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Pamela Laufer-Ukeles
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The 4 mothers and their view from Israel

As the worried mother of an IDF combat soldier, I now see the haggadah's sons in the fight over Israel's future
Soldiers from the mixed-gender Lions of the Jordan Valley Battalion take part in an exercise in the Tzeelim army base on February 5, 2018. (Judah Ari Gross/Times of Israel/File)
Soldiers from the mixed-gender Lions of the Jordan Valley Battalion take part in an exercise in the Tzeelim army base on February 5, 2018. (Judah Ari Gross/Times of Israel/File)

As we approach the Passover holiday, many of us are in a state of distress and confusion. What kind of society are we? What kind of government awaits us in the coming year? Will we find a way to be one people in the land of Israel? Or are we heading for a turbulent year within the land, the likes of which we have never experienced?

As Passover draws near, we might also ask, who are we, each one of us, in this story? Which of the four sons are we? Or, as a newly minted mother of an IDF soldier who enlisted in July 2022, which of the four mothers are we? My new role of mother to an IDF combat soldier fills me with pride, admiration, fear and, sometimes, an overwhelming sense of panic. Because of these feelings, combined with my sense of doom from the proposed judicial overhaul, my concern over the protests, and my identification with the reservists who are refusing to serve, I felt the need to make some order — some seder.

Who is the wise son? Well, for me, the wise son is the reservist — especially those from particularly elite units who are professionals at their jobs and whose expertise is irreplaceable. They know some really important things about how this country works and how it is best defended. They are smart indeed. The vast majority of these professionals are against the judicial overhaul. They ask questions. They ask, what are these laws that are being proposed? How will they impact the missions that I am asked to operate? They know that if the laws are not just, if the orders are not necessary and reasonable, and not subject to some judicial review, they can be asked to do things that they may not be able to live with. These smart sons and daughters are asking tough questions and they demand answers.

If my son were one of these reservists, I would be proud of him for asking the right questions and for demanding that the army he fights for be a moral army — that there be checks and balances on the government. These soldiers train so hard, for so many years, give so much of themselves for the sake of the state. Let it be a state they can love and be proud of. Let the missions be those they can have confidence in. They are asking the right questions and they deserve to do so.

Who is the wicked son? Alas, I hate to pass judgment, but from where I sit as a mother of an elite combat soldier who puts himself in harms way, the evil son is the one who refuses to serve. The evil son asks questions, but they are not questions that my son gets to ask. He asks: “What’s all this ‘security’ stuff to you?” He says, “I don’t need this.” He excludes himself from the need to secure the Jewish people. He doesn’t really expect an answer. These boys and girls who do not serve (I include national service as service in all respects) — whether they are draft dodgers or those who demand exclusions — leave it up to others’ children to protect the country and to work to serve the country. It is not fair and it is hard to accept this reality. One day, I hope we come to understand that this dodging and excluding is a wrong we should never have begun to accept. And it a wrong that we must work to end; there is evil in it. By not taking part in the work, the evil son is told he would not have been redeemed.

I hear the argument that learning Torah also serves this country. I even agree with it to some extent — my son also learned in yeshiva before beginning his service. I too spent years of my life dedicated fully to Torah study. But, as a draft dodger or one who demands an exclusion, the son removes himself from the whole, the “כלל,” the shared values of this country, which must be sustained and protected on the front lines by soldiers, and be cared for within the medical, educational, and social services that national service supports. Our shared values allow for Torah study, but it cannot come instead of enlistment or national service because the work of maintaining the country in practical and immediate ways belongs to all of us; the wicked son says it is not his problem.

If my child were a dodger, if my child demanded exclusion, I would feel both relief and moral aversion to his choice. Relief because I would sleep better. Because I would be free to visit my family in the US without worrying about leaving my son alone, far away. Relief because I would not be worrying about his soul and the impact of missions that may not be necessary and may not be just, which he may well be called upon to perform.

But I would also feel shame. Shame at letting others do the dirty work, while I hold my son close. Shame at not protecting the country that is supposed to be the salvation for my ancestors who perished in the Holocaust. Because I want to fight for this country, and I expect my children to do the same. Why should the politicians trying to undermine my basic rights — many of whom did not serve themselves — take away my place in this land?!

Who is the simple son? That is my son. He obeys orders. He only asks simple questions — he is not allowed to do more. The simple son is the standing army — those who serve now. We are so dependent on them, but they cannot ask tough questions. It is not their place. When my son comes home — very rarely — he asks us, “what is this?” about the protests and the judicial overhaul. He asks simple questions about the situation. And we answer, but not with too much detail or with too much passion. Because he will soon be back on base. And he will have to follow orders and so he needs to only ask simple questions and be given simple answers. And the simple sons in the professional army are similar, and also rely on the money they make to support themselves and often their families — if they do not come to work they do not earn a living.

As I said, I am incredibly proud of my son. He is flourishing and growing and maturing and I am thankful to the army for all the benefits he has received. And I only pray for his continued success and safety. He is learning a tremendous amount and the state is investing so much in him. I am grateful. But he has a long commitment to the army and his leaves are unpredictable. And, therefore, for me, I admit to feeling cloistered. I can’t move around like I once did, not even to spend time with ailing and elderly family outside these blessed borders, because I don’t want to miss any chance of seeing him.

Who is the son who does not know to ask? And here the tears begin to fall. These are the boys and girls who are just this week enlisting, showing up ready to serve. These are our children who do not know yet what faces them. They have nothing to ask. But everything may be asked of them.

As a mother of such children, I am at a loss. I would hope that they will serve, unless…. Unless a law is passed that says that girls cannot or do not need to serve. If a law is passed that girls cannot serve in combat units where both my girls talk about going. Or if a myriad of other proposed laws are passed that make this country feel too alien. Maybe they will undertake National Service, and not serve in the standing army. As religious girls they have that choice. But I will not raise my daughters to demand exclusions.

It was the Four Mothers movement that cried out in the name of their sons serving in Lebanon and impacted change — real change for the benefit of all sons. All the women of Israel are mothers of these four sons in one way or another — we are mothers to at least one kind of son, and potentially of all four. We need to effect change in order to make Israel better for all four kinds of sons and daughters. All of us mothers must keep fighting for a fair country, one that we are proud to call our own, that we are proud to serve, and in which we serve side by side with one another.

About the Author
Pamela Laufer-Ukeles is Professor of Law and Health Systems Administration at the Academic College of Law and Science in Hod Hasharon, teaching feminist legal theory, bioethics, health care reform, and elder law among other subjects. 
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