Too-Rare Case of IDF Getting Serious about Discipline

The IDF has a discipline problem. Walk around the Tel Aviv bus station on a Sunday morning, and you will see soldiers walking around with shirts untucked, hair untrimmed, and boots dirty. Soldiers don’t take commanders’ orders as sacred, and see doing things their own way as a greater virtue than discipline. This is largely the result of a conscious effort to create a “peoples’ army”, allowing soldiers to address officers by their first names and teaching only remedial marching. Such traditional military practices are scorned in the IDF as worthless wastes of time and energy. Commanders are very limited in their abilities to punish problematic soldiers, even in basic training.

I was pleased to see the Air Force punish a soldier who yawned during a ceremony commemorating Yitzhak Rabin with 21 days in prison. More of this attitude by senior officers would go a long way in addressing the discipline problem in the IDF.

The Israel Defense Forces has sentenced a soldier to 21 days in jail for yawning during a recent memorial service for assassinated prime minister Yitzhak Rabin.

The soldier yawned while the commander of the Ramat David Israel Air Force base was delivering a speech on last week’s memorial day for Rabin. The senior officer paused for a few minutes after the yawn, which was allegedly long and loud.

The soldier was consequently by the army tried on account of his “disrespectful act” and was sentenced to 21 days in military prison. The IDF Spokesperson’s Unit said that he is able to request a pardon, which will be considered according to military regulations.
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The soldier’s mother told Israel Radio that her son was not disrespectful, but tired. She said that her son deserves to be punished for inappropriate behavior, but the verdict is disproportionately harsh.

She said that her son was raised upon Rabin’s legacy, and that yawning is known to be an uncontrollable physical act.

23 Responses to Too-Rare Case of IDF Getting Serious about Discipline

  1. oao says:

    not referring specifically to rabin, but cannot say I blame soldiers for disrespect of israel’s leadership, including IDF commanders: they don’t deserve respect.

    I served in IDF for 3 years, then in reserves, then in the yom kippur war. there is no comparison between leadership then and now.

  2. Ari says:

    21 days in prison for yawning? Gimme a break! This falls firmly into the category of Cruel and Unusual Punishment. Showing disrespect is certainly a punishable offense in a military setting, addressable by a host of conventional disciplinary measures, none of which involve being dragged in front of a court-martial, much less being thrown in jail for three weeks.

    One suspects that the disrespect in question was directed not at the officer speaking but at the contents of his speech. Reports of the incident indicate that there was a group of soldiers misbehaving – not just the one, which leads one to ask just how politically slanted the senior officer’s speech was.

    My take on this is that the Rabin thing played a key role here (to wit, look at the mother’s response), turning this into ideological persecution. If I’m wrong, then it’s just petty vindictiveness. While military discipline and showing respect towards your seniors (even if they don’t deserve it, and even if they are delivering a politically slanted speech on a highly charged issue) are important, this case has been blown way out of proportion. Nothing to be pleased about.

  3. E.G. says:

    Lazar, I’d be very interested to ack on what sources you establish the judgement and inferences in your 1st paragraph.

    In my view, the problem seems a manners rather than a discipline one. Yawning discreetly would’ve gone unnoticed.

    The discipline issue characterises world-wide youth in general, not only Israeli soldiers.

    Parental interference with IDF command is the novelty (well, it’s a recent phenomenon), and it’s in there that a discipline trouble lies.

  4. lazar says:

    E.G.-

    My source is my own experience as a commander in the IDF, commanding two platoons in basic and advanced training and one in Gaza, as well other officers with whom I correspond regularly. There is a serious discipline problem in the IDF that affects its ability to fight. If you review many of the incidents in Gaza in which terrorists managed to penetrate IDF bases, in almost every case there was a discipline problem at the level of the soldiers. The same goes for the kidnapping of Gilad Shalit- with an extensive envelope of ambushes, cameras, and outposts in place, there is no way the terrorists should have been able to carry out their attack as successfully as they did. It was in the middle of the night, and soldiers were sleeping on the job.

    This has nothing to do with Rabin or politics- if a commander is reading out of the phone book, a soldier who yawns inappropriately should throw on his gear and start running up and down some hills in the Negev. Gen. Ashkenazi has told me that the army is going to move in the direction of greater discipline, but I have not seen much change thus far.

