You did it. This morning, you marched off to the army. OK, it was more
like sauntering – but you’ll march soon enough. And you merely took a bus to a
processing center which sent you to basic training. Nevertheless, this move,
which you carried out with your customary grace – and a smile on your face –
culminates our three years here as olim, immigrants; a lifetime of Israel visits
– and thousands of years of Jewish yearning to control our destiny in our own
state, including defending it as necessary.
You made it look easy, but I
know it wasn’t.
This army business is serious. Last night, as we
celebrated your impending enlistment, a Lebanese sniper killed IDF soldier
Selfishly, I am relieved your unit is important but
non-combat. Nevertheless, you will face life-and-death decisions requiring
split-second reactions honed by rigorous training. Furthermore, for the next two
years you are sacrificing your cherished freedom.
I acknowledge the
opportunity cost. Your North American peers are attending top universities; you
could too. While they pursue their passions, you will follow orders. While
professors challenge them to think independently, commanders will compel you to
While they, at worst, risk bad grades, you, at worst,
could be risking your life or that of others depending on
Admittedly, this army service is one more cost you have paid for a
decision your parents made. We brought you to Jerusalem’s Amish country: ever
unfashionable, yet perpetually meaning-seeking. We rooted you in an occasionally
provincial but warm familial Israel.
And we forced you to be smart in a
foreign language, Hebrew, with its exasperating masculine- feminine,
I empathize. I loved attending university so
much that, in a case of arrested development, I never left, becoming a professor
– and, given my work and sleep habits, a perpetual graduate student. As an
American historian who has taught in Canada since 1991, I love North America – I
delight in America’s freedoms, in Canada’s expansiveness.
course, explains why we are so proud of your decision to serve. You know what
you are sacrificing. In today’s Israel your two-year gift to the Jewish people
is essentially voluntary.
But you also realized that serving your country
can serve yourself too.
Olim often focus on what we miss while ignoring
what we gain. The friends who embraced you so lovingly last night, sending you
off with a safety pin so you remain confident, a balloon so no one knocks the
wind out of you, a picture frame so you remember all who love you, a mirror so
you affirm your individuality while in uniform – and other gag gifts with
profound messages, are part of the payoff. The skills you will acquire and the
responsibility you will exercise – within just a few months – represent an often
overlooked dividend. And the contribution you will make to history is
Four years ago, during the 2009 Gaza War, you asked me, “Why
are we here?” I answered: “If we flee, who are we? If we let others fight for
us, what are we? And if none of us fight, where will we – and the world – be?”
In our family, we are people of the word, not the sword. That makes your move,
to wield Jewish power smartly and sensitively, effectively and ethically, after
centuries of Jewish powerlessness, all the bolder.
Today, you joined
thousands of others who have served the Jewish people in ways that I with my
words never have. Now, you are protecting our family, friends and home. You are
affirming Jews’ identity as a people, not just a religion, with national rights
to build our state in our homeland.
You are also living the idea that
democratic Israel offers citizens rights and responsibilities, with a broad tent
which can contain much disagreement, without forgetting our defining principles
and shared fate. And you are defending democracy. If we lose, the West loses
During that Gaza War, while visiting an Israel Air Force air traffic
control tower, I stumbled upon a familiar sight: a bunch of college-age kids
slouching around. Suddenly, they snapped to attention, and these laid-back
students became a highly-functioning unit, expertly guiding one helicopter to
land as a jet took off.
Their professionalism impressed me, as did the
amazing life experience these smart, ambitious youngsters would bring to the
classroom when they eventually attended university. That’s in your future,
A year later, I remember telling a friend who is far to my left
politically that I was sobered hearing Israeli high schools boast about the high
percentage of graduates serving in elite units when American schools boast about
college acceptance rates. “But these kids have an amazing opportunity to grow
through national service,” my friend responded. That’s now your present
When you were born, your newborn’s stroller faced inward as you
focused on us, your parents.
Within months that newfangled stroller
flipped around, as you started looking outward at the world. I realized then
that growing up means always broadening your outlook. This morning, my last
glimpse of you was of your back, carrying your gear, confidently facing this new
We, your parents, represent your tradition, your foundation,
your past. We are with you in the present, as you navigate this noble yet
challenging new reality. We hope, even while facing outward, that you will
always feel us present with you as you shape your future, and – with your
ideals, skills and passions – you shape the future of our people, our country,
and our world.
This morning’s recruitment officer wished everyone “sherut
kal v’mashmaooti,” an easy and meaningful service. I add “and safe, for you and
all the soldiers,” then say, “Amen.”The author is professor of history
at McGill University and the author of eight books on American history,
including, most recently,
Moynihan’s Moment: America’s Fight Against Zionism as
Racism, published by Oxford University Press.
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