Fighting stereotypes

The most peculiar people's army in the world: the IDF.

IDF reserve soldiers 521 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
IDF reserve soldiers 521
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
What makes Israel different, a foreign journalist asked me recently. An answer in point form could fill this page and still leave enough material for the next column. The shortest response I could think of was: “It’s the Jewish state.”
Somewhere between the two is “the IDF.” Nearly every country has an army, but no other country has a military quite like the Israel Defense Forces.
While the great wide world probably thinks of our soldiers as “a lean, mean fighting machine,” those of us who live here see them simply as “our soldiers.”
There are obvious differences between “our soldiers” and those of most other forces – apart from, for example, the diplomatic flak we would have endured had Israel rather than NATO been responsible for the deaths of 28 Muslim civilians in “an unfortunate error” this week.
Because of Israel’s size (or the lack of it) our soldiers are the only ones in the world who regularly come back from the front line for a weekend of home comfort and favorite foods. We all know an army marches on its stomach, and every Israeli mother wants that stomach to be full of her particular specialty.
And we have a special take on “fighting dirty.” We have, I bet, the only army that regularly drags home its dirty laundry. What household with a soldier son or daughter has not known the rush of getting uniforms and underwear washed and dried in time for a child to take back to base? Even Beduin and Druse soldiers can boast a Jewish mother when they’re serving in the IDF. It’s a state of mind (worried), not a religion, after all.
When Israel talks about “a people’s army” the people mobilized include parents. It also includes a larger community: Where else are there “lone soldiers” – immigrants and others who have arrived without families and jumped into the great, spicy melting pot?
The IDF has its own terms and slang. New recruits are seen off with the wish “Shifshuf kal vena’im” (literally: “Easy and pleasant rubbing”), which refers to the blisters that are as inseparable a part of basic training as the sergeant’s orders). From then on, however, language takes on a life of its own, transferred from base to base by word of mouth, as it were, until it finally hits civvy street. At this point, it is considered dated and is replaced by another phrase which takes a while to reach the uninitiated.
The large “November induction” (gius November), just completed, again put the spotlight on the drop in numbers of those being recruited, although it was accompanied by reports of ever-higher motivation. In any case, it is still rare to find a family in the country that doesn’t know a soldier.
In fact, with that other Israeli peculiarity – reserve duty – there are huge numbers who are always on call.
That is why our hearts went out collectively to Gilad Schalit. The debate about what price to pay for his return from Hamas captivity was highly personal. We could all relate to him as our communal son/brother/friend. And we nearly all know a victim of terror or war whose murderer could be released.
This is both our strength and our weakness. Israeli soldiers know what they are fighting for, or more to the point what they are defending. Soldiers who travel home by bus for a weekend have a good idea how close that home and the front line are.
Given that the North came under missile fire in 2006 during the Second Lebanon War and the South is still regularly under attack from Gaza, a huge percentage of the recruits now serving in the IDF have come under rocket fire before they donned a uniform.
Just as mothers (and fathers) want to protect their children, these children want to defend their families. This too helps motivation.
Perhaps that’s why there is something so homey about this army. I once mentioned in a column the phenomenon of soldiers calling their officers by their first names. Readers went ballistic: Half the responses I received mentioned a lack of discipline, and the other half said their officers were known by either surnames or nicknames. Not one said that they referred to officers (after basic training) by their rank.
We have even been on first-name terms with chiefs of staff. Rafael Eitan might have made my contemporaries and me miserable with his ruling that we had to wear berets in public in the early 1980s, but nonetheless he was generally known by his nickname. His project to help disadvantaged kids by giving them special educational and vocational training in the IDF is still referred to as “Na’arei Raful,” “Raful’s youths.”
If few things unite the country more than support for the IDF, the most divisive factor is the perceived “draft-dodging” by ultra- Orthodox youths, granted an exemption to study in yeshiva while their contemporaries are putting their lives on the line. Even many peace activists can be found in combat units. Sadly, outside of the army, there are fewer and fewer places where Orthodox, ultra- Orthodox and secular can meet.
Not that all soldiers end up in combat units. Much has been made of Israel’s hi-tech advantage stemming from the elite units that help fight the cyber battle. It’s all part of the service.
And Israel’s efforts are appreciated in the Diaspora, too. Barbra Streisand, for example, is scheduled to make a rare appearance at a tribute to IDF soldiers in Los Angeles on December 8 as part of an event by FIDF (Friends of the Israel Defense Forces), for which I salute her.
Good job she’s not performing for the forces closer to home.
Today’s IDF recruits seem to march to a different tune. Last month Elyakim Levanon, the chief rabbi of Samaria and rabbi of Elon Moreh, made headlines when he determined that religious soldiers should leave an event where women are singing even if a “firing squad” awaited them outside.
I was reminded of the line in Avatar: “I’m not the enemy...”
This is a far shot from the army I served in. Fortunately, the guys in my Bnei Akiva garin (group) didn’t want to shoot either me or themselves after we sang together.
All I can say is, Heaven help us if we turn IDF service into a religious war.