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How did wars shape Israeli society? An academic essay on Nations

Updated on December 28, 2011

May I present...

This is an academic essay on how War has shaped Israeli society. I have to confess, I didn't write the essay. I'm merely hosting it for the author who has spectacular capabilities as a writer but little interest in the platform to get it into the wider world... So without further ado, I present an (almost) treatise of modern history, (albeit deliberately a little biased to gain marks).

How did wars shape Israeli society?

Israel declared independence on the 14th May 1948. In the short history of the modern state of Israel, it has fought seven major wars and experienced a further seven violent confrontations. The modern state has rarely experienced a period of prolonged peace and this has had a profound effect on the society of Israel.

The foundation of the state of Israel was made as a consequence of war. Its actual birth was organised and made during a war, and the day after it declared independence, it was at war with the majority of its neighbours. It has been said that in its infancy, the state had a choice between socialism and militaristic nationalism. Many now think that it opted for the latter.

In recent times there has been an increase in the questioning of the military and its related institutions as the shaper and definer of what it means to be Israeli. However the fact remains that the Israeli military machine is a central aspect of the State. The importance of military matters reaches into both public and private lives. For instance, defence concerns are the most prominent in national policy and in the private sphere; military service is a central aspect for many social and cultural groups.

Israeli social scientists have focused on the question of their society at war and its experiences. One analysis is that, "like it or not, ours is a militaristic society par excellence. This militarism is the central organizing principle around which Israeli society revolves, works, determines its boundaries, its identity and the accepted rules of the game."[1]

common sight
common sight


Israeli militarism can trace its roots back to before it had fought any conflict, indeed to before the very existence of Israel. The military wing of the Jews living in the holy land developed various methods and tactics, albeit without coordination, primarily in response to the disturbances of 1936 and the following Arab revolt.

The central reason for the rise of these tactics was twofold- a crisis in the main military organisation of the Yishuv- the Haganah, coupled with a paralysis of the political leadership, whose policies were considered too moderate for the demands of the situation. The reaction to Jewish immigration and the economic policies of the Yishuv resulted in the three Arab revolt.

Aside from showing the Haganah was incapable of containing the uprising, it had a deeper effect. The Arabs had demonstrated a unity and strength of arms. They had overcome their differences and were taking on a nationalistic identity. The Yishuv debated how to respond, the primary question was ‘restraint or reaction’.

Various reasons resulted in the Haganah pursuing a policy of ‘havlagah’, or ‘self-restraint’. The reality of this was simply defending Jewish settlements from Arab incursions. However, the right-wing Irgun, made up primarily of native-born Israeli’s, dismissed the authority of the Haganah and adopted a policy of reaction. Declaring, ‘rather the language of force and war’, Irgun commenced attacks on Arabs and Arab settlements.

It is perhaps hardly surprising that this attitude has developed amongst Israeli society. The experience of Jews in the Second World War at the hands of the Nazi’s created an attitude of ‘never again’ and this mentality extends to this day where Israel will willing and violently enforce and protect its perceived right to its position in the holy land.

Despite the guiding principles of the Israeli government regularly including the statements that Israel wants nothing else but to live in peace with its neighbours, this peace remains elusive. One reason for this is that Israel will not accept peace at the expense of security, and it relentlessly pursues this security even it means remaining in a de facto state of war with the Palestinians.

War on all borders
War on all borders


As a small country surrounded by hostile neighbours, Israeli citizens are constantly immersed in the militaristic mentality of their country. This immersion can also take the form of detachment from the reality of the events that occur. Orith Shocha, a liberal Israeli journalist spoke of the effect of Palestinian civilian casualties on her. She was "shocked how it does not shock her" and “amazed how it doesn't haunt me."[2]

Bernard Reich, an American political scientist, wrote that "Israel is perhaps unique among states in having hostile neighbours on all of its borders, with the exception, since 1979, of Egypt." He added that this fact remained a dominant factor in the lives of ordinary Israelis. Statements from both sides increase and reinforce the willingness of the Israelis to use force. In a speech made in 1980, Yasser Arafat, leader of the PLO, argued that,”Peace for us means the destruction of Israel…”

Sentiments from elements within Israel are even more violent, one professor Arnon Sofer at HaifaUniversity wrote to the Jerusalem post, "If we want to remain alive, we will have to kill and kill and kill. All day, every day. If we don't kill we will cease to exist."[3]

Such statements, even if isolated statements from extremist elements, are hardly going to assist in the creation of a peace minded society. In addition to such mindless rhetoric, there are other statements from more respectable and far-reaching sources that have helped shape the society into a militaristic one.

