Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Time to Answer the Question

"Nu, where will you be serving in the Israel army? What unit do you want to be in?"

Everyone in Israel asks me this question after hearing that I am enlisting this November. The easy answer is that I am heading for an infantry unit. But the easy answer ducks what they want to hear. Each of the five infantry brigades has its own character, its own legends, and so the easy answer fails to explain whether I will be adopting the persona of Golani, Givati, Kfir, Nachal or Tzanchanim (paratroops). The easy answer also masks my motivation, failing to clarify whether I have my sights set on the army's elite units or a regular brigade.

The reality is that I have a pretty good sense of where I want to serve in the army. And so as long as my body and mind do not fail me in gibushim, I see myself enlisting in an elite unit. From my very uninformed perch, elite combat units in the IDF consist of the following: At the top of the ladder are the air force and navy commando units, Shaldag and Shayetet, and most of all Sayeret Matkal, the elite squad that reports directly to the General Staff. The second rung includes a range of elite units like Egoz, the anti-guerrilla force affiliated with Golani, and the top two units affiliated with the paratroops, Maglan and Duvdevan. And the third rung consists of the three sayarot, reconnaissance squads, drawn directly from each infantry brigade.

Although my ambition is to serve within one of these elite units, I rarely say so. Instead my response to the constant inquiry of where I will be enlisting is that my goal is to serve in the most challenging combat position I am capable of. Part of my muted response stems from a mish-match of ignorance and modesty about whether I am really the right candidate for an elite unit. The heart of my response, however, lies in my aversion to allowing the idea of where I am going outpace the reality of where I am. Put another way, I am a believer in the Confucian ethic of not allowing words to eclipse deeds. The same ethos led me to defer informing others of my aliyah and army plans until this summer, when I was finally prepared to realize the dual dreams I have nurtured for a decade.

On Monday September 14 I was finally forced to provide a more definitive answer to the question of where I wish to serve in the army when a team of army officers arrived on kibbutz to collect the manila I had received the previous Wednesday. The manila had come with a list of army units (artillery, tanks, engineer, the various infantry brigades) and instructions to rank my preferences, one to five, on where I want to enlist. My ranking was no trivial manner. Garin Tzabar all but guarantees that its members will receive their top choice. In other words, any Garin member who wants Golani, gets Golani. While Garin members still have to pass the rigorous gibushim required for the paratroops (tzanchanim) and elite units, the ability to end up where we want in the army is a privilege rarely accorded to anyone else (i.e. Israelis and foreign volunteers) who enlists in the IDF.

Ranking my choice units was the easy part. Slots three through five went to Golani, Givati and Nachal, with my second choice Tzanchanim (paratroops) as much as for the elite units (Maglan, Duvdevan) that one tests into through the paratroops than for the brigades’ storied history. My top spot was reserved for Yom Sayerot, indicating that I want the chance to attend the two day gibush that screens which candidates will be invited to the five day field tests for the most elite units (Matkal, Shaldag, Shayetet & the elite rescue unit known as Unit 669).

The tough bit came when I was called out for the first of three successive interviews with the IDF officers. In each interview I was asked to give an abridged life story before the officers asked the question: where do I want to serve? This time my answer was for keeps so I bucked routine and told them that while I wanted the opportunity to field test for the very top units in the IDF, my goal was that I would prove capable of Duvdevan or Maglan.

The second officer I spoke with carefully marked down my response before coming back at me with a full broadside. What if I proved incapable of passing any gibush? Why did I want to serve in Golani ahead of the more foreigner friendly environs of the Nachal brigade? And why did I persist in seeking a unit that would provide a physical rather than mental challenge—was I prepared to waste the skill-set I had laboriously cultivated over four years of college and graduate school?

None of the questions caught me off balance. Failing a gibush, I explained to the officer, will leave me with valuable lessons and only further motivation to press forward in the regular unit to which I am assigned. Nachal does not attract me because the brigade is known for having a heavy contingent of foreign volunteers, especially Americans, and one of the key reasons I am enlisting is to integrate with the full sweep of Israel society. And yes, I am searching for a mainly physical challenge in my army service. Not because I do not value what I have learned in university. I see the next two years as a chance to round out my experience, confronting me with challenges the like of which I have never encountered. Unlike most draftees, I am not heading to the army with little sense of what I want to do after the army. My future aspirations do not lie in forever fine-tuning the martial disciplines I will learn in the army. Instead I expect to tap the whole of my experience, and especially my years in university, and thus the next two years offer me a chance to engage something that would otherwise remain forever foreign.

The questions posed in my interviews were only a small part of the barrage of queries the officers meted out in a thirty page written questionnaire. Although the officers assured us that the questionnaire could only assist us—and despite the fact we all completed the two hour plus exam in English—the intensely personal nature of the questions called for a great degree of attention.

Some questions were absurd, like when I was asked to list my two least favorite classes over the last few years and I had trouble deciding which of my all too many economic courses merited inclusion.

The most intriguing questions came in the first section, which consisted of sixty sentences we had to complete in twenty minutes. The section began with easy lobs like “A good father is one who ____” yet also included many variations of “When I fail I ____.” I am really not quite sure whether I religiously followed the instructions to simply write down the first thought that came to mind when reading the start of each sentence. Be that as it may, I ended two-thirds of my sentences with some variation of (a) I dislike when I am misunderstood and (b) I am deeply motivated to give my all.

1 comment:

  1. The IDF is lucky to have you Shmuel. Sounds like you made sure they knew it. :)