Israel Is an Army With a Country Attached

A new book by an Israeli scholar dissects the extraordinary hold that the country’s military — and militaristic ways of thinking — have on Israeli society, and the ideological myths that keep the project afloat.
Review of An Army Like No Other: How the Israel Defense Forces Made a Nation,by Haim Bresheeth-Zabner (Verso, 2020).

By Belén Fernández
Aug. 24, 2020

A week into Israel’s summer 2006 assault on Lebanon — which killed 1,200 people, mainly civilians — Harvard Law School’s resident psychopath Alan Dershowitz surfaced on the pages of the Wall Street Journal with his latest upbeat intervention on behalf of Israeli war crimes.The article, titled “Arithmetic of Pain,” posited the need for a “reassessment of the laws of war” in light of what Dershowitz determined to be an increasingly blurred distinction between combatants and civilians. Unfurling his concept of a “continuum of ‘civilianality,’” he explained:

“Near the most civilian end of this continuum are the pure innocents — babies, hostages and others completely uninvolved; at the more combatant end are civilians who willingly harbor terrorists, provide material resources and serve as human shields; in the middle are those who support the terrorists politically, or spiritually.”

The upshot: even purely innocent Lebanese babies were merely “near” the civilian-ish end of the continuum, while Israel was entirely exempt from the whole scheme because it is a “democracy.”

As it happens, however, it is Israel that is suffering from a dearth of “civilianality” — something that is made painfully clear in a new book, An Army Like No Other: How the Israel Defense Forces Made a Nation, by Haim Bresheeth-Zabner. Recalling Prussian minister Friedrich von Schrötter’s characterization of Prussia as “not a country with an army, but an army with a country,” Bresheeth-Zabner contends that this is “even more apt regarding the relationship between Israel and the IDF [Israeli Defense Forces].”

The IDF is the “center of Israeli existence,” an arrangement that he attributes primarily to David Ben-Gurion — Israel’s first prime minister — who determined that the very task of nation-forging was up to the army, which would transform the old Jew of the diaspora into the Israeli, using “nationalist alchemy to turn the base metal of the Ghetto Jew into the refined gold of the sabra soldier.”

The process was facilitated by Zionism’s embrace of the “mythical biblical Jew” and invention of an “unambiguous trait of Jewish militarism,” thanks to which two millennia of history were excised from the equation and the “new Jew became the imagined heir of genocidal Joshua, Bar Kochba, and Judas Maccabeus — a rogues gallery of militarized heroes who formed the foundation for the conquest of Palestine.”

And as the conquest of Palestine proceeds apace — with the army-with-a-state continuing its traditions of ethnic cleansing, land theft, and massacres to this day — brutal militarism remains the unifying national element. Alongside near-universal conscription is the near-universal approval among Israeli Jews for IDF-inflicted slaughter.

During Israel’s fifty-day onslaught in the Gaza Strip in 2014, for example — during which 2,251 Palestinians were killed, including 551 children (hi, Dershowitz) — approximately 95 percent of Jewish Israelis supported the bloody escapade. As the New York Times reported at the time, some even headed to a hilltop with plastic chairs, sofas, and popcorn to watch the bombs fall.

Bresheeth-Zabner writes that, in Israel, military service essentially “starts before birth,” and the “whole social structure is militarized” to the point that the IDF and associated apparatuses form a “politicocultural-economic military–industrial complex.” There’s also an academic side to the complex, with Israel’s seven universities and top research centers “collaborating with the IDF and armament production and training companies, creating a seamless security continuum.” So much for that popular argument that boycotting Israeli academic institutions constitutes “rank anti-Semitism.”

Invoking the old hammer-and-nail saying, Bresheeth-Zabner notes that the more a society habituates itself to the use of force, the more the world looks like a place where force is needed — a self-perpetuating vicious cycle that is of course only helped along when the world in question is ever eager to acquire Israeli weapons and murderous know-how that have been battle-tested on Israel’s captive Palestinians and other Arab populations.

And it’s not only the United States that throws gobs of money at Israel for its services on behalf of empire; Israel’s universities and research centers are the “recipients of more EU research funding than the great majority of EU countries,” as Israel busies itself finding new and improved ways to spread insecurity under the guise of security.