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An army of all the people, for all the people

My IDF service made me into an Israeli -- will the experience become the norm for all citizens?

“Are you some kind of idiot? What are you doing! GET DOWN RIGHT NOW!” Dor screamed above the roar of the tank. “Driver, stop!”

It was late June and the heat that rested upon the dunes near Shizafon had reached its oppressive apex. Most of my fellow IDF (Israel Defense Forces) trainees were using their precious spare time drinking stale water and finding shade in a row of eastward-facing hangars. Activity was limited to the tanks themselves; despite the conditions, there was no way that our training exercises would be cancelled.

I scrambled down from the turret, back into the safer confines of the tank’s steel walls. But the 80-ton behemoth served no refuge from Dor’s volleys. “You must be some unique kind of moron. Do you understand anything I am saying to you?”

Dor had been my commander since the first day I arrived at basic training: March 31, 2006. I was a 23-year-old college-educated American with years of Jewish and Zionist education and a life-long problem with authority. All the Hebrew classes from ages 6 through 19 failed me the moment I donned my olive green uniform. Incapable of coherently expressing myself, my frustrations grew with each mumbled and stuttered sentence. “I don’t understand them and they don’t understand me,” I told myself.

That kind of head-in-the-sand mentality was deeply flawed, but it was enough to get me through the first months of basic training. A friend in the platoon would translate our officer’s commands verbatim and I followed along, trying to speak as infrequently as possible (I avoided the radio like the plague) and evade confrontation. Verbal altercations with Dor, a kibutznik with a short temper and no English, were, despite my best efforts, a frequent occurrence.

When we graduated basic training and began lessons about the Merkava 3 Baz tank, I quickly realized that my strategy, while effective in the short term, undermined my success in the long term. Understanding the inner workings of a highly mechanized killing machine would have been difficult in my own language. Trying to understand it in Hebrew was…well at this point it was basically Chinese.

So there I was, standing on top of a moving tank as it rumbled up the dunes. I could feel the grinding of its plates under my feet as they gripped the soft earth for traction. Sand entered my mouth and my eyes. I couldn’t remember why I was there, or what I was meant to be doing. All I knew was that I was breaking one of the Ten Commandments in the Israeli Armored Corps.

Back in the tank, Dor, his face inches from mine, lashed into me. “You could have been killed, thrown from the tank. You jeopardized everyone’s safety. Hey, Gabi, do you get me?” He thought that by standing closer and shouting louder I would understand him better. I understood him perfectly; I was just in shock myself. My heart was playing AC/DC’s Highway to Hell. My gloved hands were sloppy with sweat. In my mind, someone had drawn a bull’s-eye across Dor’s face, and I mentally prepared myself for a fight.

I began to shout back. It was unintelligible gibberish – a mix of Hebrew and English with a heavy dose of cursing – filled with venom and chutzpah. I threw it all back at him. “No, I don’t understand a goddamn word, I am goddamn lost, screw this…” I don’t know how long it carried on for. The driver and the gunner looked at us, stunned. It was the most Hebrew I had ever spoken, but violated the chain of command. Another of the Ten Commandments blasphemed. No doubt I was facing serious punishment.

We returned to the hangars, and I leaped down from the tank. I breathed in sand from the mushroom cloud I had just created and stormed off to find some shade.

They quickly found me a Hebrew teacher.

It has been seven years since my draft date, and as I look back, nostalgically, on the torturous, painful hours spent in those desert valleys, I recognize that my bittersweet IDF experience keyed my future success in Israel. No doubt, the Hebrew I learned amidst many long hours of guard duty and night patrols has been vital, but in my mind, patience, flexibility, and camaraderie were the most precious gifts I received  Without those skills, living in this country is possible – but it is significantly more challenging.

It is time that our new government determines the future of the IDF before it is too late. For Yair Lapid and many Yesh Atid voters, the demand for a universal draft became a symbol of Israel’s growing inequalities. And although I do not believe it will be a cure-all, these questions demand answers: Will the IDF be an army by all the people, for all the people? Or will it gradually fade away into the backdrop of Israel’s socialist, archaic past? Does Israel still need a draft, or has the time come for it to establish a professional army?

My only reply can be found in my miluim (reserve) unit’s motto: “Family Wins.” This is a core value of the IDF and Israel. If Israel wishes to maintain its Jewish traditions, then its military needs to encompass everyone, regardless of race, gender, or religion.

Over the course of forty years, Moses and the Children of Israel went into the desert and came out a nation, a people. Until the day comes that we no longer need protection, young Israeli men and women must continue to be sent into the desert, where the Dors of the IDF will contrive innumerable trials in the sand and heat to push them to their limits, and to make them a nation.

Trust me, it is worth it.

About the Author
Gabriel Mitchell is a PhD candidate in Government & International Affairs at Virginia Tech University and the Israel-Turkey Project Coordinator at Mitvim – the Israeli Institute for Regional Foreign Policies. Born in the United States, Gabriel moved to Israel in 2005. He writes regularly about events in Turkey and Israel and has been published in a number of newspapers and journals, including The Jerusalem Post, The Times of Israel, The New Republic, The American Interest, Hürriyet Daily News, Turkish Policy Quarterly, and The Washington Review of Turkish & Eurasian Affairs. Gabriel holds an MA in Political Science from Hebrew University and BA in European and Middle Eastern History from The Ohio State University.