Why Were Those IDF Recruits Dancing With Their Guns? One Word: Facebook
The IDF’s veteran commanders fear that easier access to Internet and softer treatment of new recruits create lax fighters
A relatively small social-media scandal in the IDF last month caused much more interest abroad than it did in Israel itself. Four female soldiers, new recruits assigned to serve in the future as instructors for male infantry, posted pictures of themselves on Facebook wearing nothing but their underwear and combat helmets. A few days later, another group of female soldiers followed their example. This time, a short grainy video, filmed through a cellular phone, showed some of the IDF’s finest dancing half-naked while holding an M-16 assault rifle as if it was a stripper pole, as an off-camera (female) voice encouraged them to “dance like sluts.” The international media, which can’t get enough of hot female Israeli soldiers with guns, got predictably excited. The editors at the London Daily Mail’s website invited readers to “watch half-naked Israeli soldiers,” while their colleagues at The Sun, ever wittier, gave the story a front page spot with the headline “Gaza Strip.”
Israelis were not particularly shocked. The IDF spokesperson’s unit settled for a short condemnation. The soldiers’ behavior, it said, did not reflect the army’s values, and their commanders will discipline them accordingly. (No details or pictures have surfaced documenting this, to the likely disappointment of the British editors.) The female soldiers’ parents explained to reporters that the young women were newcomers and had not realized that new regulations applied once they were in uniform (or in this case, out of it).
The explanation might be even simpler and more revealing of the current challenges faced by the IDF: The 18-year-olds behaved like 18-year-olds—probably expecting to collect some “likes.” Three years ago, a group of male soldiers from the infantry Nahal brigade filmed themselves dancing, in carefully choreographed moves, to Kesha’s “Tik Tok”—a sort of an early “Harlem Shake” (except for the fact that it was filmed in Hebron). Once the soldiers posted the video on Facebook, it went viral: Israeli occupation never looked better. Realizing this, brigade commander Col. Amir Abulafia wisely chose to ignore demands to discipline the soldiers for “offending the IDF’s honor,” whatever that meant.
What is truly interesting about these recent incidents, from a military correspondent’s point of view at least, is what they suggest about the prominence of social media in the psyches of young IDF recruits—and the new challenges that these virtual attachments pose to traditional forms of army discipline.
While researching my new book T’da Kol Em Ivreea: The New Face of the IDF, published in Hebrew in March, I frequently visited a company of new recruits of the Nahal brigade. I had originally initiated the project expecting to deal with such issues as the growing influence of religion on the army’s everyday life, a subject that has been covered extensively by Haaretz. But along the way I found out about other aspects I was hardly aware of. The most striking revelation had to do with the way the army now treats its new recruits. Although I’ve covered the IDF for the last 15 years—and served myself in a combat reserve unit until 2008—I entirely missed the changes in the army’s attitude. My ignorance has to do with the journalistic inclination to focus on immediate, dramatic, and strategic events (the Second Intifada, the Second Lebanon War), but also with our tendency to emphasize contacts with those higher-up in the security hierarchy (defense minister, chief of staff, generals) at the expense of finding out what is actually going on in boot camp.
For decades upon decades, the IDF used to humiliate new recruits, assuming that only breaking the young men’s spirit would help turn them into warriors. But those days are now long gone. By the early 1990s, Israeli society no longer considered service in combat units as obligatory for young men, and, though the change was never official—the draft still exists—officially, society began treating combat soldiers as de facto volunteers.
The first Israelis to understand this sweeping shift in social attitudes were, naturally, the young recruits themselves. Quite soon after they joined their new company, the soldiers from Nahal’s Company B realized that they had an easy way out. If they decided to look for a desk job or a logistics role instead, the army would hardly try to prevent this. The commanders, on the other hand, are perfectly aware that they’re dealing with recruits who consider themselves to be volunteers and who are unused to any form of strong discipline from parents or teachers. “The new recruits are significantly less mature than those we encountered 10 years ago,” admitted the IDF’s top psychiatrist. “From the army’s point of view, this is a catastrophe.”
Another important change occurred in our everyday technological environment. Thirty years ago, Israel was isolated; culturally, we were almost as far away from the United States as Albania. Israelis watched only one TV channel (which didn’t broadcast after midnight) run by the government, hardly traveled abroad, had to wait months to watch new Hollywood movies or purchase new albums. Today, my 15-year-old daughter might be living in a small town north of Tel Aviv, but in her mind she’s already in New York. And I can’t persuade her otherwise, since she’s able to watch her favorite American TV shows live, on East Coast time, through her laptop. Nowadays, Israeli kids—and the new army recruits are my daughter’s generation, not mine—lead lives very similar to Western kids of the same age.
Not only is the change of environment—from the relative comfort of the average Israeli home to an army tent in the middle of nowhere—much more drastic now than it was even in the 1980s and ’90s, but the young soldiers are also immediately deprived of their most familiar and intimate companions: no more Facebook, Twitter, or YouTube.
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