In soft focus or in shadow, in color or in black-and-white, they pop up on our Facebook news feeds to wish us “Shabbat Shalom” through images: A young soldier receives his red paratroopers’ beret at a ceremony at the Western Wall; boys carrying a fellow soldier up a hill on a stretcher; beautiful girls smiling with pearly teeth in camouflage and a rifle in tow. Pro-Israel advocates like to say that these pictures show “the true face of the IDF.” It is a world of unlikely heroes, great deeds, legacy, and sacrifice. It is a world fetishized by would-be soldiers and admirers from abroad—those who know just enough to appreciate the best side of the IDF, yet not enough to know that there is another side: one that is neither strong and noble, nor violent and immoral.
This Purim, I went to an army clinic to have my wisdom tooth removed. It was an emergency—the tooth was growing in crooked into the side of my mouth, and it was very painful to bite into food. On the other side of the counter in the clinic was a crowd of at least eight soldiers, some of who wore elaborate cat and sailor and bumblebee costumes, and some of who were in uniform.
“Who is working now?” I asked in Hebrew to whoever would listen. When nobody answered, I repeated my question.
“Nobody,” replied a large female soldier in uniform.
“I was told I had an emergency appointment with the dentist,” I said.
“What is the problem?”
In Hebrew, I explained to her the problem with my tooth. She claimed not to understand and asked me to speak in English, which I did.
“I don’t understand what you’re saying,” said the soldier dismissively in English. I could tell that she was American, like me.
“Well, maybe the problem isn’t the language—it’s your bad attitude,” I snapped.
Standing next to me was her commander, a young dentist with an amused smile and a relaxed manner that contrasted noticeably with the frenetic energy of the clerks and my growing internal anger.
I told him that I had had an appointment, and added that his clerks had been very rude.
“It’s Purim,” he said with a resigned shrug. “What can you do?”
“How is it possible that officers in the IDF allow themselves to be controlled by 18-year-old clerks?” I asked, genuinely shocked, though I shouldn’t have been.
But I was still fresh out of basic training, where the officers controlled every aspect of our lives, from when we ate, where we ate, and for how long, to when we slept, where we slept, for how long, et cetera. There, rank and order meant everything, even to an excessive degree.
“Because they’re girls,” he explained sheepishly. “That’s how it is.”
I believed it. But I refused to accept it.
Some of the girls had taken an interest in listening in on our conversation; the rest were busy texting on their pink iPhones. Occasionally they looked up to remind him that it’s Purim, and that it’s really unfair that they were still at work. They had the tones of entitlement and total fearlessness. It was only morning time.
“Are you guys serious?” I finally addressed all of them. “There are combat soldiers out there who won’t even get to leave their base tonight. Some of them can’t even go home on Passover or Yom Kippur—they have a country to defend. And you can’t even do your simple jobs properly!”
The American soldier who had initially refused to help me became upset and started yelling.
“Why didn’t you help her?” The dentist asked his soldier.
“Why should I help her; she’s not my friend,” said the soldier meanly.
There were no indications that she was capable of feeling any solidarity with a fellow soldier from her own country.
The commander took me to a room for a check-up and instructed me to return the next day to have the wisdom tooth extracted.
The next day I came back—Purim was over, but the slacking off wasn’t. There was still a group of girls playing with their phones at the counter, avoiding eye contact and therefore the responsibility to deal with a patient. I recognized some of them from the previous day and tried to act nicer, and one of them actually helped me fill out the paperwork. Then, I was directed to an x-ray room: none other than the American soldier would be taking my pictures.
I entered the room and murmured hello. She placed my jaw on the machine, left the room, and pressed a button. I got out of there as fast as possible.
After two hours in the waiting room, I checked up on the status of my surgery—when would it be happening? There were no other patients waiting.
It turned out that my pictures were never sent to the dentist, let alone developed. There was no sign I had even had an x-ray at all. I spotted the American soldier in the hallway.
“You are just too sweet, thank you so much for sending the doctor my x-ray,” I called out to her sarcastically.
“Don’t talk to me! Why are you talking to me?” She screamed at me. “I hate this place!”
By this point, soldiers were swarming out of their offices, curious about all the noise outside. In spite of my frustration, I began to laugh out loud at the situation.
