Immigrants, most of them Holocaust survivors, formed the bulwark of Israel’s
fledgling army during the War of Independence.
Among the fallen were
those who had gone into battle without first acquiring citizenship, and are not
even recognized among Israel’s casualties – although efforts are now being made
to amend this lacuna and grant them citizenship posthumously.
years later, immigrants still play a prominent role in the IDF. Among the 120
outstanding soldiers from all branches of the military who were honored Tuesday
at a ceremony at the President’s Residence in Jerusalem, more than a fifth were
immigrants from 13 countries: the United States, Canada, Ethiopia, France,
Argentina, Ukraine, Russia, India, Italy, Uzbekistan, Poland, Holland and
The soldiers being honored at the ceremony – hosted by President
Shimon Peres and attended by Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, Defense Minister
Moshe Ya’alon and IDF Chief of Staff Lt.-Gen. Benny Gantz – represented a wide
swathe of Israel’s demographic mosaic, coming from immigrant families that have
been in Israel for generations in kibbutzim, moshavim, affluent areas,
impoverished areas, big cities and small towns.
The group included a
disproportionately high number of Ethiopians – both male and female, some of
them immigrants – in relation to their ratio in the total
Thirty-seven of the 120 outstanding soldiers were
There was also a number of lone soldiers among those being given
Among the Israeli-born soldiers, there were Beduin and Druse,
as well as volunteers insistent on enlisting despite physical and mental
disabilities that would have ordinarily exempted them from army
There was also a relatively high percentage of soldiers with
yeshiva backgrounds, including St.-Sgt. Tzuriel Lilienthal, born in Gush Katif,
he lived there until he was 16 when, in 2005, all Israelis were evacuated on the
orders of then-prime minister Ariel Sharon within the framework of Israel’s
withdrawal from Gaza.
Some of their relatives had to travel long
distances to attend the ceremony. The family members that came the furthest
distance were the parents of Sec.-Lt. Nira Lee, who traveled from the United
States to watch their daughter receive an award from Peres and
While studying for her degree in international relations, Lee, who
hails from Arizona, came to Israel on a student exchange program, and during her
time here, decided that this was where she wanted to spend her
After completing her degree, she returned to Israel and joined the
army. She serves in the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories
(COGAT) unit, where she is responsible for facilitating the entry of
humanitarian aid to Gaza. Her senior officers say that she has a very high level
of responsibility to the extent that if she becomes aware of a flaw in medical
equipment, she does not allow it to pass into Gaza, because human lives are at
The first of the 120 soldiers to receive an award was wheelchair-
bound Cpl. Dina Eliav, who was born with brain damage.
When she was three
years old her family moved from Ukraine to Israel in the hope of receiving
better quality medical treatment for her condition.
Even before she
finished high school, Eliav, who has always depended on a wheelchair for
mobility, cherished a dream of joining the IDF, and was very excited when her
draft papers arrived in the mail. However when she went with her older sister to
the recruitment center, the medical examiners were quick to present her with the
necessary forms for an exemption.
She refused to sign them and insisted
that she wanted to volunteer, finally being accepted after a long and painful
bureaucratic struggle. Her service in the IDF has helped her overcome some of
her medical problems.
Another lone soldier is Sgt.
about to embark on an officers’ preparatory course. Sadon, whose mother is
Israeli, was born in France, and came to live in Israel two-and-a-half years
He has relatives here, and since he was a small boy has come to
visit them regularly.
Sadon came on a tourist visa when he was 18, spent
a year studying engineering and then became a paratrooper in the
Before the ceremony, the soldiers formed an honor guard that was
inspected by Peres and Gantz. The president shook the hand of each soldier and
stopped to chat briefly with most of them.
This was preceded by an Israel
Air Force maneuver in which three combat planes flew in formation.
rear garden of the presidential complex, hundreds of parents, grandparents and
siblings waited in excited anticipation, cameras ready to capture their
relatives at exactly the precise moment.
Over the past couple of years
there has been a tradition to start these events with songs performed by the
president, the prime minister, the defense minister and the IDF chief of staff,
each of them performing in a duet with a well-known singer.
sang with Keren Peles, said that he chose the song “Halevai” because to him it
symbolizes love, hope and prophecy. No one minded that the president, who was in
high spirits, was somewhat off-key.
Peles, who hadn’t slept all night,
said that she was thrilled to be singing with the president.
her hand after their performance.
Before announcing his choice, Netanyahu
paid tribute to the IDF, declaring, “President Peres always says that there is
no better army, but I say it’s the best army.”
Netanyahu sang “Prayer”
with Idan Amedi – who himself had once been one of 120 outstanding soldiers
honored at an Independence Day ceremony – but warned beforehand that his
performance would not be worthy of talent shows such as A Star is Born or Music
School, adding that it was more likely to be in the category of Comedy Store. In
truth, he acquitted himself quite well.
Ya’alon, who sang “Hora Heakhzat”
with Hagit Yaso, did a fine job, and the two harmonized beautifully as did Gantz
with soldier singer Sharon Kiddushin when they sang “L’Ehad Hahayalim.” Ya’alon
said his choice was based on nostalgia for the pioneering agricultural days of
the country, while Gantz’s choice derived from the knowledge that each soldier
was special to someone.
In their separate addresses to the crowd, both
Peres and Gantz congratulated Ya’alon on his new position, and Peres also
thanked Ya’alon’s predecessor Ehud Barak, who was at the ceremony, as other than
the families of the soldiers, invitees to the event also included former
presidents, prime ministers, defense ministers, IDF chiefs of staff and brigade
and platoon commanders from 1948 onwards.
Peres and Gantz also compared
the helplessness of Jews during the Holocaust to the strength of Israel’s army
in the period following the Shoah, with Peres stating that he had been witness
to both the decimation and the resurrection of the Jewish people. Addressing the
IDF in general and not just the 120 outstanding soldiers, the president said,
“You are the Israel Defense Forces. You are the peace army of Israel. Without
you, Israel cannot be defended. With you, Israel can know peace.”
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