Sunday, December 10, 2006

The Draft

I remember exactly when they stopped pushing me around in high school. Returning from summer vacation Junior year, the same old bully from Sophomore year saw me in the hallway and approached on attack vector. Subconsciously calculating the angles and measuring force he would need to apply to my left shoulder to propel me smashing into the lockers, his pace sped from casual walk to a brisk trot as I stopped in my tracks, eyes darting, looking for an escape. But not this time. As he approached, the bully's eyes widened, then he quickly glanced away and scooted past. I wish I had a great story to tell, about how I finally couldn't take it any more, and, backed into a corner, let go with my kung fu I had been practicing all summer and taught him a lesson he wouldn't soon forget. But it was nothing so glamorous, I had simply grown a foot. And gained forty pounds.
Of course I had no idea what was happening, and still thought of myself as the little guy, in a forest of seniors, trying to keep from being battered against the lockers. But when the spanglophonic gangsta wanna-be's, instead of tossing me around, gave me high fives to shouts of "Wassup Ese?" I knew something had changed. By the time I hit six foot two, instead of being asked, "Dude, are you gay?" it was, "Dude, what position do you play?"
I still don't know how to play football.

"Have you ever been in the military?"
It's one of those questions that comes up from time to time on dates. Or from friends. Mabye it's my jarhead haircut (note to future immigrants: saying "short" to an Israeli barber is like saying "bald" to an American barber.) Perhaps it's just my size. If you look like you could jump off an airplane with a sixty pound backpack and a bayonet, most people assume you've done it at some point.
Actually, they're not too far off, because by the time I was a Junior, I was already in the Sea Scouts, a nautical paramilitary youth group, in preparation for enlistment after high school. I wanted nothing more than to be a naval officer, or a Marine, standing at the prow of my ship, charting a course through hostile waters. I was even accepted to the California Maritime academy. With a naval officer training program in Berkeley, across the bay, an offer of tuition payment, and gung-ho enthusiasm, I was ready to go. What about a sensitive guy like me killing bad guys? No problem, just mentally paste the bully's face on their bodies.
But by some miracle, I was also accepted into the University of California, Santa Barbara, a far better school, in spite of the fact that my high school grades were, by their standards, too low. UCSB had no officer training program, so I decided to put the military on hold for four years and invest the time in a better education. By the time I graduated, I was already keeping shabbat and eating all kosher food, which is a bit hard when you're jumping off landing craft and eating combat rations.

Of course, there happens to be one army in the world where the combat rations are kosher.
Rafi's brows furrow when I tell him my story, his own experience as a drill instructor in the Israeli Defence Forces coming back to him.
"You? Nah, you're not a fighter."
"Well, I happen to think I'd make a fine soldier. I run seven kilometers every day already, I can put up with a lot of abuse, and I get the job done."
He strokes his beard, pondering the idea for a minute.

National conscription is something every Israeli has to deal with. Out of high school and into the army. Hope you had a nice summer vacation, because it's three years for boys, two for girls, and reserve duty several weeks a year until you're forty. And it's not just something to get done. These guys love the army. Ever read the comic that comes folded around the Bazooka Joe bubble gum sticks? At the bottom, there's a little advice column. In America, it has a pithy saying, "An apple a day keeps the doctor away," or what not. The Israeli Bazooka Joe says, "Don't go to the disco because the loud music will lower your hearing profile." I.e., you will have a lower hearing score on the physical exams given to recruits entering the army, and you will not be able to get into an elite combat unit.

Army service is a great divider between those who never quite manage to leave their country of origin and those who become true Israelis. As an old friend Donny put it, "You go into the army, and you see how this country really works. It's all thrown together, nothing is planned, but somehow everything gets done in the end. If you don't go, you'll never leave America."
I may not have a choice in the issue. If I were to make aliyah at eighteen, I would have an automatic three years to serve. At twenty, it's reduced to two years. By the time you're over twenty five like me, you're "on hold." As in, "If there's a war, and nobody is left, and Hizbullah is driving tanks down Jaffa Street, then mabye we'll call you."
So is that the end of it? Did my dream of being an undercover Mossad agent, leaping out of Hassan Nasrallah's oversized novelty birthday cake with an uzi in my hand, mowing down the Hizbullah leadership, just go up in a poof of smoke?
Well, actually, there is a way around. If you show up at the draft board every morning, persistently pleading to be let in, then they may relent. I know people who've done it, even when over 30 and married.

"I've been thinking about it," I tell Sasha.
"Why waste your time? You won't be doing anything useful."
"Well, I'm a mechanical engineer, I would think they would need people like me for the corps of engineers."
My naivete elicits a laugh, "Well, in that case, they would make you a janitor."
"What if I were a janitor in real life?"
"Then they would put you in charge of the corps of engineers."

Steven is a bit more circumspect.
"They wouldn't give you anything interesting. At your age, they could only keep you for eighteen months anyway. It would probably take them six months to train you to drive a tank, more to get you combat ready. Think of how much money they would spend just on fuel. And then they would be able to use you for maybe six months, and they would only have you in the reserve for ten years. If you were eighteen, they would have you for two more years of active duty, and almost twenty of reserve. So they're not going to waste any money training you. You'd be a jobnik."

A jobnik. The lower class of the army. The pencil-pushers, sitting behind a desk running out the clock on their mandatory service. The fact of the matter is that the army itself doesn't want the draft any more. The population has increased tenfold over the last fifty years, and the army wants a smaller force of highly specialized combat soldiers, not the legions of unspecialized foot soldiers and jobniks seen in previous decades. From time to time, the generals grumble that they don't know what to do with all the conscripts they're getting, but the Israeli public still wants the draft. As Yossi Alpher, a former officer in military intelligence said in an interview in The Guardian:
"The army absorbs immigrants, it teaches some people to read and write, it prepares for citizenship, it even converts to Judaism. Even if we were to find ourselves at peace with our neighbors there would be very strong pressure to continue conscription because there's a very strong sense this is an important part of Israeli society."
And as Reuven Gal, former chief psychologist of the Israel Defence Forces put it, "What it gives Israelis most is maturity, a sense of responsibility, a sense of affiliation, a sense of becoming part of the nation."
As such, for many the army's role is to fill the void left when many Israelis abandoned Judaism, which traditionally instilled all of these values. While I feel that a life of Torah observance can provide all of the self-discipline and national affiliation I will ever need, one thing I will miss is the bittul, the self-nullification, of the soldier, to subordinate himself completely towards a noble goal. But it's something I will have to find elsewhere. It's important not to take on a a life mission, that isn't appropriate, no matter how appealing or glamorous it may seem. As for becoming an Israeli, well, I didn't come here to be an Israeli, I came to be a better Jew. If I don't talk or think the same as the people around me, I can live with it. But watching the helicopters thump by overhead, off to their missions to protect the rest of us, there will always be a part of me that wants to be up there with them.


Anonymous said...

mm Seems like some one got drafted to do a Meme , anyone that avoids my Meme draft gets BiBI after them!


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Ephraim said...

All right, all right, I'll do it. But you gotta link to me, man.