January 4, 2007
Israel has been in the news a lot this year; there was the war in Lebanon this summer, as well as the invasion-withdrawal cycles in Gaza. For young Israelis, the response to conflicts like these is especially passionate–in both directions–for one very important reason: Military service here is mandatory for almost everybody.
Twice a year, every year, the nation’s youth who have most recently come of age are enlisted. Families gather at bus and train stations all over the country to see their son/brother/daughter/sister leave to become one of the nation’s patriotic protectors. There are tears, laughter, pride, fear–every emotion you can think of. Every person in this country has been, is, or will be a soldier–except most of the non-Jewish population, and some of the most religious Jews. For the most part, however, it is an experience that bonds all Israeli citizens.
How does this intimate experience with the military affect young Israeli attitudes toward war? Well, for one, their opinions and attitudes are much more passionate and involved than people who don’t ever have to get close to such things. When you have fought, or your cousin has, or your best friend’s boyfriend is getting sent into an area of conflict, you tend to be very engaged in the outcome.
Take Michael, a 29-year-old Jewish Israeli, who served in the military when he was younger. His girlfriend Lana, 23, is Arab and didn’t have to serve, but when fighting broke out in Lebanon this summer, she was terrified that he would have to become part of the system again. They attended anti-war rallies together, joined by other liberals from all over the nation–gay, Arab, feminist, and those just wanting to demonstrate their opposition to what they felt was violent action taken so suddenly and without much diplomatic preamble.
Michael didn’t want to go to war, but decided that he wouldn’t refuse to go if he was called. His reasoning was that the only way to talk to the other soldiers in a way to get them to consider another point of view was to do it from inside the system. For Michael, serving and facing possible danger was worth the opportunity to try to expand the minds of other soldiers who are less critical of the system they are part of.
“When I did my regular service,” he says, “that’s what I did. When soldiers would say racist things, I would basically threaten to leave them on the side of the road [in the West Bank]. We ended up having conversations about the occupation and the Palestinians and all that kind of thing.”
Michael felt that serving in a war was not much different from serving in the occupied territories. He says that both involved ambiguous arguments and what he saw as a one-sided story to justify military activity. “These [soldiers] aren’t going to listen to outsiders, and definitely not protestors,” he points out “The only way you can get them to listen is to be one of them, in the group. When they have a choice of being left by the side of the road or listening to what you have to say, then you can have a conversation with them.”