by Joseph Lenoff on December 30, 2015
Personal journal, Tuesday, May 4, 2010, first day in the Israel Defense Forces:
I washed my hands in the bathroom sink and looked up. Damn. I'm in uniform. It's the first time I see myself like this. I puff my chest up, pivot a little sideways and check myself out. Some pride swells up. Oh shit, someone is coming out of the stall. Don't want to be THAT guy. I dry my hands and leave the bathroom.
When I get on the bus one of the commanders escorting us to base stops me and says, "Chayal, tisim et ha'chultza shelcha bitoch hamichnasay'im." I respond, completely oblivious to what was just said to me, "I'm sorry, I don't speak Hebrew." He sighs. With a thick accent he translates himself: "Soldier, put your shirt inside your pants." "Oh, yes, sir." He called me soldier!
After graduating from high school in 2009, I was living a different life, following my dream training for college football. I had received a Division I scholarship, bringing together five years of endless training and preparing and playing football. My life revolved around football in my Florida high school. I loved it like nothing else. Then, my own body took it away from me.
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It always felt just a little more epic to train on my game field. I knew where our athletic director kept the key to the fence, and I snuck in every other day to run wind sprints. He knew I did it, but what did he care? One day, during the summer between high school and college, I was in the middle of my routine, listening to Rage Against the Machine as loud as my iPod would let me. I laid out a few cones to work on my footwork and ran a few warm-up sprints, just as I had done for weeks. I bent down in my stance and came off the block, but this time I felt the full force of the kick-off in my lower spine. I felt a horrible pop, my extended leg could not contract, and I fell flat on my face. It hurt like hell, like a butcher was gripping me right on the vertebrae.
I took a week off from training, hoping the pain would subside, but it did not. I had to go to the doctor. "Sorry, Joe. You're going to have to sit out a few years and let your back heal." My doctor informed me that I have spondylolysis, a developmental defect in my lower spine that many people have and that became a problem for me because of the contact of football and the strain of weightlifting. I hadn't even set foot on campus, and now he's telling me I was going to have to sit out for a while.
I could have gone to college without football, but I didn't feel ready. My school was gracious enough to honor the scholarship regardless, and I was accepted into other schools based on academic merit, but football had been my rudder for five years. Without it I was lost, adrift and directionless. My doctor said I could return to football after letting my back heal for at least two years, so I looked to take some time to learn more about myself outside of athletics before beginning university and returning to football. When I was 20 I'd be ready for football, and therefore university, but for the time being I needed something to do.
I wanted to spend time in Israel. I have always been proud of my Jewish heritage, and though the Jewish American community is thriving, there was something different about being in Israel, a country that is majority Jewish and proclaims itself to be "the Jewish State."
Judaism is a fundamental aspect of who I am, but that identity interacts with American society differently than it does in Israel. Israel is unique in that an individual's Jewish identity supports the state, and the state in turn fosters that Jewish identity. I wanted to explore that.
But what would I do there? I wanted to use the skills I acquired through football —leadership, calm under pressure, discipline, perseverance, physical strength — and I wanted to push those skills to their limit. I wanted to know that I was not simply a product of the comfortable environment where I grew up in Boca Raton. I looked for a challenge in which I could prove to myself that any success I might have in my life was because of my own grit and determination.
I decided to join the Israel Defense Forces.
I was sensitive to the recurring wars and security concerns in Israel and thought that the greatest service I could offer was to enlist as a combat soldier. Anything else, I bullheadedly thought, would waste my time and skills. Nothing else was as important as defense, and I was confident that I wouldn't be as good at serving any other objective than defense.
At the time, the nature of the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict did not factor into my decision. This perhaps speaks to my immaturity at the time, but I simply put it out of my mind. I felt from my own experience and from general sentiment in the community I grew up in that Israel was a just state, so I assumed that the occupation, whatever the reason for it may be, was also just. I put on an air of pompousness that masked my ignorance, an attitude common to many volunteers at the beginning of their service. The occupation was a complicating factor that might have led me to question my decision, and I was not interested in questioning my decision.
