By Lisa Sanders
Many you got in touch after I wrote in these pages about my son’s experience at the IDF draft office. In case you missed it: my just-turned 17-year-old [pictured with me, right] has begun the recruitment process for the Israel Defence Forces. I described my anxieties leading up to his assessment, and my ultimate relief tinged with guilt when he was rejected from serving in a fighting unit, kravi in Hebrew, thanks to his myopic vision.
“Not a problem!” trilled the emails and whatsapps. “Doesn’t he know he can simply have his eyes lasered? That’ll take his profile right back up!”
Also: “Are you sure it’s just his short sight? My nephew/cousin/neighbour’s grandson was minus 12 and it didn’t stop him from being a fighter.”
“In any case,” these well-wishers assured me, “you should appeal. Everybody appeals everything in Israel (true). It doesn’t seem fair that he can’t be Kravi if that’s what he wants.”
Forgive me, but what about what I want? Don’t I get any say in this? After all the hard work I’ve put in for the last 17 years?
Does the long slog from kindergarten to high school – via barmitzvah, exams, minor
injuries and illnesses – count for nothing? Suddenly, all at once, parents are expected to step aside and say: “Whatever you want is fine by us, darling. Go ahead. Wow, driving a tank does sound fun and exciting. Bomb disposal? Cool! We’ll be delighted with whatever you decide.”
No, no, no! Maybe there are sanguine Jewish mothers and fathers out there. Somehow I doubt it.
In my case, genetics are firmly against me: I come from a proud line of super-anxious mothers (my mum never really got over me upping and leaving Sheffield, first for London’s badlands, then Israel. Her most memorable line: “Well. If you must bring up my grandchildren in a war zone, who am I to stop you?”), I am hardwired to fret.
Which is why my heart goes out to the British parents who wrote in about their sons currently serving in the IDF. Every year, around 20 young people leave the UK to join the Israeli army, either in the special volunteer programme called Mahal, or, if they have made aliyah, as regular soldiers just like their Israeli peers.
For these parents of “lone soldiers” as they are known, it’s truly a tough emotional journey. Israeli parents can at least be on hand to deliver schnitzels and clean socks whenever the army permits it. They can attend the ceremonies and parades without having to cancel and re-book expensive flights to do so.
The stress of not knowing where your child is, in a dangerous environment, is compounded when you’re 3,000 miles away.
So why do it? I asked one of these lone soldiers a few days ago. He and his parents, sister and grandmother were at my house for supper. As a lone soldier, he’d been granted special leave when his family arrived from Manchester for Shavuot. At 24 and a graduate, he admitted it was tricky taking orders from children five years younger than him. And it was hot, dirty and exhausting, challenging both physically and mentally. “But it’s the best possible way to integrate myself into Israeli society,” he told me, enthusiastically. “Whatever job I want to do, if I want to be taken seriously I need to have done the army.”
This is the crux of things. Israel’s industry, economy, way of life and even its language are so bound up with its military it’s impossible to separate them. The IDF, a vast, expensive, unwieldy organisation, defines Israeliness.
Look at the plethora of terror groups surrounding Israel, including Islamic State, and it’s clear the army, in its present form, is ripe for reform.
A leaner, smarter, well-paid professional army would allow the country to channel money towards welfare and education. One in five Israelis and one in three Israeli children now live in poverty, according to Unicef.
Prince Harry has recommended Britain re-introduce compulsory national service as a way of instilling discipline and national pride.
Here in Israel, every so often someone proposes the exact opposite: doing away with conscription and making the IDF a voluntary, professional force.
It’s a radical idea and it should be taken seriously. Worth a thought?