I woke up with a fright, as olive green army uniform clad women climbed onto our bus and started yelling. Because I had woken up so quickly, I was in a bit of a daze, and they yelled at us to get off the bus, girls to put hair up, everyone to put their hat on, to have their water bottles out, and to remove our bags from the bus. Then, they made us get into two lines. The two soldiers looked us square in the faces, as other soldiers came to walk up and down, making sure we were lined up correctly. “Welcome to Gadna,” one of the soldiers said.
With Tichon Ramah Yerushaliyim (TRY), a high school semester long study abroad program, I spent the week of April 26 at Gadna, a basic training simulation, in Sde Boker.
That day, we got out “tzevets” (units), our tents, our “mefekedet” (commander), and our uniforms. It was boiling out, and I had stupidly worn sweatpants. We all had to wear our uniforms over our clothing until we had time to change.
The opening ceremony was around 6 in the evening. It was long, and we had to stand there very still, with our hats on, hands behind our back, and water bottles touching the tip of our left foot. It was so hot, and we were outside for so long, that one of the TRY boys actually threw up. I felt very dizzy, and nearly fainted. I had lost my sight for a moment, during the time when they would periodically change our formations from two lines to a chet, and then the other way round. Every time you did something wrong, you had to do pushups – girls had to do three, and boys had to do seven, and if you forgot to say “ken hamefekedet” before you did the pushups, the number of pushups you had to do was doubled.
There were fourteen girls, including myself, in my tzevet, tzevet 10, some of whom I was close with, and others with whom I was just friendly. The first night, we went around and talked about our concerns. After that, our mefekedet lined us up. Counting down from 20, she had us run to a shed and back. Then she counted from 18. Then 15. Then ten. After that, she went down slowly, until we reached seven seconds to get to the shed and back. We were all panting and drinking our water, and she walked to stand in front of us. She told us that the twenty seconds represented the minimum that we could put into our week, and the seven represented the maximum. That means, she further explained, that even if we think we need twenty seconds to do something, we can always do it in seven, if we put in our maximum effort.
I think that that night, we all pledged to put in our full seven seconds to every activity we did, and we did a lot. We shot M16s, we ran around, camouflaged ourselves, had lessons on the army, cleaned, had kitchen duty, and learned to work together as a tzevet. One of the girls on my tzevet went into anaphylactic shock on the second day, and the tzevet all came together to send her our hopes for her recovery.
My tzevet may not have been the most physically fit group of people on Gadna, but every single one of us put in our all. For example, when we had a field day, one of the final contests was to climb a mountain. We were the second girls group to make it to the top, and we worked together to do it. We cheered on the ones in the back, and those who made it up first sat by the edge to encourage their teammates. Overall, it was inspiring.
Also, I had the most incredible mefekedet. The last day she sat us down and we were finally able to ask her personal questions. The entire week she tried not to laugh or smile at our ridiculous antics (she usually failed, and cracked a smile, and one time actually laughed), but on the last day, she could openly smile and laugh. We learned her name, her favorite band, where she is from, her hero, her siblings, among other things. We then all took a picture.
Although initially I was terrified of Gadna, I did not want to leave. As a final tribute to our time spent at Gadna, tzevet 10 got into two lines at attention, and marched onto the bus.
The week after Gadna, my friend called me over to see something on her phone. It was a Twitter account called @AliAbunimah. Ali Abunimah is a radical pro-Palestinian online activist responsible for the website Electric Intifada (http://electronicintifada.net/). The tweet read: “Video: American brats arrive in Jerusalem, are greeted by soldiers then taken on obligatory orientalist camel rides”. The next one said: “Video: American youths at violent radical Judaist ‘IDF’ training/radicalization camp” and the one after that: “American Jewish youth at Israeli indoctrination camp: ‘we learn how to act in a combat situation’” and the one after that: “Radicalized US Jewish youth: ‘I like Gadna because it’s like camp Ramah but with soldiers and guns’”. There were nine total tweets surrounding TRY from last year going on Gadna, and the videos and pictures attached were the videos that TRY takes, to send home to parents. The tweets were from April 28, when we were still on Gadna.
From an outsider perspective, the whole idea of Gadna is actually really strange. Nowhere in the United States is there a week long military program for kids go on for school trips. From the perspective of someone who understands the dynamics of Israel, and how engrained the army is into Israeli society, going to Gadna makes perfect sense. Most Israelis end up going to the army, so this is like a little dip in the water for them. There was another school there, besides us, from Bat Yam. Many high schools do this to prepare their students. The point of TRY is to understand the Israeli perspective, and the army is something that unites Israelis.However, to Ali Abunimah, a “free Palestine activist,”, this was “pure indoctrination and violent radicalization” at an “Israeli terror training camp.” Although his tweets are very interesting to see, I don’t consider Ali Abunimah’s analysis of the situation to be entirely correct.
It is amazing to see the radical differences in our opinions. I saw Gadna as an incredibly eye-opening and unique experience that I really enjoyed. Ali Abunimah viewed Gadna as Israel training teenage American Jews to be terrorists and oppressors of the Palestinians. Perspective is everything, especially in this case.
In Israel, there are starkly different sides taken on political issues, even among Israelis. On TRY, we have heard many different speakers – left wing, right wing, and Palestinian – and I have learned that the situation is a lot more complicated than meets the eye.