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A Collective Identity: How the Civilian-Military Has Continued to Shape Israel’s State Formation

By Lindsay Schawelson

Governance and stability in the Middle East have been extremely difficult to obtain in the modern era. State formation and stability in this highly violent region have only recently been gained in unique circumstances, the state of Israel being one of those cases. Israeli state formation was achieved by creating a collective identity among Israelis who share values and are a part of a collective civilian-military society. The civilian-military, established before Israeli statehood, has contributed to the collective identity of the Israeli people, further showing how culture continues to shape the Israeli state. Furthermore, this collective identity—which came before, and was enforced through Zionism—has enabled a persistent immigrant settler society that has contributed to what encompasses the state of Israel today. However, this persistence of the immigrant-settler narrative, that was initially a catalyst for the immigration of Jewish people to Israel, has become a direct challenge to Israel’s territorial autonomy in its occupied territories. This challenge threatens the continuation of Israel’s autonomy over territories that were not initially allocated to the Jewish state, and further put into question by the national religious movements. The establishment of collective identity and memory, a civilian-military, and the persistence and consequences of the immigrant-settler society established and encouraged by early leaders, are all cultural variables that contributed to the success of early Israeli state formation and have also been a driving force for what the Israeli state looks like today.

Before the establishment of Israel, early Zionist leaders created a common Jewish culture, collective identity, and memory. Leaders, such as Theodore Herzl, came up with goals for the Zionist movement’s success. First, Zionism would reinvent Judaism to be a national movement, defining the Jewish people in political, national, and secular terms (Kimmerling 2005, 186). This was to make the “Jewish problem” of the diaspora into an international problem, rather than a domestic one (Kimmerling 2005, 29). Herzl was able to reinforce this idea of a state for the Jewish people by raising funds, gathering political support, seeking recognition from world leaders, and organizing “the spread of Jewish associations and individuals who shared Zionist views into a viable political and social movement” (Kimmerling 2005, 24). The Balfour declaration and the appointment of Sir Herbert Samual, a declared Jewish Zionist as the High Commissioner for Israel, were two Zionist triumphs that helped drive immigration to Israel (Kimmerling 2005, 186).

Once he established that the Jewish state would be in the historical “Holy Land,” Herzl framed a symbolic and sentimental narrative for mass immigration, knowing that this narrative would appeal best to the Jewish people to immigrate back to their historical lands. This was an ideology taken to heart by the second and third immigration waves of Jewish people to the land of Israel (also known as Aliyahs), who were able to create centralized institutional structures that were crucial to Israeli state formation (Kimmerling 2005, 28). Mass immigration movements saw themselves as “returning to Zion,” with the right to be in this land because of religious symbols, texts, and ideas (Kimmerling 2005, 186). These waves of immigration were largely funded by the World Zionist Organization, which “took responsibility for the security of the whole Jewish community in Mandatory Palestine” (Kimmerling 2005, 28). However, the Zionists were aware of the rising tensions between the new Jewish immigrants and the Arab population in Mandatory Palestine. To ensure that the Zionists would have control of the land at the end of the mandate, they withdrew from the mandatory state and developed their individual economic and paramilitary organizations (Kimmerling 2005, 30). The Haganah was established as an individual paramilitary group composed of Jewish settlers, and is widely credited with being the start of the Israeli army (Kimmerling 2005, 30).

The Haganah is evidence of an early Jewish military presence in Mandatory Palestine, and has contributed to the Israeli civilian-military society of today. This military is unique because the majority of its population is required to serve early on. This tradition continues today and has led to a culture where most Israelis have been a part of the state’s army, The Israel Defense Force (IDF). The IDF has become a basic element of Israeli culture, with schools enforcing the idea of the “New Jew” who must conquer labor, settle the land, and guard the community against Arabs (Kimmerling 2005, 211). The army is also backed by the Israeli judicial system which routinely operates under security threats, and therefore has established the military as an “integral part of the defense establishment” (Kimmerling 2005, 211-212). Over time, this institution of a civilian-military has been “systemically internalized by most statesmen, politicians, and the general public as a self-evident reality whose imperative transcends partisan or social allegiances” (Kimmerling 2005, 215). The civilian-military in Israel is an important part of its culture as concerns over national security take higher priority than economic, ideological, or political problems (Kimmerling 2005, 215). Overall, the Israeli military has contributed to the nation’s collective identity and culture in which the state requires participation, leading to a collective civilian identity and culture that revolves around national security and defense. This collective identity was formed early on through the immigrant-settler society, which has taken shape in later years to form smaller counterculture groups who continue to settle what they believe is the Jewish Holy Land in occupied areas, causing political conflict.

