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A personal celebration in a jubilee year

Ulpan, army, kibbutz, moshav, and the public-private life of a diplomat -- Israel has changed and so have I
Illustrative. Learning Hebrew -- Ulpan Morasha students repeat sentences in Hebrew. (Ulpan Morasha)
Illustrative. Learning Hebrew -- Ulpan Morasha students repeat sentences in Hebrew. (Ulpan Morasha)

In 2017 and 2018, Israel has been celebrating what we call Jubilee years — its 70th birthday this year, coupled with celebrations in 2017 of 120 years to the first Zionist Congress, 100 years to the Balfour Declaration, 70 years to the UN Partition plan, 50 years to the Six Day War and the reunification of Jerusalem, and 40 years to the historic visit of Anwar Sadat to Israel. As an Israeli diplomat, I have been busy promoting these milestones, while pushing to the back of my mind a very important personal milestone. This coming August, I will be marking 40 years since my aliyah — my return to Israel.

My country and I have both changed drastically in these 40 years, in some very salient ways.  And yet, I believe that we have both remained unchanged in equally salient ways. This is a personal and professional look at how my country and I have developed over these years.

* * *

When I arrived in Israel in 1978, I was young, naïve, and idealistic. I came looking for adventure and meaning, unsure what I wanted to do with my life, but hoping to be a part of what was then still a very young country. My status was that of a returning minor — although I lived in Israel from infancy, my family had taken me to the US when I was 6 years old, and, after 12 years of living as an American, I had decided that my place was in Israel.

That decision was made after spending a summer in Israel on my own — travelling between family and friends, exploring the country, falling in love with its beaches, cities, countryside and weather, and experiencing what seemed to me to be the much freer life of my peers. To my young suburban American eyes, my Israeli friends seemed more independent, less sheltered, and more mature than my American friends and myself were. And a major difference: while my American friends and I were trying to choose a university to attend, basically to continue on the same path of studying and partying that we had been treading for years, my Israeli friends, both boys and girls, were preparing for a new and challenging path, that of serving their country in the IDF, the Israeli Defense Forces.

Returning home from that summer, I announced to my parents and friends that I was veering from the preordained route that my classmates were taking. Although I had been accepted to three excellent universities, I would defer higher education in favor of a very different kind of education. I was returning to Israel to enlist in the IDF, together with my cohorts whom I had left behind 12 years earlier.

My parents, staunch Zionists throughout their years abroad, were worried, but could say nothing to dissuade me from my decision.  My friends, many of whom were members of my Jewish youth group and knew of my passion for Israel, were surprised, but understood my decision.

And so began a new trajectory, which for me was fraught with obstacles, and which, in the years, since has changed tremendously.

My first obstacle was actually getting the IDF to accept me. I was an Israeli citizen, but had been living abroad for 12 years. The initial response from the Consulate General of Israel in Philadelphia was to send me a waiver application form — meaning that I would be requesting not to be drafted into the army.  My attempts to explain that I actually wanted to enlist, fell on deaf ears. This was because at that time there were so few people like me — youngsters with an Israeli background who were excited about going back to Israel to serve. Ultimately, my father called a friend who happened to be the military attaché at the Israeli Embassy in Washington, and the matter was sorted.

Then there was the small issue of my language skills. While I had grown up hearing and understanding Hebrew, I was educated in English, and my verbal, reading, and writing skills in Hebrew were minimal at best. In order to acclimatize into the army society, and, in fact, to perform in any sort of position, I enrolled in a kibbutz “ulpan,” an immersion type course, where I studied and worked for four months, after arriving in Israel and before enlisting.

As I was taking the examinations as part of the recruitment process, and once I was in the army, I found myself floundering. I really had no idea what I should ask for in terms of location, professional training, or ultimate assignment in the IDF. I ended up with a boring desk job in a base in the middle of the country, a far cry from the dream of a challenging and significant field job in a desert base, preferably in the Sinai Peninsula, which was then still in Israeli hands. Few interesting jobs were available to women at the time, and location was an important factor in whether your service would be fulfilling.

And then there was the problem for which, at the time, there was really no good solution. I was enlisting with the status of a “lone soldier,” a soldier with no home in Israel, and parents living abroad. I knew of no other soldiers in my situation. My extended family, while loving, was unfamiliar. My request to stay on the kibbutz where I had done ulpan was denied. I was thrown into a culture that had attracted me, but now seemed very strange and unfamiliar. At 18, I felt myself to be quite adult and capable, but looking back, I was, in fact, very young and vulnerable. The name “lone soldier” was quite apt.

