It was David Ben-Gurion, the nation’s first prime minister, who said that the IDF was not just the means of defending the country but was a powerful force for developing Israeli society.
Since the beginning of the state, huge numbers of immigrants arrived on Israel’s shores from all over the globe. They had to learn a new language, find housing and employment and adjust to a completely new way of life.
Various means were employed to help them integrate, but by far the best method of absorbing the newcomers proved to be when they were able to join the army. This acted as an effective social leveler, reinforcing the egalitarian principles upon which the country was founded. Today recruits from all backgrounds go through lengthy training and develop social identities that transcend their previously held attitudes from different social and economic groups.
Army service is when lifetime friendships are forged and skills are acquired that lead to wider employment opportunities. In addition, an informal network provides for preferential treatment to former soldiers in the job market.
Nowadays there are a few Israelis who choose to leave the country to avoid national service. However, some 80 percent of Israel’s young people recognize military service as a duty that they are willing and proud to undertake.
At the age of 17, they undergo a series of tests to assess their profile. This determines their suitability for the various roles in the army. Those with the highest profile scores become fighter pilots and paratroopers. At the other end of the scale are the jobniks who perform more basic tasks.
Sadly, however, there was a category of youngsters who, through no fault of their own, missed the opportunity to serve in the army, such as those classified as having “special needs.”
Such teenagers with hearing or sight impairment, or with physical or mental difficulties, grew up already aware that they were not the same as everyone else. At the age of 18 they saw their friends and contemporaries join the army, while they themselves were turned down. This left them with a strong feeling of rejection and a lack of self-esteem.
Fortunately this changed in 2004. Col.
Ariel Almog had the vision to found a project to integrate these youngsters into the IDF on a four-year voluntary program during which time they play a valuable role in the service of their country. At the end of this period, it was noticeable how much more easily they were absorbed into the workforce of the community at large.
Great In Uniform Col. Almog’s project, called Great In Uniform, demonstrated how much the IDF benefits from the contribution of these special youngsters.
Jobs are allocated according to an individual’s ability. Those with autism prove to have a unique talent for focusing on electronic maps, being able to identify even the smallest changes, an activity that most non-autistic recruits would find difficult. The IDF’s Military Intelligence unit has had significant success thanks to the singular contribution of its autistic soldiers.
Regular soldiers take pride in the achievements of their special needs group, who become a welcome addition at a number of military bases. In turn the benefit to the recruits is inestimable. Their confidence grows as they realize they are genuinely making a difference. As Maj. Motti Dayan explained, “They are an inseparable part of our unit, just like any other soldiers.”
For some, joining the army may be the first time that they leave home alone, but they quickly learn to become independent and adapt to their new roles. As with other soldiers, they follow educational programs to learn the values of the IDF and tour the country learning its history.
Toward the end of their training they embark on a trek that culminates in the ceremony when they receive their berets. It was deeply moving for me to see their evident pride when they put on their berets for the first time and saluted their commanding officer. For them and their watching families this represented the culmination of a dream many thought could never be realized.
Said one recruit, “I’ve been waiting so long for this. It will remain with me for the rest of my life.”
To see the joy of these soldiers and that of their families made me realize the value of this unique project. It enables this special group of people to realize their potential, gives them dignity and the chance to hold their heads high and feel equal among their peers. This is an aspect of the IDF that, sadly, is largely unknown outside the country.
Ruth Corman, who lives in London and Jerusalem, is an art consultant and photographer.
Her next book, Unexpected Israel, is due to be published later this year.