Early secular Zionism was successful in defining Israeli nationalism as Jewish immigration to the land of Palestine, modeled by Western cultural centers (Kimmerling 2005, 118). Communities adopted Hebrew as their vernacular and it soon became a powerful unifying factor, creating a “high culture” in Israeli society that was separated from the Bible. Furthermore, the Hebrew Bible was not only interpreted as a religious source, but as a culture and history that granted the Jewish people the land of Israel (Kimmerling 2005, 117). Gellner writes that this high culture “pervades the whole of society, defines it, and needs to be sustained by the policy, and that is the secret of nationalism” (Gellner and Breuilly 2013, 18). Following this logic, it is evident how Israeli culture was spread throughout the land. The immigrant settler society, combined with the mandatory military service, created a dominant Israeli culture that contributed to its overall secular nationalism and the secular Zionist movement.

These ideologies, however, were capitalized on by the rabbis at the time, who were able to connect the Holy Land to a messianic interpretation, pushing religious meaning and legitimacy on this established secular nationalism. Rabbi Kook famously fused the idea of nationalism and militarism along with messianic elements of settling the historical biblical land as a form of redemption for the Jewish people to pursue (Gellner and Breuilly 2013, 18). This narrative was successfully carried out by the national religious group Gush Emunim, who saw secular nationalism as a tool of religious redemption in the West Bank, an occupied territory from the 1967 war, and pursued the immigrant-settler ideology in the land starting in the 1970s and 80s (Kimmerling 2005, 123). The movement was a direct challenge to the secular community, and has put a strain on the power of state institutions. The process of regionalization came from the different demographics of immigrants who did not complete the process of secularization and faced difficulty “in separating religion and nationality in the Zionist version of Jewish nationalism” (Kimmerling 2005, 125). Once again, the weakness of this secular Zionism can be seen, and while culture has shaped the Israeli state, it did not do it in the way originally imagined by early Zionist leaders who attempted to frame the immigrant-settler narrative in a way that separates church and state.

The conflicting narratives in Israeli state formation lead to alternative explanations as to why the state was formed the way it was. The success of Israeli state-building stems from the existential threat that if it were not successful, the state would cease to exist. Ongoing religious conflict between the settler society and the Arab population is a direct challenge to state autonomy and is the reason that Israel was able to secure its state so successfully. This follows a bellicist viewpoint in which power and monopoly over the legitimate use of violence create the state. Organized Arab resistance is a consistent theme during Israeli state formation and continued throughout its primitive and developmental years (Kimmerling 2005, 68). This resistance was underestimated by both western and Israeli leaders. The conflict between the Arab and Israeli population that followed the declaration of Israel as a Jewish state has shaped how Israeli geography, society, and culture approached settling the land deemed “Israel” and its occupied territories after the 1967 war (Kimmerling 2005, 79). Rather than a cultural foundation, a bellicist viewpoint shows how political elites, not only in Israel but in the western world, allocated the land of Palestine to the Jewish people in an attempt to have territorial and geographical advantages over those who threaten to take it.

