“The truth is that neither officers nor soldiers really want to hear me when I tell them not to do initiation ceremonies,” admits Colonel Yigal Slovik, commander of the 401st Armoured Brigade.
“Everyone wants a bit of tradition. They want it to be like it was in their day, or in the days of their predecessors. If not, they feel unfulfilled. But if we let these things carry on, we will see more scenes of worsening brutality. I don’t want us to be like the Russian Spetsnaz, where soldiers die at the hands of their comrades.”
Colonel Slovik’s exasperation is shared by many in the IDF’s senior ranks. The issue returns regularly with stories of bizarre episodes appearing in the media.
However, a series of recent abuses of new soldiers in an elite armoured battalion has shocked the public, mainly due to photographs of the bruised backs of the soldiers who participated, and graphic reports of how the men were beaten by their commanders. The battalion commander was reprimanded, a dozen officers and non-commissioned officers were relieved of their positions and criminal charges brought against three of them.
“I think this is all a bit overblown,” says one staff officer, previously a company commander in the battalion. “This is a tradition, it was done to me and I have no remaining trauma. If these ceremonies are cancelled, it will be the young soldiers who will complain the most because they will feel cheated out of their tradition.”
In another case, two commanders in the Golani brigade were sent to military prison and dismissed from command for sticking infantry badges into their soldiers’ flesh after the end of basic training.
Here too there were mixed feelings. “Our commanders didn’t stick in the badges,” said a young Golani soldier, “they stuck to the rules and, to be honest, we were disappointed. I know it hurts a bit but that’s what it means to be in Golani.”
The IDF has a dual problem. While stamping out the cult of initiation ceremonies for soldiers who have finished their advanced training courses, they also have to contend with well-established traditions of “veteranism”.
Soldiers nearing the end of their three-year service exempt themselves from most duties and treat their younger comrades as servants. In recent years, most of the “veteran” groups within the units have been disbanded and their customs forbidden by order of the General Command. “I still have to make sure that there is a healthy atmosphere in the various companies,” says Colonel Slovik.
“When I visit a company, I go to the soldiers’ toilet, to see what they write on the walls, and I have my driver chat with his friends there. Sometimes all it takes is a few hard veterans or a weak officer to ruin a company.”
Last month, he relieved from duty five junior commanders of the brigade’s reconnaissance company for making their soldiers practice shooting in their underpants. “It’s not a huge misdemeanour but if it’s not rooted out, we will have to deal with worse things.”
Last week, it was the airforce’s turn. Seven officers in the air-control unit were disciplined and sent to military prison for short terms after tying up three new officers, flicking them with wet towels and making them eat garlic. The ceremony was voluntary but the normally reticent air force command still publicised the punishments.
“There is a huge amount of hypocrisy in the way the air force dealt with this,” said a former officer in the unit. “Everyone knew it had been happening for years, including officers who hold now senior positions.”
“I know this has been going on in many parts of the army for years,” admitted a brigadier-general in the air force, “but it really has no place in today’s IDF.”