Ready for service?

In Israel, the army is a fact of life - soldiers are kidnapped and killed. Soldiers kill and do unpleasant stuff in the defense of their country.

Ready for service (photo credit: PEPE FAINTY)
Ready for service
(photo credit: PEPE FAINTY)
I spent most of the last week on another planet – in bed, medicated to the eyeballs after falling prey to one of the Small Noisy One’s random bugs. So last Saturday was designated catch-up-with-the-newspapers day. And, of course, there was only one story from the past week that really mattered....
The Small Noisy One stands by my bedside. I’m not disposed very kindly towards him at the moment, given that his bug – which only made him cough and complain mildly for a couple of days – had knocked me out for the better part of a week. Still, he is my flesh and blood. And for once, he is – more or less – quiet, merely whistling out of tune....
I flip through the papers. He stops me to points at a now iconic photograph.
“That’s Gilad Schalit,” he informs me. “And that’s his daddy.”
One shouldn’t be surprised by his knowledge, of course. It has been pretty much the only topic of conversation across the country for the last week....
I point to the third person in the picture, who is lurking ominously on the sidelines. “And who is that?”
 “Ah, that’s the rosh hamemshala,” the Small Noisy One replies.
Impressive. I certainly had no idea who the prime minister was the month before my fifth birthday.
“Do you know what the prime minister does?” I ask.
I’d like to report that my child said something about prime ministers doing nothing but taking all the credit for the few and far-between positive moments that we experience in this country. But that’s just ingrained prejudice speaking. In fact, the Small Noisy One replied rather thoughtfully, explaining that the prime ministers look after all the city mayors across the country...
But now it’s his turn to ask the questions.
“Daddy, who is Gilad Schalit?” Ah-hah. Where does one start with this? My little one, I’ve found, is pretty good at slicing through the verbiage and clutter of contemporary Israeli society, prompting on my behalf the questions that I can’t be bothered to articulate. For example, he asks why he can’t take pastrami sandwiches to his (state-run) kindergarten, and we end up having a surprisingly nuanced discussion about the lifestyle distinctions between (nominal) Jews, Muslims and Christians in the Holy Land.
Then there was the day he came home complaining that someone in his class had called him an Arab. What does this mean in today’s Israel? And how is it that we’ve both internalized this as a not very nice thing to say? He keeps me on my toes, my child does.
But back to the picture. Who is Gilad Schalit?
He’s a citizen, an ordinary Joe... and a soldier who had been held hostage for longer than you’ve been alive, my son. This is factually correct, but I’m not sure I want to say this. Because I’ve yet to reconcile myself with a fundamental aspect of being a parent in this country.
A couple of things about army service: Firstly, in Israel it isn’t hypothetical. At some point in the future, my little boy is going to put on a uniform and give three years of his life to his country.
Secondly, the army, by design, is a place where not very nice things are going to happen. Not just the Israeli army, mind you – any army. You don’t put guns in people’s hands, send them off to defend their country and expect all to be peace and harmony, after all.
In most countries, for many people this whole army service business is a remote, distant one.Standing armies, generally, are made up of “volunteers.” And if you’re a middle-class, newspaperreading somebody, the odds are that these volunteers will be pulled from a different stratum of society than your own.
But in these parts, it’s different. If you are a part of the mainstream, then you know someone who is a part of the system. A child, a nephew or niece. Your neighbor, your doctor, your co-worker. Someone you know, someone you can relate to, has an immediate and direct connection to the Israeli army.
In Israel, the army is a fact of life – as is the unpleasantness that comes along with it. Soldiers are kidnapped and killed. Soldiers kill. Soldiers do unpleasant stuff in the defense of their country; stuff they probably aren’t going to talk about when they come back home.
It is the same everywhere with every country’s army, it must be said. But elsewhere in the world, this is largely part of an abstract, detached conversation. In Israel, one doesn’t have that luxury. When one is talking about soldiers – positively or not – it is about someone you know or could know. Is this a g o o d thing? A bad thing? I dunno. Simple enough to say that it is a real thing. Real enough to know that the arguments about the “price” paid for Schalit’s release could be an argument about the price to be paid for someone I know. Real enough to know that when one reads about activity “in the field” – justifiable or not – the soldiers are everyday people like you and me.
Well, not me precisely. I’m not an Israeli parent, so some of this stuff washes over me. But I am, after all, the parent of an Israeli. So I cannot pretend to be untouched by the events of the last week. It will be me, one day, with a child in the army. And what will happen to him and to me then, I really don’t know.
The Small Noisy One is impatient and nudges me sharply in the ribs. “Da-ddy, who is Gilad Schalit?” “He’s a young man whose daddy loves him very much, I imagine.”
“Like you love me?” “Yup.”
He clambers into bed with me and gives me a hug. I hug him back, squeeze him tightly, then pull my head away. I don’t want to sneeze in his face.
And I want to make sure that Bibi isn’t lurking in the background.