The political conflict that has followed shows how the continuation and necessity of the military has shaped and formed the Israeli state without the need for cultural cohesion. This also can be seen in Israel’s continuing annexation of the West Bank, as opposed to the immigrant-settler mentality discussed earlier. The security threat to Israel’s external borders and its occupied territories can be seen as a driving force to state formation. The civilian-military is based on the existential threat of war, and conscripted citizens are awarded land, rights, and welfare services (Centeno and Enriquez 2016, 118). This civilian-military comes as a necessity for Israel to survive; by being the strongest military in the territory, they can enforce rights and obligations (Centeno and Enriquez 2016, 120). The collective identity of the Israeli state has been constructed alongside the immigrant-settler narrative. The West Bank represents a part of that expansion, and as long as that area is associated with Israel itself, the state will not compromise losing a part of ‘autonomous’ territory, especially when security is in question (Kimmerling 2005, 81).

Centeno and Enriquez explain that states who focus on enforcing a set of values must require blood payment for any wrongdoing. That state then must have a perceived set of values that is important for its civilians to follow (Centeno and Enriquez 2016, 28). In Israel, this is seen as the military using force against Arab resistance. Centeno and Enriquez elaborate in their book on how this oppression is a rational response to this competition where “the outstanding threat of retaliation serves to protect one’s resources from potentially dangerous neighbors” (Centeno and Enriquez 2016, 28). While Israel may be losing some of its symbolic power over occupied territories, its institutional and organizational power is extremely strong and efficient in the area, and it holds onto its occupied territories to show expansion. Even if the leadership does not necessarily want these colonies, they do not contest them because it would be a contest on the state’s autonomy over those areas (Kimmerling 2005, 84). This leads one to see how the military is not the only factor in the continual shaping of the Israeli state, and how the culture of the immigrant-settler society has continued to shape Israeli autonomy.

The Israeli civilian-military culture has been shaped by the ongoing conflicts and existential threat of the neighboring Arab states, as well as internal political conflict regarding the Palestinians, who also claim the right to territorial autonomy in the land of Israel. A bellicist view of state suppression can be understood in this context as the state forms out of war and the need to suppress others to maintain its authority. Israel’s case is different because the culture that was formed from Zionism and alongside its military has been a driving force for its success. Israel also differs from this viewpoint as their positioning is still contested in the region by the ongoing conflict with the Palestinians. A bellicist viewpoint would expect the state to grow stronger and maintain complete autonomy while doing so, but this does not apply to Israel as its borders are still contested and its territory non-permanent.

Political and religious leaders had instrumental roles in shaping the modern Israeli state. They also contributed to the modern Zionist ideology, which has had an impact on the collective identity and memory of Israeli society. The collective memory was formed after the Holocaust, in which the Jews not only felt that the Holy Land was their historical right, but owed to them after the atrocities they faced in Europe. Zionist leaders capitalized on this and shaped Israeli collective identity through Israel’s terms, values, symbols, and collective memory based on the Jewish religion and experiences as constructed before the constitution of the state (Kimmerling 2005, 174). This modern collective identity was enforced, and it is stronger than the bellicist argument because Israel continues to persist, despite it having a legitimate monopoly to enforce violence over some of its territories (Gellner and Breuilly 2013, 3).

The construction of Israeli nationalism and secular Zionism helped establish Israel. While the diversity of the interpretation of these ideas has created countercultural groups, there is a strong national identity and culture around the Jewish state and the right to Jewish self-determination in the land of Israel. Overall, this national identity has structured and contributed to Israeli culture and has allowed it to continue and persist today. Without this cultural cohesion among its citizens, formed through either broadscale Zionism or the civilian-military, Israel’s sovereignty and power would not be as strong as it is today. Key aspects of the culture that has developed the state today include, but are not limited to, Zionist ideologies in settling the land, the conflict between Israel and its resistant Arab community, and the collective identity and memory that the Israeli and Jewish people have established in the land of Israel.


Centeno, Miguel Angel, and Elaine Enriquez. War and Society. Polity, 2016.

Gellner, Ernest, and John Breuilly. Nations and Nationalism. Blackwell Publishing, 2013.

Kimmerling, Baruch. The Invention and Decline of Israeliness: State, Society, and the Military. Univ. of California, 2005.

Lindsay Schawelson is from Scottsdale, Arizona and is a rising senior studying international studies and minoring in Israel studies.

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