Wild boys and the women who command them: IDF program turns troubled youth into proud troops

At base near Afula, the IDF gives 'Raful's boys' a second chance in life

By STEPHANIE RUBENSTEIN
September 7, 2009 10:06

 
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"I won't put on the uniform - it's my father's grave," one soldier exclaimed. Others swore, fought and disobeyed orders.

These soldiers appeared in the documentary Yes, Miss Commander, which shows IDF soldiers at the Havat Hashomer military base near Afula. The base houses disadvantaged youth who come from difficult backgrounds and often have criminal pasts It is frequently their last chance for a future in society.

The documentary first aired on Channel 8 in three parts, and then as a combined piece at the Jerusalem Film Festival on July 15.

After the cameras stopped rolling, day-to-day activities continued on the base.

Havat Hashomer enlists these tough young men and offers them a three-month basic training course. The base has four companies, each with more than 100 men led by a female commander. Each year, the base goes through three cycles of recruits.

Former IDF chief of General Staff Lt.-Gen. Rafael Eitan founded the program 30 years ago. His mission was to bring young soldiers - sometimes referred to as "Raful's boys" - who lack the ability to survive in society into the army. Through their service, the recruits would work toward integrating into society and living functional, law-abiding lives.

Many of the soldiers either do not have parents, or have mothers or fathers in prison. The young men themselves dropped out of school at an early age and got into crime, and their lives deteriorated from that point onward, base commander Lt.-Col. Raz Karny told The Jerusalem Post last week.

"I hear stories from these soldiers, where I sometimes have to pinch myself to recognize they are real," he said. "I do not believe that there are bad people. There are people who do bad things. You cannot blame a boy who is hit by his father from the age of five, or a boy who searches for food in the garbage."

The training program offers these young men an opportunity to reform and change the way they lead their lives - as reflected in Havat Hashomer's slogan, "In mankind we believe."

One of the graduates of the program recently received his red beret after finishing the paratroopers course. During the graduation ceremony, he stood with opposition leader Tzipi Livni's son, who had also completed his training. Such a contrast of people and backgrounds could only be seen in the army, where each person is given the opportunity to work toward their potential, Karny said.

"I have seen a lot of things in my life," he said. "But there is not a day without tears and more tears, when you see the kind of strength there is at [Havat Hashomer]."

The base's female commanders show a deep sense of caring and concern for their soldiers, the base commander said, who added that these strong women were the best found in Israel. Some of them come from the same cities as the soldiers they command, but have had different life experiences, as the women come from stable homes.

"It's amazing to see boys who haven't been to school since the fourth grade. They don't remember what it is to sit in a class and listen to a teacher - to listen to anyone," Sec.-Lt. Noa Levitt, 21, told the Post. "Then they come to the army and have to listen to some girl, who is probably a year younger than them."

Beginning her service at the base was a shock, after hearing stories of the recruits there while she was training, Levitt said. She had been previously exposed to people with difficult backgrounds, people who were addicted to drugs or were criminals, but they were not in her circle of friends or people with whom she associated.

"You don't understand how intense it is until you get here, how your soldiers become a real part of your life," Levitt said. "They become you - you become them."

Levitt avoided trying to relate to the soldiers personally, and focused more on understanding their situations and how their experiences had affected their behavior.

"I see how much they want [to succeed] and how hard it is for them," she said. "Whoever is here, wants to be here. They may not say it or show it all the time, but if they didn't want to be here, they would leave."

Because Levitt is with her soldiers on a daily basis, it has been difficult for her to watch them develop, she said. But when the parents arrive at the graduation ceremony and look at their sons, they say, "They really have changed."

Eighty-five percent to 90% of the soldiers at Havat Hashomer successfully complete their basic training, although even those who don't graduate go through a meaningful experience.

"I know you can't change a person in three months, maybe not even in three years," Karny said. "But after the course, each soldier has the potential to be a responsible human being, someone who works and lives according to the law."

Many of the soldiers' goals are to grow up and have a family, and not be violent like their fathers were toward them, the base commander said.

"We try, and have been succeeding, to set these soldiers on a new path," Karny said. "And I tell them, 'If you become soldiers it will be a bonus, but first, let's all try to be responsible human beings.'"

There is still opposition to the program from those who don't want to enlist men with criminal pasts. But Karny said he believed in what former prime minister David Ben-Gurion once said: "The army is not just to guard our country's walls; it is also for the continuity of future generations."

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