Despite the hamsa I wear around my neck, I’m not actually Jewish.
Misleading, I know, but I have my own sentimental attachment to the charm (it was my grandmother’s).
Regardless, as a college student surrounded by diversity everyday, I find it important to learn about and appreciate other religions and cultures in addition to my own.
With that in mind, I was intrigued by the University of Maryland’s Gildenhorn Institute for Israel Studies’ discussion, “Israelis’ Trust in the Military in an Era of New Wars.” It is an interesting subject, after all, particularly from an outsider’s perspective who hadn’t given it much thought previously.
As I walked into the Susquehanna Hall conference room Tuesday afternoon, I was greeted by the delicious aroma of the supplied Kosher lunch in addition to the welcoming faces of the other early attendees and those hosting the event.
Students, faculty and community members young and old filed into the room, serving themselves their share of pita, falafels and vegetables, and took a seat around the table.
After a brief introduction, Dr. Meytal Eran-Jona, senior sociologist and head of the research center at the Behavioral Sciences Center in the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), opened the presentation with a personal story about a close friend’s outdoor wedding last summer in Israel, which unfortunately occurred during the missile strikes along the Gaza Strip.
She explained her initial hesitation and, after much self-convincing, ultimately decided to attend the wedding despite the danger.
“I was driving there alone and I was thinking to myself, ‘What would it be if something would happen?’ It was at an outdoor place. We were outside. I have children … and I was worried, but I said, ‘Okay. Everything will be good,’” Dr. Eran-Jona said. “I arrived there and there was a nice reception and everyone was very excited. The Rabbi started to talk, and I think after ten seconds the alarm went off. The Rabbi still was speaking. Half of the people ran to the shelter and half of them stayed. I stayed. And the wedding continued.”
It was at this moment when it occurred to me that this is the everyday life of a citizen in Israel — their home front is the battlefield. It’s not that I wasn’t aware of this fact previously, but rather I had never before heard it from a first hand account.
“If you want to get into my world and how strange and weird it is to live in Israel, this is one of the strangest moments,” Dr. Eran-Jona said.
She then introduced her study; a phone survey of approximately 12,000 Israelis between 2001 and 2010 regarding their trust in the IDF.
“Why are we studying trust? Is it important?” Dr. Eran-Jona asked. “Trust is considered the precondition for political order. It is a necessary condition for both civil society and democracy. It is produced by democracy and helps to sustain it.
A military that is not trusted by the population may have difficulty justifying its expenses and even its existence, therefore the level of trust that citizens have in their armed forces is one of the key parameters in civil-military relations.
The fact that Israel had to cope over the last decade with different types of military conflicts of varying degrees and intensity makes Israel a unique case for examining this issue.”
Having only briefly researched the topic before the event, I couldn’t claim to know much about the subject. I didn’t know what to expect from the results of her study. All I had in my mind were preconceived notions and anecdotes about an American’s attitude towards the United States’ military
Whether or not this knowledge could be at all applicable to this subject, I didn’t know.
Dr. Eran-Jona explained that despite the moments of high and low conflict, which occurred in the past decade, 80 percent of the Israelis surveyed expressed a high degree of trust in the Israel Defense Force, excluding the two year decline after the Second Lebanon War due to the perceived failure of the military.
I was surprised, to say the least. Surprised that the citizens in a nation under such constant turmoil could have such a majority of unwavering trust and faith in its leaders. This was a concept that an American living in peace—that is, in comparison to undergoing air strikes and threats of missiles—has difficulty understanding.
What could be the reason for this?
Dr. Eran Jona credited this to the citizens’ continuous endurance of threats to the home front and their desire to believe that, “someone is strong enough to protect us from the crazy things going on around the Middle East.”
Some student attendees of the event who had more background in the subject than myself were impressed with the research found, but weren’t exactly surprised at the findings.
“I study general politics and my main case is Israel, particularly the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I think it’s fascinating research,” said Noa Balf, PhD student in the Government and Politics Department, and who is affiliated with the Gildon Horn Institute for Israel Studies. “You don’t see this kind of longitudinal— this sort of lengthy research that has tens of thousands of respondents to the survey. That is a lot of people, 12,000 respondents. That is huge. And over such a long period of time. To see that kind of stability over time is impressive. I’m not completely shocked, but I am a little surprised at how stable it was.”
Other students, however, remained a bit skeptical of the research presented.
“I often try to expand my knowledge of this conflict with discussions, articles, all sorts of things. I was curious what [the discussion] was about,” said senior French language major Stephanie Turner, who attended the discussion as an extra credit assignment for her Israeli-Palestinian conflict class.
“As the discussion went on, I was curious about the origins of the study. Something you have to take into account when you look at the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is, ‘Where did this come from?,’ and my question that I was going to ask, but was answered when I looked at the flier, was, ‘Who funded this?,’ ‘Where is it coming from?,’ ‘Why is there a need for this study of trust in the IDF?’ But it is coming from the IDF. The IDF is asking these questions and saying that [Israelis] have a high level of trust in the IDF and you have to ask some questions.”
Upon the conclusion of the presentation, the table was opened for discussion, bringing to light concepts that I hadn’t before considered. One of the biggest topics for discussion was the difference between Americans’ attitudes toward their military and the attitude of the majority of the Israeli population towards the IDF.
For Israelis, they are living the war. Americans, sheltered by the watery fortress of the Atlantic Ocean, often view the war zone as a far away entity.
The Israeli home front is the battlefield. In comparison, the U.S. is practically Eden.
This concept of cultural blindness emphasized to me the importance of indulging in other cultures, and being on a college campus like the University of Maryland makes this kind of exposure all the more accessible.
“Too often, as a faculty member, I’ve had a feeling that students do not take advantage of opportunities that they have on campus. There are interesting talks, interesting speakers, and you rarely see a student turnout like this, frankly. I was very impressed that the room filled up,” said emeritus University of Maryland sociology professor, David R. Segal, who attended the event.
“We live in a globalized world. When I was a kid, I knew there was a place called Europe because my uncle served in World War II, but I had no sense of the nature of the world. The world is smaller now, and I think that the generation in college now has to understand more about the world they live in.”
“Universities are cut into departments for administrative ease, but knowledge isn’t. Most of what we know is interdisciplinary. And a gathering like this gets people outside their comfort zone, to in fact hear something that they’re not going to hear in their home department. And I think that’s great. That’s an important part of what a university is about.”
I couldn’t agree more.
Featured Photo Credit: The Nahal infantry Brigade soldiers participate in an exercise, combined with the corps of Artillery, Armored & Combat Engineering. (Courtesy of Gadi Yampel, IDF’s spokesperson/Image Found on Israel Defense Forces via Flickr)
Jordan Stovka is a freshman journalism major and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.