An IDF soldier sits on a beach in Tel Aviv.
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
IDF soldiers are often portrayed as ruthless monsters – a message that certainly trickles down to university students. But I had an experience during Hanukkah which showed me the best way to counter these outright lies about Israel’s soldiers: the soldiers themselves.
Fifty overseas students spending a semester in Israel filled a bus to celebrate Hanukkah with soldiers serving on the Gaza border as part of a joint effort of United with Israel and the Jeff Seidel Student Center. No one was really sure what to expect. Would the soldiers be willing to speak with the students? Would the soldiers be able to speak English and communicate effectively with them?
Not to worry. I witnessed the most effective Israel advocacy program I have ever seen unfold. The soldiers, who were not prepped by anyone for these encounters, gladly spoke with the students and answered their questions. I heard soldiers explaining the rules of engagement, including how long they must verify they are in immediate danger before they can fire their weapons, and how, even once they do shoot, they must start with warning shots, then shoot at ankles, and then at knees.
Soldiers described how difficult it is to stand at the border while rocks and other dangerous objects are hurled at them. They spoke about the fears of terrorists storming the fence and breaking into Israel. The soldiers talked about the challenges of being away from home for weeks at a time having limited contact with friends and family.
But then the soldiers and students also spoke about the music they enjoy. They talked sports. They asked each other about their future plans – academic studies, careers, family. Bonds developed quickly, and some even exchanged contact information.
When the students boarded the bus to head back to their university, I asked them about their experience. Some said it was the most important two hours of their time in Israel, that they never realized the degree of the challenging situations in which IDF soldiers find themselves, and that they now had a greater appreciation for what Israel faces on a daily basis.
Others focused on the strict rules of engagement, and how they now have answers for those who criticize Israel for immoral military actions. And some talked about how these soldiers were no different than they were – regular 18-20-year-olds who have no desire to hurt anyone and hope and pray for peace and quiet.
Israel struggles so much in its battle against international criticism, and we are not using our most potent weapon in this struggle. We need to make sure that every student delegation that comes to Israel, and every Birthright group, visits briefly with soldiers who are on active duty and not settle for the wonderful soldiers who get time off to escort Birthright trips. (That is an important gesture, but not nearly as effective and impactful as the step which I am proposing).
Aside from visits to IDF bases in Israel, the government should invest in sending soldiers to speak overseas. The Strategic Affairs Ministry
has millions of dollars available to use in the battle for Israel’s legitimacy and to combat BDS, the boycott movement against the Jewish state. Soldiers interacting with high school and college students – telling their stories, answering their questions, and just demonstrating what kind of people they are – will accomplish more for Israel than any lecture or innovative pro-Israel program. Even simply sponsoring the already existing My Truth organization that sends reserve soldiers around the world to tell their stories would enable them to increase the scope of their work, and that would be a good start.
IDF soldiers are not only the best physical defenders a country could hope for; they are also the best spokesmen and defenders of Israel’s legitimacy and military actions. We must activate them for this important mission which is so vital to Israel’s survival.
The writer served as a member of the 19th Knesset.
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