Today, young people who make the decision to enlist in the IDF encounter a completely different situation, even before arriving in Israel. According to IDF reports, there are approximately 6,900 “lone soldiers.”  Some of these are Israelis who for various reasons do not live with their families. About 45 percent of these are youngsters, some Israeli, but others Diaspora Jews, who have decided to come to Israel and serve. Some are committed to aliyah, others just want to serve and then return to their lives abroad. While they are in high school, they can join a youth movement called Garin Tzabar, a branch of the Israeli Scout movement, which accompanies them throughout the process, from deciding whether this is something that they really want to do, through preparation both in the countries of origin and in Israel: learning Hebrew, providing support during their time in the IDF both with the army bureaucracy, and ensuring they have a host family to be a home for them when they are on leave. After going through the preparation process together, the group usually evolves into a strongly united and close-knit community.

In addition to Garin Tzabar, which not all youngsters join, the IDF is much more aware of the difficulties facing these young people, and therefore provides them with financial and other support, such as an ulpan during the first few months of the soldier’s service and a monthly day off.

Women in today’s army serve in meaningful positions, with more and more going into combat positions. The position of company clerk, once a common job for women, is no longer necessarily the most relevant for the enlisting soldier. A peek at the IDF’s recruitment center webpage shows dozens of available positions for women, in more than 20 different categories. Over 90% of the positions in the IDF are open to women, including combat positions, training, intelligence, paramedical units, and more. A young woman going through the recruitment process receives guidance, and may apply for any position fitting her skills and interests, enabling her to contribute and serve in a significant and interesting manner.

While my service in the army was a difficult time, I do not regret it for a minute. Then, as today, the IDF is a great integrator into Israeli society.  It brings together young people from all strata of Israeli society: new immigrants and sabras, men and women, even youngsters with disabilities such as autism.

While most of the soldiers come from secular or Modern Orthodox families, more and more Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) men have been joining up in recent years. Once released from service, the shared experience of being in the army facilitates their integration into Israeli society and places of employment. For me as well, while I was often called “the American” during my service, my IDF experience gave me a common language with other Israelis that continued many years after the service.

After my service, I married an ex-kibbutznik, a man whose dream was to work the land and be a part of what he saw as the original Zionist goal: settling the land of Israel. I joined him in this dream, and we decided to buy a farm on a moshav, a collective agricultural community where each family manages and lives on its own plot of land.

My husband grew up on a kibbutz, a collective community where everything, from meals to means of production, was shared and had lived in a children’s house, visiting his parents every afternoon between four and eight o’clock, returning to sleep with the other kids his age. When older, it was the kibbutz that would decide whether he would receive a higher education or be assigned to work, and what area he would work in — farming, the kibbutz factory, the communal kitchen, or the gardens. The kibbutz would also provide a safety net, taking care of its members from the cradle through the grave. Even our wedding, despite the fact that he had already left the kibbutz by the time we were married, was held on the kibbutz, which paid for half of the cost.

Having left the kibbutz, he wanted an agricultural lifestyle — working the land, but with more freedom than the kibbutz was willing to grant. The moshav was a different framework, also unique to Israel, whereby we would be buying a lease on a defined plot of land, where we could grow, or not, whatever produce we decided on. The moshav would provide some administrative, marketing, and other infrastructure. Our children would be raised by us, sleeping in our house, which would be built and decorated according to our taste and budget, and not those of the collective. We could work on the farm, or find a job off of the moshav. The moshav also did not provide the same sort of cradle-to-grave safety net that the kibbutz did. While any profits would be ours alone, so would any debts, in addition to a relative portion of debts accrued by the moshav for previous investments in infrastructure. This last element would prove to be a serious problem for us in the volatile Israeli economy of the 1980s.

Israel’s economy in the early ’80s was still developing, as was the country. The population was four million (half of what it is today). The country was suffering from hyperinflation, reaching almost 450% per annum, before a strict stabilization policy was imposed in 1985. This meant that prices were often quoted in dollars, while any shekels earned would be quickly converted to goods or dollars. According to current OECD figures, GDP per capita in 1984 was $16,830. Infrastructure was weak — it could take several years to have a phone installed and electrical connections were often primitive. In fact, to this day, my parents and I speak to each other on Saturday nights, because back then I didn’t have a phone at home and I would go to my cousin’s house every Saturday night to receive their calls.