I told some of them how the drama between me and the other American soldier began. That I was a soldier who made aliyah alone from New York City and volunteered to serve in the Israeli army. And although at the age of 23 I was over the age of mandatory conscription, it was important for me to contribute to my country through the army. I told them how it makes me sad and frustrated when I see soldiers who so obviously don’t see the value of their army service.
I noticed an Ethiopian girl who was wearing a Star of David pendant listening, and I turned towards her.
“Are you Jewish?” I asked, though I already knew the answer.
“Because you know, it’s not enough to just say that you are Jewish or to wear a necklace. If you are a Jew living in the State of Israel, you have an obligation to serve your people to the best of your ability—whatever it is that you do.”
The dentist was listening as well, and he started to escort me to different offices. “Talk to this one, she doesn’t like the army,” he encouraged, almost pleading with me, pointing out particular girls. “Talk to that one, she wants to leave the army early and needs to hear about Zionism.”
So I talked to them about Zionism, as per the doctor’s orders, and about why I chose to make aliyah and what the IDF means to me. I would not be surprised if this had been the first time many of them had ever been confronted with the significance of their army service. It was clear that they had not given much thought to the matter: they were simply here because they had no other choice.
I thought about the difference between my army service and that of these girls: it is not that my position was that much more exciting than theirs. I serve in a relatively unknown unit of the army that deals with regional planning, and my shoulder tag merely indicates that I belong to the Kirya (a large base in the center of Tel Aviv). Yet every morning, I am proud to put on my uniform. When I am on the bus, nobody knows what my job in the army is—I simply represent the IDF—and it is my duty as a soldier to be the first to give up my seat to an elderly person, or to help a mom up the stairs with her stroller.
I chose, consciously and willingly, to take the cause.
Israelis are often impressed when I tell them that I am a lone soldier, and sometimes they remark that it must be difficult. No doubt, serving in the army without a real source of income and without parents in the country isn’t always easy. It is no simple task to learn a complicated computer program at my office in Hebrew, a language I could not speak at all a year-and-a-half ago. Yet I would characterize these as challenges that ultimately make me stronger and more Israeli every day. I am an old-fashioned Zionist, guided by a belief that living and working in Israel is the best way of demonstrating one’s love of the country. Some may claim that my ideals are a bit anachronistic today, and while I don’t entirely disagree, I know that they are the source of my strength.
It seemed the only person I had not spoken to that day was the American soldier who had gotten her revenge on me by not doing my x-ray. Yet one of her friends, who appeared pensive and even sad, informed me that, “she is not like me or you, she is not on our level.”
Apparently, the soldier’s nastiness was coming from a place of pain, the details unknown and not really important. With the dentist’s suggestion, I approached her for reconciliation.
“I am sorry if I hurt you,” I said, sticking out my hand. She shook it, though still avoided eye contact.
Whatever her story was, I am not sure if it excused her rudeness. On the other hand, people are complex, and I do not know what she had gone through in her life. I probably don’t want to know.
Ironically, the quickest part of my visit to the army dentist was the actual tooth extraction—unlike the drama that had ensued, it was a straightforward and easy procedure, and there were no complications. Afterward, the dentist handed me a plastic cup with my wisdom tooth inside as a souvenir.
In the end, the army took care of its soldier.
“A present from me,” the dentist smiled, proud of his good work.
The last of my wisdom teeth had finally been extracted—yet I left the clinic just a little bit wiser than I was before.
If there is nothing in this country worth defending, then there is nothing to fight for. We need a reason to keep on going in the face of difficulties. And what many of these soldiers lack is a reason: not because there is none, but because they simply have never considered it. They take for granted the silver platter on which the Jewish state was given, and paid for in blood, which Natan Alterman writes of in his poem “The Silver Platter.” We owe it to those who came before us and fought in the days when the State of Israel’s very survival was uncertain:
Full of endless fatigue and unrested,
Yet the dew of their youth is still seen on their head.
Thus they stand at attention, giving no sign of life or death.
Then a nation in tears and amazement
will ask: “Who are you?”
And they will answer quietly, “We are the silver platter on which the Jewish state was given.”
Thus they will say and fall back in shadows
And the rest will be told in the chronicles of Israel.
It is safe to say that our survival is no longer at risk. We have one of the greatest, if not the greatest army in the world, we uphold democratic ideals in a region that shuns and fears individual liberty, and we constantly churn out Nobel Prize laureates. Yet the Jewish nation keeps the energy created by the act of choosing to be here—in Israel, in the IDF—and I am proud to have chosen.