IDF officers tell young adults of life in Israel
By Anne Koppel Conway
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When asked how things have changed for him in the past three years, a 22-year-old Israeli Defense Force Lieutenant First Class named Ayal said, "My mom is hugging me harder."
Ayal and another Lieutenant First Class, 20-year-old Michal, talked about life in the Israeli military at the Jewish Federation of Portland's Young Leadership luncheon Dec. 8 at the Tonkon Torp Law Offices in Portland. About 30 people attended.
The officers began the day at a joint breakfast of federation's Community Relations Committee and the Oregon Board of Rabbis. They also spoke at Lincoln High School. That evening, the two spoke to about 75 people at a federation-sponsored dessert reception.
For the past three years Ayal he has been a member of a special IDF unit that arrests people suspected of committing terrorist acts. He said only 50 percent of the soldiers who begin training for this unit are accepted.
In one situation, his unit went to Ramallah at night to surprise a bomb maker. From the street, Ayal called for the man to come out and surrender. Voluntary surrenders rarely occur, he said.
There were a lot of innocent people in the building. "As we started getting the women and children out," he said, "the bomb maker started shooting from one of the windows. I get a bad feeling seeing small children screaming, yelling and scared."
The terrorist "didn't care about the life of children—innocent people," he said. "It's a dilemma. It happens every day. Sometimes children really are innocent; sometimes children are involved [in terrorist acts] and can pull out guns and hurt us. When does a child stop being a child?" he asked rhetorically.
In this case, Ayal's unit sent in a dog. The bomb maker shot the dog, but then "the man got scared and surrendered." The dog recovered, Ayal said.
"I am an officer. After discharge, I will be in the reserves. I will never stop being an officer. It is a way of life for as long as you live, no matter what country you are living in," said Ayal.
Michal, who said she is half-American and half-Moroccan, was born and grew up in a 130-family moshav eating both couscous and hamburgers.
"It's sort of like the American suburbs. It's an amazing place to grow up in," she said. She has been accepted at the University of California, Berkeley, but is not sure she will go, because she will be 23 when she is discharged from the army and feels she might be too old.
As an educational officer speaking English, Hebrew and Arabic, she works with soldiers who are lower on the socioeconomic scale. She has encountered some who could not read or write, multiply or divide. One did not know what a triangle is.
The military has "a social mission, as well as a security one," she said. "The IDF helps integrate immigrants into Israeli society with courses in Hebrew and Jewish holidays. Soldiers come out of the Israeli army having mastered various vocations, such as chef or air conditioning expert."
Israeli soldiers are also civilians, Michal said. When off duty, she can sign a petition saying she objects to something, as long as she does not put her rank on the petition.
Even with the increased violence, Michal "still feels secure living in Israel. I don't drive less or take buses less. You get used to it."
The Israeli military used to be a melting pot, said Michal. Now the IDF lets each group preserve its own culture.
Until three years ago, Israeli women could not engage in combat. Now women are in combat within Israel's borders but not outside its borders, she said. Women also fly planes and teach men how to shoot, drive a tank and use a hammer.
It could be a problem, she said, for a religious man to be in a unit with women soldiers. Religious men are not permitted to be touched by women.
"I am a secular Jew, but on my staff there are Orthodox, Conservative and Reform Jews," she said.
Michal said a recent article revealed an increase in adolescent crime. "They see what's happening in the country and think they could die any day," she said.
"I wish there was a solution [to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict]," said Ayal. "I like being in the army; I hate my part of the job. I don't see an end to it in my generation. Palestinians teach children to kill Israelis. We want them to see us as human beings. We can live together."
"The army is hoping for coexistence. I have no idea how we will get to that," Michal said.