“I wanted to make people understand what serving in the army does to a person’s soul,” said David Ranan, author of A Land to Die For?, a collection of 27 interviews with young Israelis on the subject of conscription.
The series of monologues reveal the breadth of emotions and attitudes that exist in Israel towards military service, from philosophical turmoil to fear and military ambition.
Mr Ranan, an Israeli former banker and political scientist, served in the IDF from 1965-68, during which time he came to the conclusion that “there is no such thing as a benign occupation”.
Many of the interviewees were critical of the status quo in the West Bank and Israeli military actions over the Green Line. Mr Ranan said that when choosing subjects he did not seek to represent Israeli society but “to paint a picture” of a minority but growing mindset.
The idea for the book came to Mr Ranan while he was visiting some Israeli friends, two of whose sons had avoided enlistment. It occurred to Mr Ranan that since he served in the IDF, draft-dodging had become much more common, and he set out to document “how some young Israelis handle the possible doubts and moral qualms” over army service.
Below are excerpts from seven of the interviews; in all cases pseudonyms are used to protect identities.
Twenty-year-old, who would not enlist
“What would happen if everyone threw down their arms? That’s a good question: actually, I’d be curious to know. Worried? I don’t know if I would be worried. There’s no knowing. It also bothered me to be a symbol with a weapon. Like, walking around as a symbol? In dress uniform? Me wearing army uniform and carrying a weapon? If there wasn’t an army at all, then I probably wouldn’t be alive. I know there’s a contradiction here. Where do I stand on this issue? I told you, I’m, an egoist. It was important for me to contribute to the country. I don’t see it an obligation, but as a desire to give. Especially at this age, you can give a great deal, devote a few years and really contribute. People I don’t know would say I’m anti-Zionist. When I told people I didn’t know that I’m not going into the army, they tried to persuade me that I should go. But they’re people who don’t know me. Israel is a very pro-combat society. Most of the people who hate dodgers probably don’t know any. Even in my year at school I heard shouts along the line of, ‘A real Israeli doesn’t dodge’, and that s**t. But once I spoke with a kid in my year, he said, ‘You know what’s good for you’.
Eighteen-year-old in his last year of high school
“The state and the army are waging war against different guerrilla organisations. It’s not a normal war situation. If you look at the rules of war, there isn’t a single one about guerrilla organisations. It’s complicated when a guerrilla organisation is fighting from a populated area where not all of the local population supports or even identified with that organisation. Of course we don’t want to harm these residents; they haven’t done anything to us. But sometimes you’re in a no-choice situation. That is, either take the risk that you’re going to hurt a few civilians, or any minute the rocket-launching crew you’re trying to strike and which is hiding in the midst of a civilian population can launch a Grad rocket at Ashkelon or Beersheva. It’s very, very complicated, there are a lot of considerations the IDF takes into account, and in many cases, it’s got no choice. No choice.”
Twenty-two-year-old, who has recently completed her military training
“Personally, I’m very sensitive to violence, and I’m also a vegan. But I’m not a pacifist. A pacifist is someone who won’t justify using violence against another person, no matter what the circumstances are. I began to understand that there’s no such thing. Anything that’s connected with morality has to be examined from a concrete situation. There’s not pure morality and if there is then it’s not relevant for everyday life. You can say that shooting at another person is immoral, no matter what. But if you’re standing in front of a kindergarten and someone comes to spray them with a weapon, is it still immoral to shoot him? I’m not talking about dodgers who just don’t want to go into the army because they want to advance their career. That definitely doesn’t seem right to me. It’s not moral. They just sponge off society. That’s just spitting into the well you drink from.”
Eighteen-year-old high-school pupil, a few months before enlisting
“You can go through your entire service, get up in the morning and sell ice-cream; on the other hand, your service can be the most amazing thing in the world: because they come to you and tell you, come to us, show motivation, you want to go far, we promise you we’ll invest in you. They tell you, let’s have a reciprocal relationship, we’ll work together. You’ve got to bear in mind that the army is the biggest organisation in the country, and they really do have the money to invest in you. Yes, I’m actually in favour of stopping the settlements. In the West Bank there are more Jews [than there were in Gaza]. Evacuating the area will provide an area to establish a Palestinian state, which I believe in.”
Nineteen-year-old participant at a Mechina (a pre-military preparatory programme)
“I’m pretty gung-ho for the army. I couldn’t wait to enlist and be inducted to do what I could. My brother started with the ambition of making it into flight academy. Something that’s glamorous, like, in the sky. Being a pilot is the pinnacle of glory, it’s the IDF personified. The best become pilots. And then from a pilot it’s turned into ‘Wow, besides being a pilot there are commando units that you could make it into. Start training.’ […] The soldiers in the commando units aren’t like everybody else; they’re people who can endure harsher conditions. They can endure more intensive demands. I said to myself, ‘Wow, if I put in the effort maybe I’ll make it into one of them.’”
Twenty-two-year-old, strictly-Orthodox, two weeks before his wedding
“I got fed up with the whole business of submitting every six months and standing in line to receive a deferral. So I took action to change my status. I wanted to be granted exception. I masqueraded as a bit of a wacko. How? I came a bit dishevelled, I told them I’d had difficulties, I sold them all kinds of stories. They accepted it. I told them I don’t get on in frameworks. I told them I’d been thrown out of the yeshivah, and I’m not managing and I’m going through social difficulties.”
Nineteen-year-old from a kibbutz, six months before enlisting
“Actually, ever since I was little I was really scared of the whole war thing, killing and all that. I guess I’m scared of doing combat service. Whenever there was talk, I’d say, jokingly, “I’ll be dodging”. Among my friends the thinking was that anyone who doesn’t go into the army isn’t accepted in society, and doesn’t count. In my kibbutz most of the boys not only go into the army, but go into combat units. I wouldn’t tell anyone that I’m scared. I’d be scared how it’d look. To people I was closer to I’d say I was scared. They’d talk to me from their point of view: they don’t see it as fear, but as willingness to do what you have to do. I also agreed with them that there’s nothing you can do, we live here and it really is something our country needs. For peace we have to make compromises, but the defence of the country is something that’s very crucial in our lives, and that’s why I’m torn here. I believe, like, we have to give up the Territories. No, I don’t think they’re yours; right now they’re in our possession.”
Twenty-four-year-old, soon after completing a four-year army service
“In Gaza I changed a bit. I became a bit more gung-ho in terms of the operational activity; I came out of the illusion a little bit. I realised there are people that all they care about is harming Jews. Harming who they see as their enemy: Jews, the IDF, Israelis. There I had this ‘switch’ in my head. Things I’d always known but never experienced in person, there it changed.”