IDF rejects American volunteers for inadequate Hebrew skills

Of the 40 foreigners set to enlist in the November draft, only 20 will actually be joining the ranks of the IDF today.

army tiron 88 (photo credit: )
army tiron 88
(photo credit: )
On Monday night, a group of a dozen close friends raised their glasses and wished the best to Aaron Kaplowitz, Daniel Linder and Ilan Hoffman, three Americans who were 36 hours away from joining the Israel Defense Forces. Only 12 hours later, the trio had been trimmed to a duo, and no one saw it coming. At 9 a.m. on Tuesday morning - 22 hours before they were due at Jerusalem's Ammunition Hill to begin their tour of duty - Ilan Hoffman received a phone call from Avi Naor, the head of Machal, a program for non-Israelis volunteering in the IDF. Naor told Hoffman the army had informed him that his Hebrew was inadequate for army service and that he'd need to take six weeks of intensive Hebrew followed by another two-and-a-half months of further training in order to fully enlist in March. "I said, 'You have to be kidding me; that's absolutely ridiculous,'" Hoffman said, recounting his conversation with Naor. "'I'm going to the army in less than 24 hours and you're telling me this the day before?' It's something I've been looking forward to and psyching myself up for; it's not easy to deal with on any level - physically, psychologically or mentally. One day before I'm supposed to begin, I get a call that completely shatters everything." In fact, Hoffman is not the exception to the rule. Of the 40 foreigners set to enlist in the November draft, only 20 will actually be joining the ranks of the IDF today, said an official in the Jewish Agency associated with Machal. Five Machal applicants from around the globe were rejected completely for bureaucratic problems stemming from "being in the country too long," while 15 others had their enlistments postponed till mid-or-end December, according to the official. Like Hoffman, these applicants lacked the Hebrew necessary for enlistment in the IDF. "No one understands the logic," said the official. "Some of these guys actually speak Hebrew. We asked the army to give them another Hebrew test [Tuesday], but they refused." No official documents were exchanged between the army and the applicants regarding this last-minute decision. An army spokesman at first said he was unaware of the draft cancellations and postponements, but later responded that "Mahal recruits are conducted by a pre-set draft plan that is known to those recruited. The claim of an unknown draft date will be checked. The IDF highly appreciates the volunteers that draft and considers their act as true Zionism." "These are people we should be embracing in Israel," said the Jewish agency official of the rejected applicants. "They are true Zionists, ready and motivated to join the army and fight for their country. I'm angry; everyone is angry about this." Hoffman, 22, a recent graduate of Boston University, decided a year ago to join the IDF through Machal, a program of 14-and-a-half months of regular army service. He arrived on August 31, after Naor informed him that he'd need to get his papers processed two months ahead of the November 2006 draft. He spent the next nine weeks taking an intensive Hebrew course in Jerusalem, even though he studied Hebrew for 12 years at various Jewish private schools in New Jersey. "To leave everything you have behind at home is not the easiest thing for a person very close with his family and friends," he said. Luckily for Hoffman, two of his closest friends bolstered his resolve. Kaplowitz, 22, Hoffman's roommate of two years at BU, and Linder, 20, both arrived in Israel on September 1 and signed up with Machal for the November draft. "It really hurts me to leave behind a good friend who I'd help carry into the army and who would help keep me sane through tough times," Linder said. "I thought that was absolutely disgraceful and a complete lack of responsibility by the Israeli army because if mistakes occur in the acceptance process, there's not enough time to rectify them. I didn't even think his Hebrew was significantly worse than mine." Hoffman spent all of Tuesday calling family friends, members of the Jewish Agency and army personnel trying to make a last-ditch effort to get his case reviewed. But late into Tuesday night, Hoffman was running out of options. "It pains me to say that I might not join, and it pains me to say that I might go home because of the complete lack of respect, responsibility and authority that has been demonstrated today," Hoffman said. "I might come back in March. I might not."