In America, the last few years of high school center on college applications and acceptances. In Israel, high-school seniors matriculate into the military by completing a series of tests that determines their placement. While we contemplate the professions to which we will dedicate our lives, they contemplate the prospect of losing theirs. At 23 years old, Lt. D* serves as a deputy company commander in an elite unit. American-born raised in Israel, Lt. D reflects on his five years in service in the Israeli Defense Forces and its lasting effect on his character and his identity.
Can you tell us a little about yourself?
I was born in Forest Hills, Queens to parents that were born in Israel. I grew up attending regular public school, and played after-school sports. I was a Yankees and Jets fan. When I turned 14, my parents decided that we were moving to Israel. Now, they pumped it into my mind since I was a child so I wasn’t too shocked. My first year in Israel, ninth grade, is a blur so I guess I was shocked but didn’t realize it at the time. From then on, I lived in Tel Aviv and completed high school there. When 12th grade came, everyone started talking about the military. I had my first tryout, got in, went back to high school and spent four months after I graduated resting. When I was drafted my mom and my dad cried.
How does the tryout process work?
I’ll compare it to college. Here, in 12th grade you talk about what college you want to go to and take the SATs. In Israel, to get into most of the elite units there are different kinds of tests, I’ll call them tryouts. They’re not like basketball tryouts; they’re a mixture of physical and mental tests. They average from two days to a weeklong. X amount of people come and Y amount of people get in. They’re very tough. It’s gotten to a point that in high school there are programs run independently by people for those who want to train for the military and for these tests. There’s infantry, artillery, tanks. There are different units.
What was your test like?
I took one test when I was in 12th grade, which was two days long. You’re still in high school, so it’s pretty scary. You arrive with another thousand people. Beforehand, you think you’re the only one who is going to be bad but when you get there, you realize no one knows what is going on. The pressure is high after because you finish and then you go home and after four months you get an answer.
How do parents feel about their kids feeling drafted in such a violent time?
I don’t think they say as much as they fear. They say sometimes. You can tell because they are always really happy to see you. When you don’t call they get mad. Because it’s mandatory and they served in the army and my grandparents served in the army, it makes sense to them. They’re still afraid though.
How do you feel about the draft as a system?
The military gives the whole society a blank slate because we dress the same and have the same haircuts and we’re all treated the same by our commanders. Because the country is so small and is such a tough neighborhood and it’s so rooted in the society that you are going to be drafted. For now I’m for it. Because I see what it does to people and it changes them in good ways. The whole point is to get us all together to complete the bigger mission.
You feel proud because you know you are fighting for a righteous cause; you’re defending a righteous cause. You feel connected. The bigger mission connects everyone from all backgrounds; it doesn’t matter what happened before. You feel in retrospect, you always feel challenged because it isn’t easy.
How has being a soldier over the last five years changed you?
I’ve learned, in my mind, how to be thorough, how to delegate — not just robotically — but to check and advise. It has shown me what I can do physically and mentally. It has shown me what being a real friend is. It really builds your character. We’re all shaped differently because we’re all different humans. In the end, you’ll be with your closest guys in a unit. The point is every experience is parallel.
Have you ever questioned what you’ve been told to do?
Personally, no. The military in Israel has a code of command such that when you think something is wrong, you can say something about it. On top of that, in general, day-to-day, a commander can tell you do something. If you have a different opinion on it, you can give you own input. It’s an open, two-way channel. In the end, the commander has the upper hand in deciding. The commanders want the lower ranks the what and you are supposed to act the how. You’re supposed to think, not be a robot.
What do you believe are the most common misconceptions about the Israeli army both within Israel and America?
That we aren’t people and that we don’t think. I cannot count the amount of times I’d rather be somewhere else — at home, watching TV, etc. A lot of people think that we don’t care about what we’re doing it and are just doing it because we are told to do it. That we aren’t moral and we violate human rights. That’s just simply not true. We value life more than anything.
How many years do you serve? Why did you serve extra years?
I served three mandatory years and two extra.
I felt that it is my duty to be in the military because it is mandatory. I was told that I have the capabilities and I’m here already serving my country and there is a need for officers. So why not do it? I can give more and I am capable of doing it. I want to give back.
Being a soldier is challenging, rewarding and tracking. Being an officer augments that. It challenges you more, shows you more and gives you more responsibility. That’s something hard to give up on, especially when you realize you have a chance to be a character in someone else’s life. My parents were commanders. You’re teaching someone from nothing. You want to give them the values and the motives of the IDF and you want to be the one to do it. If someone is going to do it, why not you, if you can?
Having lived in both countries, do you feel more American or Israeli? What role has the army played in your identity?
The army has played a huge role. If I felt more American beforehand, now I don’t. I spent five years physically protecting my country. The fact that I want to live in Israel as an adult says it all. There will always be something American about me; I can tell from everyday doings that there is. I come here now and I don’t feel like a terrorist in America but I don’t feel at home now. Nothing is weird to me except for the bad coffee but at the same time I feel more comfortable there now than here.
*Name withheld for confidentiality.