If you’re at all familiar with Israeli politics or culture, you’re likely very familiar with the Israel Defense Forces (IDF). Its name is in every corner of the country. It’s woven into the fabric of Israeli living. Alternate Prime Minister and Minister of Defense Benny Gantz himself is a former IDF chief-of-staff. So what’s the big deal with the IDF?
The forces themselves are highly commendable. Their work has saved Israel from aggressive attacks countless times. As rockets bombard the country almost daily, the IDF keeps Israel safe while striking against the military targets of their attackers. But it’s what’s at the heart of its prominence that makes the force a sad reminder of reality for Israelis.
Israel has been highly targeted for destruction by many nations since its inception in 1948. Think of its War for Independence (1947–1949), the Six-Day War (1967), Yom Kippur War (1973), First (1982) and Second (2006) Lebanon Wars, and its current clashes with Hamas and Hezbollah terrorists from Iran, Lebanon, and other neighboring enemy countries. Its citizens enjoy some special blessings in the form of a successful democracy, a strong economy, and technological advancements, but they live in constant fear of being struck dead by rocket fire at any moment.
How sad would it be if your 18th birthday party wasn’t a day of celebrating the freedom of stepping into adulthood but instead was the end of a countdown that shipped you off to the perils of military conflict?
The concerns for safety have made military service such an ingrained part of Israeli culture. At the age of 18, every Israeli citizen is obligated to serve in the IDF. How sad would it be if your 18th birthday party wasn’t a day of celebrating the freedom of stepping into adulthood but instead was the end of a countdown that shipped you off to the perils of military conflict?
It sounds unfathomable to most of us, especially those of us who are part of the nearly 330 million Americans who make up the United States, an ocean away from war. But it makes more sense when you consider that Israel boasts only 9 million people while bordered and surrounded by nations exponentially larger and more hateful of the Jewish state.
But the IDF isn’t your typical military. Much of its strength comes from the fact that all its citizens serve in the forces (except for a few grounds for exemption, such as religious or medical reasons). While some of the brightest minds in other countries go to college or start a career after turning 18, Israel has the advantage of using all of their most capable citizens in military service. The IDF gets the crème de la crème of its population. As everyone shares the same experiences by rising up the same ranks, chemistry among its members is a natural result of the IDF’s structure.
The Rise of the Lone Soldier
It’s not just Israel’s citizens who make up the IDF. People come from all over the world to defend the nation. These non-Israelis who join the IDF are called “lone soldiers.” Though all are worthy of respect for joining the noble force, no one quite encapsulates the IDF better than Michael Levin.
Levin was a young Jewish American from the Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, area who moved to Israel when he was 18 to serve in the IDF. Standing only 5’6” and no more than 120 pounds, the feisty, mischievous Levin joined the IDF ranks by climbing through a bathroom window from a nearby dumpster after being rejected by a security guard.1 This passion to serve a land where he had never lived because of his strong connection to his Jewish roots inspired thousands who heard his story.
As war erupted in Lebanon, Levin was on leave in the United States, far from the war. Yet he so deeply wanted to serve the IDF that he flew to Israel to join the battle. It was in this battle with Hezbollah terrorists that he was killed in Lebanon on August 1, 2006 at the age of 22.
When he died, Levin’s parents thought almost no one would attend his funeral. Instead 2,000 people poured into Mount Herzl to show their love and appreciation for Levin’s sacrifice.2 His story wasn’t the only one of its kind, but it was the one that drew attention to the plight of the lone soldier. They were no longer unknown additions to the IDF; they were recognized and praised for their service.
Levin’s sacrifice and others like his have given heroic IDF soldiers positive exposure. They’ve begun to turn the tide of public opinion from believing the IDF is a war machine to understanding it is a necessary defender of a heavily persecuted land.
A Land That Knows No Peace
That’s just the problem—Israel has never known anything but hostile neighbors and war. This is the burden Israel has had to bear as the Chosen People of the Lord. But in our modern world, the only response the nation can have is to fortify its defenses. That’s why the IDF is such an unignorable part of Israel’s culture. It’s not from some misguided glorification of war; it’s a necessity for Israelis to stay alive and well within their land.
Israel has never known anything but hostile neighbors and war.
It’s a modern problem that can be traced back thousands of years. Israel has always had enemies, and that will probably never change until Jesus returns.
So when you hear about the IDF, understand that its prominence in Israel comes from necessity. Israelis have been dealt a tough hand in terms of safety. There’s nothing easy about having neighbors that want to kill you. There is no desire for war in Israel, only peace. Its enemies make peace pretty unachievable, so the IDF is crucial for its safety. But we who know the Lord and His Word also understand that beyond Israel’s military, God alone is the ultimate source of their preservation. He will not let His Chosen People be destroyed because of His covenant to be their God and to bless them.
It’s unfortunate that Israel must depend on a system that drafts citizens into the military once they reach adulthood. But it’s clear that without this system, Israel wouldn’t be nearly as well prepared to handle threats and violence as it is now. We can be thankful that God, who has protected His people for thousands of years as He promised, now protects the modern nation through the impressive Israel Defense Forces, keeping His people safe from constant danger.
1Gross, J. A. (2016, August 15). “Why the Life and Death of Lone Soldier Michael Levin Still Resonates, a Decade After the War.” The Times of Israel. https://www.timesofisrael.com/why-the-life-and-death-of-lone-soldier-michael-levin-still-resonates-a-decade-after-the-war/.