Life after the army: A lone soldier at a crossroads - opinion

My obligation to defend Israel doesn’t end with the conclusion of my IDF service, I’m just entering a new phase.

 THE WRITER holds her aliyah visa before leaving for Israel.  (photo credit: Issy Lyons)
THE WRITER holds her aliyah visa before leaving for Israel.
(photo credit: Issy Lyons)

Around this time three years ago, I found myself at a crossroads. I, like every other high school incoming senior, was expected to prepare a college list over the summer. Most of my classmates had done this years ago and were excited to begin the application process. Like all high schoolers, I was supposed to prepare to take the SATs and think of clever answers for interviewers to explain why their university was truly the perfect place for me. Every time I scrolled through lists of universities across countless countries and states, I felt that something was off. I knew this wasn’t the right choice for me. 

In the back of my mind, I couldn’t shake the thought that my counterparts in Israel were instead focusing on increasing their fitness levels and having serious conversations as to how they would spend the next few years defending their homeland. I felt both privileged and also selfish that I was meant to be concerned only with my immediate future, while others my age were focused on the future of ensuring that there would continue to be a place where Jews were safe. I wondered why I deserved to consider Israel both as another home and as a safe haven for both me and my family, if when my turn to protect the country came I did not embrace it?

I realized that my defense of the Jewish people could not merely be through words and that I needed to actively defend my stance. So, when my college counselor asked to see my completed list, I smiled and announced that I had only one option for the upcoming year and needed no backups. I was going to draft into the Israeli Defense Forces.

Now, three years later, and almost two years after officially beginning my service in a combat intelligence unit. I find myself in a similar position to the one I was in when I was in high school. I, along with all my peers, find myself reflecting on who I am and where in the world I belong after finishing my service.

In between defense missions, we find ourselves constantly talking about the future. While we still have nearly a year until our service ends, our conversations are slowly becoming less abstract. We talk about how despite all the time we have spent together both in training and in the field, we will all eventually go in different directions.

 Lone soldiers arrive at a special event organized by Nefesh B’Nefesh and Friends of the IDF. (credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM) Lone soldiers arrive at a special event organized by Nefesh B’Nefesh and Friends of the IDF. (credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)

Because I wasn’t born in Israel and came here to serve, I’m not just asked if I will extend my service or, if not, which university will I choose? I’m also constantly asked one simple question: “Will you stay?”

To stay or to go?

ON ONE HAND, I made aliyah and by the time I finish my service, I will have spent nearly three years here, giving this country my all to ensure it is safe. I have found a community of like-minded people whom I love, friends who have become a second family, and invested a significant amount of time improving my Hebrew. I’m even learning to drive. I also know that I have the ability to be happy in the world I have created for myself here. 

On the other hand, I had always thought that I would serve here and then make choices that more closely resembled the majority of my peers in the Diaspora. Will I be able to drop everything that I have created for myself here? Do I even want to anymore? 

I find myself scrolling through all the same lists of global universities, once again hoping to find the perfect place for me. The question really is whether that place can exist outside of Israel for me now, after learning how much protection is necessary to physically defend the country and spending a significant amount of time on the front lines.

I find myself thinking back to the summer of 2014, when I began to see things here in a very different way. When the war (Operation Protective Edge) started, we decided as a family to continue our summer plans in Israel instead of returning home and cutting our holiday short, as many other families had. We had put our trust in Israel’s ability to protect us.

I saw my parents stand up for what was important to them. I learned what the Iron Dome was. It’s not difficult to imagine what would have happened if more than a thousand missiles had fallen on Israeli cities and we did not have an Iron Dome, and if there weren’t people risking their lives to keep us safe. The casualties would easily be in the thousands. 

In addition to the obvious impression this left on me, and my unconscious decision to one day return and give back to those who had protected me, I remember reading the news online about what was happening around me. Seeing how people writing the news defined and described things that were happening right outside the window of our vacation rental was an eye-opening experience. The comments on the articles were even more eye-opening. 

Looking to the future 

I’M BEGINNING to face the fact that while I initially thought the choice was between defending Israel or heading off to university in the US or elsewhere for a life that is entirely about me, that isn’t actually the choice before me at all. 

Once I leave the army, I know that making the choice to study outside of Israel would make everything so much more complicated. I will have to defend everything I have ever done and every decision the army as a whole has ever made against endless streams of misinformation.

I have now seen firsthand how vital a strong defense force is to ensure the continued existence of Israel and the Jewish people. I will face antisemitism on campus, a constant stream of falsehoods and biases in news articles, and even university course materials that may be one-sided. 

The choices before me aren’t opposites. They are not separate from one another. And the reality is, that even if I chose to study abroad, Israel will always be my home and the place I will return to. 

My obligation to defend Israel doesn’t end with the conclusion of my IDF service, I’m just entering a new phase. My experience here has given me the ability to understand what is happening here in a far more nuanced way than news or social media could possibly portray. I will now have a duty to powerfully defend Israel with words. I’ve found my voice. 

The writer is a 19-year-old from Hong Kong. She made aliyah in July 2020 and is currently serving as a combat soldier in a unit stationed on the border with Syria.