Out of existential necessity, the military is a dominant institution in Israel. On the walls of my grandsons’ preschool classrooms, up-to-date photos of the Prime Minister, the President and the IDF Chief of Staff are displayed side by side. The Chief of Staff, General Gadi Eisenkot, is frequently quoted in the media. (Can you name the incumbent Chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff?) Streets in Modiin are named after famous generals.
The majority of Israelis serve up to three compulsory years in the IDF after high school. This experience informs their style and (sometimes brusque) demeanor later on in the workplace. Minor functionaries in banks, post offices and utilities can be very authoritarian.
The information technology industry here is driven by veterans of the elite Intelligence Unit 8200 who have served a five year stint. While these whiz kids lead the world in software, telecom and microchip development, their penchant for security tends to slow the flow of information. Commercial websites may require users to employ three levels of passwords for mundane transactions.
Those who have served in combat units (including our son-in-law) continue in the military reserves into their 30’s, serving one to four weeks a year (“miluim“) and longer during wartime. This service is embraced by some employers and begrudgingly accepted by others. One week in February, the catheterization laboratory at Shaare Zedek was short-staffed because one of the cardiologists had been called to serve.
My late uncle, a long-time employee of the Haifa municipality, often derided Israel as a “police-state”. But living in a police state is part of the cost of living when surrounded by carnivorous enemies. In Israel it would be unimaginable for a cell phone manufacturer to withhold encryption codes from an ongoing criminal or counter-terrorism investigation. (Forget about the rule of law and privacy rights, just remember that “The business of America is business”: To maintain its market share, Apple is willing to be an accessory after the fact to criminals. The greatest cheering for the Iran deal came from the multinational mercantile giants, happy to replace the ailing Chinese with newly accessible Persian trading partners.)
The importance of the military sector is recognized even by Ultra-Orthodox fundamentalists who personally decline military service. Because of their anti-Zionist ideology, their synagogues omit the weekly Sabbath prayer for success of the Israeli government. However, many of them do recite a separate prayer for the welfare of Israeli soldiers. During Operation Protective Edge in 2014, some Haredi communities mandated extra hours of holy study for their Torah scholars, dedicated to the safety of the soldiers.
Several months ago, there was acrimonious Talmudic debate between centrist and right-wing Rabbis regarding whether first responders are obligated to care for a mortally wounded terrorist before attending to a stabbing victim with lesser injury. The prevailing opinion was to the let the medics use their usual rules of triage.
Even though it has claimed fewer innocent victims than the first and second intifadas, the current wave of terror has its own unique noxious stench. Previously, the exploding attackers self-destructed along with their victims. Heightened security measures have reduced the threat of suicide bombs . (There were none until this week’s bus bombing in Jerusalem) Assailants are now armed merely with kitchen knives and personal vehicles, but must be countered with deadly force unleashed by soldiers and armed civilians. Teenage Arabs, infected by internet-borne rage virus, launch their suicidal assaults like Hollywood Zombies. These undead adolescents approach checkpoints or enter supermarkets, knowing they are soon likely to die in a hail of gunfire. They are dispassionately neutralized as soon as possible, but the damage is always severe; this repeating scenario is demoralizing to the soldiers and the populace. A surgeon amputating a smoker’s gangrenous limb can emotionally compartmentalize the task, but can a twenty year old border guard (and his family) remain unscathed after shooting a Jihadist the age of his siblings?
Perhaps these considerations prompted Gadi Eisenkot to declare a few months ago that the IDF’s rules of engagement do not mandate emptying a magazine into a teenage girl wielding a pair of scissors. Predictably, this call for restraint from a four -star general was poorly received by the political right-wing and settlers in afflicted areas, who must live with both PTSD and “pre-TSD” . Bibi waited on the sidelines for several days before finally endorsing his military chief’s controversial statement.
During our one month stay in February, there were numerous attacks. Two young men died during our final week week, one in the 24 hours since I wrote the first draft of this piece. On my last morning at Shaare Zedek, as I was leaving my teaching rounds in the ER to head upstairs to cardiology, the cardiothoracic surgeon who heads the trauma team rushed past me to the shock room. I put this out of my mind, but later on heard the terrible news; a soldier had died from “friendly fire”
One night, as I passed Ramallah while driving home on Highway 443, the radio reception switched from Israeli pop music to an English language Palestinian news broadcast. Following a report on one of the recent attacks, the announcer added that “the current Issra-aily aggression has continued without stop since October.” I let out a sigh as the radio signal drifted back to GalGalatz as I approached Modiin.
This was my final posting from our stay in Israel. Chag Kasher ViSameach!