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.
As is often the case in Israel, the solution to the trauma of being cut off from social media during basic training has evolved from the ground up. Junior officers, faced with growing complaints from pampered new recruits, devised a “soft power” treatment in the first months of basic training. This, I should add, is relative: Infantry service remains a hard task. But gradually, most of the senior officers have accepted the new rules of engagement with their charges. Soft power often means praise instead of humiliation from sergeants and captains. Physical abuse has all but disappeared, while verbal abuse isn’t as widespread as before. The army also grudgingly allowed soldiers some Facebook access during recess.
Many times during my reporting, I listened to arguments between rookies and their commanders, as the soldiers pleaded for precious Internet time through their smartphones. Just like my 15-year-old—or the female soldiers—the male Nahal recruits were keen to present their new image to their friends and family members at home. Showing off new muscles or a combat vest supplied some compensation for the harsh everyday conditions at the training camp, far away in the Negev desert.
Yet it was also evident that the junior commanders were still struggling with the meaning of these new, evolving, ethics. In one similar paratrooper unit, the company commander had forbidden his sergeants to accept friendship requests from their soldiers on Facebook. Smartphones also quickly became the Yiddishe Mama’s most useful weapon, since every parent now has the company commander’s phone number: Very often, when captains punish soldiers by revoking their weekend leave, they will receive a phone call from the soldiers’ mothers, trying to negotiate a lighter punishment for their sons. You shouldn’t be too surprised to learn that Israeli mothers frequently succeed in their efforts.
Some of the IDF’s veteran commanders are worried by the outcome of all these changes. They fear that the new rules and softer treatment—though popular among new recruits and their parents—do not create tough fighters. “Do you know what the most popular youth movement in Israel is?” one brigade commander asked me. Instead of a verbal answer, he moved his finger from left to right, imitating the motion used to open an iPhone screen. Another officer admitted that training in his brigade only became effective on Monday evenings, when the soldiers’ smartphones on the field began to suffer from low batteries. Some officers claim that the new soldiers might be less inclined to battle the extremist members of such organizations as Hamas or Hezbollah, but I’m not sure if this would in fact turn out to be true, or even determinative. After all, Hamas members have smartphones and twitter accounts, too.
The IDF is also concerned about the possible damage social networks and mobile phones might cause to information security. It is assumed that during the Second Lebanon War in 2006, Hezbollah managed to get hold of confidential information by eavesdropping on Israeli officers who were carelessly discussing delicate matters on their mobile phones. Since then, it seems that Israel’s enemies have learned quite a lot by snooping on soldiers’ Facebook pages. Huge posters in army bases warn soldiers from such consequences. “You and Hassan Nasrallah share 25 friends on Facebook,” claims a popular one. Recently, my colleague Gili Cohen reported in Haaretz that the army was working on a new directive regulating social network use by soldiers, prohibiting use altogether in some confidential units. Two reasons were given: fears for information security and, as one could have guessed, those naughty pictures.
However, sometimes the information commissars get a bit carried away. As Cohen also reported, another poster they distributed, trying to limit the use of civilian disk-on-keys in military computers, shows a glass of milk next to a hamburger with the caption “Some things just don’t go together”—as if breaking the laws of kashrut was one step away from giving away secrets to the enemy.
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