Nor was I interested in questioning the physical aspect of my enlistment. My doctor told me my back would "probably be okay" as his head bounced back and forth to indicate it was something like a 60-40 likelihood. Good enough for me! If other people have spondylolysis and don't even know, then how bad could it really be?
Perhaps I did not give the decision to join the IDF the careful consideration that it deserved, but after football fell through I thirsted for something to fill the void, to give me a purpose serving something I knew to be important. With self-imposed horse blinders on, I went charging, full speed, to Israel and the IDF.
Personal journal, Tuesday, May 25, three weeks into Hebrew Course:
The truly hard, unbelievably annoying, infinitely grating part is all of the little things.
I was sitting on break today when I heard my commander in Hebrew: "Joseph, (pronounced Józef, you know, because she's Israeli) come here."
She sighs and points to my chest so I'll understand, "Your upper-left pocket is undone. That's an hour on base."
"But I was just getting my wallet out when you called me. What am I supposed to do? Put it back in, close the button, talk to you, unbutton it again, take it back out, go to the vending machine, eat, put it back, and close it again? I wouldn't have time."
"I don't care. Hour on base."
"Wait, but —" She had already walked away by the time I was going to continue arguing. I don't even know what the **** it is she wanted from me in the first place.
Now, that may seem like a fluid, if one-sided, argument, but what you have to understand is that I speak little to no Hebrew at this point. I have 0 ability to express myself, meaning, by default, I'm wrong. These little interactions NEVER stop.
Israel, a country of 8 million people, has a military with over 600,000 soldiers. Born out of the ashes of the Holocaust and the "Never Again" mentality that still pervades Israeli society, the military has a more prominent place in Israeli life than in other industrialized nations. Historically, this emphasis on military duty made sense: when the state of Israel was founded and the Israel Defense Forces established in 1948, the country was under constant existential threat from hostile neighbors. Beginning with the Israeli War of Independence, the very existence of the new state depended on the strength of its military. But in recent years, thanks largely to American support, the Israeli military has become considerably more powerful than its neighbors, and a workable peace has arisen between Israel and nations like Egypt and Jordan. While many Israelis worry about Iran and its nuclear program, war has not broken out. Yet the IDF remains deeply ingrained in Israeli society, largely due to the ongoing conflict with Palestinians in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank. Domestic politics have also contributed to the emphasis on security, with the right wing, security-focused, Likud party controlling the government for 14 of the last 20 years.
All Jewish Israelis are required to serve in the IDF, with men serving in active duty for 2 years and 8 months, and women serving for 2 years. Combat soldiers remain in the reserves until they are 51 years old. Women serve mainly in non-combat roles, but are also eligible for two combat units: Caracal, a mixed unit of men and women who defend the Israeli-Egyptian border, and Oketz, the Elite K-9 unit. Certain exemptions are possible: Minorities, such as Arab Israelis; those who are physically or psychologically unfit for service; married women; women with children; and Ultra-Orthodox Haredi Jews are not required to serve, but many volunteer anyway. Then, there are people like me: about 3 percent of active duty soldiers are recent immigrants or volunteers from abroad.
When I arrived to Israel and had a pre-draft health screening, the doctor asked me if I had any "serious health conditions." My doctor in Florida told me that my back problem was not serious unless I was constantly colliding with people as I would with football, so I did not mention the spondylolysis. I had lingering back pain, but as my old coach used to say, "There's hurt and there's injured, Lenoff! Which one are you?!" I was only hurt, I told myself.
I wasn't trying to fool the IDF doctors. I just didn't want to worry them about a non-issue. I received the highest possible medical profile and was qualified to be a combat soldier. Having received the go-ahead from both my doctor in Florida and the army's doctor, I felt fully prepared to do anything the army asked of me, back pain be damned. I would pursue my military career with all the tenacity I had formerly given to football. I wasn't going to let anything get in my way, even my own body.
