Recent articles in the Times of Israel and the Washington Post depicted the bravery of thousands of Americans leaving behind their lives to join Israel’s military, driven by ideological commitment to defend the Jewish homeland. As a researcher studying motivations for diaspora (“lone”) Jewish soldiers, this painted an incomplete picture.
Focusing on ideological commitment overlooks identity and community struggles underlying many American Jews’ decisions around military participation. The common romanticized portrayal of American IDF recruits as ideologically driven Zionists pressures them to perform as idealized Zionist model soldiers, obscuring complex inner motivations they feel unable to share openly. However, maintaining this façade throughout prolonged military service takes a toll. The considerably higher incidence of mental health issues and tragic suicides among diaspora versus native conscripts is likely not accidental. Jewish leaders and Israeli officials should understand how personal struggles mix with beliefs in shaping Americans’ military involvement. Inside combat boots often stand confused youths simply seeking firmer ground to stand on. Grasping their complex set of considerations compels us to help them find surer footing, wherever it leads them.
As part of my doctoral research, I interviewed and surveyed nearly 500 American IDF soldiers. My analysis revealed more layered motivations than steadfast Zionist ideals or combat ambitions alone. While Jewish schooling imbued many with Zionist values, personal identity struggles equally shaped decisions to enlist. One major push factor was the pressure in Jewish communities to excel academically. Those struggling academically viewed military service as an alternative path to respect and achievement. Another recurring theme was the desire to break away from the community’s restrictive norms and conservative values. Such individuals viewed military service as a chance to freely explore personal beliefs away from communal watch. Some simply aimed to break from antagonistic household environments and toxic relationships. For all of them, Israel offered an alternative route to success and social standing.
Recently, several news outlets have drawn equivalences between Israel’s current diaspora soldier mobilization and emergency diaspora mobilization in Ukraine. Such comparisons misconstrue the reality. Unlike in Ukraine, or previously in the Yugoslav Wars, or even in 1948 Israel, Israel did not initiate an ad hoc emergency campaign for recruiting Jewish diaspora after Hamas attacks of October 7th. In fact, it is highly doubtful that Israel needs diaspora soldiers for security reasons. Only a minority of diaspora soldiers occupy frontline combat roles and the predominant image of uniformed diaspora men flocking to the battlefield belies under-discussed realities – over 40 percent arriving to enlist are women.
More accurate understanding situates diaspora enlistment within Israel’s broader efforts to encourage Jewish immigration and cultivate an active diaspora community. It is a state-led initiative encompassing the Defense Ministry, Immigration and Absorption Ministry, major Jewish NGOs, and local Jewish communities overseas. This institutionalized infrastructure for encouraging diaspora speaks to strategic state interests beyond immediate wartime staffing requirements.
Accordingly, for many American soldiers, military service constitutes just one step within a longer process of contemplating immigration and integration into Israeli society. Rather than an ideological end goal itself, service furnishes a gateway for cultural and social integration. But the expectations for a cultural fusion within the mythical IDF melting pot are rarely fulfilled. Even among initially enthusiastic enlistees, most reported setbacks forging friendships with Israelis, language difficulties, and cultural divides disrupting seamless assimilation. Confronting this discord often yields disillusionment, even clinical loneliness or depression for enlisted diaspora youths.
In conclusion, personal factors propel enlistment just as much as ideology. Expectations for cultural fusion and seamless integration often go unmet, giving way to isolation and despair without sufficient support. Officials, families, and communities must understand that military participation often signifies seeking purpose along unpaved roads, not acting on steadfast beliefs. By proactively establishing realistic expectation management instead of touting romanticized Zionist ideals, involved institutions can reshape support services to foster smoother military experience for enthusiastic yet vulnerable diaspora youth.