Larry Derfner
The Jerusalem Post (Opinion)
February 17, 2010 - 1:00am

The main thing that drew me to Israel was that here, you put your life on the line in a great political struggle, unlike in the West, where political struggle is something you talk about from a safe distance.

The political struggle for Israelis, as far as I’m concerned, is to find a way to live in a rough neighborhood without acting like bullies on the one hand, or like pushovers on the other. To be strong enough to deter attack, but not to pick fights. To stand up for your rights, but to know where your rights end and the neighbor’s begins. It’s not easy, but that’s the challenge – to live with both a backbone and a conscience. In short, to be (if I may apply this term to both genders) a mensch.

For Israelis who aren’t pacifists, part of being a mensch is serving in the “citizen’s army.” I was glad for the chance to serve, and I want and expect my sons to do so as well. It’s part of this whole idea of not living a sheltered life, of not letting others fight your battles, of doing your part to protect your country.

BUT I’M afraid that today, the idea of going into the army is not about becoming a mensch, or about learning to stand up for yourself without pushing others around, but mainly about pushing others around.

In this ultra-nationalistic atmosphere, way too many teenagers see the army as an opportunity to take revenge on the country’s enemies, to show the Arabs and the whole hostile, hypocritical world how strong we are, how fearless, how much greater than any other nation we are.

In Friday’s Haaretz there was a story about “Footsteps of the Fighters,” a motivational camp in the Golan Heights for 12th graders being run by Avigdor Kahalani, a Yom Kippur War hero and former “Labor hawk” in the Knesset. Since he started the program five years ago, some 180,000 12th graders have come to “tour battle sites, meet combat soldiers, watch a live-fire exercise” and listen to Kahalani’s stock motivational lecture.

“I was an MK, I met with Arafat, I hosted Abu Mazen in my home, I did a lot of things for peace. I tell you, the hatred for us cannot be bridged. Peace can be made if tomorrow we all move to New York. Nobody will take us in there anyhow. We can’t stop protecting ourselves. We have no other country,” Kahalani told the young crowd, according to someone there who quoted him back to Haaretz, which in turn confirmed the quotes with Kahalani.

He poured out his bile on Israeli draft-dodgers, saying gruffly how he could have “killed” one celebrity who got out of the army and how he would “deal personally” with others who tried.

“Those who don’t serve won’t pay taxes, they’ll bring crime, drugs – don’t accept them! Cast them out!” he said.

But that wasn’t all – he even ridiculed soldiers who ask to do their service close to home, calling them the equivalent of “mama’s boys.” For the big emotional climax, Kahalani held up a large Israeli flag and said, “I want to give you a gift. I want to give you this flag. The whole world has flags. But they’re ugly. Red, black, green. Who has a flag with a Star of David on it? Who has one that is blue and white?”

The note-taker reported that the 12th graders responded to Kahalani’s speech with “stormy applause.” Some 180,000 youngsters have been put through this indoctrination, just before they go into the army. In the last five years, that means a huge proportion of IDF recruits. And if they’re anything like those in the Haaretz story, they ate it up.

I don’t blame the 12th graders, of course; “Footsteps of the Fighters” just reflects the times they’re growing up in: There’s no chance for peace, the Arabs hate us, always have, always will. We have no other country because no other country wants us, and besides, they’re all ugly anyway; only our country is beautiful – blue and white. Listen up, everybody – it’s us against the world. Now go get ‘em.

I remember when there was an Israeli type called the “soldier for peace,” when it was believed entirely possible, when it was considered no contradiction at all, to be a dedicated IDF soldier and a dedicated opponent of war and conquest. Until this last rotten decade, Israel’s military class, as far as I know, was the world’s only military class that tended to the left side of its country’s political spectrum – that was a voice for peace.

No more. Now the voice of the military establishment comes from the retired generals showing up in the TV newsrooms urging us to war, congratulating the IDF, Shin Bet or Mossad for every reckless bombing and assassination they pull off.

There’s no balance anymore, no tempering of the soldier’s spirit with an urgency to prevent killing and dying. There’s no more attempt to see if we can simply stand up straight and survive – no, it’s either swagger or cringe, and we prefer swagger.

In 21st century Israel, this is what it means to be a man. But it’s nobody’s idea of what it means to be a mensch.


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