There is a well-known quote from the first Prime Minister of Israel, David Ben Gurion: "If I were an Arab leader, I would never sign an agreement with Israel. It is normal; we have taken their country…”[4] There are endless quotes available, some genuinely constructive or analytical and others simply violent rhetoric. However, all serve to help shape a society used to violence being a solution. As is to be expected the stance and actions of Israel’s leaders filters down to the general society. The wars they initiated and fought and their views on them and means of handling them set the tone for society as a whole.

Throughout its short history, the modern state of Israel has existed in a constant state of suspicion and mistrust. One of many possible examples of this is a statement by Prime Minister Shimon Peres on negotiations with Jordan in Jerusalem on the 10th June 1985. In it he argued that, “Jordan’s evasion from declaring a policy of non-belligerence effectively leaves it with a declared policy of a state of belligerence.”[5]

Youth and Duty

A clear indication of the militarisation of the Israeli society can been seen in youth groups, where the military has a strong influence. The new IDF Gadna program has been criticised as being overly militarised. As a program for the pre-military training of youths, the group’s activities include shooting, night marches and operating in squad- sized groups.

A telling principle of the organisation is that, "emphasis will be put on the obligation of the individual to contribute to the best of his ability during his service in the IDF, out of a sense of belonging to a nation, a country and a state, and on the values of the IDF and its norms."[6]

The organisation promotes the value of fighting in the IDF and compares it favourably with other values, such as ‘self-fulfilment’, which is presented as a selfish and unnecessary trait. The value of the State is promoted as is the idea that the military sets the norms for the society.

Closely linked to the shaping of Israeli society is Israel’s perceived sense of ‘exceptionalism’[7]. A sense of exceptionalism can occur as a social group develops a collective identity. There are two perceptions that form the basis of this; shared and common features within the group, and a keen sense of the difference between these features and those of other social groups.

Founded by the reality of being the sole Jewish state in the world and strengthened through its geographical position amongst Muslim countries and its history of military success, the myth of ‘Exceptionalism’ has a potent effect on Israeli society. When coupled with power, a sense of exceptionalism can result in aggression and violence. This in itself can be dangerous but when this aggression is met with success, in this case military success and land acquisition, it serves as proof to the society of their superiority and of being culturally exceptional.

Israel’s sense of exceptionalism differs from this only in that it includes an inferiority complex as well as a superiority complex. This is due to its position of vulnerability brought on by being surrounded by neighbours who are hostile and the fact that it has been attacked in the past. This is coupled with its inherent belief in its own distinction.

Israeli nationalism was created through a number of means, not just the success of its military and the distinction it felt. In the early years of the State population increases were partly brought about by resurgent nationalism amongst the Diaspora. As in most societies, war bonds the people together. A great outside threat serves to unite people and make them forget petty arguments. The 1948 war served this purpose and its successful conclusion helped transform Israeli national mentality from a defensive one to an offensive one.

The 1967 Six-day war is an example of a perceived outside threat and the ultimate offensive move. Responding to a perceived Arab threat, the Israeli military launched a pre-emptive strike and in six days, overcame the military forces of Egypt, Jordan and Syria. The Israeli historian Segev argued that that there was no justification for the war, that the hysteria of an imminent invasion was born of the experiences of the Jews in the Second World War.

He argued that these experiences had shaped the Israeli society to such an extent that preparation for the war extended to digging mass graves. His explanation for this is that, "Only a society drenched in the memory of the Holocaust could have prepared so meticulously for the next one."[8] While containing many inconsistencies, the book does raise several interesting points about the status of Israeli morale before the war compared to after.

The Six-day war had a profound effect on the Israeli society and the way they viewed themselves and their neighbours. This was in part due to the unexpected result of having control of over 1 million Arabs. In subsequent years the treatment of some of these people led questions being asked about the legitimacy and procedures of the Israeli occupation, particularly in the West Bank.

Civilian Support

Support for the armed forces of Israel has always remained very high amongst the civilian population but there have been exceptions. Whilst by no means splitting society, the actions of the armed forces in some cases have provoked a backlash. A notable example of this is the reactions of feminist group Women Against the Invasion of Lebanon. Set up in response to the 1982 invasion of Lebanon, this was the first of several women’s movements against certain military actions.

Primary amongst these was the results of the intifada, or Palestinian uprising which helped destroy the illusion of an ‘enlightened occupation’[9] by Israeli forces in the West Bank. For the first time women and children were counted as the enemy and people saw the Israeli’s as the oppressor. Some of the means of putting down the Palestinian uprising were witnessed by civilians and their image of the Israeli military as moral and just was dented. Many women started political opposition against the occupation.

