On April 7, 2016, the Times of Israel reported that, “The Jaffa military court, on Thursday, extended by eight days the detention of an IDF soldier who shot dead an incapacitated Palestinian assailant after the latter carried out a stabbing attack in the West Bank city of Hebron last month.” Few armies, even among the western democracies, would haul into court a young soldier for shooting a terrorist. The often maligned Israel Defense Forces (IDF) needn’t make apologies, as testified by Col. Richard Kemp, former commander of British forces in Afghanistan, who had this to say about the IDF, “No army in the world acts with as much discretion and great care as the IDF (Israel Defense Forces) in order to minimize damage. The US and the UK are careful, but not as much as Israel”
To get a current perspective on the IDF, this reporter sought out two attractive Israeli army reservists, now a married couple, while they addressed the large crowd at Temple Beth El in Yardley, PA, earlier this month. The two stressed the IDF’s tradition of “purity of arms.” They thrilled the audience with their sincere devotion to their country, and their hope for a peaceful future in the region, particularly in Israel.
Joseph Puder (JP): Please describe your life in Israel, and what motivated you to serve in the Israel Defense Forces (IDF)?
Itai: I am 27-years old, and live in Jerusalem with my wife, Ilana. My ancestors on my mother’s side made “Aliyah” from Iran, riding on a donkey! On my father’s side, they are survivors of the Holocaust from the former Czechoslovakia. My family mirrors Israeli society, a wonderful mixture of cultures and traditions from all around the world. I currently study Political Science, Philosophy and Economics at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and work in the Bank of Israel as a junior analyst.
Serving in the IDF is something I saw as a privilege, an opportunity to serve and protect my people. Growing up in a small country, your hometown can many times be on the front-line of war. You understand that you are physically protecting your own family and friends every day.
Ilana: I am 26 years old, born in Israel to parents who made Aliyah from England. I am currently studying for a MA degree in Diplomacy and Conflict Resolution. I grew up understanding the importance of having a Jewish state and the need to defend it. My grandfather grew up in Baghdad during the “Farhud” (pogrom in Arabic), conducted by the Iraqi government in collaboration with the Nazis against the Jews. The UN held a first-ever memorial day for this horrific piece of history in 2015. The other side of my family originated in Poland, and came to England during the Holocaust. All those who stayed behind were murdered for being Jewish in Nazi concentration camps. It was therefore an honor and a duty for me to serve in the IDF.
JP: Describe the most significant aspects of your service in the IDF. And, how did the IDF contribute to your development?
Itai: At 18, I entered the IDF and was assigned to the Reconnaissance Force, an elite Infantry Combat Unit. I volunteered to become an officer and lead young combat soldiers into battle for 5 years. Israel has mandatory military service for obvious reasons: it has been and still is under attack for all its 67 years in existence.
The IDF is not perfect, it is made of people. But, I can proudly state that before a gun was put in my hands, I received a booklet, which I carried in my uniform pocket, every day of my service. This booklet is called “The Spirit of the IDF,” which is the IDF’s moral code. It’s a list of values, ideals, morals, and basic principles by which we, as Israeli soldiers, are expected to act. One of these principles, which guided me through my service in the West Bank and Gaza, is something called “purity of arms.” It states that we are to use as minimum force as possible in order to achieve our mission. It is a deeply complex challenge to uphold in real-life situations. How can you do everything to insure you don’t miss one knife, one bomb, or one terrorist, because a mistake could mean your life, and yet, you must do whatever you can to minimize the harm to uninvolved Palestinians?
Ilana: I served in the IDF for three and a half years as an Army Benefits Officer, where I took care of the welfare of 1,800 soldiers in an infantry combat unit. I looked after the financial, social, and medical needs of the soldiers and their families. I served in the last operation against Hamas in Gaza as a first-responder, and still serve in active reserve duty to this day.
I am proud of all aspects of my service in the IDF. It taught me about caring for other people and giving back to the community. I got a firsthand look into the people behind the uniforms in the Israeli army, into what goes on back home in their personal lives. This is something that most people never get to see. I am also proud of the fact that I was a female soldier, an officer who chose to give more time than necessary to serve my country.
JP: What, in your view, has the IDF done to enhance the cohesiveness of Israel as a nation, and how has it transformed immigrants into citizens?
Ilana & Itai: Since we live in a tough neighborhood, army service is mandatory. As a result, 18-year olds get drafted instead of beginning their university studies or traveling.
Hence, there is a variety of young people in the IDF, all from different backgrounds. In fact, three quarters of the army recruits are non-combat, and fill positions in logistics, intelligence, computers, education, etc. The IDF is a reflection of its people, and it mirrors the diversity in Israeli society. During our IDF service, we worked intensively with the different populations that make up the Israeli society. This includes new immigrants from many different countries, Druze (an offshoot of Ismailism, a branch of Shia Islam), lone soldiers, Christians, Bedouins, and troubled youth from difficult homes. Despite this colorful arrangement, the differences are not felt: all soldiers receive benefits from the army and serve equally. There is freedom of religion in the celebration of all the different religious festivals and respect for everyone’s dietary laws. Once you put on a uniform, it doesn’t matter where you came from –we are all one, with the same goal: defending the State of Israel.
JP: In your StandWithUs tour of the East Coast, what impressions about Israel have you received on US campuses?
Ilana & Itai: We did, unfortunately, have a few experiences with some students that have no tolerance for any opinion which isn’t their own. There are those who have a clear political agenda which is entirely anti-Israel, they are not looking for respectful dialogue that could mean peace and understanding. We were however, happy to discover a mostly open-minded and intelligent audience at many of our campus engagements. Many were open to dialogue and conversation, and we had some great talks but also really meaningful one-on-one conversations after the event.
JP: As a result of your current Israeli Soldiers Tour of US campuses, what would you recommend to improve students perception of Israel?
Ilana & Itai: If there is one thing to take away from the Israeli Soldiers Tour, it’s that your story matters. Conveying what you’ve experienced, seen and felt personally as an IDF soldier has the capability to break through the obstacle of misinformation about Israel like nothing else can.