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Lone soldiers and the Tribe

Soldiers from abroad often leave Israel after their service: Here's what the government can do to ensure they stay
The author with other lone soldiers, 2012
The author with other lone soldiers, 2012

Last week, Ynet News published an article detailing the difficulties lone soldiers face after their release from the Israel Defense Forces. The large number of lone soldiers who leave Israel following their service is of great concern to Member of Knesset Itzik Shmuli (Zionist Union), who is pushing for increased efforts on the part of the Israeli government to reintegrate released lone soldiers into society.

MK Shmuli, among others, note that an estimated one-third to one-half of all foreign-born lone soldiers depart Israel after their service, and believes that this “flight” represents a moral failure on the part of Israeli society for not providing these individuals with sufficient support to build a life in Israel following their service. Shmuli argues that in order to retain lone soldiers, the government should extend benefits post-service, and reduce bureaucratic barriers to receiving those benefits, initiatives which aim to ease transition into civilian life. This is particularly critical for foreign-born lone soldiers, who often face obstacles to integration due to language, cultural, and educational differences, as well as a lack of the familial support Israeli soldiers enjoy after their release.

MK Shmuli’s initiative is welcome and necessary; however simply increasing subsidies for lone soldiers alone will not solve the problem. Instead, members of Knesset, and Israeli society more generally, should consider more holistic explanations for lone soldiers’ flight.

In his newest book Tribe, author and war correspondent Sebastian Junger examines American military veterans’ return to society, and identifies social and psychological differences between military and civilian life as constituting a major obstacle to a soldier’s successful reintegration. Junger’s central point is that humans are evolutionarily geared towards life in tribal societies, characterized by close proximity and constant interaction with other individuals with whom we share a common identity. Contribution to the group fosters a sense of well-being and self-worth for individuals, making such a society more psychologically fulfilling compared to modern urban society, which Junger characterizes as largely isolated on a daily basis from family and other members of one’s “tribe”.

Military service is one example of tribal organization, as members of a unit work together and self-identify on the basis of that group. That soldiers who share foxholes and rations share a close bond is unsurprising, but considerable evidence suggests that these ties exist even within units who do not engage in combat. Junger argues that the dissonance between tribalized military society and modern civilian life contributes to a sense of alienation and nostalgia many veterans experience following their return. Most notably, Junger suggests that this may contribute to the phenomenon of veterans returning with post-traumatic stress disorder without having served in combat zones. Despite complex feelings towards their service, many veterans still look back fondly at a time where they felt a sense of purpose and belonging that they find lacking in post-military life.

Compared to the American case, Israeli society is relatively successful at reintegrating its soldiers. Due to mandatory service requirements and frequent military operations, Israeli soldiers are released into a civilian society that widely shares their experiences. Many Israelis also serve in the reserves throughout their adult lives, which give an ongoing sense of purpose. But despite generally successful reintegration, more can be done to address the unique issue of lone soldiers. Lone soldiers arrive in Israel often driven by a desire to belong, whether it be to extended family in Israel, to the state of Israel as a whole, or even more widely to the Jewish people. Lone soldiers are also driven by a desire to contribute, by volunteering to defend a country that they believe in. Their experience is also unique within the IDF, as they leave behind their home, friends, and family, in the hope of building a life in Israel.

Their departure does not cut these ties, which often leaves them torn between two worlds. Family and friends abroad often have a limited idea of what military service is like, and family members who have served seldom have done so as lone soldiers. Accordingly, lone soldiers experience moments in the army few back home are able to understand, no matter how hard they might listen.

On the other hand, while Israelis are generally grateful for lone soldiers’ service, they seldom understand the experience itself. Lone soldiers make up only a fraction of the IDF’s ranks, and so they serve mainly with soldiers for whom the military is compulsory, and who are consequently perplexed why someone would choose to volunteer. Israeli soldiers’ families can visit their children on base, attend ceremonies, and provide other support that lone soldiers’ families abroad cannot.

Differences between lone soldiers and the rest of the IDF contribute to a sense of isolation for lone soldiers within their units, but also to a sense of community among lone soldiers throughout the military. Lone soldiers are often the only ones who are able to completely understand each others’ experiences, which often leads them to form their own tribal units, evidenced by the proliferation of Facebook groups, support organizations, and alumni networks geared towards the lone soldier community.

The Israeli government has implicitly accepted the idea that such a tribalized identity helps ease lone soldiers’ service. It invests considerable resources in lone soldier centers and programs such as Garin Tzabar, which create groups who support the individuals within them. Thousands of individuals in Israel also do amazing work in caring for lone soldiers, and receive varying levels of recognition. This support is essential for the success of lone soldiers during their service, and is worthy of acknowledgement, but the main difficulty lone soldiers face comes when these supports are taken away after their release.

Out of the army, lone soldiers are left without a support structure to sustain them. They must find permanent housing, and struggle to obtain gainful employment and education while facing disadvantages due to their background. More generally, they struggle to build a life in a country they have little experience with; in one day they go from “lone soldiers” to “lone civilians”, and are stripped of their identity and support system that helped them contribute to Israel in the first place.

If a released lone soldier is lucky, they leave base on the day of their discharge with a tribe of friends to support them as a civilian. Those that do not are often left to catch a bus home, and begin finding their way in society. Given the sharp break between service and civilian life, it is no wonder many lone soldiers elect to return to their homes abroad rather than try to sustain such an isolated existence.

In order to reduce the numbers of lone soldiers who leave Israel due to frustration, the government should create programs which increase the likelihood lone soldiers remain in Israel after the army through fostering a continued sense of belonging and engagement. This would go beyond reducing financial and bureaucratic barriers to reintegration, and help former lone soldiers build their own communities in Israel. Such a program could even reaffirm lone soldiers’ original motivation for moving to Israel — a desire to belong and contribute to Israeli society. This would not be without precedent, as similar movements helped to establish the first kibbutzim over a century ago.

In a 21st century context, lone soldiers could contribute by teaching languages in schools, participating in community service, and other projects which make use of their skills. This would not be substantially different in practice from existing programs such as subsidized student housing, “preferred work” incentives, or pre-university mechinah, but rather would be offered as a unified program. Such an initiative would allow lone soldiers to give back to Israel and further their own development, all while maintaining the sense of group belonging which Junger identifies with individuals’ feeling of self-worth.

By accounting for the psychological importance of belonging to a community, the government will be better able to retain lone soldiers whose ardent desire is to build a life in Israel. In so doing, Israel can also stand to benefit, by using the opportunity to invest in project which will benefit society at large, not just its lone soldiers.

About the Author
Asher Zlotnik was born in Los Angeles California. He moved to Israel in 2009, and served in the IDF from 2009-2012. After his service, he returned to the US, and now studies at Columbia University in New York City, in a dual BA/MA program. He has worked for Garin Tzabar for the past three years, helping lone soldiers to join the IDF.
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