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Daniel Polisar

‘I love the IDF with a fierce and profound love’

I've always respected Israel's army, but David Ben-Gurion's emotion-packed praise seemed over the top – until now
Soldiers in the IDF Golani Brigade hold a swearing-in ceremony at the Western Wall in Jerusalem on February 6, 2020. (Israel Defense Forces)
Soldiers in the IDF Golani Brigade hold a swearing-in ceremony at the Western Wall in Jerusalem on February 6, 2020. (Israel Defense Forces)

In reading Yoram Hazony’s The Jewish State when it came out in 2000, I was struck by a statement he quoted from David Ben-Gurion that seemed over the top in its emotionality. “I confess that I love the Israel Defense Forces with a fierce and profound love,” declared the country’s founding prime minister. “I see in the military not only the fortress that secures us, although this would be sufficient, but also an educational force for raising up the Jewish man, the cement for bringing together the nation, and a faithful mechanism for the absorption of immigrants.”

I could understand Ben-Gurion’s powerful feelings in light of his personal bond with the army, which he led for the state’s first decade and a half, and his appreciation for its role in ending the condition of Jewish powerlessness whose consequences he witnessed during the Holocaust. As a new immigrant to Israel lacking those connections, I viewed the army as worthy of respect and support, but not something for which “fierce and profound love” seemed fitting.

In the quarter century since, I have seen the IDF’s soldiers respond with remarkable dedication and skill in several major conflicts, starting in 2002 when Operation Defensive Shield rooted out terrorism in the West Bank (Judea and Samaria), continuing with the Second Lebanon War against Hezbollah guerillas in 2006, and remaining undaunted through conflicts with the Hamas-ruled Gaza in 2008-2009, 2012, 2014, and 2021. Since my oldest son Chanan enlisted in the Givati Infantry Brigade fifteen years ago, followed by our daughter Aviva joining the Air Force in 2015 and our sons Shmuel and David drafting (respectively) into the Nahal Infantry Brigade in 2021 and a medical team of the 401st Armored Brigade in 2022, my admiration for the army has grown by leaps and bounds.

After Hamas declared war on the Jewish state by carrying out a wave of atrocities on October 7th, I’ve watched our army act – following the initial conceptual, intelligence, and operational failings that had put it deep in a hole – in ways that have been awe-inspiring. The peak was reached last Saturday, when several IDF units, the Yamam counter-terror force, and the General Security Service pulled off a daring daytime rescue of four hostages from the densely packed Nuseirat refugee camp in central Gaza. Reading the news and watching the 47-second video of Israeli troops risking their lives to free three of the hostages, my heart went out to those brave fighters. Indeed, every time I watch that clip, I don’t just admire them; I love them. When I read an article describing the funeral of the leader of that raid, Arnon Zmora, my heart broke and I could not hold back the tears.

Rescued hostage Andrey Kozlov, freed by the IDF from Hamas captivity in Gaza, is escorted from an IDF helicopter on arrival at the Sheba Medical Center in Ramat Gan, June 8, 2024. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

In the days since, I have been drawn repeatedly to Ben-Gurion’s description of his love for the IDF, and all four factors underlying his feelings seem as true today as when he articulated them more than six decades ago.

The military is indeed “the fortress that secures us,” and until there is a sea change in the culture and politics of the Middle East, that will remain the case. What happened on October 7th, in the hours when the IDF proved unable to defend Israel’s citizens, demonstrated what every day would be like if it were not for our security forces. It was a jarring reminder that the courageous men and women protecting us are the principal reason why my family, including our six children, four children-in-law, and seven young grandchildren can live in the country we are privileged to call home. When horrible things transpire, it is the army that restores security and demonstrates that the days when Jewish blood is cheap are over. Rabbi Elliot Cosgrove put this movingly in a sermon in New York’s Park Avenue Synagogue shortly after those atrocities: “Deny my right to exist, I have nothing to say to you. The IDF speaks for me and for all of Israel.”

