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.

Now, 65 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 Georgia.

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 population.

Thirty-seven of the 120 outstanding soldiers were women.

There was also a number of lone soldiers among those being given accolades.

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 service.

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 Gantz.

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 life.

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 stake.

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.

Michael Sadon, 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 ago.

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 IDF.

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.

In the 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.

Peres, who 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.

Peres kissed 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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