In the aftermath of the Holocaust, a survivor finds a safe passage to Israel, his only option for refuge. While on the ship, disgusted with the horrors of war he has witnessed, he refuses to take part in weapons training. On arrival in Haifa, he is promptly arrested, imprisoned and released when he agrees to serve as a medic in the 1948 war.

Years later, the man’s son is serving as a lieutenant in the Israeli military. By now, the father, who has never spoken of his initial draft resistance, is proud of the son’s service and Israel’s success as a state.

During the 1967 War, the son overhears an apparent command to execute Syrian prisoners of war in the Golan Heights. It is the son’s turn to be horrified by war and the “deep gulf between reality and propaganda,” as he puts it. He concludes that he needs to “get out of the Jewish State.”

This family story belongs to Haim Bresheeth-Zabner, and it begins An Army Like No Other: How the Israel Defense Forces Made a Nation, an insightful look into the history of Israeli militarism and the military ethos that marks both state and society.

The author is a documentary filmmaker and film studies scholar who teaches at the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London. In this work, he offers both a historical narrative and an analytical framework for understanding why Israel has sometimes been called “an army with a state” rather than “a state with an army.”

An Army Like No Other articulates several principal theses. The author argues that militarism is at the core of the Zionist project and that it began long before Israel became a state.

The use of physical force against Palestinian civilians has been a constant from pre-state Israel until today; the military option has always been chosen before diplomacy; and the growth of Israel’s military-industrial complex, combined with its strategic military alliance with the United States, continually reinforces a militaristic society.

Early Zionist leaders understood that military force would be needed to acquire the land, an imperative for a settler-colonial country. Force would also be necessary to defeat the expected indigenous Palestinian resistance.

Accordingly, the first Zionist armed militia formed in 1909. Subsequently, Zionist militias collaborated with the British military to reinforce the 1917 Balfour Declaration promising a Jewish homeland in Palestine.

The Haganah, the precursor to Israel’s military, formed in 1920. During the Arab Revolt of 1936-39 against British rule, British forces relied on the militias and Sherut Yedioth, Haganah’s intelligence wing, to suppress the uprising.

Sherut Yedioth had accumulated files on Palestinian villagers, identifying nationalist sympathizers. Zionist fighters also participated in the Special Night Squads that helped put down the rebellion through brutal, extralegal methods, including assassinations.

By the end of the revolt, Zionist militias had helped eliminate or imprison thousands of Palestinian military and political leaders.

The author shows how this early military experience helped set the stage for the Zionist massacres and expulsions of the 1948 ethnic cleansing, what Palestinians call the Nakba or catastrophe, such as those at Deir Yassin and al-Dawayima.

These events, Bresheeth-Zabner maintains, helped establish patterns of behavior that have consistently marked the last seven decades: war is the preferred option; war helps expand territory; a preference for offensive rather than defensive military strategies; blurring the distinction between civilian and military spheres of power; using the army to settle and control occupied lands; a deliberate policy of ambiguity to deflect responsibility for war crimes; a constant state of emergency so that Israelis would never feel at peace; and the endless war concept that Israel will never be secure from its enemies.

The first section of An Army Like No Other meticulously examines all of Israel’s wars from the 1956 Suez War to the 2006 air assault and land invasion of Lebanon.

The author frequently draws on the work of Israeli sociologists such as Uri Ben-Eliezer and Baruch Kimmerling to demonstrate how Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, sought to create a “nation-at-arms.”

Part of that aim was to help unite the diverse components of Israeli society, which included the original settler population along with the new arrivals – European (Ashkenazi) survivors of World War II and Arab Jews from the Middle East and North Africa. The Israeli military became the crucible for uniting these culturally diverse components into a nation and guaranteeing a state where the military reigns supreme.

The second section of the book examines this militaristic state in more detail, spotlighting Israel’s military-industrial complex and its evolution as an adjunct to that of the US by specializing in surveillance and population control.

The author also delves into the repercussions resulting from an army that has become an occupation police force. He speculates whether the military’s abysmal performance in the land invasion of Lebanon in 2006 has diminished its value to the US national security establishment.

In the book’s final section, Bresheeth-Zabner asks whether Israel can be regarded as a democracy and whether it can change from a nation-at-arms to a society capable of seeking peace and embracing human rights for all. The author’s pessimism weighs heavily on the concluding chapters.

Bresheeth-Zabner endorses the Palestinian-led boycott, divestment and sanctions campaign as a way of bringing external pressure on Israel.

At the same time, he appears to regard the struggle against Zionist ideology as the principal method for changing Israel internally.

He challenges Jewish Israelis to reclaim the “universalist fundamentals of Jewish history and culture” and abandon the racist and nationalist precepts of Zionism. They can best do that, he writes, by discarding what he calls the “chosen people” myth and what he describes as the tradition of zealotry in Jewish history.

He challenges the practices of excommunicating critics, isolationism and separateness, and the rejection of universal humanism in favor of narrow nationalism.

These concluding chapters invoke a multitude of questions that would provide substantial material for a reading discussion group, especially those probing the intersection of religion and nationalism. But this book can be recommended for its introduction alone. Start there.

An Army Like No Other: How the Israel Defense Forces Made a Nation by Haim Bresheeth-Zabner, Verso (2020)

Rod Such is a former editor for World Book and Encarta encyclopedias. He lives in Portland, Oregon, and is active with the Occupation-Free Portland campaign.

Electronic Intifada