The author, shortly after joining the Israeli Defense Forces
I drafted with the first class I could after my 18th birthday, in May 2010. I was fully prepared to start my service, even ready for the combat service I wanted so badly, except for the small issue of not speaking Hebrew. I remembered the Hebrew alphabet from my bar mitzvah, but that was the upper limit of my Hebrew going in. Because of this, I drafted into the IDF's three-month Hebrew Course, a hellish combination of confused soldiers unable to communicate and commanders who gave no mercy in their discipline standards or instruction. It was a miserable experience, but by the end of it I did learn enough rudimentary Hebrew to follow basic instructions and was finally eligible for combat.
After Hebrew Course I participated in a physical and mental try-out for Special Forces and was lucky enough to be selected for training with an Elite Special Forces unit named Rimon. Though volunteers are only required to serve for a year and a half, I accepted an extension to the Special Forces standard of three years in order to be a part of Rimon.
It was an honor to be selected, and one I couldn't pass up even for the extra commitment. It also very much appealed to my own sense of self-importance. I had never been as proud of myself as I was when they announced my name with those who passed the test, even more so than I was when I received my football scholarship. Things were starting to go my way!
I was able to train with some of the most capable soldiers in Israel. From the start, I was humbled by my platoon-mates' capabilities. I was a talented football player and athlete, but my platoon-mates, these scrawny Israeli dudes, would be up and down the rope before I even figured out my foot placement. One day I was having trouble getting up the wall — just trying over and over and couldn't do it. My lieutenant looked me right in the eye, stared into my soul, and told me calmly, "Joseph, you will get up the wall." And I did.
So much of what seems like physical training in the army is ultimately just mental. The purpose of physical hardship during basic training, I would learn, was not to get soldiers into better physical shape, though that is a happy side effect, but to teach the soldier that his own body will lie to them about limitations and that even so he must push through it. Other times physical limitations are real limitations, and I would learn that too.
Personal journal, Tuesday, August 31, 2010, one month into basic training:
"Mifaked, ani anak!" (Commander, I'm throwing up!, I think.)
My platoon-mates snickered at this, and I had no idea why. My eyes were dropping. My mouth was dry and tasted bitter. My legs were weak, and my head was hard to keep on my shoulders. We just finished a 10-mile hike with 30 pounds of gear at a jogger's pace and were standing in formation debriefing.
"Mifaked, ani anak!" (Commander, I'm throwing up!), I said this time through dizzy panting breath.
More laughing. Why are they laughing? Vomit rushed out of my mouth as I fell to my knees. My platoon-mates doubled over in laughter as I doubled over in pain.
My commander joined them. "Oh, Joseph! A-aki! A-aki means throw up! Not anak!"
"Mifaked, ani anak!" (Commander, I'm a giant! That's what it means.)
Physically, there comes a time in every soldier's service where they are not prepared for the training. The trick is to have the perseverance and mental toughness to overcome the physical challenge. I volunteered for the IDF largely because I wanted a challenge, so this was an experience I thought I was ready for. I was not.
Two months into training, we went on a hike called the "First Sergeant's Hike." The First Sergeant was easily the most intense of the commanders, but this hike was on another level. I volunteered to carry the stretcher on this hike, but after the first sergeant took off running I simply could not keep up. Very early on, one of my platoon-mates started to help me by pushing me from the back, and about halfway through another friend took my hand and pulled me from the front. I'd started the hike offering to carry an extra load, and then became a load myself.
Eventually we took the stretcher down and I was finally able to keep up on my own, but my lieutenant told my friend who had my hand before, a Druze soldier who I really respected, to take my hand again and keep pulling me. I told him I didn't need it, and pushed him away, but, following orders, he came back to grab my hand again. I ran ahead, my friend caught up, I stopped dead in my tracks, and when he turned around I punched him square in the chest. I can still remember the look of shock on his face as the blow struck.
I walked by myself with my head down until the hike was over, when I immediately went back to the tents, ashamed. I had never done so poorly on anything in my life. I let myself down, I let my commanders down, but most importantly I let my platoon down. They all had to work harder because of me, and I even hit Biyan for no reason beyond my own pride.
I woke up in the middle of the night expecting to creak out of bed in soreness, but there was no pain. I was not tired. I was completely capable physically of completing the hike on my own, but I didn't because I did not have the mental toughness to ignore my legs telling me to quit and my lungs telling me to just let Biyan and Shalom carry me through the hike. The difficulties were solely in my own head.
