Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Since We Last Spoke

Almost a year has passed since I wrote a blog post about when the going gets tough.  I thought this was super important to put in writing because it was my way of letting people know that the army is both incredibly physically and mentally challenging.  It was my real answer, if you will, to the question I was and still am most often asked: "So, how is the army?  Do you love it there??"  I wrote it at a particularly challenging point in my service -- when my body was physically broken from training and my mind was elsewhere, in the United States at my family's Passover seder.  Since then, a lot has changed (for one thing I finished my year and three month basic-->advanced-->specialized training period!).  So while the answer then, as now, is an unequivocal "no, I do not love the army," I have grown and changed in ways I could not really imagine before enlisting.  However, when I have anywhere from 30 seconds to 5 minutes to even in some situations a whole night or weekend to chat with friends/family/acquaintances, I rarely even attempt to give an honest or insightful response to what I do believe to be genuinely interested questions surrounding my life as a soldier.  I would much rather just bask in being close to old friends and close family and enjoy precious face time, soaking up smiles and others' stories instead of volunteering my own.  For better or worse, in instances of personal relationships I've always been a better listener than communicator -- just ask my ex'es about that.  But, sitting in my basement room back in Natick at the halfway point of my two and a half year service, allow me to elaborate on some personal experiences and transformations, and ideally even shed some insights along the way.

Way back in early April last year, I was doing some rudimentary guard duty on my advanced training base and had some spare moments to process what I had been going through to that point in my service.  While in basic training we for the most part just ran around and learned lots of simple rules over and over again (i.e. safety lessons on how to use a gun, how to walk in formation, how to wake up and get fully dressed exactly the same way as 22 other guys in under 3 minutes, full days devoted to ethics and morality in the IDF, and so on), advanced training introduces us to actual tactics we theoretically are going to use down the line.  It programatically starts from the individual's tactics while charging up a hill and slowly but surely works up its way up to how to act in the open field as a full company.  Compounded with the increasingly difficult work outs, advanced training's true aim is to build the soldier up so as to be battle ready.  Indeed, during that random little guard post stint, I started to realize that if basic training was meant to break the individual down and separate him or her from the mentality of the free-spirited civilian, advanced training meant to mold him or her into a fighter.  It was this last word, fighter, that struck a chord with me that April afternoon, and I had to write it down so I'd remember it.  I had always labelled myself as a Lover, Not a Fighter.  It fit my mellow and playful personality and I often used the phrase to calm a heated situation down.  I never even threw a punch before my Krav Maga lessons began in the army, and I definitely have never started fights, only stopped them.  Hence, this was the first time I identified a transformation that I was just beginning to go through-- from Lover, Not a Fighter to Lover and a Fighter.

Returning to that question I get asked so often, "nu, do you love it there??," I don't think any sane person can actually love (or even like) running around with a weapon acquiring skills that might one day have lethal effects on other humans.  No one I know in the military actually wants to fight or kill.  Views like these, or really any sort of jingoistic vision, is antithetical to the purpose of the IDF and completely misses the point of serving.  Ben Gurion used to lament that he had to send his young boys and girls to compulsory military service instead of national service (which in his time was truly nation-building service).  What a shame to year after year waste such a mass of natural resources and talent (and budget!) to help build an army instead of a teachers corps or parks force or really any multitude of things.  Yes, he lamented this fact, but Ben Gurion also had an acute understanding that the country desperately needed protection, that Israel needed to be prepared to ward off attempts at her destruction at all times.  So while ideologically he might have wanted to send his youthful resources elsewhere, in practice Ben Gurion needed men and women on the ground at constant ready.

