Reflections on IDF service as a college-educated oleh

During my service, I experienced periods of elation and joy, countered by streaks of disappointment and despair.

Soldiers site on their vehicle as the sun sets over the Negev. (photo credit: REUTERS)
Soldiers site on their vehicle as the sun sets over the Negev.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
On a sunny, steamy day in mid-May, I entered the Defense Ministry’s headquarters in Tel Aviv for the last time. Armed with my army ID card and hulking sack of IDF-issue equipment from the days of basic training, and outfitted in a bright red Hawaiian shirt and blue jeans, I had come for my honorable discharge from the military as a lieutenant. The time had come to venture on to a new phase in my life, after 1,297 days – three years, six months and 19 days – in the IDF.
During the mercilessly steamy autumn of 2010, I had entered the system as an idealistic American Zionist; 42 months later, in the pleasant Mediterranean spring of 2014, I exited as a humbled and hardened Israeli, transformed by a quintessentially Israeli experience. Ten months in basic training and serving as a liaison to foreign forces on the Jordanian border, eight months of officers’ training and two years as an officer in the foreign relations section of the Defense Ministry’s Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories Unit (COGAT) gave me a unique perspective on the country I had chosen to call my own.
My service led me through the rich tapestry of Israel, in all its geographical, cultural and historical glory. Nighttime navigation through the rocky Negev canyons; escorting Jordanian cargo trucks along the arid eastern frontier; sharing living space with Druse officer candidates; boiling coffee with Beduin trackers; joining comrades- in-arms for mixed Sephardi-Ashkenazi prayer; debating issues of Jewish identity on the site of our holy Temples; being ordered around by an assortment of commanders ranging in age from old enough to be my parents to young enough for me to have babysat.
It was a journey replete with cultural absorption, overcoming personal fears and limitations, and phenomenal self-development.
DURING MY service, I experienced periods of elation and joy, countered by streaks of disappointment and despair.
In one moment I could feel immense pride in donning the uniform and saluting the flag, while in the being disillusioned with the national anthem, unable to recite the expression of the Jewish yearning for Zion and self-determination.
In these 42 months, I questioned myself as to whether this road was the correct choice, whether the sacrifice was worth it. While it was not combat, my service was nevertheless emotionally and mentally arduous. Yet it entailed never-ending interactions in Hebrew, exposure to Israeli and foreign personalities from all walks of life and multi-tasking with little to no sleep in high-stress situations. Thus, in retrospect, I harbor no regrets: the relatively short-term investment is poised to translate into an undoubtedly longterm gain as a thriving citizen in the Jewish state.
The “jobnik,” mostly desk-based military service doubled as a superb career booster. As a college graduate with a degree in international relations and fluent in Arabic, I deliberately chose to serve in these two units due to their real-world applicability to my areas of expertise. Indeed, interacting with the Jordanian military, Palestinian Authority, Israeli government ministries and tens of international and UN organizations beautifully actualized my classroom- rooted academics.
My considerations reflect a unique and growing subset of IDF draftees from abroad: 20-something olim-bychoice (primarily from the Americas and Western Europe) who are college- educated and therefore seek a service that can utilize their academic and professional experience. The immigrants in this category are deeply passionate Zionists and wish to contribute, being moved not by material gain but by the promise of fulfillment in benefiting the Jewish people and state.
Many if not most of these “intellectual soldiers” are committed to staying in Israel following their service, seeing the army as the vehicle for social integration.
COGAT, the foreign forces liaison unit and the spokespersons’ unit all specialize in communications and diplomacy, roles less commonly associated with the military. They can be termed the “Big Three” destinations for hundreds of annual college-educated oleh enlistees, who in turn are disproportionately represented in these units.
Graduates of disciplines such as journalism, economics, political science and Middle East studies naturally flock to the “Big Three” as focal points for meaningful military service.
While I ultimately benefited from my service in two of these units, it pains me to have witnessed scores of my fellow olim having quite the reverse experience.
In numerous discussions with olim in these three units over the past 3.5 years, I kept encountering the same narrative: overall disappointment with the IDF, a sense of under-utilization and less-than-receptive treatment at the hands of a chaotic and often aggressive chain of command unsure as to how to put their skills to sound use.
Some soldiers had lost their initial passion to serve and were seeking to shorten their tour of duty, demoralized by a sense that their sacrifice was wasted; others were already planning to return to their countries of birth, disenchanted by their experience in uniform and no longer believing in the promise of the Israeli idea itself.