I had never once in my life, questioned my mental toughness. But it had just been tested. I failed. People came by and told me "good job" for finishing, but I knew I didn't deserve it. Special Forces soldiers do not shirk from difficulty, and I just had. Maybe I didn't have what it takes.
Personal journal, Monday, November 1, 2010, three months into basic training:
I'm lonely in a crowd. My platoon-mates should be the best friends I've ever had, but when I'm with them all at once, I feel so alone, so different. Someone will crack a joke and the group will laugh, but I'm left sitting there quietly wondering what was said. When I want to say something, I say it softly so as not to embarrass myself too much. A lot of the time I'll talk to someone and I'll feel like it's a chore for them to be part of the conversation with me. Sure I have people who I can call to talk, but I spend entire weeks on base, feeling so down...
Volunteers are called "Lone Soldiers" in Israel. I always thought was a melodramatic term until I spent a few months in basic training. Most soldiers find comfort in the close bonds forged by training together and spending every moment together with the platoon, but as a weak Hebrew speaker it was difficult for me to join. I often felt like an outsider, a burden.
Most soldiers go home on the weekends to their families and friends. I had the best girlfriend in the world (we're now engaged), but one person, even supplemented by a fantastic adopted family on the kibbutz where I was living, could not abate my loneliness.
I begrudgingly followed orders and cursed my enlistment under my breathThe combination of self-doubt from my less-than-stellar physical performance and my loneliness sent me into a funk that took me weeks to climb out of. I begrudgingly followed orders and cursed my enlistment under my breath. My platoon-mates saw me struggling and encouraged me at every turn. They showed me that I had an outstanding opportunity to do something important and highly respected, and though it was certainly more challenging than I ever imagined, we were all struggling in our own way and just needed to keep pushing. I was fully ready to get back into training. I was in it for the long haul, or so I thought.
Early November, three months into basic training, we started our evening exercises one night a little strangely. The first sergeant wanted to practice one-on-one carrying, so instead of jogging or running sprints for whatever we failed at that day (there's always something), half of us were lifted onto the backs of the first group. They ran a few sprints, and then it was our turn. I lifted Shurgi, one of my best friends in the platoon, and was told to begin running. I collapsed immediately.
My lower back felt like someone had taken an axe to it. There was a pop much more severe, more pointed, than it was during training for college football. Though the pain had slowly been building up, my whole body always hurt from training. My back was not special in that regard, and never held me back from any aspect of training until now. Apparently I had been ignoring the warning signs of another pop.
After sitting out the rest of the exercise I tearfully explained my spondylolysis situation to my commanders and lieutenant. I could no longer fool myself into thinking it was irrelevant. They were patient with me, and we ordered some tests to be sure it wasn't just back spasms, but I knew it wasn't. I knew what this pop meant: my dreams as both an infantryman and a football player were over.
I'd honestly believed, deep down, that my back would make it through my military service and my eventual return to football. Maybe I was fooling myself. Maybe it was hubris. I don't know. That night, I sat in my bed and I cried. I clenched my teeth so hard to keep quiet that I hurt my jaw. All I wrote in my journal was "my back is not strong enough to support my dreams."
Personal journal, November 18, 2010, three and a half months into basic training:
I woke up at 5 am to make sure that I would get to the army clinic in time to see the orthopedist. It took me a little time to find the synagogue, but I went there to pray. I don't think there was a time when I prayed any harder. Not for health, but just for closure. I prayed for His help. I wanted for someone to take care of me, and since He was pretty much the only source I could turn to (besides maybe the doctor), I prayed like I never had before.
The doctor sat down and told me to retell him the whole story.
I started with senior year of football and told him all I could remember up to now. He listened and then stood me up and poked at my back, asking exactly where it hurt, and if the prodding it makes it any worse. I told him that it does a little, but nothing much. He then moved down to the tops of my butt cheeks, and pushed on those. I told him all I felt was the soreness from running. He put me up on a table and bent my leg a few different ways. "Does that hurt you?"
