Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Mind or Body in Service to the State

Seven years ago I stood in the shade of Har Meron, in the northern Galilee, torn between two futures. One would test my mind, promising a journey of steady intellectual stimulation. The other course would challenge my body, pushing me to a new level of physical strength. The first path, to my 17 year old mind, meant a future apart from Israel, a future dependent on the restrained crafts of writing and reason. The second path pushed my proto-Zionist thinking one step further, linking a future of physical challenge with dwelling in the land of Israel.

The fact that my indecision seven years ago was prompted by a choice between a three day writing or hiking seminar hardly matters (can you guess which seminar I chose?). And while true, I am not trying to call attention to my dodgy tendency to over-dramatize the simplest of decisions. My intention is only to provide some context for the choice I face with the Israeli army, whether to enlist in an analytical position where my knowledge of China and Chinese could be put to some use or to serve in a more traditional combat role. In short, modiin (military intelligence) or a sayeret (the elite infantry units). Mind or body, body or mind.

A combat unit, in particular the infantry, is a realization of the army service I have envisioned serving in since childhood. The teamwork, the discipline, the exhaustion—all are experiences unique to combat that would challenge me like never before, pushing the limits of my mental and physical strength.

Serving in the secretive realm of military intelligence would, of course, also have its share of inimitable challenging experiences. Moreover the opportunity to utilize my Chinese and China knowledge within the Israeli government would no doubt be of immeasurable benefit for my career after the army. Most importantly, putting my Chinese to use would probably be the more effective use of my skills in service to the state of Israel. While there are countless Israeli eighteen year olds that could leave me in the dust in a sprint, very few enlist with an advanced degree in the language and politics of the world’s next superpower.

In many ways the choice I face is a question that all Israeli immigrants confront when they decide to enlist in the army with a college degree in hand. Can and should I put my advanced knowledge to use? Or will I be cheating myself of the army experience I expect, the experience I arguably need to best integrate into Israeli society? Perhaps the questions ring a shade higher in my mind because the skill-set I am bringing to the army is so unusual. Those same skills, however, led me to the sunny heights of Hebrew University on Wednesday August 5, introducing me to an individual who would finally set my doubts at ease.

Yitzchok Shichor is not simply Israel’s preeminent scholar on China. In a wide-ranging academic career spanning the last forty years, he has also emerged as one of the top Western experts on the Chinese military, as well as China’s policies in the restive Muslim areas of Xinjiang and Sudan. Shichor interest in China began much like my own, drawing off an intellectual curiosity and strategic concern for how the rising Asian power would impact the Middle East.

I met with Shichor on Wednesday afternoon, in his office at the Hebrew University’s Truman Institute. We spoke for nearly an hour about why China has recently blacklisted Shichor from visiting the country (the professor contributed to a academic treatment of Chinese policies in Xinjiang, a work someone in Beijing took offense to) and how to blend scholarly and activist impulses in advancing understanding between China and Israel (Shichor’s pithy take, “At 65, I am too old for this activism”).

Finally I posed my questions: (a) Are Chinese intelligence analysts really needed within the Israeli security establishment and (b) Could he put me in contact with the necessary government intel offices. The first question would provide the answer to whether or not I should defer combat for a desk position. As a senior Air Force officer informed me over Shabbat a few days earlier, combat is the most important position in the army but other tasks—such as designing Israel’s advanced weaponry—are more necessary. The question then, is whether Chinese intelligence work is one of those necessary tasks.

Shichor began laughing as I made my request. His mirth, he explained, came because when he was my age, studying in the early 1970s for an advanced degree on Chinese politics at Hebrew University, the Mossad approached him and asked if he could assist them in gathering data on a country that Kissinger and Nixon had just returned to international relevance. Shichor literally founded the country’s intel operation on China. And after returning to academia following two years of government service, his students have filled the ranks of the Defense Ministry, military intelligence and the Mossad’s various needs for analysts of China and East Asia.

So, professor, is the pen mightier than the sword? Will it be mind over body, intel rather than combat, for this young Zionist over the next two years? Nope, answered Shichor. Outside of the Mossad, the professor explained, there really is not much of a need for China analysts. Serve where you wish, advised Shichor, and if you and the Mossad are interested in each other in two years, so be it.

I walked out of the professor’s paper strewn office. It was Tu B’Av, the Jewish Valentine day. The sun was shining on the desert curves of Judea. My heart was no longer torn. I was home.

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