What it means to be a soldier in Israel | Middle East| News and analysis of events in the Arab world | DW | 10.05.2016
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Middle East

What it means to be a soldier in Israel

A day before its Independence Day, Israel traditionally commemorates the death of all its fallen soldiers and victims of terrorism. But being a soldier has far greater implications for the lives of Israelis.

A two-minute siren is heard across the country every year at 11:00 local time when people halt their activities and stand still wherever they are.

Honoring victims of wars may be a common practice in many other countries, but very few outsiders know the true meaning of military service in Israel, which has been compulsory for both men and women ever since the country was founded in 1948.

In fact, serving in the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) can be so crucial, that even after the mandatory service is over people have to declare their ranks and military occupation in their CVs, in job interviews, or when applying to university.

"Today, I probably wouldn't have done it," says 30-year-old Ariel Nura Cohen, an MA student for Conflict Research from Jerusalem. "But back then, I just accepted the army as a part of the routine of life. In Israel, unfortunately, the army is a pretty basic experience," he says.

Omri Raviv, a 31-year-old photographer who today lives in Amsterdam, agrees. "I did have thoughts about trying not to serve," he recalls, "but I knew, and everyone knows, that this is part of our culture, that this is the norm. And at that age I didn't want to be out of the norm, so I'm happy I've done it, but I'm also happy that it's over," he explains.

And indeed, many Israelis agree that at such an early age, right after high school, it is very unlikely that someone goes against the mainstream, especially knowing that any objection or refusal to serve could result in imprisonment or other social sanctions.

Israel Gedenktag für gefallene Soldaten Tel Aviv

An Israeli soldier places flags on the graves of fallen soldiers during a ceremony ahead of Memorial Day

However, most Israelis see the IDF as a 'necessary evil' at worst and as a source of national pride at best. After finishing high school, most of them will go through extremely challenging physical and mental exams, only for the chance to be admitted to a prestigious unit.

With more than 176,500 regular soldiers and over 445,000 reservists, seeing people in uniform carrying weapons in the street is a rather common sight. So much so, that Israelis will not find it odd to accidentally rub an M-16 of a soldier sitting next to them on the train.

But being a soldier also means an entry ticket to the adult world. "Even though my brother got out of the army at a certain point, for me there was never any doubt," says Sophie, an Israeli designer who lives in Berlin and, wishing to remain anonymous, did not use her real name.

"I was placed at a checkpoint and, for the first time in my life, I saw Palestinians trying to cross to Israel on a daily basis. Back then, I felt like I was very vocal in my resistance to what we were doing there, but today I understand that this was a very low-volume protest from my side," she recalls.

"Had I been there today, I would probably express a lot more anger and resistance to the way Israeli soldiers treat Palestinians," she says.

"The person I am today would not accept what happened back then." However, the situation is not black and white, Sophie testifies. "Did we not catch explosives packed as sandwiches at the border? Sure we did. Checkpoints are essential, but it's a complicated condition, no one denies that."

'Incomplete identity'

Still, many think that being drafted into the army was not negative, naming maturity, sense of responsibility, as well as future benefits, as key advantages of joining the IDF. "I was still Orthodox when I was 18, and as such I was exempted from army service," says Ori Padael, an elementary school teacher living in central Israel.

Palestinians, Israeli Arabs and Orthodox men do not have to serve in the army, and religious women can choose whether to do a year or two of community service, but many testify that not going through the military experience has made them feel like outsiders.

Israel Soldat

Many believe that serving in the army also has advantages

"Something about my Israeli identity is not complete," Padael says "Friends around me have different slang that I don't understand, they share common experiences, and I think they have also developed certain characteristics that were deprived from me," she says.

"At the end of the day, I don't entirely belong to my own society, and that is not only sad, but also embarrassing."

Even people who declare they would not enlist again, given the chance, still acknowledge the advantages of being a soldier in a society where everyone is a soldier, at least at some point in their lives. Many are also in favor of some sort of a significant service, as part of what Israelis call 'giving back something to our country.'

"Of course no one wants to go to fight a war when they can have fun in college or travel the world," says M., a current combat soldier, who lost his older brother in the 2014 war in Gaza. "But the situation we are facing today does not allow us to dismantle the army, or to collectively refuse. We are still surrounded with enemies," he says.

But despite the acknowledgment of its necessity, many claim that it is no coincidence the army drafts its soldiers when they are only 18, straight out of high school and right after 12 years of religious, Zionist or even purely secular education.

"Obviously there is not much to do about it at such a young age. No one wants to be out of the mainstream, and few people if at all understand the real consequences of being a soldier," says Cohen, "politically and mentally."

"It also gave me the opportunity to criticize the system from within," he says. "It may not be worth the sacrifice, but as long as I had to go to the army, at least now I can say I know my own society better, and I can point out to all of its wrongdoings," he explains.

Israel Palästina Konflikt

"Few People, if at all, understand the consequences of being a soldier, politically and mentally"

"It's true," Padael agrees, "I feel like I have no right to criticize anything. And I also always have to explain others why I look secular but didn't serve. People look at me differently. Every time I need to fill out a form and state my military experience I'm deeply ashamed. Like I don't belong here."

From grief to celebration

The Memorial Day for fallen soldiers is widely considered to be the saddest day of the year, even more emotional than Holocaust Remembrance Day, commemorated only one week earlier.

On this day, all TV channels in Israel broadcast the personal stories of dead soldiers, dedicating the 24 hours to films, interviews and ceremonies honoring the fallen ones.

Memorial Day is also believed to be deliberately celebrated one day before Independence Day to create a link between those who died defending the country and those who are living in it.

This idea is being repeatedly challenged by peace activists, artists and other political movements, yet still on that day military cemeteries in the country are crowded with relatives and friends, sometimes flying from all parts of the world back to Israel just to honor the memory of their loved ones.

Although there are many who oppose compulsory military service, this one day a year seems to delay political debates. "Eventually behind the big political statements stand ordinary people who didn't necessarily choose to be in these positions," says M.

"Do I want to be here? No, not always. But what choice do I have?" he says. "I think it's OK to have one day to talk about the trauma without relating it to a wider political conflict. It's hard, but possible. Because the bottom line is that every death of an 18-year-old is a too-early one. From both sides."

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