Ben-Gurion called the IDF “an educational force for raising up the Jewish man,” and in this its impact has been breathtaking. As a social scientist, I could provide a wealth of data backing this claim, but what strikes home for me is seeing what the IDF has done to raise up my children. This has been especially pronounced during this war, in which all three of my boys have fought extensively in Gaza. For the sake of brevity, I’ll focus on Shmuel, now 23, who was a reserved, sensitive young man when he drafted three years ago – to the extent that I was worried he might not fare well in the infantry unit in which he insisted on enlisting. Today he is an outstanding commander of a platoon of 30 men who have been in Gaza almost nonstop since the start of the ground war, and on more than one occasion he has saved the lives of comrades by bold actions that risked his own. Shmuel gets the lion’s share of the credit for this transformation, but the IDF deserves credit for identifying his potential, selecting him for a commanders’ course, choosing him afterwards for officer training, and trusting him to guide his men to be effective and safe in a very dangerous urban war zone.

The IDF, according to Ben-Gurion, was also “the cement for bringing together the nation.” This has been true since the State’s founding in 1948, but has been particularly significant in the current war, which followed a period of extreme political and social tensions over the government’s proposals for what advocates termed judicial reform and opponents referred to as a constitutional revolution. While the desire to forget these differences and act from a position of unity characterized Israeli society as a whole, it was the army – in which soldiers of radically different social, political, and religious ideologies worked seamlessly together and risked their lives to have one another’s backs – that set the tone. This point was driven home at a wedding I attended a few months ago when I approached a friend I hadn’t seen in years and asked how he was doing. He pointed to a table filled with soldiers who had been serving with the groom, smiled infectiously, and said something so profound I felt compelled to write it down: “I love these soldiers. Their spirit is amazing and it affects all of us. People say that we Israelis are united because of our enemies, but that’s not true. We’re united because of our soldiers. We look at how they act towards one another, despite the differences in background and views, and we follow their lead.”

Finally, Ben-Gurion called the IDF “a faithful mechanism for the absorption of immigrants.” Israel’s record of successfully taking in large numbers of immigrants from a breathtaking variety of countries is unparalleled in the modern world. By placing young people from diverse backgrounds in units in which they must work together to overcome huge challenges, the army has played a vital role in socializing newcomers into Israeli society while inducing veteran Israelis to accept and embrace them. During this war, I have witnessed this phenomenon in the case of ‘lone soldiers,’ who came to Israel after high school and joined the army while their parents remained abroad. Shmuel’s platoon has a large contingent of these young pioneers and although he cannot share details, I know from the positions they hold that they are among his most able and dedicated men. Those who choose to remain in the country after their army service will already be integrated into Israeli society through a network of close friends, and will have earned the right to be accepted as equals by native Israelis.

Lone soldiers graduate the IDF’s Hebrew language school (photo credit: courtesy of Jared Bernstein Photography/Nefesh B’Nefesh)

A quarter century after dismissing Ben-Gurion’s sentimentality, I can unhesitatingly say in his words, but reflecting my emotions: “I confess that I love the Israel Defense Forces with a fierce and profound love.” That emotion is sufficiently powerful that it led me to write this article, knowing that people who vilify the IDF will now see me as a fitting target for their venom. I am proud to stand behind an army that, despite mistakes that cannot be avoided so long as Hamas uses its entire civilian population as human shields, remains the most moral fighting force in the world.

I also try to express my love for our soldiers in concrete ways, such as helping provide them with the gear their officers have identified as being mission-critical. Likewise, when students I teach at Shalem College in Jerusalem are called up for reserve duty, I happily hold one-on-one make-up sessions for any class they miss. Whatever little I do pales in comparison to the debt I feel to our courageous fighters for risking their lives to speak powerfully, on my behalf and that of all of Israel, to anyone who uses violence and terror to deny our right to exist.

About the Author
Dr. Daniel Polisar is executive vice president of Shalem College, the first liberal arts college in Israel. He researches and writes on Zionist history and thought, Middle Eastern politics, rhetoric, and higher education. Since October 8, he has been leading an effort to provide essential gear for IDF soldiers that has raised and spent over $15 million. He can be reached at dpolisar@shalem.ac.il or via WhatsApp at +972-50-795-9474.
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