Yoni Alon
Makes a delicious schnitzel

Motti and I serve in the IDF together. We couldn’t be more different

We focus on what we have in common – now I just need to bottle our ability to work together for the rest of Israeli society
A 'military rainbow' up North. (courtesy)
A 'military rainbow' up North. (courtesy)

I recently completed 130 days of military reserve service on the northern border of Israel. I’m now acclimating to civilian life and my normal routine here in Tel Aviv, a world apart from the imminent threats of “suicide drones” and rockets. Being up there left me little time to process the experiences I was going through and even less time to wonder about the future that lies ahead for us here as members of Israeli society.

There is not a lot of time to think about the future when you are dealing with saving lives and eliminating threats that endanger the lives of IDF soldiers, but it is something that we young Israelis ought to do to have a better society for our children and their children.

This current era brings with it an array of challenges, but it also brings with it a strong sense of unity. I’m thinking about my friend Motti, who sat next to me in my military position during my long daily shifts of 12 and 14 hours.

Motti and I couldn’t be more different from each other. He votes for the right and I vote for the left. He is very observant and defines himself as Orthodox and I feel very Jewish, but am not observant in any way and look at my Judaism as the center of my culture and spirituality. My passport pages bear the stamps of over 15 countries, a testament to my global curiosity, whereas Motti’s devotion to the Land of Israel confines his explorations within its borders; he believes he is not allowed to travel outside of Israel. He lives in a settlement in the West Bank, as if surrounded by biblical stories and characters, while I enjoy the bustling, liberal streets of Tel Aviv. Yet, despite our clashing views on LGBTQ rights, feminism, and human rights, Motti has emerged as not just my friend, but as my “brother in arms” during our shared service.

On paper, nothing should be able to stand as a bridge between us. Based on these tremendous differences, we should not even be able to talk to each other. And yet, Motti is my dear friend and one of my closest partners in my military position.

How could two individuals, so fundamentally different, forge such a strong bond in the face of adversity? With these differences, how is it possible to spend day after day working with each other, collaborating on sophisticated and complicated tasks, working shoulder to shoulder to save Israeli lives, and helping each other in times of extreme pressure and tension? The answer lies in the mutual respect and unspoken accords we established, and the different ways in which we make it possible.

First, we have an unspoken agreement that is clear to both sides. We don’t talk about politics. Politics do not enter our military situation room where we work every day. If by any chance a political discussion begins, we stop it immediately, because we know that it could be like termites working quickly and destructively to gnaw at a wooden bridge. Some forces would like to see this bridge collapse and break, but we refuse to let them, mostly because we know a political discussion will never be successful in a military situation in the middle of a war. There are settings where a proper political discussion could be fruitful, but this is not the right place nor the right time.

The second point is that we do not emphasize our differences, for we know that they are too vast to even think about. We focus on the things that we share, on the things that bring us together. For example, we both believe in the necessity of a Jewish state, for a strong and safe homeland for the Jewish people. We both define ourselves as Zionists, not supporting a Zionism that excludes non-Jews from the land, but a Zionism that fights for a safe and viable future for the Jewish people in the land of Israel, side by side with its non-Jewish population.

We both agree that democracy is important and that people should have the ability to raise their voices, shaping the society that surrounds them. We believe people should have the right to live healthy and safe lives accomplishing their dreams and goals, while creating communities that reflect their values and beliefs. We believe in the important relationship between Israeli Jews and non-Israeli Jews and in the need for a strong sense of Jewish peoplehood. We believe the IDF should stay a modern, Western, and advanced military that works to minimize the collateral damage of its actions on the ground (for example, the death toll in Gaza would have been much worse had the IDF not put on a pedestal this important principle).

The third component, the one that helps us to feel so connected to one another, is the urgent understanding that we are at a historical point facing the deadliest attack against Israeli sovereignty and the safety of Israeli citizens, both Jews and non-Jews, that we have ever experienced. This sense of urgency makes us less proud and focused on our own opinions and ideas and more connected to the general national spirit that this is the time to work together, fight together, and believe together in a viable future for Israel and its citizens, especially given the many forces working against us trying to obliterate what we accomplished here in almost 76 years. As I’ve said in a recent post — our enemies united us at a very low point of internal fighting and despair.

There is another point, a fourth one. For more than four months, we did not expose ourselves to social media or to Israeli media and news outlets (aside from occasional reading of general headlines). We kept our minds clear and clean from the negative effects of the web, from the digital forces working to emphasize our differences over our common ground.

And yes, Motti and I might indeed see each other tomorrow in a restaurant or a demonstration somewhere, wearing our civilian clothing, outside of the military setting, and we will feel those many differences that stand between us. It is natural to think that, once you take the uniform off, you are also removing those things that bring you and your fellow soldiers and officers together — and that is our challenge. We Israelis who have served in this war for a long time, who gave away our jobs and family time in order to protect our borders — this is our task: to imagine a reality in which the things that bring us together are brought to the front of the stage even after we are no longer in uniform.

How can we still feel strong and united together outside of the military setting? How can I continue to call Motti “my brother” outside of base, talking about politics, values, and the future we both imagine for this country? These are the important questions I would like to deal with in the next couple of months.

As I stand at this crossroads, I am committed to exploring ways to maintain our solidarity. The forthcoming months will be a journey of reflection and action, not just for me but for all my fellow reservists. Our aim is to reimagine an Israeli society where the bonds formed in the IDF crucible of service strengthen our national fabric, making it more resilient than ever.

Today, I am also reminded of the words of Dr. Zohar Raviv, Birthright’s vice president of educational strategy, who described it this way: “We believe that, whereas unity among Jews has always been a value, uniformity between Jews has never been a value.” Exactly. The path to a high level of unity goes through acceptance of our lack of uniformity.

By now, we already know and understand that it is a challenging task — but not an impossible one. How so? We have already seen and experienced that unity is possible, and that the feeling of being connected to one another is within our reach. It is not a fantasy; it is not an empty slogan in a political campaign. It is real, honest, and true. It is about making a choice.

It is about the decision one makes to put a larger idea above oneself, to give away a small portion of your values and beliefs to accomplish something greater for the common good. It is about shifting from a perspective of dichotomies, from a zero-sum game perspective to a view that embraces the range of different colors. It is about making brave compromises that put unity first above anything else. It is possible.

About the Author
Yoni Alon is an Israeli consultant and educator who has been building bridges between Israelis and non-Israelis for over a decade. He began his journey as an Israeli JAFI Shaliach/Emissary in Denver. During his seven years in the IDF (Maj res.), he supported the comprehensive cooperation between the IDF and the U.S. military and served in the border region of Gaza and Egypt. In the last eight years, he has been leading educational projects in the fields of Jewish and Israel education for NGOs and government organizations, including Masa, JAFI, ANU Museum, WZO, Momentum Unlimited, the Ministry of Diaspora Affairs, Kaleidoscope and more. Yoni is the creator of David Cards - A thought-provoking toolkit for Jewish and Israel educators seeking to inspire meaningful discussions about Jewish identity, Israel, and Jewish Peoplehood.
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