  5. Ari says:

    “if a commander is reading out of the phone book, a soldier who yawns inappropriately should throw on his gear and start running up and down some hills in the Negev.”

    My point exactly. Not the same thing as three weeks in jail.

    Both the act itself and the response suggest something else was at play here.

  6. lazar says:

    Ari-

    I disagree. This was a) the commander of the base, and b) a memorial service for a slain Prime Minister. Incidentally, making someone run up hills with his gear on is also forbidden. Commanders are extremely limited as to the distance they can make a soldier run. It’s usually a couple hundred yards every four hours. Not enough to make any point.
    The public disrespect of the commander of the base and of Rabin simultaneously makes this a very fitting punishment.

  7. E.G. says:

    Lazar,

    Thanks for clarifying.
    I too find the punishment fitting, both for the deed itself and for the symbolic effect. But it’s very plausible the incident got the press exposure it did because of the specifics of the case (i.e., Rabin affective load).

    I still maintain – unless you convince me otherwise – that the root problem is parental interference (why aren’t commanders allowed more authoritative, respect/discipline enforcing acts vis-a-vis their soldiers?). When the commander is only responsible for “the child” but not allowed to exert full authority (within his role’s attributions) over his subordinate soldier, that soldier obeys his parent(s), his friends, his whims… and his commander too.

    I’m not saying parents shouldn’t care about their enlisted offspring – especially when they’re blatantly mistrated. But too many parents act overprotectively and impose non-military norms on the military.

  8. E.G. says:

    And there are also the infantilising (“matronising”) “Checkpoint Watch” ladies, who assume the adult role over the children.

  9. Lazar says:

    E.G.- You make a very good point. It is bizarre that in the IDF, soldiers regularly have their parents call commanders in an attempt to influence their decision-making. If that happened in, say, the American army, rest assured that the entire unit would make that soldier’s life very very unpleasant.

    Commanders are limited in their punishments for two reasons-

    1) To protect soldiers from psychological harm.

    2) To maintain control over exactly how much physical exertion each soldier does in the course of a day, to prevent stress fractures and back problems from overexertion.

  10. oao says:

    the fact remains that political and military reality is drastically different today than it was in my service days.

    both commanders and soldiers changed accordingly. and not for the better.

  11. E.G. says:

    I suspect that many parents don’t trust their children and don’t trust their commanders.

    When oao served, parents of his fellow soldiers seem to have figured that their child was adult enough to actively share some of the responsibility to the country’s security, and (thus?) capable to get along in this not-exactly democratic structure. I wonder what makes oao’s near-contemporaries – today’s parents – have less confidence in their children’s capacities, as well as be so distrustful of their commanders.

  12. oao says:

    When oao served, parents of his fellow soldiers seem to have figured that their child was adult enough to actively share some of the responsibility to the country’s security, and (thus?) capable to get along in this not-exactly democratic structure. I wonder what makes oao’s near-contemporaries – today’s parents – have less confidence in their children’s capacities, as well as be so distrustful of their commanders.

    My guess is that the commanders could also be trusted not to abuse them and they were always first to go forward and die. There were cases of mistreatment, but they were so few that it was easy to identify and handle them. There was also a clear perception that “we’re all in this together”.

    Not anymore. There has been westernization/americanization of israel, deterioration of education, russian immigration of jews without a real grasp of israel’s circumstances and see it only from an economic perspective (lots of mafia too), collapse and corruption of leadership and failure to stand up to pal violence.

    Israel is more exceptional than the US, but up to a point.

  13. oao says:

    to put it more specifically: during my time there wouldn’t have been yawning; but if there were, it would be out of genuinely being beat (we would not get much sleep) and commanders would not waste their time with such a punishment, at best they would have a few words with the soldier.

    both sides were focused on substance and disciplined.

  14. E.G. says:

    oao-

    Are you saying that demographic and cultural changes in Israeli society account for a decrease in mutual trust?

    failure to stand up to pal violence.
    I think it’s a success. And an unprecedented one too. I don’t wish any country to endure such terror campaigns, but the Israeli society has proven its extraordinary resilience.

