Sunday, September 26, 2010

Wrong Move

by Evelyn Gordon

Bill Clinton’s comments on the number of Russian immigrants and settlers in the Israel Defense Forces do indeed, as Jennifer said, sound xenophobic. But Clinton’s slander is far more dangerous than mere xenophobia. For when he says the increased presence of “children of Russians and settlers, the hardest-core people against a division of the land… presents a staggering problem,” what he’s implying is that these soldiers cannot be trusted to obey a government order to evacuate territory — or in other words, that Israel is no longer a democratic state where the government controls the army. And nothing could be further from the truth.

It’s true that for the last decade, roughly one-third of newly minted infantry officers have been Orthodox Jews, almost triple their 12 percent share in the overall Jewish population. It’s also true that Russian immigrants and their children, representing about one-sixth of the Jewish population, constitute one-fourth of all combat soldiers.

But all this was equally true five years ago, when Israel withdrew from every inch of Gaza, dismantled its 21 settlements and evacuated four West Bank settlements to boot. Yet of the approximately 50,000 soldiers involved in the disengagement, a mere 63 refused to obey the evacuation order — about a tenth of a percent. That’s less than the number of leftists who have refused to serve in the West Bank — though they, too, are a tiny minority.

Both numbers are minuscule for a very good reason: most Israelis of every political stripe accept the principle that in a democracy, the army takes orders from the government regardless of the soldiers’ own political views. That’s as true of “Russians” and settlers as it is of secular leftists — as both the disengagement and several subsequent evacuations of illegal settlement outposts show. If Clinton offered no evidence for his libelous insinuation to the contrary, it’s because there isn’t any.

Nevertheless, if Clinton is truly concerned, the ones to blame aren’t the Russians and settlers but his secular leftist friends. For while army service is mandatory in Israel, combat units are strictly voluntary. Thus, if Russians and Orthodox Jews (most of whom, incidentally, aren’t settlers) are disproportionately represented in front-line units, it’s because they’re disproportionately willing to volunteer for combat duty, while the children of veteran Israeli leftists prefer safer jobs to the rear.

Consider, for instance, the demographic breakdown of the 13-man combat platoon in which a friend’s son currently serves: five men from hesder yeshivas, which combine Torah study with army service; four mizrahim (Israelis of Middle Eastern/North African descent); one Russian immigrant; one Ethiopian immigrant; one French immigrant; and one Israeli Arab (a real rarity, since non-Druse Arabs aren’t drafted, and very few volunteer). Glaringly absent are the Israeli-born, secular, Ashkenazi Jews of Clinton’s fond memories. Yet this group far outnumbers both Russian immigrants and Orthodox Jews.

Their shrinking presence in combat units troubles me, too — not out of any concern for Israeli democracy, but for what it says about their willingness to defend the country. But the army hasn’t suffered a hostile takeover. Clinton’s beloved leftists simply abdicated.

Evelyn Gordon

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