Lone soldiers in the IDF

Olim Hadashim, new immigrants in Israel, make for an interesting bunch, having left behind family, loved ones and their lives back ‘home’ to come and fulfill a higher duty – a calling you could say: To answer their inner Zionist spirit and become pioneers against the backdrop of a 21st century landscape where apathy and narcissism reigns supreme. The reason that I crawled out of my can’t-be-bothered-writing-anymore cave and finally put pen to paper in order to write this post, is because it has dawned on me that in a couple of weeks I will no longer count myself amongst the Olim Hadashim crowd, but rather I will soon sport a green uniform and shiny red boots as soldier #39832732 – an Israeli in every sense of the word. Which got me thinking about these immigrants – from the way the native population relates to them, to how they are absorbed in Israeli society, and what their motivations are for coming here –  in other words, I realized that Olim Hadashim are in a very really sense sui generis, and they deserve a few words.

But lets put all the la-di-da aside for a moment and get to the point: Who are these new immigrants, why do they leave their comfortable middle-class homes to join the Israeli army, and where the hell does this writer (i.e. yours truly) fit in within this balagan (scrambling mess in hebrew slang)?

Firstly let me make this clear: Israel is a country that has been built upon the very important human resource know as immigration. Indeed, the country’s Jewish population went from 600,000 in 1948 to nearly 2 million overnight, and it has been growing ever since – with immigrants forming a substantial portion of the population. But that was back then – back in a faraway time before I was born, when Jews still lived – endangered – in hostile countries, and every time a refusenik sneezed in a Soviet jail cell, the shock-waves would be felt on the streets of New York:  Today, Jewish communities don’t nearly face similar problems of such magnitude  – and thus the impetus to make Aliya (lit. to immigrate to Israel) that saw millions of Jews fleeing to Israel like a running tap, is no longer there. We now live live largely in the west, comfortably and with little antisemitism. The tap has been plugged.

So what is it that still brings these modern day, facebooking, Iphoning halutzim (pioneers) to leave comfortable Melbourne and Miami and make the big jump to the Middle East? Well I have a few theories – or stereotypes rather – and here they are, in dot point form:

1. The religious guy

Espousing ‘Torah ve’Avodah’ (Torah and work – the slogan of the Bnei Akiva movement), the religious guy makes it to the holy imbued with a desire to defend the Land of Israel for the People of Israel. Sporting a flat-tennis-ball like kippa, he looks like a modern day Sampson from the Settlements, his Tzitzit proudly hanging out beside a pair of brown sandals that Moses may have worn 3000 years ago. Highly motivated by his beliefs, he is often accepted into the top units of the IDF. Unfortunately, as the IDF has trouble catering to all the numerous needs of religious soldiers, and even moreso to the complicated issues that Chayalim Bodedim face in the army, so the religious oleh in the IDF may have a hard time adjusting to army life. On more than one occasion there have been those who finish their army service secular – like the majority of their peers. However those that keep their faith until the end are truly a testament to the motivation that brings them to Israel.

2. Gi Joe

Jacked up from endless hours in the gym, GI Joe has always dreamed of joining the military, eliminating baddies in Afghanistan, and posing stoically in a Marines outfit beside the American flag. Usually a last-minute decision or a flip of the coin brings him to Israel, in a bid to fulfill his dream of becoming a modern day Maccabee – albeit in a Jewish setting. Fitting the personality of the typical ‘popular-kid-at-school-that-sits-in-the-centre-back-seat-of-the-bus’, GI Joe looks like he was born for the army, bursting with American-Zionist pride, whilst never taking off that IDF tourist shirt he bought last year on a Birthright trip to Israel. Beyond ramping up his intensive training sessions, he spends his spare time watching WWF, teaching American football to clueless Israelis, reading ‘Brotherhood of Warriors‘ and mixing protein shakes.

3. Picking up the pieces

Half a college degree later, working long hours at an uneventful pizzeria, and a desire to ‘sort things out’ so-to-speak, brings these guys to Israel to join the IDF and clear their head a little. The army is seen not so much as a remedy for the problems they face back home, but an intermediary chapter of their life, so that they have enough time to think things through before heading back home. Whilst any Oleh Hadash that leaves his/her home to join the IDF is laudable, these guys assert that they have no higher motives for enlisting other than personal ones: A desire to gain a sense of discipline, motivation, and acquire new skills along the way.

4. Katin Hozer (born overseas to Israeli parents)

Speaking Hebrew at home, going on Falafel picnics with Imma and Abba and hanging out with the other Israeli kids in the neighbourhood leaves the Katin Hozer vying to leave the Israeli bubble he/she lives in abroad and experiencing the real thing. Besides having already visited Israel a million times and hearing Abba’s stories of how we won the Six Day War, the Katin Hozer has the additional benefit of a large extended family in Israel – including Saba and Savta (the grandparents): an imperative support group that most Olim in Israel lack.

5. Searching for a destiny/looking for more in life

The perfect life just aint what what it ought to be. Having everything handed down on a silver platter – from Humvees to Harvard degrees, these (mostly) upper-middle-class “JAPS” (Jewish American/Australian prince(ss)) simply feel that they have it too good in life, and the monotony of exclusive house parties, rich friends, and job offers in the banking sector that most people could only dream about, leaves them wanting more of a purpose in life. Images of sun-tanned Kibbutznickim holding ploughshares and dreams of a middle-eastern adventure by the medditerranean gets these kids rolling first-class off the plane and into a perennial quest to find their destiny in Israel. Perhaps it’s because the Israeli-Arab conflict is one of the most burning political issues in the world, and so they envision to make it here armed with the all solutions, thus fulfilling their desire to make a difference. Or perhaps it’s just the desire to escape the perfection of the American dream and the bordeom of being mollycoddled on a daily basis to get as faraway as possible – without losing all their Western creature-comforts. One striking similarity they share though, is the desire (at least in the beginning) to stay permanently in Israel, and therefore, service in the IDF is seen as a stepping-stone to becoming a fully fledged Israeli.

6. Something for the resume/military career

An aged grandfather sitting on a cushioned chair by the fireplace, sits his young grandchild on his knee and begins recounting the legendary battle of Wadi Um Nisnas in the Summer of 2016, in which he, as a young tank commander in the IDF routed all the enemy forces. Although perhaps exaggerated, the desire to be able to tell the kids ‘where papa was when…’ is a driving factor that should not be ignored. This type of motivation – manipulated as propaganda by the Germans and English in WWI – is an enlistment tool that (in part) causes people to make the decision to enlist. Many of these kids view their lives in ‘chapters’ – with the ‘army chapter’ fitting in nicely after the ‘high school chapter’ and before the ‘university chapter’. There are of course those who also join up for all the post-army benefits, like a nice little line in the resume, (or if they remain in Israel –  a free education), however the efficacy of this kind of motivation lasting throughout an arduous and challenging service is questionable.


3 thoughts on “Lone soldiers in the IDF

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