Samuel Joseph Milstein
אַ שטאָלצער גלותדיקער ייִד

The country that murdered my family welcomed me — Israel won’t

It's hypocrisy to demand Haredi enlistment to fill depleted IDF ranks while turning away a Diaspora Jew who is eager to serve
The author at Maria-Theresien-Kaserne
after his Angelobungen (swearing in ceremony)
The author at Maria-Theresien-Kaserne after his Angelobungen (swearing in ceremony), Vienna, Austria. (courtesy)

Does the provocative headline confuse you? Trust me, this situation perplexes me too. In the last week of February of 2024, after six weeks of grueling basic training in Horn, Lower Austria, I became the first Jew to naturalize as an Austrian Citizen under a new Holocaust restitution scheme for Holocaust descendants, to be sworn  into the Austrian Armed Forces (you with me so far?).

The accomplishment came some 86 years after the Anschluss and about 106 since my great-grandfather served in the Austro-Hungarian Empire in World War I. It’s not an accomplishment that was particularly newsworthy (were I not to tell you of it now, there would be no news record) but something I felt, was of merit nonetheless. The Instagram account Humans of Judaism, graciously offered to share my story with their followers and the public and you can view the X version of the post below:

Interspersed among the congratulatory comments were comments of skepticism and derision:


“Why Austria?”

“Why not Israel?”

“Really a great arrogance for a Jew to serve in the Austrian army”

“Wait, WHAT?! Why would you go to Austria? Isn’t that place Muslim as hell?”

“Why not make aliyah and serve in the IDF?”

So why Austria and not the IDF? The short answer of course is because finally, I could. The longer answer, which may shock you, is that Israel doesn’t accept olim (immigrants) to the IDF after the age of 28. I’m 31.

You might retort that this is my fault, that I simply should have made aliyah at an earlier age and not have this problem. But at the same time Israel restricts olim over the age of 28 from serving in the IDF, the Defense Ministry complains of a recruitment deficit of 6000-7000 soldiers per year. This deficit, the Israeli Defense Establishment says, comes from the 60,000 or so Haredi men who defer enlistment to study full-time in yeshiva. As of now, the ruling coalition plays political and legal acrobat trying to keep these men from actually serving. Even as I write this, a panel of nine judges is hearing petitions as to why 3,000 Haredim can’t be drafted right away.

Many of you have seen in the wake of October 7th that Haredi recruitment is up. That there has been a wake-up call by the Haredi public and clearer motivation for IDF participation from this sector. That’s a great positive news story after the atrocities of Oct 7th, but what these articles rarely mention is that these recruits are outside of the typical recruitment age and are drafting through a program called “Shlav Bet” a program for Haredim older than 26, and up to 40, who do two weeks of basic training before being assigned to non-combat roles and who are later eligible for reserve duty. So just to recap, The IDF will accept Haredi Israelis into the IDF up to age 40, but will turn away 28-year-old olim who want the same privilege?

Speaking of reserve duty, Israel just commemorated 95-year-old Ezra Yachin, the oldest active-duty reservist in the Israeli army, by giving him the honor of lighting the Independence Day torch. So to be clear, a 95-year-old man is allowed to serve in the IDF, but a 31-year-old oleh cannot. Is this the message Israel wanted to send Diaspora Jewry on Yom Ha’atzmaut?

Israel prides itself on being a “people’s army,” and perhaps this is why the volunteer age for olim is capped at 28. But when we contrast this to the United States, the country with debatably the best military and the largest Jewish population in the world outside Israel, the picture is much different. The US has a professional army – the last draft was conducted in 1972. Like Israel, the US is also facing a recruitment deficit, but instead of reinstituting a draft, the US has raised the enlistment age within the Coast Guard to 41, the Navy to 41, the Space Force to 42, and the Air Force to 42. Only the Marines hold an enlistment cap of 28.

Of course, it’s not impossible to join the IDF after 28. The Times Of Israel was graced with an opinion piece by Rabbi Dr. Benji Levy, who was drafted into the IDF Spokesperson’s Unit at the age of 35. When I contacted Rabbi Dr. Levy on LinkedIn to ask how I could draft, he answered as follows:

“Thanks for reaching out, Sam. Unfortunately, the contacts I had then are not the same, but contacts is the way to go. You need to find high-up contacts and see if there are any programs that will allow the exception. More than that, not sure how much help I can be but very inspired by your conviction and grateful! Bhatzlacha!”

So the IDF has made some exceptions, just not for me, and probably not for you.

And so, while Israel and the IDF make excuses not to accept olim over the age of 28, I’ve succeeded in drafting to the Austrian Bundesheer. It did not matter that I was 31, for the Austrian Armed Forces draft until age 35. And thus, Austria, the country that willingly joined Nazi Germany, stripped my family of their citizenship and worldly possessions, and sent my great aunts and great uncles to their death in Izbica, is now the country that gave me citizenship and accepted me into their armed forces. The German language is still a challenge for me, and I am by a wide margin the oldest recruit, but Austria stepped up and accepted me when Israel turned me away.

And so I ask you, Israel: Will you continue to complain about Haredi enlistment, or will you embrace Diaspora Jews eager to serve the Jewish people and the State of Israel? If not, they will join other armies just as I did. The choice is yours.

About the Author
Samuel Joseph Milstein is a Jewish recruit in the Austrian Bundesheer the first Jew to naturalize under the 2020 law restoring citizenship to Holocaust descendants to serve the Austrian military. He worked previously for the US Commerce Department and NYC Health + Hospitals as their Yiddish Language Partnership and Community Engagement Specialist respectively.
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