Friday, August 28, 2009

Gadna I: Purity of Arms

On Sunday August 23 my garin arrived at the Joara army base for a five day pre-military program known as Gadna. My own arrival was delayed twelve hours courtesy of a wedding in Jerusalem. So when a generous fellow wedding attendee dropped me off outside the base past one in the morning, I missed the 'drop your bags and get into formation' welcome that the rest of my garin received earlier in the day. Instead a laconic guard outside the base let me know that Obama is the new Hitler as he slowly unleashed the gate and welcomed me into my first army base in Israel.

The modern Gadna program has its origins in the pre-state youth battalions (in Hebrew G'dudei No'ar, גדודי נוער, hence the acronym Gadna) that provided home defense during times of war. Our training base provided an extra dose of Israeli history since Joara was established in the 1940s as the training base for officers of the Haganah, the precursor to the Israeli Army.

Today Gadna is attended by thousands of Israeli high school students and the occasional overseas Jewish teen tour group. Instead of training youth in the finer points of home defense, the modern program introduces participants to the discipline and ethos of the Israeli Army. The program also hopes to leave young Israelis motivated to serve their two/three years of mandatory military service. While draft dodging is a growing problem in Israel, the two-hundred and ten members of Garin Tzabar that showed up to Gadna hardly needed to be convinced to enlist. Our high motivation actually made it difficult to take the program seriously. Compared to what we will all be facing in three short months, five days of basic weapons training, kitchen duty and some mild indoctrination was mostly a chance for laughs.

Jokes aside, I was really impressed by the five day program, especially by a discussion our garin--renamed tzevet sh'moneh, squadron #8 for the week--held with our no-nonsense nineteen year old female squad commander [mifakedet] on Monday evening. The discussion was rooted in the shameful t-shirts that many Israeli soldiers commission to commemorate their service in the army. Slogans like "The Younger the Target, the More Challenging the Shot" and "One Shot, Two Kills" splayed across images of Palestinian children and pregnant women give an impression of the clothing's dehumanizing theme (see here). Although the t-shirts are designed on the private initiative of soldiers, the cruel messages they impart makes a mockery of Israel's struggle to hold its defense forces to a high moral standard. Coming on the heels of the fighting in Gaza in January (Operation Cast Lead) and the scattered charges of soldiers shooting civilians, the t-shirts highlight the image of any army that has lost its moral bearing.

Our mifakedet started the discussion by asking us to word associate the terms 'tohar' [purity] and 'neshek' [weapon]. Her point quickly emerged as she introduced the concept of purity of arms, tohar neshek, and had us consider how soldiers can maintain this ideal under the most trying of circumstances.

What, for instance, would you do when faced by a stone throwing eleven year old Palestinian? In the split second confrontation, what duties do you have to the safety of yourself and your comrades and to the reputation of the uniform and flag you represent? And yet how do these duties conflict with the responsibility you feel to the child before you? To the enemy who wishes to endanger your life and yet remains a child all the same?

The sixteen members of my garin came to very different conclusions when asked to respond to this and similar challenges that many of us may likely be facing in a year's time. Thanks to Gadna's forthright presentation of tohar neshek and the t-shirt controversy, however, we all had a chance to digest the creeping danger of dehumanizing the enemy. From my studies in university, I am all too familiar with the universal tendency to dehumanize the enemy in a time of war. The practice allows soldiers and civilians to harm the enemy without the necessary reminder that, ultimately, we are all created in the Divine image.

One of my underlying motivations in enlisting in the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) is to oppose the malignant threat highlighted by the t-shirt controversy. And so I was ever so grateful that my first day in uniform concluded with our discussion on the fundamental role of tohar neshek in defense of Israel. If the IDF is to protect the Jewish state, it can only do so by preserving what is best in Jewish tradition. It can only do so by opposing evil, from without and within. And it can best do so by recalling the words of the contemporary Jewish-American scholar Michael Walzer:

Immorality is commonly expressed in a refusal to recognize in others the moral agency and the creative powers that we claim for ourselves. And immorality passes into evil when the refusal is willful and violent, turning the others, against their will, into beings less than human.

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