Nathan Lopes Cardozo

The spiritual uniqueness of the Israeli army

Toa Heftiba,

Words on my Grandsons Enlisting in the Israeli Defense Forces

My very dear twin grandsons,

When contemplating the fact that next week you will be enlisting in the Israeli army, many thoughts that I believe are of great importance for you to know come to mind.

When I was as old as you are now, living in a small town in the Netherlands, joining the Dutch army was never a real topic we thought about. It was simply not on the agenda. Only a few of us were called up; military service was something to be ignored. No wars or terrorist attacks were on the horizon.

My brother and I were born after the Holocaust, and although our parents and my parents-in-law had all been in hiding while this terrible tragedy took place (in a similar manner to Anne Frank), and some of our family members had been murdered, our parents told us little about it. The Holocaust was far removed from our daily discussion and never occupied us—as was the case in other families. No doubt our parents did so to protect us.

The possibility of an upcoming war or terrorist attack was quite simply a foreign concept in the Netherlands.

My brother and I went to secondary school, planning to join our father in business or go to college. We had a peaceful life playing with our friends, going on trips on our bicycles, playing soccer and holding innocent parties and debate sessions. The only “disturbance” that annoyed us was that we sometimes had a lot of homework and that we were forced to waste a considerable amount of time learning the dates of Dutch wars hundreds of years ago by heart. Even the Holocaust was never a real topic in our (non-Jewish) school; it was ignored, and nobody protested (which is scandalous!).

A peaceful and relaxing life, with an occasional hiccup, was all we encountered. Ours was a blissful, easy life.

However, once I married your dear grandmother and some of our children were born and we decided to come on Aliyah, we encountered a world which we never had imagined.

Once we were in Israel, we were confronted with several cruel wars and terrorist attacks and the necessity to serve in the army. We were in no way prepared for all this; nobody had explained to us how this would drastically change our lives. At the time we were still young, and it was easier to adjust. We loved living in Israel and still do. Now that I am 76 years old, however, I realize how much this new life took us by total surprise—suddenly a whole new world appeared.

I now realize that we who came on Aliyah are a “bridging generation,” a kind of viaduct from the Diaspora to Israel. We still have one foot in “cultured” Europe, with our other foot in Israel. We brought a whole civilization with us, including a Jewish one, which is almost absent in Israel. This is the reason that when we get older, despite having been in Israel for 40 and even 50 years, we sometimes have difficulties in getting used to real Israeli life, which is rooted in the world and culture of the Middle East that possess an entirely different attitude and nature.

This change in mentality and culture was a metamorphosis that I think we are still not used to.

When we arrived in Israel there were soldiers everywhere. There was constant talk of war. Terrorist attacks took place close to home; attacks in which we lost some dear friends. We also have friends who lost children in several Israeli wars.

I was called up to the army for a short period of time (I was already 40 and had a grandchild!). This shocking surprise was only to increase. I was part of a company (“pluga”) comprising 150 Ger Chassidim and some people, like myself, who hailed from outside of Israel. Our Hebrew was far from ideal—which led to all sorts of misunderstandings between the officers and us, and we constantly had to ask them to speak slower so that we were able to understand them (which did not work!).

On one occasion, one of the officers who was twenty years younger than we were, started to curse us because we had made a mistake. The language he used was so vulgar that we could not bear it, and I stepped forward and told him that we, from outside Israel, were not used to that kind of language and were not prepared to listen to this kind of insults. I was not aware at all that such critique towards an officer was absolutely unacceptable and could get me into trouble. It was another example of my complete “stranger status” in the army. To the surprise of all, the officer apologized and said I was right—something that was a kind of “marvel” in the army!

Whatever the case, it was all foreign to me, as it was to my fellow soldiers. It was frightening, especially when the Gulf War broke out in the middle of our service and we had to run for our lives when it looked like a rocket was coming in our direction. We also had to learn and practice how to enter bombed buildings wearing gas masks to save people.

While I am very proud that I served, I cannot claim that I overly enjoined it—my entire Dutch comfortable life had been uprooted!

But today, at 76 years old, I stand before you, my grandsons, who now are enlisted. And this serves as a kind of wakeup call. It suddenly hits me how much your lives are totally different at this stage in your lives than mine was nearly 60 years ago.

While you are surely a little nervous, what hits me the most is the joy with which you and your fellows join the army. I know that you have been looking forward to this for years. All I can say is that I never have seen or heard of another country where such joy was displayed when people join an army.

Most citizens in other countries see it is as their duty to enlist, but also as a burden (no doubt there are some exceptions). However, I have discovered in this beautiful country called Israel that so many people like you cannot wait to be enlisted.

What is the secret behind this? No doubt it has nothing to do with times of war, God forbid. We have an army that takes every precaution to avoid causing any unnecessary harm to even our arch enemies. (I never forget what Golda Meir once said: “We are capable of forgiving the Arabs for killing our children. We are not capable of forgiving them for forcing us to kill their children.”)

While there are many possible explanations for this enigma of enlisting in the Israeli Defense Forces, there is one explanation that many of us do not consider that I believe to be of the greatest importance. There is a fundamental difference between joining the Israeli army and all other armies.

While other soldiers want to defend their country and its people, for Jewish soldiers there is another dimension at play: the army not only defends the State of Israel. Israel’s army defends an idea and a mission that comprises 4,000 years of Jewish history, Jewish values, ethics, holiness, divinity, defending Jews outside the Land of Israel, Judaism, and being Jewish, together with the concern for the wellbeing of the entire world. This is a purpose that constitutes an entirely different way of perceiving and living life.

About the Author
Rabbi Dr. Nathan Lopes Cardozo is the Founder and Dean of the David Cardozo Academy and the Bet Midrash of Avraham Avinu in Jerusalem. A sought-after lecturer on the international stage for both Jewish and non-Jewish audiences, Rabbi Cardozo is the author of 13 books and numerous articles in both English and Hebrew. Rabbi Cardozo heads a Think Tank focused on finding new Halachic and philosophical approaches to dealing with the crisis of religion and identity amongst Jews and the Jewish State of Israel. Hailing from the Netherlands, Rabbi Cardozo is known for his original and often fearlessly controversial insights into Judaism. His ideas are widely debated on an international level on social media, blogs, books and other forums.
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