Saturday, August 22, 2009

A Land of Brothers: Israel Supports Its Troops!

Israel, almost alone among Western democracies, has mandatory conscription for a noticeable period of time [three years for men, two years for women, with waivers for traditional lifestyles (i.e., strictly Orthodox Jews) and Arab citizens, who are exempt]. Most Western European nations with national service require less than a year.

We have noted an increase in numbers/proportions of Israelis who do not serve [i.e., dodge the draft] AND who are criticized for it. However, the fact that average citizens Support Their Troops gives Israeli society many strengths. Here's a great article from an alumnus of Columbia University.
I have three children serving in the Israel Defense Forces. I am the father of Sgt. Nathan Weinberger (almost 21), Cpl. Rebecca Ross (19 and a half), and Pvt. Ruthie Ross (18). President-elect Barack Obama has spoken repeatedly of the need to engage young people in service for their country and for the world; in Israel, service is mandatory. Nathan is two-thirds of the way through his required three years of service, Rebecca is halfway through her two years of service and Ruthie was inducted on Nov. 5.

We moved to Israel from Miami in the summer of 1997. Thanks to the Russian immigration boom that preceded our arrival, when I showed up at the ripe old age of 36, the Israel Defense Forces was not interested in my services. My children, however, all immigrated way before the induction process begins, and the IDF very much expects to induct each one of them. A few weeks before a child turns 17 the Induction Administration sends parents a letter, which reads in part: "We believe that enlistment in the Israel Defense Forces represents a joint family experience and that you also, as close family members, are excited and curious in advance of the enlistment. We very much appreciate the guidance, support, and encouragement of the candidate through the various stages of enlistment, and we will help you in this as much as we are able." I felt relieved when I first received this letter in advance of Nathan's induction process four years ago. While I was not given the opportunity to serve in the Israel Defense Forces, I have a part to play in supporting the service of my children.

How is it different to live in a country with mandatory military service? As the parent of three soldiers, I am very much touched by the fact that the whole country loves my children. Because service is mandatory, when Israelis look upon my uniformed children, they see not only young people serving their country, but they also see themselves, as well as their own mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, sons and daughters who once served, who are serving or who will serve. It is because of this, too, that the military's achievements are naturally experienced as our achievements and its failures our failures (and oh how difficult it is to admit failure).

The years of regular-army service are so enshrined in Israeli culture that when one speaks of a "soldier" one is referring precisely to this period, though tens of thousands of Israeli men are active in Israel's military reserves and must report for duty between 20-35 days a year up until they are discharged around the age of 40.

Even your typical hardened Israeli will soften for a soldier. My son Nathan failed his driving test three times. Nathan passed on his fourth try while wearing his IDF uniform. Rebecca took our car in for its government-required annual testing. She was in uniform. Though she could not find the necessary insurance papers and though a headlight needed to be replaced, she managed to convince the tough mechanics at the testing center that we did have insurance (true) and that they needed to replace the headlight on the spot because she was too busy to return (less than true). The guys got a big kick out of seeing little 5-foot-2 Rebecca in her uniform. Repeatedly saluting her and saying "yes, officer ma'am," they stamped all the necessary forms and sent her on her way.

For a parent, there is a huge difference between noncombat military service and combat military service. When your son goes into a combat unit (there are almost no girls in these), you can say goodbye to sleep for a few years. Thankfully, I am not yet the father of a combat soldier (though it's almost certain that one or both of my youngest two, both boys and both now in high school, will be in combat). Nathan was excused from combat for medical reasons. He is serving in the air force in the south of the country, working in a weapons' testing lab and also in the financial office of his huge base. Rebecca works at a high school for problem children during the day and plays professional basketball at night (she was awarded "outstanding athlete" status by the army and can thus maintain her basketball career). Ruthie will be teaching Hebrew to ex-immigrant soldiers; she is now in the middle of a 10-week course that will train her for this job.

I think that a big difference between me and my peers in the States, whose children are in college rather than in military service, comes down to pride. I can feel that the whole country is proud of my children, and in turn I am completely and utterly proud of them. Were I in the States, and were my children, respectively, a freshman, a sophomore and a junior in college, I would certainly be proud of them, but I don't believe that pride would be the key emotion in my relationship to them. I would be concerned about paying for their tuition and about their future.

After the often tense high school rebellious adolescent years, it's wonderful to have pride be one's overwhelming feeling for one's child. I am proud that when called upon by their country to serve, my children have responded in the affirmative.
OYE Comment:

Wow. A friend who just returned to Iraq from R&R in the U.S. mentioned that lots of real Americans expressed thanks and appreciation in one way or another, which means quite a lot. Perhaps if greater participation in military service by more of American society leads to more Americans personally knowing someone wearing the uniform [now or recently], our sense of civic unity and social purpose will be enhanced.

So, what about Ethan Hastert? Does he want the Noblesse without the Oblige?


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