  15. oao says:

    Are you saying that demographic and cultural changes in Israeli society account for a decrease in mutual trust?

    No doubt. The large influx of russians is in part responsible. The corruption and collapse of leadership is another factor. The westernization of society is another.

    but the Israeli society has proven its extraordinary resilience.

    IT’S BEEN a success–no other society would have been or was as resilient for as long–but there is a limit to the amount of stress that the society can bear and i discern that it is being reached as we speak.

    One of the less subtle indications was when Halutz went to sell his investments during the Hezbollah war.
    That explains in large part how the war ended.

    When such commanders speak yawning is not expression enough. Perhaps Rabin himself would not want such people to give speaches on him.

  16. E.G. says:

    No doubt. The large influx of russians is in part responsible. The corruption and collapse of leadership is another factor. The westernization of society is another.

    Except for the Russian part, Israelis have been complaining about the same things at least from 1974 on. So that would be a long term erosion process, somehow precipitated by the recent Russian Olim?

    I don’t understand what role these Olim have in undermining mutual trust or in relaxing discipline norms.

  17. oao says:

    Except for the Russian part, Israelis have been complaining about the same things at least from 1974 on. So that would be a long term erosion process, somehow precipitated by the recent Russian Olim?

    There are multiple factors. 1974 is the year after Yom Kippur War, in which I participated, so that was the beginning. Such processes are by definition slow and long.

    The russians came, as I said, more for economic reasons and were not very jewish, so to speak. They were also brutalized by soviet life, but were not as impoverished and suffering as the immigrants before them. The soviets let go a lot of problematics. They had no common war experiences similar to the israelis, they were not socially integrated. they only experienced the first failure of 1973, and were not as appreciative of israel as previous waves.

    Insofar as they are concerned, there was no lengthy process — they were what they were when they came.

  18. Eliyahu says:

    Of course I believe that an army needs discipline but it has to be reasonable. I think that sometimes harsher measures than necessary are used which may be less effective. I once fell asleep while on guard as a reserve soldier and was banished from paradise [a moshav with a swimming pool] to the rather pigsty life of a base.

    Now in the case that Lazar discusses, the Rabin angle arouses a lot of emotion among some [also see Ari #2]. I don’t know why the soldier yawned. Maybe his mother was right that he couldn’t control himself and that he was raised on Rabin’s legacy, whatever that means exactly. But in general, a lot of people in Israel are very resentful that the “Rabin cult” has been forced down their throats, as they feel.

    One son of mine came home from school in the years after the assassination telling about how the teacher, folowing instructions from the Ministry of Education, told the kids to read some passage or other in his memory around the time of his Yizkor [anniversary of his death]. The passage was probably from Psalms but I’m not sure. My son’s class was all boys. Every one refused to read it. I approved his refusal. Probably the other boys got the feeling from home that they should not take part in the Rabin cult. People felt that what they feel to be a ruling elite [not an elite of quality] was forcing them to do what they didn’t want to do. Remember that these refusals repeated year after year took place after a great wave of mass murder terrorism [peaking in the month of Adar (= Feb-March) 1996 when Peres was pm]. For years after the assassination, supermarkets, especially those owned by or affiliated with the Histadrut & Labor Party, would sell memorial candles before Rabin’s Yizkor. These were 24-hour candles with the wax inside a tin can with Rabin’s picture on them. Maybe like Roman Catholic/Greek Orthodox devotion with candles burned before images of Jesus, Mary, saints, etc [I'm no expert on Christian worship]. Well, it’s been years since I’ve seen those memorial candles on sale here in Jerusalem. Maybe they still go in Tel Aviv or Giv`atayim. The Yizkor [memorial] day is still marked with a big demo in Rabin Square in Tel Aviv [formerly Kings of Israel Square]. The ceremony is marked by speeches often hostile to or even inciting against Rabin’s presumed enemies, the “settlers,” the “Right,” etc. That tradition still goes on. It happened this year too with distasteful comments by Ehud Barak.

    So it may well be that the incident in question here got attention in the media because of the Rabin connection, not because of the excessive punishment.

