My reaction to critics of Israel? I joined the IDF

A former ballet dancer and mother-of-two explains why she decided to become a volunteer with the Israeli army

By Clair Symonds, January 6, 2011
Clair Symonds in her IDF uniform. The daily ritual of raising the flag provided her with one of her proudest moments in the army

Clair Symonds in her IDF uniform. The daily ritual of raising the flag provided her with one of her proudest moments in the army

There might be no such thing as a free lunch, but there may well be such a thing as a free falafel. I say that only because when I would get chatting to falafel stall-holders the subject would invariably turn to what I was up to in Israel, and the conversation would go something like this.

"Where do you come from, then? England, America?" the stall-holder would say as he took my order.

"South Africa - but I live in France," I would reply.

"And why have you come to Israel. Tell me, you are Jewish?" he would say as he began to prepare my falafel.

"I've come to volunteer here. And yes, I am Jewish."

"Where are you volunteering?"

Some of the young Israeli soldiers who worked alongside the Sar-El volunteers

Some of the young Israeli soldiers who worked alongside the Sar-El volunteers

"For the army."

That would stop him in his tracks. He would look up in amazement. "You have come here to volunteer for the army? Thank you so much, that is wonderful. Kol Hakavod." Whereupon my 20 shekel note would be waved away and extra lashings of hummus applied to boot. I cannot tell you how many times that happened to me.

I was volunteering for Sar-El - the Hebrew abbreviation for Sheirut Le'Yisrael, meaning Service to Israel, which was precisely what I wanted to give. I was only one among 5,000 people from overseas who come each year to be civilian volunteers in the Israel Defence Force under a programme founded by General Aharon Davidi, one of the country's most decorated soldiers.

So why was I, a former ballet dancer and mother of two grown-up children, so keen on a stint in the Israeli army? I suppose it was a reaction against the political correctness that means you can no longer mention the word Israel, let alone the IDF, without receiving dirty looks or embarrassed silences. I had had enough of that and wanted to show it in the most dramatic way I could - which is why, 15 months ago, I embarked on my first "tour of duty", and have completed two further tours since then.

Arriving in Israel that first time I discovered that not all of us on the programme were Jews - most notably the self-styled "Meshuganah Goy", a British man called Roger Neill who was extremely proud to have created that nickname for himself.

Most were however, including an American called Norman Sheinwold. He was so profoundly traumatised by the Holocaust that he had sought out a tattooist on Long Island who skillfully created a Magen David on his left forearm, across which were inscribed the words "Never Again". This over-the-top coming-out as a Jew was wonderfully refreshing. No more tucking away my own small Star of David as I had learned to do at home in France.

Of course, the phrase "volunteering in the IDF" makes it sound rather glamorous. But working alongside paratroopers on secret assignments, it wasn't. We were warned to think "army life and army conditions", and so it proved.

My first tour was at a naval logistics base in the north of Israel. It was there that I came under the charge of Liron, who was a little over five feet tall and not yet 20 years old. Still, if you knew what was good for you, you did not mess with her - barely out of high school but already a corporal with aspirations of becoming an officer.

She led seven volunteers, myself included, to the female block to show us our quarters. I was a taken aback when she announced, pointing to a small, narrow room, "that's it". I had not anticipated the entire seven of us being bundled into a spartan shoebox.

But then came the good bit - getting our IDF uniforms. Not exactly a Saville Row fit - the sizes were basic small, medium and large. Belts and safety pins were the order of the day to keep up baggy trousers or to take the place of a missing button or two. But once organised with boots and hats, we all stood smart and proud in our military dress.

True to army life, the day began early - dropping out of bed, straight into uniform and bolting breakfast to be in time for flag-raising.

With all the military precision of a yiddisher Dad's Army, our small but keen group of 15 volunteers stood to attention. Given the order, one of us would be chosen to raise the flag and then stand to salute it. I never imagined how emotional I would feel when it was my turn to perform this duty. It was one of my proudest experiences of the tour.

With the formalities out of the way, Liron would give a news briefing before sending us off to our assigned duties. Mine was in a warehouse - sorting uniforms from a disorganised pile of large dusty cartons. Not enthralling, certainly, but at least with three volunteers on the job, we were never in danger of missing lunch - and lunch was important.

Despite a regime of rigid army discipline, at meal times the atmosphere among soldiers and officers was relatively relaxed. And the large round tables presented an opportunity for the volunteers to sit with the soldiers and find out a little about their lives. They were every bit as curious about us foreigners too.

"We thought everyone hated us," one 19-year-old conscript told me. "So your coming here to volunteer for us boosts our moral."

I remember it struck me hard when one young man said: "Here in Israel we are either at war or preparing for the next one". I was only a volunteer, helping out for a short stint, and felt humbled by the commitment of these young people.

I cannot pretend that my thoughts did not turn to home comforts from time to time - a private shower, my own loo, an undisturbed night's sleep free from all snorers. But these were tiny niggles when compared to the army volunteer experience overall. You get back far more than you give -and not just free falafel.

For details of the Sar-El programme, contact the UK organiser Jennifer Goldstone at or visit Clair Symonds is writing a memoir of her years as a member of the Iranian National Ballet company

Last updated: 11:04am, January 6 2011