February 11, 2022 marks 10 years since the passing of Aharon Davidi, an IDF general and veteran of many wars who also founded the Sar-El program.
Davidi was born in Mandatory Palestine in 1927 and, from a young age, began serving in Israel's pre-state militia groups the Palmach and the Haganah. Eventually, he saw action in the War of Independence. He then joined the IDF paratroopers in 1953, shortly after their founding, as a commander and quickly began seeing action in many dangerous missions behind enemy lines.
Soon, Davidi would go on missions alongside Unit 101, a special forces unit created and led by Ariel Sharon for the purposes of carrying out daring retaliation missions in response to Arab cross-border raids. This included an infamous raid on the West Bank (then part of Jordan) village of Qibya.
Later on, Davidi would serve during the Suez Crisis and the Six Day War before retiring from the IDF years later. However, he then moved to the Golan Heights.
It was there he made what is arguably his most long-lasting contribution: Founding the IDF's Sar-El program.
In 1982, during the First Lebanon War, Israel was in a crisis: The IDF was short on troops and needed help transporting goods and supplies, especially to remote moshavim in the Golan. In 1983, Davidi, at the time a local leader of cultural and community activities in the Golan, had a solution: Bring in Jewish volunteers from the US and have them help out.
The IDF would do exactly that, bringing in 680 volunteers.
Thus was born the Sar-El program, its name an acronym for Sherut Avor Yisrael (Service For Israel).
Sar-El continues to play an important role in the IDF.
Every year, up to 5,000 people flock to volunteer for logistical and routine graft in Israeli military barracks, though in years of conflict like in 2002 during the Second Intifada those numbers have swollen to 8,000. Even more surprising, perhaps, is that some 20% of those volunteers are not Jewish. Since its inception, the project has brought more than a quarter of a million volunteers to Israel from 30 countries.
Because of their positive experience with Sar-El, many volunteers return to their home countries and become de facto goodwill ambassadors for Israel. What’s more, approximately 10% of those volunteers decide to take their love for Israel one step further by making aliyah.
Unfortunately, Sar-El has many struggles, specifically with funds, and a Defense Ministry budget cut in 2020 actually threatened to close its doors for good.
This exacerbated the crisis sparked by Israel closing its borders due to the COVID-19 pandemic, which stopped volunteers from coming.
Regardless, the organization, Davidi's legacy, is a testament to Israel's efforts to strengthen ties with Jews and non-Jews abroad and aid its own military at the same time.
Neville Teller contributed to this report.