    Now the problem of discipline remains. Here we ought to remember what Plato said about corruption in the state in the Republic. It starts at the top. This is summed up in the Yiddish expression: Der fish shtinkt fin kup [The fish stinks from its head]. Since Rabin-Peres-Beilin-Aloni took over in 1992, we have seen repeated violations of campaign promises and positions, such as Sharon’s expulsion of Jews from Gaza after denouncing Mitzna for having promised to do the same.

    Then we have an attorney general [Mazuz] deeply involved in partisan politics, harassing former Pres Katzav [Likud] over sexual misconduct allegations that it now turns out are weakly supported by available evidence and thus there is as yet no indictment, to the disappointment of the “feminists” who eagerly jumped on the hate-Katzav bandwagon. The same Mazuz has refused to indict Olmert despite plentiful evidence in several cases of wrongdoing. About two years ago or more the state controller [Lindenstrauss], a former judge, turned over to Mazuz evidence in one of the olmert criminal cases that Lindenstrauss said was enough for indictment. Yet no indictment of olmert in any of these 5,6 or 7 cases.

    Lastly, we have the Supreme Court of which the former and current chief judges have openly declared that they can decide based on what “enlightened opinion” believes, not on the basis of law. They have used the rather vague Basic Law on Man’s Freedom and Dignity to actually thwart freedom of expression, pretending in the Aruts Sheva case that this Basic Law covered the property rights of franchisees of radio frequencies whose rights were violated by Aruts Sheva which they won’t allow to have a franchise anyhow [the state was ordered to shut down Aruts Sheva by the court, although Abie Nathan's unfranchised station was never shut down]. Reasonable people, it seems to me, are likely to reach the conclusion that the Supreme Court’s decision in this and other cases is motivated by political preferences, not by law or justice. The court is identified with the so-called “Left” or “peace camp.” Abie Nathan’s station was “pro-peace” and probably funded and controlled by hostile foreign interests. It was never shut down. Now, in this atmosphere where high officials of the state seem corrupt, particularly olmert but others too, including the attorney general and the high court, ordinary people are going to get cynical. This is compounded by the govt’s failure to defend citizens in the south from the regular rocket bombardments from Gaza. As Plato said, Der fish shtinkt fin kup. Army discipline might be better if it were not for known corruption in the “high windows.”

  19. E.G. says:

    Eliyahu,

    Please stick to the facts. Abie Nathan’s “Voice of Peace” was broadcasting from a ship outside the territorial waters of Israel. Not under Israeli jurisdiction.
    And anyone can connect to Arutz-7 on the net.

    Regarding you stinking fish theory:
    In 1977 there were daily corruption stories, involving political and economic leadership, plus many military high ranks stigmatised by their Kippur war failures. But no discipline problems in the IDF.

  20. oao says:

    People felt that what they feel to be a ruling elite [not an elite of quality] was forcing them to do what they didn’t want to do.

    exactly my point.

    In 1977 there were daily corruption stories, involving political and economic leadership, plus many military high ranks stigmatised by their Kippur war failures. But no discipline problems in the IDF.

    as I said, it takes a long accumulation of such things to bring about hostile attitudes towards the elite and loss of mutual trust, given the context in which israel finds itself. people (and soldiers) want to continue to trust, but there is too much evidence that they cannot.

    and generational/immigration waves changes contribute to change.

  21. E.G. says:

    People felt that what they feel to be a ruling elite [not an elite of quality] was forcing them to do what they didn’t want to do.

    I think people sensed hypocrisy.

    hostile attitudes towards the elite and loss of mutual trust
    But there is no (direct) relation between the two. Is there?

  22. oao says:

    But there is no (direct) relation between the two. Is there?

    I hope you don’t believe there isn’t.

    What happens is that some plobos lose trust in elites and start to slack, which causes others to slack and before you know it there is lack of mutual trust.

    i suggest you check out game theory, rational choice and collective/public goods theory. It’s all in there.
    The best little source of the subject:

    THE LOGIC OF COLLECTIVE ACTION by Mancur Olson

  23. E.G. says:

    Soldier jailed for yawning during Rabin ceremony given pardon, early release
    http://www.haaretz.com/hasen/spages/1040244.html

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