Even without a so-called ‘clear and present danger’ Israel relies on the military as the means of its existence. Shaped in part by the number of wars it has fought and its geopolitical position, Israeli society, from its foundation has developed into an intensely militaristic one. The success of the military in its operations is often seen as the only option, as the alternative is felt to be annihilation.

The Gadna youth program stresses as one of its guiding principles: "It is the obligation of the individual to contribute to the best of his ability during his army service to ensuring the existence and security of the state and its security, which is the primary duty of a citizen."[10] The emphasis that is placed on the duty of every citizen, whether in the military or as a civilian, to participate in the protection and security of the State is found throughout society. The permeation of the military into civilian groups is perhaps the greatest indication of the effect that war has had on Israeli society.


[1] Y. Peri, The Radical Social Scientists and Israeli Militarism. Israel Studies - Volume 1, Number 2, Fall 1996, P. 230




[5] The Israeli- Palestinian conflict. A documentary record 1967- 1990. Ed. Y. Lukacs. Cambridge, 1992. P. 206


[7] J. A. Armstrong, Nations before Nationalism. North Carolina, 1982. P. 5

[8] T. Segev, 1967: Israel, the War, and the Year That Transformed the Middle East. New York, 2007. P. 17

[9] Commentaries on the uprising, Journal of Palestine Studies, Vol. 17, No. 3. 1988. pp.142-144


  • Y. Peri, The Radical Social Scientists and Israeli Militarism. Israel Studies - Volume 1, Number 2. Fall, 1996.
  • The Israeli- Palestinian conflict. A documentary record 1967- 1990. Ed. Y. Lukacs. Cambridge, 1992.
  • J. A. Armstrong, Nations before Nationalism. North Carolina, 1982.
  • T. Segev, 1967: Israel, the War, and the Year That Transformed the Middle East. New York, 2007.
  • Israeli Pocket Library, Society. Jerusalem, 1974
  • E. Samuel, The Structure of Israeli Society. New York, 1969.
  • From War to Peace: Arab- Israeli relations 1973- 1993. Ed. B. Rubin, J. Ginat, M. Ma’oz. New York, 1994.
  • S. Smooah. Israel: Pluralism and Conflict. London, 1978.
  • Israel in the Middle East. Documents and Readings on Society, Politics, and Foreign Relations 1948- present. Ed. I. Rabinovich, J. Reinharz. Oxford, 1994.



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    • Lymond profile imageAUTHOR


      8 years ago from UK

      Thanks Bootalacey, a much greater understanding of the situation than I have...

    • profile image


      8 years ago

      the first step would be to remove israeli settlements from palestinian lands. however even this step, which should be a simple and straightforward one due to the fact that the settlements are illegal and in contravention of national and international law, is virtually impossible. the ideological element of israeli society (which is by no means a small isolated group) would not allow it. the moderate labour party would lose power if they were in office and the hardline likud party would take power. in addition many israelis would argue it would simply lead to an increase in attacks, as all palestinian freedom fighters/terrorists [:)] would claim it as a victory and proof they are capable of defeating israel.

    • Lymond profile imageAUTHOR


      8 years ago from UK

      Thanks for the comment arab muslim, you are right to an extent. Of course if the entire country of Israel upped and moved away from where it is, I'm sure their troubles from that region would be very much less, although given the generations of conflict I'd imagine it wouldn't stop completely. On the practical side of life, neither the expulsion of Jews from Palestine or the moving of Israel is very likely to happen. In fact you could argue the other way too. If all other nationalities were removed from Palestine, this may also be a solution.

      You put that the Palestine Arab Islamic state will remain and the Israelis clearly feel the same way. You have to come to a different conclusion if you ever want to get anywhere.

    • profile image

      arab muslim 

      8 years ago

      The reasons for Arab-Israeli conflict is the occupation of Palestine.

      Palestine Arab Islamic state like the rest of the Arab and Islamic states surrounding

      Them. Means that there are Jews and Zionists in Palestine a big mistake, because this entity

      Zionist is not consistent with the surrounding area (such as language, customs, traditions and religion)

      The only solution to end the Arab-Israeli conflict is the expulsion of Jews from Palestine

      All of Palestine. The Jewish people will not rest and will not feel comfortable and stability

      But if it gets out of Palestine and the Middle East completely. If people continue to

      Jews in Palestine and the Middle East, the death and destruction will continue.

      Palestine Arab Islamic state and will remain

    • Lymond profile imageAUTHOR


      8 years ago from UK

      An excellent quote uLrLfc! I'm sure the author would be very pleased with it.

    • profile image


      8 years ago

      Abba Eban (foreign minister)

      'The chilling wind of vulnerability penetrated to every corner of the Israeli consciousness. When we looked out at the world we saw it divided between those who wanted to see us destroyed and those who would not raise a finger to prevent it from happening.'


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