Center Field: To my daughter, on completing officer training

Last Tuesday, watching you march in your crisp army fatigues and get pinned, was surrealistic.

A female IDF soldier shaking out a blanket during a week-long survival course for women in the infantry at an undisclosed location in Israel (photo credit: REUTERS)
A female IDF soldier shaking out a blanket during a week-long survival course for women in the infantry at an undisclosed location in Israel
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Dear L.,
You really surprised and impressed us. Enlisting was enough of a stretch for an immigrant- by-parental-choice with American college aspirations. But with your characteristic zeal and skill, you just finished officer training school. Last Tuesday, watching you march in your crisp army fatigues and get pinned, was surrealistic. Never having served in the army, always having assumed you would do your required minimum and move on, I found the ceremony delightfully unfamiliar and awe-inspiring.
We drove down as a family to “Ba’ad Echad,” the concrete army base in the Negev desert near Mitzpe Ramon. We quickly discovered we were pikers – not that we’re competitive. Five of us, your loving brothers, sister and parents, took off work and school. Many of the other cadets hosted larger clans of 10 and 15.
Your proud mother had spent the day before cooking, despite having just landed from overseas. We could match others in food quality and were close on quantity (each brought enough to, as they say, feed an army) but we lacked the requisite, typically Israeli, accessories: personalized T-shirts and hats, folding tables, tablecloths, coolers, etc.
Ah, Israel. Instead of the expected Marine Corps spit-and- polish meets college commencement formality, the vibe was more tailgate party meets summer camp visiting day.
Throughout, the tone was remarkably relaxed, informal, warm, loving, familial. Watching the interactions between you and your fellow cadets, between all of you and your commanders, I recognized the same magic that worked so well in the Young Judaea Zionist Youth movement and its national camp Tel Yehudah I attended in the United States. Yes, it is bizarre to compare high-level army training to these benign, fun, educational frameworks.
And I recognize the dramatic differences, especially having heard your tales of army discipline, brutal hours, grueling work, tough decisions, intense courses, arbitrary moves, heartbroken kids sent home just days before graduation, and, of course, the broader goal of turning all you sweeties into a top fighting machine to defend us against incredibly brutal enemies. But underlying it all, the key to Zionist movements, camps, and the army, is the lure, power and magic of home.
This is about building a home, defending a home, perfecting a home. The secret to Israeli military success is that we are not fighting overseas, we are not fighting wars we don’t understand. We – I should say you and your peers – are fighting wars to defend our homes against foes who would delight in massacring us. That’s as real as it gets, as motivating as it gets.
I am proud that the warm, mushy feelings on display showed the brilliant Zionist insight that love is as powerful a motivator as fear, and that people thrive in atmospheres rooted in the positive, with occasional turbo-charging from terror, competition, fury. The Israeli army refuses to be fueled by hate. You have told me how careful your instructors and commanders are to refer to “the enemy” as military adversaries only, without indulging in bigotry, ethnic stereotyping, or even labeling “the enemy” in ways that would be insulting, immoral or politically polarizing.
Amid that arid plain, in those sterile buildings, the army not only sharpened your minds, and strengthened your muscles, it stretched your souls by making you at home, using the eternal Jewish peoplehood glues of community, responsibility, morality and family.
We felt that sense of community, of that lovely Hebrew word echpatiyut, which my dictionary translates as “concern,” but is more like caring, conscientious concern on steroids.
From such profound concern for your comrades, your community and your country comes the deep sense of responsibility that compelled you to volunteer at least another year, and propelled you forward, despite the obstacles, including injuries. Zionism, as the movement of Jewish national liberation, is about us taking responsibility for our destiny, individually and collectively.
It’s not, of course, unique to Zionism; I see that same sense of responsibility instilled in American officers. The kind of command responsibility an officer in a democratic army accepts is unique. We saw it in action this Sunday, when a retired major witnessed a terrorist attack.
Acting instinctively, after his security guard disarmed the knife-wielding terrorist, this 55-year-old, nowthe coddled mayor of Jerusalem, Nir Barkat, tackled the terrorist to the ground. Supermayor! If we didn’t before, you and I now know where such concern and responsibility comes from – it becomes so deeply ingrained it’s within you even three decades after your service.
Still, last week we witnessed the added Zionist dimension, the extra spicing in this recipe creating IDF officers: the informality, the warmth, the biblical verses decorating the otherwise Spartan camp, your commanders’ exhortations, which also invoked the Bible, David Ben-Gurion and our history, inviting you to be professional and ethical – at the highest standards humanly possible. Despite the lies about us, there is a Zionist fighting ethic, rooted in the Bible, ingrained in our nation, expressed in our state, and followed by our army, thanks to people like you.
Since 9/11, Americans frequently greet soldiers saying “I honor your service.” Last week, we drove nearly three hours to honor your service, your training, your ethics.
In a moving display of the kind of community, responsibility, morality and family-feeling that builds that sense of home, when I posted a photo from your ceremony on Facebook, 479 people “liked” it and 99 took the time to comment. They, like us, are wowed by you.
They, like us, are proud of you. They, like us, are grateful to you, well aware that during these difficult times, all of us, our entire civilization, in Israel and beyond, rests on the efforts, sacrifice and skills of people like you.
They, like us, honor your service.
Love, Abba
The author is professor of history at McGill University and is teaching this semester at Hebrew University’s Rothberg International School. His eleventh book, The Age of Clinton, will be published in September.