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Middle East

Israeli army welcomes North American volunteers

As Israeli rhetoric about attacking Iran heats up, record numbers of North Americans have come to Israel to join the army. Some Israelis think the immigrants' energy would be better spent outside the army.

Earlier this summer, 350 North American immigrants arrived at Ben Gurion International Airport near Tel Aviv to a celebratory welcome. An entire terminal was shut down so Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu, a band and well-wishers could receive the group.

Among the people arriving on the El-Al flight were 127 fresh-faced young men and women who intended to join the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF). Eric Schorr from Philadelphia was one of them.

"When we landed, the cheering and the happiness overflowed," the 24-year-old told DW. "It was unbelievable. I remember distinctly seeing tears on so many people's cheeks because they were living their dream."

The new immigrants arrived at a time of increasingly heated rhetoric from Israeli politicians, who have suggested their country might attack Iran's nuclear facilities before the US presidential election in November. The US and its allies suspect Iran is developing nuclear weapons, although Iran has repeatedly denied the allegations.

Iran in mind

At Ben Gurion airport, Netanyahu did not explicitly mention Iran. But the rhetoric of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad - who has called for destruction of the "Zionist entity" - was clearly not far from Netanyahu's mind.

"We see today […] a virulent new anti-Semitism, and we need to defend ourselves against that," he said. "The most important job is to defend the Jewish state. This we are doing, this you are doing, and I'm proud of you."

Benyamin Netanyahu in August 2009 (Photo: Eckehard Schulz)

Netanyahu has talked tough on Iran

In the audience, identical khaki green T-shirts singled out the 127 future soldiers, all members of the US-based non-profit group Friends of the IDF, which promotes army service among Diaspora Jews with their "Lone Soldiers Program." The August arrivals marked a record number of foreigners who wanted to enlist at once.

Supportive family

While Jerusalem residents have been stocking up on gas masks, water and perishable goods in fear of war, new recruit Schorr is pragmatic about the danger. He says that Israel always has a matsav, or situation, on its hands. And that it's something his family back in the US understands.

"They're concerned, obviously, because it's not the United States," he said. "But they also understand that this country is resilient, and will survive, and we'll be fine."

With degrees in Middle Eastern studies and modern Jewish studies, Schorr hopes his impeccable Hebrew and knowledge of Arabic will earn him a prime spot in the IDF. But he faces competition from locals who peak the lingo flawlessly.

Freshly released Palestinian prisoners leave the tomb of the former Palestinian President Yasser Arafat (behind) after paying their respect and walk past policemen towards an area where family and friends can greet them (Photo: Jim Hollander)

Tensions remain high between Israeli authorities and Palestinians

At the same time, some Israelis question the value of immigrants enlisting in the armed forces, whose soldiers are routinely deployed to the West Bank, Israeli-occupied territory where Palestinians live.

No end in sight

Among the critics is Avner Gzaryahu, an activist with the group Breaking the Silence, which is dedicated to sharing combat veterans' experiences in the occupied territories with the Israeli public.

"Israel does not need, in my perspective, new recruits," Gzaryahu, who served in the IDF from 2004 to 2007, told DW. "If they want to come, they're of course welcome. But I think there are so many more important things that have to be done in Israeli society. It's much more important that young American Jews be involved not only with the West Bank, but also with social issues in Israel," he said.

For the IDF, though, increasing the influx of voluntary soldiers from overseas is the aim. It recently charged Friends of the IDF with expanding its partnership with Nefesh B'Nefesh, an Israeli organization that assists Jews in immigrating to Israel.

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