My primary purpose for this Israel visit is to see my grandson Michael, called Mickey. He is a sergeant in the tank corps, halfway through his three-year service in the Israel Defense Forces.
Sometimes in America, when the conversation turns to grandparenting, I mention that Mickey is in the army. Often I receive a pained look in return. Lips purse, heads nod, eyes squint, altogether conveying a concerned look, an attempt, I think, to mirror what others think are my feelings of unhappiness and worry. Perhaps they are thinking about Vietnam or Iraq.
I let it go. Who am I to challenge a person who is trying to identify with me by reflecting back to me what they think they would feel in a similar situation?
But they are wrong.
Please don’t shake your head to emphasize how bad you think such service is. Instead say something like “Mazel tov, Dov, you must be proud of your Israeli soldier grandson.”
I am proud.
I am proud because Mickey is serving in the army even though he could have tried to shirk his duty. I am proud because he believes in his country and its people. (Remember, at the time in their lives that American kids are shopping for dorm furniture, Israeli kids are buying long underwear for cold nights during basic training.)
This universal three-year service (two for women) is mandatory. Mickey and his high school friends were inducted without kicking and screaming or looking for ways out. Virtually every 18-year-old serves, except for the ultra-Orthodox who are exempted for religious study reasons, and a small number of youngsters at the furthest political left and right whose grievances against or for keeping the West Bank (and Gaza before it was evacuated) sometimes become a stand against serving.
Most Israeli high school kids have lots of political savvy, and at least half are not in agreement with the government of the day (just as their parents divide regarding any governing coalition). Still, these young people know their service is important, the future of the nation is at stake and their duty is to do a good job.
This commitment derives from living in a country surrounded by hostile neighboring states, from ongoing terrorism and threats to the nation’s existence.
Israelis also grow up in the shadow of the Holocaust and understand the importance of having a homeland and the right to protect it. High school seniors visit the death camps in Poland the year before their enlistment, further solidifying these feelings.
I am proud because serving in the army is an integral part of Israeli society. Military service is part of life, providing experiences and friendships that last a lifetime. Israeli youth know that their parents, uncles and aunts served the basic three years, and many chose to stay longer and become officers. Plus, reserve duty takes at least 30 days per year for another 20 years.
Pre-inductees have the opportunity to assert their preferences for military placement. As in all armies, military needs rule but preferences are taken into consideration. My pre-induction advice to Mickey was what many American parents or grandparents might offer: “Try for a military job where you can learn something usable back in civilian life.”
“No,” he replied, “I want to serve where they need me the most, maybe the tank corps where Abba [Dad] served for 23 years. If everybody took easy jobs, who would do the hard ones?”
Not just Mickey, but his dozen close schoolmate friends said just about the same thing. Last year, four months after induction, a few weeks after training, all of them were on the Israel border or in Lebanon during the 34-day war.
Now that he is on duty, you might wonder, if anything happened to his pre-induction patriotism. Like soldiers all over the world, he grumbles that army life in peacetime is boring. He is right. It is. But he also knows that war, while it may not be boring, is a not-to-be-wished-for hell.
Still, his patriotism is intact.
I am proud because Mickey has matured, taken on responsible assignments, learned to value even more his home and family and taken his place as a contributing citizen in the life of Israel.
Dov Burt Levy is a former professor of public administration and regular contributor to the Jewish Journal-Boston North.