Center field:To my son on graduating from officers training

Americans pray “May you be safe,” and we say “Amen.” Israelis wish you “sherut kal v’mashma’uti,” an easy yet meaningful service, and we say “Amen” to that, too.

IDF soldiers participating in the Or HaDagan Northern Command drill, September, 2017. (photo credit: IDF SPOKESPERSON'S UNIT)
IDF soldiers participating in the Or HaDagan Northern Command drill, September, 2017.
Dear Y.,
Congratulations – you pulled it off. Most cadets find the three-month officers training course challenging enough. But you worked crazy hard to get there. A minor health issue presented major bureaucratic obstacles. Amid dozens of phone calls and bus rides, a seven-month delay, four appointments – three of them unnecessary – and one medical board, your persistence, sense of purpose, and patriotism blew me away.
Back in Queens in the 1970s, even the ever-escalating Soviet-American nuclear arms race seemed milder than the Great American Jewish Parental Bragging Derby (fortunately, your grandparents were not like that). Parental pride seemed aggressive possessive, self-aggrandizing. Last Wednesday, watching you march in formation, earn your officer’s pin and accept awesome responsibility – other people’s lives – made me realize that true parental pride is deeper. As you and your siblings make your marks, it’s inspiring to see you follow our footsteps while blazing new trails.
For us, as mid-career olim, this army thing is a mind-boggling example.
For North American Jews, the army is not just foreign, but hostile, territory. Few American Jews today even know any American soldiers or vets. America’s painful polarization has politicized the army, too: it should be red, white and blue, but many deem it “red” territory: Donald Trump won two-thirds of military votes, 23% of Jewish votes.
American Jews are lucky to be insulated from military service. Israelis have no choice but to embrace it; it’s life and death. You and your comrades are the living, breathing, khaki line protecting us from enemies north, south and east, who would happily slaughter us en masse.
I feel the gap when the first question most American Jews ask is “How long has he been in?” or “How long does he have left?” – as though you were serving a sentence, before life begins. Israelis first ask “Where’s he serving?” or “What’s he doing?” – understanding that you’re living life intensely, joining history, making weighty decisions, learning, growing, stretching, in ways I, as a nonmilitary person, cannot truly fathom.
Americans pray “May you be safe,” and we say “Amen.” Israelis wish you “sherut kal v’mashma’uti,” an easy yet meaningful service, and we say “Amen” to that, too.
It was meaningful when you left our Jerusalem bubble. Recently, a friend of yours bumped into your brother A. and said, “Y.’s a real Zionist.” More used to hearing his father called that, A. looked confused. The friend explained: “He really loves serving with all of Israel.”
“All” included your Druze commander, the secular Russians who barbecued your meat on a new NIS 20 grill they purchased when they invited you to a party, and the overwhelmingly nonreligious people who read the Torah commentary you posted on the base’s WhatsApp weekly in the spirit in which you wrote it – sharing something you cherish with your buddies.
Your service was meaningful even when your work was difficult, tedious – but nevertheless necessary to defend Israel.
I also think it was meaningful to leave that world, where you were the token religious soldier, and join the officers training course. The many religious soldiers there made Friday night services so rousing that many nonreligious soldiers joined, having never experienced such exuberant Judaism.
And it was meaningful, as you reported, that the course emphasized morality: how to treat people morally, how to lead morally, how to inspire soldiers to behave morally, how to manage inevitable dilemmas morally; essentially, how to have an army forced to do ugly things still represent Israel’s beauty beautifully.
The graduation ceremony exemplified this. One friend calls your training base, “Bahad 1,” Israel’s Ivy League. The ceremony fused Harvard’s Commencement, without suits, and Camp Tel Yehudah’s visiting day, with tons more food. Showing Israel at its best, the few short speeches emphasized our Jewish values and democratic commitments, with the awareness of how many are mourning the death of Israeli democracy – prematurely. When your commander knowingly welcomed the cadets from all sectors of Israel, the crowd applauded, cheering his emphasis.
SO, DESPITE all the frustrations of your delayed entry, your exit’s timing was poetic. The democratic vitality and diversity your course exhibited eclipsed the government’s insensitivity in passing the Nation-State Law without reassuring minorities, and the hysterical overreaction libeling Israel as “racist” and “apartheid.” The warriors’ words trump today’s war of words. It’s about balance: Israel exists because it’s a Jewish state; we coexist as a democracy.
I don’t romanticize the army. I know how brutal it is for you and others, minute by minute sometimes, day by day frequently. I know some come home matured, some come home broken, and, tragically, some never come home. But, thanks to you, we witnessed something exceptional on Wednesday. The IDF – at its best – embodies Israel at its best, coping with threats that would bring out the worst in anyone. It balances the high ideals that created Israel with the messy realities Israel overcomes to survive.
We are proud of you for being a part of it, for volunteering more time, for investing your youth, your energy, your smarts, heart and soul, in defending Israel, effectively, intelligently, morally, meaningfully. Now, you’ll be the one motivating others to defend the country and to find meaning in their service, in their lives, in this marvelous, necessary, frustrating, challenging experiment in Zionism, in liberal nationalism, in Jewish democratic statehood, called Israel – which, far more simply, we call home.
The writer is the author of the newly released The Zionist Ideas, an update and expansion of Arthur Hertzberg’s classic anthology The Zionist Idea, published by the Jewish Publication Society. A distinguished scholar of North American history at McGill University, he is the author of 10 books on American history, including The Age of Clinton: America in the 1990s.