Agriculture was losing its importance within the economy, transitioning from an industry that employed 10% of the population in the 1960s to employing less than 2% at the beginning of this century. However, the amount of land used for agricultural purposes remained constant since the 1950s — close to four million dunams (almost 100 thousand acres). The main fruit crop at the time was citrus, mostly white grapefruits and Shamouti oranges, but my husband chose to grow what were termed exotic fruits — blackberries, figs, annona (sugar apples), and passionfruit. This was a time of growing efficiency and innovation in agriculture. New strains of fruits and vegetables were being developed, and inventions such as drip irrigation were starting to be adopted by farmers, leading to an increase in agricultural product. At the same time, fewer farm-owners and kibbutzniks were actually working the land, and the number of salaried workers was increasing. During the ’80s, most of the salaried workers were from Judea and Samaria and the Gaza Strip, but over the years, as violence prevailed, more and more workers were brought from foreign countries. Their numbers have grown over the years and are now in the tens of thousands.

Israel’s economy has changed drastically since then. With a population of 8.7 million, and a per capita GDP of close to $40,000, we have one of the strongest economies in the world; according to some indices we are among the top 20. Like other developed countries, we enjoy a miniscule inflation rate, and unemployment is at a very low 3.8%. Production is diversified, with an emphasis on innovation in a variety of fields. In fact, the Global Competitiveness report of 2017 ranked Israel as having the world’s second most innovative economy. The UN’s Human Development Index ranks Israel in the top 20 nations in the world, in the category of “Very Highly Developed.” The country enjoys a higher standard of living than many other Western countries, such as Austria, France, and Finland. Its advanced economy allows for a sophisticated welfare state, a powerful modern military, modern infrastructure rivaling many other Western countries, and a high-technology sector nicknamed Silicon Wadi, second in the world only to California’s Silicon Valley.

Kibbutzim and moshavim have changed their characters over the years. When we first moved into our moshav in Emeq Hefer in the early ’80s, it was a sleepy agricultural village with a few dozen families, and considered far from the city. Over the years the moshav has grown and farm-owners are allowed to sell off parts of their plots as part of the moshav expansion program, bringing in many new families, whose main source of income is no longer agriculture. Most of today’s moshavim are more suburban bedroom communities than farming villages. As for the kibbutzim, while for many years they suffered from the departure of many of their younger members, in recent years they have seen an influx of families seeking a higher quality of life. Their main sources of income have shifted from agriculture to industry and tourism, the children’s houses are long gone, and they have become much less focused on the collective than they were in the early years of statehood.

I lived on the moshav for almost 10 years. For my two children, it was a wonderful environment in which to grow up, with open fields to roam in, horses, dogs and cats to care for, and children their age just across the road to play with. For me, however, it became stifling and stultifying. I needed more intellectual stimulation than I was able to find on the moshav. Over the years, I found that my husband’s dreams were no longer my own. Despite the idyllic nature of the moshav, I needed something different. I had been working alongside him on the farm and, when the debts became too much, I found work outside. I discovered that I adapted well to a different pace. For a couple of years before leaving the moshav, I worked for Teva Pharmaceuticals, one of the flagships of Israeli industry. I enjoyed the corporate atmosphere, but felt stuck in a secretarial position, knowing I could do more.

So once again, 15 years after I had first swerved from the path that I was on, I diverged from the role of farmwife and minor employee. In the same week that I left my husband and the moshav, I also left the safe and boring job at Teva and applied for a position as a cadet in Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. As my brother said at the time, I would finally be doing what I had always been meant to do. I would be combining my Zionist ideology with my desire for self-fulfillment, entering a career that was not only a job, but a lifestyle, bringing with me my dedication to Israel and my skills, which would take me into a career that has provided the variety and adventure that I was looking for when I first arrived in Israel in 1978.

After an arduous selection process, I joined the MFA in August 1994, together with 50 other cadets. These were the halcyon days following the Oslo agreement and the fall of the Soviet Union. New embassies were opening in new states in the Former Soviet Union, as well as in countries that had previously not recognized the Jewish state. The MFA needed people to staff these new missions, and we were all charged with the excitement of being a part of something new and important for the country. There was a feeling of hope in the air, that the new Middle East that Shimon Peres and Yitzhak Rabin had spoken of was actually coming to fruition.

The MFA in those days was located on a kibbutz-like campus at the entrance to Jerusalem.  Small buildings dating back to the British Mandate were separated by gardens and paths, where we would meet colleagues as we went from meeting to office. Today, the Ministry is located in a large building in the government quarter of Jerusalem, and the chance encounters which we enjoyed in the early days are much less frequent. The familial atmosphere of those days has become more businesslike.