"When you're doing it, I feel fine, but when you stop, the gripping sensation seems to be stronger for a second or two."
"Interesting, OK. Go ahead and get off the table." I listened. "What is your medical profile right now? You're a ninety-uhh-seven?"
"No, no, I mean right now. What is your profile right now?" I guess he assumed they lowered my profile with my signs of back pain.
"Yea, I know. 97, unless...?"
"Well... here's the deal. If you have spondylolysis without pain, your profile should be an 84 (eligible for all combat, just not a perfect 97. I have no idea why it isn't out of 100), but if you have pain with it, you're a 72 (ineligible for infantry, especially Special Forces)."
"Well, fine, I don't have pain then."
He smiles at me and does that thing where you're thumb and pointer finger become a pistol. "Acha! But you already told me you did!"
I knew what he was saying, but I needed to make sure. "Wait, so if I'm a 72, I'm out of Givati?"
He looked lost; maybe that's how people look when they give life-changing news. "Listen, nudnik, I don't care about Givati. I care about your back. All I can do is analyze your health. What I do want is for you to get a CT scan on your back so we can know exactly what to do for you."
A glimmer of hope. "Wait, so if it comes out on the CT scan that I'm OK, then my profile will be raised again, right?"
"No. I'm sorry but your profile is what it is. All it's going to do is let us know exactly what kind of help we can give you."
Another deep exhale. "Can I do the masa cumpta (the last long hike before the end of basic training)?" If I could at least finish that, I could salvage some kind of pride from the whole ordeal.
"I don't see any problem with that." I took his note, thanked him, and walked out the door.
How did I feel? I think there are two emotions that prevailed over the others. Scared — What am I going to do now? What does this mean for my service? — and relieved, both from the stress of ignorance about my health and from the stress of being a combat soldier. Make no mistake, there were of course great parts of being part of Rimon, but at that very moment, I was relieved.
But why relieved? This is all I wanted in my life. This was my new dream, my new goal, my new purpose. Without it, I'm left lost again, just as I had been a year and a half ago, only now I'm stuck in the army. Relief was the last thing I expected. Heartbreak. Agony. Despair. All were present, but in nowhere near the quantity of relief. Along with being the most prevalent, relief was also the most confusing, or maybe the most revealing. I'm sure it will take me years to understand how I felt walking out of that office.
I am writing this five years later and am still processing those emotions.
Two weeks later, I completed the final hike of basic training with my platoon, limping severely by the end, and was proud to receive my purple beret to show that I had completed basic training with the Givati brigade. However, I returned to the doctor's office a day later and was told that I was no longer a member of Rimon and was medically ineligible for infantry. The final blow.
Because I was part of an elite unit, and because my lieutenant was supportive of me, I was given the option to choose where I wanted to go afterward. I told the colonel in charge of my base that I wanted to be in intelligence. He said he would make it happen. In the meantime, he told me, I would have to bide my time and wait for the paperwork to clear as a "communications expert" in the Radio Room, a boring job, and one I was woefully underqualified for.
Personal journal, Wednesday, December 15, 2010, 2 weeks after leaving Rimon:
My time in the Radio Room has been abysmal. My Hebrew is STILL weak and people's voice on the radio sounds like they're talking through a closed fist. Take that plus the fact that there are no non-verbal cues like hand signs, and I'm pretty much stone-lost 90 percent of the time. Yesterday was particularly bad.
A call came in on the radio. "Hello, Radio Room. This is the lieutenant of Shaked 3 seeking permission to begin exercises. Over."
I had no idea what he just said. "Did not receive. Please repeat. Over."
"This is Shaked 3 seeking permission to begin exercises. Over."
"Shaked 3 seeking permission to what? Over."
I think he heard my accent that time. He started barking in Hebrew, "To shoot, to shoot! I want to start shooting!"
At this point I'm supposed to ask if they have an ambulance and a medic, except I still haven't learned the army slang for that — or the actual vocabulary for that matter. "Aah, got it. Do you have (intentional mumble) and (mumble)?"
"What?" We were done with ending our statements with "over" at this point. He was pissed.