The lowest common denominator I found in these intellectual and committed soldiers was the language barrier: many positions demanded reading and writing proficiency in Hebrew. The general feeling was that the olim themselves were being blamed for not knowing Hebrew at a satisfactory level prior to enlisting and thus constituting a burden on their workplaces. Conversely, the potential asset of their vast array of knowledge and burning drive to contribute was generally perceived to have been neglected.
IN MY personal experience, I saw one too many immigrant soldiers tasked with an assignment far beyond his capacities, such as professional-level translation from English to Hebrew or crafting a Power Point presentation in high-level Hebrew, only to be castigated for not performing as expected.
There was a recurring sense that their years’ worth of wisdom attained abroad in various disciplines remained locked up in their minds, lacking an outlet that would allow it to benefit the IDF and the country.
I too was privy to such rebukes from superiors, such as for writing documents in insufficiently formal Hebrew.
Upon reminding my commanders that I had not been educated in Israel and had only learned to write in Hebrew in an impromptu manner while on the job, I was given little consolation. If I went a step further, to suggesting a solution – such as being allowed to participate in an army Hebrew-writing course – I was told no such course would be available, and that I had best listen carefully to the corrections of my superiors, for they would only offer them once.
While I firmly believe that while all olim should strive to learn as much Hebrew as possible prior to their arrival in Israel and subsequent enlistment – I myself engaged in this preparation – it is the IDF that bears responsibility for planting the “sabra seeds” of successful integration. Famously known as the “Melting Pot” for new Israelis, the military is the institution most associated with successful Israeli absorption and the expression of the collective national ethos, epitomized by its Education Corps’ motto: “The nation builds the army which builds the nation,” (Am Boneh Tzavah Boneh Am).
Toward this end, degree-holding immigrants, armed with a solid commitment to Zionism and the spirit to share in the national burden, should be reassessed through a new prism, embraced for the vast potential they offer to the service and cultivated for smoother adjustment to the challenges faced upon conscription.
First, an understanding needs to be reached that these immigrants lack linguistic and expressive skills, which cannot be taught through traditional military discipline and training. Intuitive tasks, such as writing documents and delivering oral presentations in Hebrew, cannot be “drilled” into a soldier as can marching or weapons training.
Practically, the IDF should weigh the merits of instituting an intensive Hebrew education framework for olim destined for the “Big Three” units, with an emphasis on developing Hebrew reading and writing abilities. Beyond the rudimentary ulpan offered at the Mikveh Alon Base for all new olim, this preparatory program should be highly specialized to address the relevant military lexicon the soldiers will be expected to comprehend within their units, and to buttress their vocabulary and grammar for the sake of future written and verbal assignments.
For the army, properly schooled, Hebrew-proficient olim would result in greater productivity. With expanded Hebrew skills, they could utilize time more efficiently and complete more assignments, be entrusted with a greater range of duties, and require less supervision and monitoring by their native Israeli peers. For the olim, morale would surge, and self-confidence in their ability to succeed in Israel would rise. Undoubtedly, in the long term many more would consider staying in the country permanently, thus empowering its already-vibrant economy and civil society. Perhaps a significant number would consider extending their service and training as officers, contributing a qualitative boost to the IDF brass.
I “did my time” and look forward to a thoroughly Israeli future. I only wish the same for hundreds of my oleh brothers and sisters on the non-combat side of the service. As olim by choice, their initial embrace of the country and its institutions is extremely strong – but their commitment is not blind or unflinching. Bitter real-life experiences in the IDF can revise their feelings toward Zion and lead them to reevaluate their decision to cast their lot with the one Jewish nation-state in the world. Indeed, what they need more than anything is hope, a feeling that there is a mechanism in place to help them ultimately reach the sabra center rather than remain on the immigrant periphery.
I have since regained my passion in singing our national anthem. To paraphrase the beginning of the last stanza of the evocative song: Tzahal, od lo avda tikvati bekha – “Oh IDF, my hope in you is not yet lost.” The hope that you can be the lofty institution you were intended to be, the force for ingathering all of our exiles into dynamic and constructive participation in the greatest contemporary miracle: our illustrious rebirth as an independent nation in our homeland.
The author grew up in Florida and obtained a BA from the Elliott School of International Affairs at George Washington University. He made aliya in the summer of 2009, and currently resides in Jerusalem.