Shimon Peres was our foreign minister when I joined, and his spirit and optimism permeated the ministry. He remembered every employee he met and gave each one the feeling of a personal relationship. Soon after finishing the cadets’ course, I was sent on a temporary mission to Morocco, where we were building a new liaison office. One weekend during my sojourn there, we had a surprise visit from FM Peres, who had arrived for secret talks. Over Shabbat, we stayed with him in the villa which the king had provided for the foreign minister and his entourage. Peres used the time to get to know us, making sure that we partook of the fabulous food that the king’s chefs provided.

My first permanent posting was to Istanbul. This was during the golden age of Israeli-Turkish relations, when vendors in the markets would speak in Hebrew to welcome us, doors opened easily for events that we wanted to hold, and meetings requested were easily scheduled.  Turkey and Israel had high levels of economic, diplomatic, and military cooperation. Life there was interesting, and it seemed as though I was discovering something new every day, whether exploring the city or the work that I was doing.

Probably the apex of my time in Istanbul was actually an event that was quite difficult for all of us who were there. In the early morning hours of August 17, 1999, a 7.6-magnitude earthquake hit north-western Turkey, causing massive damage and taking many lives. I was awakened by the earthquake, and I don’t think I slept for the next two weeks. The good relations between our two countries brought Israel to send extensive aid to Turkey, including hundreds of search-and-rescue personnel, field hospitals, and a modular village set up to house hundreds of homeless victims. I worked in the consulate non-stop, assisting Israelis caught up in the disaster, coordinating arrival schedules, aid deployment, managing Turkish and other volunteers who wanted to help us upon hearing that Israel was working in the field. The Israeli team was one of the largest international teams to assist in the disaster, which claimed over 17,000 lives. The loss of life was horrifying. My only comfort was knowing that that I was doing my best to help and to save as many lives as possible.

Life as an Israeli diplomat means that you live in Israel and abroad alternately, going through another attack of culture shock every two to four years. The culture shock of arriving in a new place is understandable, but there is also culture shock in coming home again. Coming home to Israel, the shock is even stronger, because our country continues to develop all the time, changing from one visit to the next. Changes that evolve over time for those living here seem sudden and abrupt when one is here intermittently.

After coming home from Istanbul, I was sent to Moscow, Boston, and London, with stretches of time working at MFA headquarters in Jerusalem. I have found that, despite the difficulties and culture shock in these moves, they suit my personality, since I like a change every few years. The experiences which I have had during each of these postings, as well as the temporary duties which I occasionally go abroad on, have matured me and made me, perhaps, a bit more cynical, but the excitement and enthusiasm of taking up each new position remain the same.

Israel’s foreign relations have matured in these years. The hope that we felt as cadets on entering the foreign service is actually proving itself, and Israel now has official relations with 161 countries, and unofficial relations with quite a few others. Israeli knowhow and innovation make life better in more and more countries, and we have trade, cultural, technological, and security relations with a growing number of countries. Some of them may not publicly admit it, but at least Israel is no longer a name not to be mentioned. My experience helping after the earthquake in Turkey was only one in a long line of aid projects in which Israeli experts participate around the world, because a part of Israel’s ethos is extending a helping hand wherever it is needed. More and more countries in our region have moved from hostility towards Israel to seeing Israel’s presence in the region as a stabilizing and beneficial force.

Just before I made aliyah, Egypt’s president Anwar Sadat made his historic visit to Jerusalem, speaking at the Knesset and calling, together with Menachem Begin, for an end to war and bloodshed. This visit was the harbinger of relations with other countries in the Arab world.  Today, the two countries enjoy a stable and solid peace, with economic, security, and agricultural cooperation between them, while there are still aspirations for a livelier and more productive peace between the two peoples and cultures. Friends and colleagues have worked and visited in many of the countries of the region, and their aim is always to continue forging new relationships and working towards peace.

Today, looking back at 40 years of life in Israel, including the time spent serving Israel abroad, I am happy with the life detours I made. I am living in Jerusalem with a husband who shares my ideology (although not necessarily my politics). Our six children are grown and, while not all of them are in Israel as we would like them to be, we are proud that all of them have served in the IDF and are heading towards fulfilling lives and careers. My work is gratifying and meaningful and I’m proud to represent a country that, despite its mistakes, still adheres to the ideals that it was created to fulfill. The same ideals that brought me home 40 years ago.

About the Author
Rony Yedidia Clein is an Israeli Diplomat who has served worldwide for 24 years.
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