Lone Soldiers: Israel's Defenders from Around the World
By Herb Keinon
160 pages; $27.95
This appealing volume presents the stories of 14 individuals who chose to join the IDF, leaving families in the US, Canada, England, Morocco, Russia, Ethiopia, Australia, Belgium, Argentina and the Dominican Republic.
Jerusalem Post journalist Herb Keinon steers gently through the interviews, allowing the young soldiers' voices to be fully heard. Each story is engaging, enhanced by Jerusalem photographer Ricki Rosen's camera work.
Keinon's portraits reveal a wide array of motivations to join the Israeli army, which one can assume are shared by the approximately 4,000 other lone soldiers from foreign countries.
Michael Botham came to Israel from London in 2006 simply because the air fare was cheap. After 10 months of odd jobs, such as tossing tomato slices onto sandwiches on a kibbutz assembly line, he missed England enough to go back - only to find he missed Israel more. He returned in 2007 and now is in the Golani Brigade.
At the other end of the spectrum is Michael Levin, one of 119 soldiers killed in the Second Lebanon War. Piecing together Levin's story from interviews with his father, Mark, and with a teacher at the Israeli high school program Levin attended in 2001, Keinon portrays the young man's fierce determination to fight for Israel.
Lacking a draft notice, Levin showed up at the Tel Aviv induction center and discovered he could not get through the front door without one. So he climbed in through a side window, reportedly prompting an impressed officer to comment, "You know how many people I deal with who do everything to get out of here? You are the first person I've ever dealt with who broke in to get into the army." Levin's paperwork was soon arranged.
Several interviewees are the children of Israeli expatriates who were not keen on their kids' decision to enlist.
Yaniv, a counterterrorism specialist born in Israel and reared in Toronto, lived intermittently in Israel during his 20s. But in part because of his father's "over my dead body" objection, it wasn't until 30 that he took the step of coming back for good and lending his expertise to a special forces unit.
Anat Lev, on the other hand, came to the land of her father's birth with her parents' blessing. Growing up in Santo Domingo, she had never met her close Israeli relatives. Her dad encouraged her to try Israel after high school.
"I wasn't sure what I would do there, but my father said it was a developed country with good study opportunities," relates Lev, who made aliya when she arrived. The draft notice she received 10 months later took her by surprise, as did combat service that was not at all the G.I. Jane experience she had anticipated.
"I really didn't know anything," Lev relates. "I saw movies, and that's what I thought it would be like."
All of those interviewed stuck it out and seem to harbor no regrets. Still, integration problems such as language and cultural difficulties, on top of parental pressure, send a little less than half of lone soldiers packing for their native countries after discharge.
"I always say that if I could get my family to live here, it would solve all my problems," Australian Ben Froumine tells Keinon, "but I don't know if that is going to happen." For now, he plans on returning to Melbourne when his army stint is over.
Lt.-Col. (res.) Tzvika Levy, coordinator of the Kibbutz
Movement's Lone Soldier Program since 1995, endeavors to ease the transition for his 750 official charges - and hundreds more not within the kibbutz framework. Keinon opens the book with a profile of Levy, "a veritable Wailing Wall for any lone soldier who needs help or intervention," as well as for their parents abroad.
Keinon reports that 35 percent of lone soldiers are female, one-third are religious, and 60% serve in combat units. This last statistic is noteworthy, given that at least 80% of soldiers typically fill noncombat jobnik positions.
Aiala Jinkis of Argentina pined to be an infantry instructor, but instead is a company clerk planning cultural programs and sorting mail for a 200-man infantry unit.
"I am with soldiers all the time," she tells Keinon. "I am part of their unit, even though I don't carry a gun or go with them on their operations."
Whether or not they carry a rifle or end up staying in Israel forever, each soldier's story testifies to the strength of Zionism. As Defense Minister Ehud Barak notes in his introduction, lone soldiers "have proven to themselves and us that Zionism is not an archaic concept, but rather a living and beating ideal that calls - as in the past - to youth to rally around."