The IDF and the SMS

Judah Maccabee would be astounded by what the country is fighting about this Hanukka.

November 26, 2010 15:18
IDF reserve soldiers

Israeli reserve soldiers 311. (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)


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It was a battle that seems to have caught the army by surprise: A fund-raising campaign has left it fighting for its image.

The annual Shirutrom (song-and-donation) telethon, usually accused of being nothing more than Zionism at its kitschiest, has come under fire this year for a project asking donors to send an SMS in support for their favorite combat unit: NIS 10 a shot.

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It takes the concept of pride in an army unit – ga’avat yehida – a step further, but some are complaining that it is marching in the wrong direction. Under the slogan “At hayehida sheli” – a play on words meaning either “You are my army unit” or, in the words of a popular song, “You’re my one and only” – various bodies have grouped together seeking votes for the top unit, to be announced during the annual Shirutrom broadcasts on Galei Zahal (IDF Radio) on December 7.

Despite the constant reminders that the donations will be spread out evenly among all the units and not just to the “one and only” winner, the battle cry was raised by those whose units were either not mentioned or are too small (or unpopular) to be considered favorites.

In fact, a few units had to be added to the list of candidates due to the public outcry, including Oketz, the dog-handlers’ unit whose hackles were raised by its absence from the list; Lotar, the counterterror unit; and Karakal, the only fully mixed-gender combat unit, who fought like their namesake wildcat to be included.

The idea for At hayehida sheli reportedly came from the Association for the Well-being of Israel’s Soldiers (AWIS), which is sponsoring the event along with Galei Zahal, Bank Hapoalim and Yediot Aharonot and its website, Ynet. The last two sponsors probably explain part of the controversy. No sooner had the SMS plan been announced than Yediot’s major rival, Yisrael Hayom, launched the counterattack. After that, it seems everyone was taking cheap shots at each other through the media.

Neither of the opposing camps is arguing about the fact that IDF combat soldiers deserve the best possible recreation facilities – although in my day, that was limited on my base to a cranky black-and-white television on which we followed the fortunes of Dallas and Dynasty broadcast on the country’s one and only TV channel. Those were the days, of course, in which we didn’t yet have a phone at home, and SMSs on mobiles fell into the sci-fi category.

The project draws on a natural target audience: Anyone who’s served in the army or has a child/sibling/partner/friend serving – which is still a huge proportion of the population in a country of mandatory service, despite the dire predictions that with the ever-increasing rates of military evasion, the IDF will soon stop being “a people’s army.”

Without fail, everybody I asked in a highly informal and unscientific survey reported that they would vote (if at all) for the unit in which they had served or had the closest connection.

I, too, would probably opt for Nahal – the first of the three units in which I spent my army service. (I stopped switching units when I got assigned to one with a private beach, thus instantly improving my well-being and recreation options.) The other two units that made up my military career didn’t make it on the list – which shows some of the problems associated with the approach of the SMS project.

AWIS chairman Brig.-Gen. (res.) Avigdor Kahalani, who gets my vote as the most genial decorated war hero, made an impassioned plea in Yediot for as many SMSs and donations as possible “to strengthen those who choose to carry the burden of significant military service.”

“Dealing with military history and pride in a unit – any unit – can never be a bad thing,” wrote Kahalani. “...Let’s not be distracted from the main issue: The most important aspect of the At hayehida sheli project is not about which unit wins but the number of Israelis who love the IDF and ‘their’ units enough to SMS on their behalf and donate to all our combat soldiers.”

Another former Armored Corps brigadier general, Effi Eitam, returned fire saying that the project is part of what he sees as an ongoing phenomenon cheapening the IDF.

“This process under which units compete for their standing and their ability to fund-raise creates a sort of Kochav Nolad [A Star Is Born] situation, not to mention that in some cases a unit even uses its name and reputation to be more attractive in fund-raising. This ultimately leads to a cheapening of the army and military service and exploitation of the goodwill of donors,” Eitam wrote in Yisrael Hayom.

Eitam said he feared that a day would come when these units would appoint a chief schnorr officer.

Not surprisingly, other members of the Armored Corps complained to Yisrael Hayom (and to me) that the result was a foregone conclusion: It is hard for the soldiers smelling of grease to compete with the glamor of paratroops and the various reconnaissance units. The naval commandos of Shayetet 13 might have taken a beating from the so-called peace supporters on the Gaza flotilla in May, but locally they enjoyed a wave of sympathy and are believed to be among the favorites of the potential SMSers.

It’s hard to imagine that anyone will vote for the Military Police out of pure passing affection. Some units are so secret that they don’t even appear on the project’s radar; others are too tiny or not sufficiently well known: Why did the Alpine unit receive the cold shoulder, for example?

I mused that the list includes a number of units whose identities were once a closely guarded secret: Not so many years ago, the media were not even allowed to report the existence of 669, the IDF’s search-and-rescue team, let alone openly solicit funds for its undoubtedly deserving soldiers. Yediot is publishing daily profiles of the various units to solicit support, and via its website you can see the full list of units participating and details, in Hebrew.

I salute the effort to improve the soldiers’ well-being, take my beret off to those willing to fight for what they believe in, and I vote that we stop fighting among ourselves over every NIS 10 and SMS.

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