"Do you have (louder mumble) and (mumble)?" I said it with conviction so he'd think he was the wrong one here.
He didn't buy it. "What the **** are you saying?! Why is this taking so long? Soldier, do you speak Hebrew?"
"No, sir," I said pointedly.
He exploded. "What in the **** are you doing on the radio then? Put the fucking radio down and go get your lieutenant!"
And I did. I was told this morning that I would have the night shift from now on.
I learned that the base commanders were having difficulty finding people to staff the Radio Room, and they just needed a warm body in the seat. It was a miserable job, and Israelis themselves hated it, so best to get a temporary person to fill the gap for a while. Every trip to the Radio Room was worse than the last. It was eight hours of boredom punctuated with a linguistic failure every hour or so.
The author's combat vest with his name written in Hebrew and an American flag he drew.
My new commander came to me and told me that I was denied entry into intelligence. I had gone through all the clearance, but as part of obtaining the final security clearance, everyone in intelligence must be a citizen of Israel. I volunteered for the IDF as an American, and was not then, nor am I now, a citizen of Israel, so I was stuck in the Radio Room for the foreseeable future.
The colonel who was ostensibly helping me get into intelligence had never heard of volunteers, so he just assumed I was a citizen. My lieutenant did all he could to help, but by this point his superiors were tired of hearing about me. I was filling a need for them, even if I was doing it poorly, so I was just stuck in limbo.
This sent me into a depression unlike anything I had ever experienced. I believed that I had failed. I had signed up to protect Israel as a combat soldier, and anything else, to me, was failure. Supporting combat soldiers through intelligence was perhaps a worthy alternative, but sitting in a room bored and stumbling all day? My service time was reduced back down to the volunteer standard of a year and a half after leaving Rimon, but the prospect of another minute in the Radio Room was depressing, much less another eleven months.
I started sleeping 12-plus hours a day, I would go some days without eating, and some days binge eating. My mood swung from high to low like a metronome, and I drank to excess when home on the weekends. It was terrible.
Eventually, one of my buddies from Hebrew Course, Ben, heard of an opening in the Education Corps as a combat instructor and logistical specialist. Those were two things I believed I could do well, so I applied for a transfer and somehow, thankfully, mercifully, got it. Starting in February, after three months of hell in the Radio Room, I was now a member of a unit called Marva. With the guidance of my then-girlfriend (now-fiancee) Emily, and a transfer out of the Radio Room, I eventually shook the depression and saw just how wrong my mindset had been the whole time.
As part of the broader mission of Israeli military service, the IDF is one of few militaries around the world to have a dedicated Education Corps that bridges the gap between the military and civilian world. It is the IDF's main mechanism for non-combat instruction, along with being the social justice arm of the IDF. The Hebrew Course I initially drafted into was part of the Education Corps, but the Corps does many other things: officer training, foreign citizen relations, immigrant absorption, and teaching lessons on Judaism, ethics, and the history of the IDF to both soldiers and civilians. The Education Corps also helps disadvantaged populations integrate into society and the military. I saw juvenile delinquents and the most stubborn refuseniks, people who refused to join the military or follow the law, become productive members of the military and society through the rehabilitation program Havat HaShomer. Being a part of the Education Corps showed me the myriad other things the IDF does beyond protection, and my own definition of service broadened tremendously. I saw the power of words and how an exposure to new things, a new way of life, can change a person's perspective.
My own program, Marva, was part of the Education Corps' goal of foreign citizen relations. Recent high school graduates from around the world voluntarily came to Israel to join our 150-person platoon and simulate two months of IDF training. Marva is a chance for foreigners to come and get a taste of IDF experience, an important part of Israeli society that few foreigners learn about, much less experience firsthand. We treated the "soldiers" (we called them simply "participants") in our course like real soldiers in almost every way, even though they had not enlisted and would only be "in the army" for two months. They even wore uniforms and carried guns, though the barrels were filled with cement. Like my own commanders in Rimon, we did not berate our participants like the sergeant in Full Metal Jacket. (How'd that work out for him?) We enforced strict expectations and military discipline, but we were there to teach our participants, and we did so calmly and with respect. In Marva I saw that if a person sees new experiences and people, and is shown respect, they'll respond with kindness and respect back.
