Following this week's four day long exercise in the north, my platoon boarded the bus for the long ride back to base with heavy misgivings. Our commanders knew that the exercise had been far from demanding and that could only mean one thing: pain and punishment would be coming soon as a reminder that we were back under their control.
In the last few weeks, our commanders have turned to ever more creative forms of punishment. Since most of our failures lie in the twin realms of discipline and responsibility--the only real goals of basic training, according to our officer--punishments are designed to fit the crime, mida k'neged mida. After losing track of the whereabouts of two of the guys in our platoon, our commanders responded by assigning everyone a buddy and ordering couples to henceforth hold hands as we walked around base. When one of our radio kits went missing, we were told that for the duration of basic training, we would have to carry around the platoon's two sets of water/stretcher/radio kits.
Our four and a half hour bus ride south was full of talking, snacking and snoozing. Soldiers listened to music while others called family and friends as we rolled past the Jordanian border. Half the bus, however, sat in silence. Before the bus driver even started the engine, our commander laid down the rules: no one in my platoon was to talk, eat, sleep or use any phones or music players for the trip south. After an hour's awkward silence, he returned and, claiming soldiers had disobeyed the ban on talking, ordered us to place our palms on the ceiling of the bus. So much for the punishment fitting the crime, I thought. Then again, suffering in silence for the next thirty minutes did return a dose of shared camaraderie that my platoon had missed during our week in the woods.
Our hands in the air punishment ended when the bus pulled into a rest stop off Highway 90. One look out the window and anyone could have foreseen what would take place. A bus full of Jewish American high school tourists had chosen the same rest stop. Jewish teenage girls' admiration for Israeli soldiers is well known. Little need be said of soldiers' appreciation for the young foreign female. Throw in the minor fact that the American students were participating in a program for young leaders in the pro-Israel advocacy community, and the writing was on the wall.
The soldiers in my bus let out a whoop when they saw the pretty American girls ambling around the rest stop. Even the officers smiled when their soldiers charged off the bus and the more daring troops tried their best English pick-up lines on the willing American students. My own platoon was held back on the bus by our officers, more from the general desire to get in our heads then limit our flirting opportunity. When we were finally allowed off the bus, I wasted no time in talking up the director and staff of the student group. Turns out they were from Write-On for Israel, an organization I am familiar with having witnessed its emergence during my final year in high school.
While it was cute watching the Nachal soldiers throw themselves at the eager American students, seeing the two different crowds really brought home the road I have traveled. A few years ago and I would have found myself on the other bus. Student activism, pro-Israel advocacy, free trips to Israel...all are themes I know well from my years in high school and university. And yet I stood there in my dirty green uniform, unwashed after four days in the woods, watching the slickly dressed students pour back onto their bus. Was I really living in a world so foreign to the one they know? Or does my own biography not imply that the path from their bus to my own is far less distant than our dress and concerns may suggest?
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