well as heritage. The main divisions along these latter lines are between those of European descent (Ashkenazi), Middle Eastern descent (Sephardi), Ethiopian descent, and the wave of immigrants in recent decades from the former Soviet Union.

Founded by secular Ashkenazim, the Israeli military has always been egalitarian.
Women have served and been considered equal to men. The military has also always been a place where new immigrants and the poorer segments of society are acculturated to Israeli society; the military is where “Israel tries to fix itself,” Eisin said.

Eisin worries, though, that the increasingly Orthodox nature of the military threatens its egalitarian character. The Modern Orthodox are disproportionately represented in the military. The Ultra-Orthodox are losing their exemption from military service, but are refusing to serve in close proximity with female soldiers and officers. These tensions highlight a difficulty in Israel’s identity as both a Jewish and modern liberal state.

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Further Reading

Julian E. Barnes, "U.S. Militlary Relaxes Rules on Religious Garb," Wall Street Journal, January 22, 2014.

William Booth and Ruth Eglash, “Israel’s Ultra-Orthodox Headed to the Army,” Washington Post, August 9.

Amos Harel, “Israel Begins Thrashing out Details of Ultra-Orthodox Draft, but an Uphill Battle Remains,” Haaretz, December 31, 2013.

Amos Harel, “New Units Take Shape as Israeli Army Drafts More Ultra-Orthodox Jews,” Haaretz, January 2, 2014.

Jeffrey Heller, “Ultra-Orthodox Jews to Serve in Israeli Military; Law Approved by Israeli Cabinet,” Huffington Post, July 7, 2013.

Yaakov Kop and Robert E. Litan, Sticking Together: The Israeli Experiment in Pluralism (Washington, DC: Brookings Institution Press, 2002).

Robert E. Litan, “Diversity in Israel: Lessons for the United States,” Brookings Institute (Winter 2002).

Maayan Lubell, "Israel Cuts Seminary Funds, Angers Ultra-Orthodox Jews,", February 5, 2014.

John Vandiver, “Drafting out of Necessity, Israeli Military Gains in Diversity,” Stars and Stripes, September 9, 2013.

Matthew Wagner and Yaakov Katz, "Soldiers' Refusal to Evacuate Hebron Families 'Undermined the Basic Foundations of the IDF,'" Jerusalem Post, August 6, 2007.

In the News

Israel's Finance Ministry announced Wednesday that it would halt funding to ultra-orthodox seminary students who claim an exemption from compulsory military service, in line with a Supreme Court decision from earlier in the week. The Israeli parliament is in the midst of drafting a law wherein male seminary students will no longer be exempt from military service.