My job in Marva was twofold. With my transfer I was promoted to corporal and became part of the commander's corps, where half of my job was to be a logistical specialist. Ben and I would help the first sergeant and major coordinate the battalion's gear and time. For example, if the battalion needed someone to organize a list of things to take with us to the field and pack the truck, Ben and I were typically given a rough sketch of what to do, and expected to make it happen with few resources besides chicken wire. It was great.
I cannot express to you the relief of having Ben with me in Marva. Finally, I had someone I could talk to who understood where I was coming from and had similar experiences to me. We were great friends in Hebrew Course, but we spent every minute together in Marva. Because of our friendship, I came to understand the bonds forged in the military.
Personal journal, Wednesday, March 16, 2011, one month into Marva:
Turns out commanders have to guard too. I'm on guard duty again for the third time this week. I've spent more hours this week staring at a tree than I think I have in my entire life. It hasn't moved yet.
My mind wandered today to thinking about the purpose of guard duty. Who am I guarding against? It occurred to me that it's people my age, similar to me and everyone around me save chance of birth. Our nature is the same, but our nurture is radically different. They were born there, the people I serve with were born here, and I was born half-way across the world. Hardly anyone else in this situation volunteered for it. They were born into it and forced into roles by circumstance.
I'm realizing that the military situation does not allow its actors to understand their opposition with any sort of complexity. I'm not guarding against a human being. He is Threat, and I am Defense.
Seems to me, this approach makes peace unlikely, and only leads to perceived threat meeting perceived threat with violence.
During my service at least three major international events involving Israel took place: an humanitarian flotilla heading from Turkey to Gaza was boarded by Israeli commandos; peace talks were occurring between Israelis and Palestinians; and Israel threatened to bomb Iran's nuclear program. At no point, whether in Hebrew Course, Givati, or the Education Corps, did my commanders ever sit us down and discuss potential implications of external events. I discussed the news and rumors among my peers ("Did you hear we're going to train specifically to infiltrate Iran?" "No, we're going to learn Arabic and disguise ourselves as Palestinians." "No, we're..."), but that was for fun. In reality, we were resigned to our fate. There was nothing we could do, and there was plenty to worry about that was within our control, so we did our best to put politics out of our mind. The mentality was that politicians and generals make decisions. Soldiers serve.
This is not to say that our mission to defend Israel was unimportant to the people I served with. To the contrary, it was extremely important, even personal for them. While still in Rimon, a couple of my platoon-mates and I were sitting around one day discussing where we grew up. I told them about my home in Florida (Israelis often confuse Florida and California. I'm sure half of them still think I'm from LA.) I told them about fires on the beach and playing football, and they told me about growing up in Israel. It hit me that while I rode my bike to get barbecue after practice and while I walked around public places in total comfort, my platoon-mates had grown up during the Second Intifada. Terrorists were exploding buses, setting pizza parlors ablaze, and detonating suicide vests in public places that would achieve maximum casualties. When I left my house, my parents told me to be smart. When my platoon-mates left their house, their parents told them to be safe. My platoon-mates were committed to keeping Israel safe because they knew a cousin, or aunt, or brother, or friend who had been killed by terrorists or foreign militaries. For a long time, that was my experience of Israeli politics, and they were the terms in which I understood the conflict.
The military often treats threat defense as the whole mission: the predominant value to which defending dignity takes a back seat.Serving in Marva and the Education Corps completely changed my perspective and allowed me to see the error of my previous mindset. As an infantryman guarding a settlement in the West Bank, I saw fear in the eyes of the Israeli settlers as they surveyed the Palestinian villages surrounding them. As a combat instructor, I saw many public buses where Palestinians were uncomfortable sitting next to Israelis, and many Israelis stiffen if they did. Of course, this is not the worst hardship Palestinians face on a daily basis. Compared to the occupation or other maltreatment, the Palestinians' and Israelis' attitudes in this public place was more indicative of their respectively reluctant and unwelcoming mindsets than it was an affliction in itself.
