The life story of a true Israeli: On the militarization of youth in Israel

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“A true Israeli doesn't dodge draft!” [1] – this slogan stands at the centre of a large-scale publicity campaign in Israel. The campaign was not run by the Israeli military, and it was not aiming to add more soldiers to the dwindling ranks of the Israel Defence Forces (IDF). Israel has (at least de jure) universal conscription, for both men and women. But this slogan did express, and strengthen, how most Israelis understand the role of military service in the life of an Israeli – a true Israeli.

The “True Israeli” doesn’t remember this, but when his mother learned, at a doctor's appointment so many years ago, that “it’s a boy” she paused for a minute thinking to herself that in 18 years she will be one of those mothers who can’t sleep at night worrying about her soldier son. The “True Israeli” also doesn’t remember how his mother sighed with relief when his baby sister was born, knowing that although she will also be a soldier, at least she will not take part in actual combat [2].

The “True Israeli” might remember the real tank that he played on at the age of three, and the canon placed in the playground in his neighbourhood. He might also remember the package of sweets he carefully wrapped when he was in kindergarten, and the greeting card to the soldiers on the front that he proudly wrote and attached to it. His kindergarten teachers explained to him the importance of supporting the soldiers, because one day, he would also become one.
The “True Israeli” must remember that time when a soldier fell asleep on the bus next to him, with his rifle resting between the two of them, and the the touch of cold metal on his leg every time the bus stopped.

The “True Israeli” stood up on stage in the school Memorial Day ceremony, when he was in the 5th grade, and read a well-rehearsed text “May the people of Israel remember our sons and daughters, the loyal and the brave soldiers of the IDF… may the glorious casualties of Israel’s battles be in the hearts of Israelis for generations to come”, [3] and then he shed a tear, maybe because he knew it was expected, maybe because he remembered the stories of the soldiers who died in battle, and maybe because he was afraid, knowing someday it might be him.

The “True Israeli” was taught Hebrew, History, or maybe Literature by a soldier in uniform[4], and then at the age of 16 he received his first call-up order from the IDF and began going through mandatory classification tests. Soldiers in uniform were walking in and out of his classroom, each explaining to him why he should join their unit, why it is both the most important thing he can do for his country, but also the most important choice he can make to promote his career in the future. The “True Israeli” knows that those tests, the courses, the ranks, and the connections that he’ll obtain while serving in the army will later open all doors for him in his civilian life. [5]

The “True Israeli” knows how proud he’ll make his parents when he’ll get into that elite combat unit he always wanted to join (although his mother will secretly be terrified), or prove himself worthy for the Intelligence Corps, or even a good enough artist, or dancer, or musician to be recognized as such by the military, which will allow him the time to continue practicing his art during his term of conscription.

The “True Israeli” does not stop to ask himself if this is what he wants. He does not question military service since it is a natural step in life, nor does he question the importance of it for the good of his country. The “True Israeli” never makes the choice to serve in the army; he just doesn’t make the choice not to. And if, for some reason, some fault in his education / with his parents / in his environment, he makes the choice not to go to the army, there are always those who will remind him that “A true Israeli doesn't dodge draft!”

Notes:

[1] In Hebrew, the slogan is in the masculine, so, presumably, the true Israeli is a man.
[2] Israel practices conscription for both men (3 years) and women (2 years). While medically fit men are almost automatically sent to combat units, women must give their consent to become combat soldiers. This is not to say women in the Israeli military are safe, of course, not least because of the high rates of sexual violence directed against women soldiers from their peers and commanders. Among men too, the vast majority of conscripts who die, are not killed in action, but rather commit suicide or die in car accidents during a vacation.
[3] A Jewish remembrance prayer that was transformed into a remembrance prayer for Israeli soldiers and victims of hostilities. This version was taken from the official website of the Israeli ministry of education. In many religious circles, the opening: “May God remember his sons and daughters” is used instead.
[4] A unit in the army’s Education Corps sends conscripts (almost exclusively women) to teach in schools, especially in poorer communities.
[5] Assuming, of course, that as a True Israeli, he comes from a privileged family background. The benefits of serving in the military for the less privileged are much smaller (but then, the risk of discrimination against them if they don’t serve may be higher).

Sahar M. Vardi
Diana Dolev
Ruti Kantor
Sergeiy Sandler

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