Published on Haaretz
I am sometimes fiercely critical of what our soldiers are asked to do, and still wish we could do without armies. But I have no ambivalence about our need for one.
My wife and daughter and I sat on our white plastic seats in the midday sun, along with hundreds of other parents and siblings, and watched our son march, and stand at attention, and stand at ease, and present arms, and march and stand at attention and stand at ease again.
Israeli military ceremonies have a relatively little pomp and pageantry compared to the U.S. The rituals are performed in all seriousness and with the appropriate level of synchronized movements and group shout-outs, but there is an endearing informality before and after; from the parents slipping under the yellow tape separating the audience from the staging area to maximize their iPhone zoom, to get an isolation shot of their son or daughter among the hundreds of faces in that sea of green, to the small family picnics on those same plastic chairs on the asphalt that followed the program.
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We brought schnitzel much like my mother used to bring me fried chicken on Visiting Day at Tel Yehudah or Camp Ramah. And they used the same playlist I learned in Jewish summer camp – Machar [Tomorrow] – about our deferred dreams for a peaceful and beautiful Israel, as well as “You and I, We Will Change the World.” The commanding officer commended the troops for thinking outside the box. It was as if we all know that this military bearing is a temporary pose we must adopt, one that has the transient reality of summer camp but with much higher stakes, but still is not our real soul.
A few weeks before I had taken my son to get his regulation buzzcut, that traumatic transformative moment in a young man’s identity memorialized forever in the anti-war number, “Hair.” We documented the transition from his thick, dark brown wavy hair and bushy beard, to the full crew cut with jihadi mustache-less beard, and finally, to the sweet-faced grinning boy, with his lionish mane left on the barbershop floor. And then we had handed him over to the Israel Defense Forces at the military induction center.
I grew up in the U.S., belly down, leaning on my elbows and dressed in costume fatigues, shooting Nazis with my air rifle on Combat, and counting kills every time one of the German soldiers fell backward with his cry of instant TV death. And then I became anti-militaristic, a teenager at the height of the Vietnam protests, too young to be drafted, but old enough to understand the negativity of “military-industrial complex,” napalm and “peace with honor,” and almost grasp their meaning.
When I came to Israel, I worried that the military and its macho culture were too dominant, that glorification of self-sacrifice created only one kind of hero, that power corrupts, that security assessments viewed all Arabs as threats and treated them accordingly. Against this were pitted our urgent and undeniable need to defend ourselves and the military’s role as melting pot, a function diminished in this age of specialization, but replaced in part by a massive investment in soldiers, providing opportunity, if only for young Jewish citizens and a few others.
So to see my son take his oath, to take his rifle and his Tanach [military-issue Bible], to watch all those boys and girls become young men and women become soldiers, taking on far weightier responsibility than anything I had to deal with at their age, and to watch him swear allegiance to the Israel Defense Forces and pledge, among other things, his willingness to lay down his life for our small and beleaguered country, gave me a shiver of pride, and love, and no small amount of anxiety.
Just a few days before, we had been surrounded by hundreds of family and friends to bury his grandmother, my wife’s mother. She was a ninth generation Israeli from Jerusalem; her ancestors arrived from Vilna in 1811.
The army, a Jewish army, had been shockingly sympathetic, putting family first, and releasing both my sons even before their grandmother had died, then granting them several days leave to be at the shiva.
So on the way back from watching her brother take his oath, I told my 12 year-old daughter, an 11th generation Israeli, how my grandfathers came to America from the Ukraine and Austria, where Jews couldn’t protect themselves. And that when my father was being rushed through medical school by the U.S. military because of World War II, there was no Jewish army to safeguard the Jews of Europe from genocide. And how for a century her ancestors in Israel could not defend themselves and were reluctant to move outside the Old City walls. And how her great aunt joined the Palmach when she was 16 and how her grandmother and her grandfather served in Nahal in the early days of the IDF, followed later by her mother, aunts, uncles and cousins.
The physical dangers soldiers face have evolved over time, but so have the ethical and psychological dilemmas. Wars and occupation have taken a tremendous toll on our vision of ourselves. But it was just a moment ago when our people never faced such quandaries because we were only and always vulnerable. So while I am sometimes fiercely critical of what our soldiers are asked to do, and still wish we could do without armies, I have no ambivalence about our need for one.
And now our boy is an Israeli soldier in uniform, sworn to protect us all. A Jewish soldier in a Jewish army in a Jewish state. It is all so very new.