This thinking resonates with me greatly.  Personally, I can brainstorm twenty ways for the world's young, Jewish men and women to give back to Israel, the country that will always be there for them. The Lover in me says that on purely ideological grounds, I think every Jewish youth should do a year of service in Israel under a government sponsored program, be it through a military, national, or civic service.  [I also actually favor mandatory service of some sort for every Israeli civilian--Jewish, Muslim, Christian, or other, as well, but that's for another conversation.]  And in my utopian world, every Jewish youth worldwide would in fact find the appropriate program for him or her and give back to Israel for a year, working to make Israel a better place for all its inhabitants while learning the language and landscape.  This would allow for a much more vibrant, deep, and knowledgeable conversation on issues in Israel from within and abroad and would allow every individual to form his or her own opinions on Israel based on real, tangible experiences.  Give me 40 years and who knows, maybe I'll have made some progress on this particular vision.  But ok, I digress.  Ben Gurion's ideological sacrifice resonates with me today because the Fighter in me agrees with his (and every leader that has followed since's) pragmatic understanding that the country is to this day under serious security threats from almost every border and therefore needs to be ready to go to battle.

Thus, I am more than willing to sacrifice my time and energy in military service because if there is something that this training has provided me with, it is the notion that I am prepared, both mentally and physically, to fight should the need arise.  Let me be clear: I do not want to fight, I would much rather love.  I would much rather shed blood, sweat, and tears building a better Israel by broadening religious pluralism, engendering cooperation between Israelis and Palestinians through shared water resource management, developing periphery areas in the Negev by settling land disputes between Bedouins, municipalities, and military installations, reforming the education system top down starting with higher salaries for teachers in order to encourage the country's best to want to teach, and so on and so on.  But I am also a realist.  I live in a tough neighborhood and know that I cannot simply forsake protecting my country and worry only about the things I love (and for that matter am immensely frustrated by) here in Israel.  Therefore I must at the same time be both a Lover and a Fighter.  Be willfully optimistic about the ability to change and improve life in this nearly 66 year old baby of a country while also being determined and proud to protect her.

This is not something I could have completely comprehended before moving here and enlisting.  It is not something that came easily--a year and three months of grueling, exhausting training is indeed a palpable testament to the time it took me for this transformation to take root my being.  It is a part of me now, a heavy burden of responsibility that, as the fighter in me takes the fore for the next 15 months while the lover sits patiently in back, I am aware of and must shoulder with diligence and care.  What is new for me, however, is something that I do believe most Israelis inherently understand.  It is, after all, a dual responsibility that Israelis have been carrying with them since before the State was even born.  On the one hand, then, I think this transformation is a positive one and indicates just another step into my 'becoming an Israeli.'  On the other hand, I hope that with this new found sense of self awareness, I can absorb it quickly enough to serve admirably through the end.  While I am confident in my abilities to do what I have to do should the situation arise, I can still ask that we pray, even if naively, that sane heads prevail so that nation shall not lift up sword against nation.  Because let's be real here, who wants to experience war anymore?


  1. Jonah,

    I read the last paragraph of this post first, as my reading of articles tends to move backwards. And it is so powerful. I feel like I can relate on some level to this transformation of mind and body. My first few months of working in the kitchen felt, what I imagine to be militaristic. Physical and mental training to perform tasks as fast as possible, as thoroughly as possible, and as perfectly as possible. Economy of motion. Those first months made me question whether I wanted to be in a kitchen or not. Surely a plate of food could never effect people the way a weapon can, but sometimes it felt like it was given as much weight, and I was afraid of the raised voices and the shouting to move faster.

    I have STILL never been to Israel. I am inspired by what you wrote, about all people spending a year in Israel under an organization that makes sense for them. I like the idea of more informed conversations about Israel and I want to be part of that. For me, this organization would be about land, about environmentalism, farming and food.

    I wish you all the best in the rest of your term in the army. And thank you for this beautifully written piece.


  2. Jonah
    Fantastic words. You know what the time in Israel has meant all "my kids". Your and Ilana's reflections are so meaningful and powerful to me. Keep up the great work!

  3. In some ways we all have to be both "Lovers" and "Fighters". In this struggle, you are not alone. May nation not lift up sword against nation. Take care of yourself!

    - A