As a soldier, I always understood that it was part of my responsibility to protect the settlements and make the residents feel safe, but it was my service in the Education Corps that showed me that the IDF's mission was broader than protection alone and included a duty to others as well.
I carried the IDF's Code of Ethics in my wallet. It states:
IDF soldiers are obligated to fight, to dedicate all their strength and even sacrifice their lives in order to protect the State of Israel, her citizens and residents. IDF soldiers will operate according to the IDF values and orders, while adhering to the laws of the state and norms of human dignity, and honoring the values of the State of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state.
While training with Rimon, I stood in unison with all of Givati, with one hand on my bible and another on my rifle, and shouted, "Ani nishbah! Ani nishbah! Ani nishbah!..." I swear, I swear, I swear an oath of loyalty to the IDF, Israel, and the Jewish people. I swore an oath to uphold the IDF's Code of Ethics. I believed that meant protecting Israel from outside forces.
But after seeing the great work done in the Education Corps, and the value of such service, I saw that my oath was more inclusive. I focused on the first half of the paragraph to the detriment of the second, and it took me almost a year of service to realize my blunder. I gave the Palestinian on the bus my seat not because I felt bad for him, though I did. I stood because as a soldier in the IDF it was my duty to defend his human dignity.
These types of small acts, though unfortunately rare, are essential to the IDF's aspiration to be "the most moral army in the world." Many soldiers would disagree with me. I would have disagreed with me, back when I emphasized security over dignity. But I came to believe that wearing the uniform of the IDF meant not only a responsibility to protect Israel, but also to represent Israel's highest ideals. To fight not only the physical threats of terrorism and unfriendly foreign militaries, but to also fight the societal threats of intolerance and disrespect.
The two missions — defense from threats and defending dignity — can be seen as conflicting by the Israeli people. The military often treats threat defense as the whole mission: the predominant value to which defending dignity takes a back seat. I fell into this trap myself, not just in my thinking about Israeli politics, but in my approach to my job. When I began as a combat instructor, I barked my orders until I achieved submission. I offered no respect to those I was working with, and as a result achieved only the most basic objectives.
Eventually, I learned to incorporate respect into my lessons, learning from others while I was teaching them. I treated the people I was instructing as partners, emphasizing our common goal and pursuing it together with them. This way, I was able to change more than a soldier's stance while they shot. I was able to actually educate them, to help them grow, and grew myself in the process.
I saw that my arrogance and bull-headed pursuit of defensive combat service and my discounting other forms of service at the beginning of my enlistment were not only unwarranted, but counterproductive. I limited my scope, which only limited my own fulfillment and sent me spiraling to hopelessness and depression.
It is my hope that both Israeli and Palestinian leadership take this same approach in their dealings with one another. The overwhelming emphasis on security within Israeli society is, broadly speaking, a symptom of the lack of tolerance and the lack of respect for Palestinians by Israeli leadership and the same for Israelis by Palestinian leadership.
Security alone is a short-sighted and short-term solution. In truth, a lasting solution does not and cannot involve perfect protection for both sides. Though many politicians pursue this goal, neither Israelis nor Palestinians will ever be totally safe: as long as each side sees the other as an existential threat, violence is inevitable. A lasting solution must allow Israelis and Palestinians to view one another not as threats and rivals, but as equals, and as partners. For better or worse, their fates are interwoven. Friendship between the two peoples would accomplish more than any military advantage and so the duties of physical defense and defending dignity should be viewed as equal paths to peace, not competing goals. I do not know if such a friendship is possible, but without it, there will never be a lasting peace.
I did not love every minute of my service in the IDF. In fact, there were many dark moments where I saw no joy and no escape. Serving as a volunteer in the IDF was one of the most difficult things I have ever done, but also one of the most rewarding. I learned humility, and gained a respect for others. Few other experiences would have so clearly shown me my own limitations and faults, both physically and mentally, and I am grateful for that. I was also able to expand my horizons in ways I wouldn't have even thought possible before my enlistment. I will always be American, but am also proud to call myself a veteran of the IDF.
Joseph Lenoff is a legislative assistant for the Georgia State Senate.