Thursday, January 27, 2011

Where is Zionism in the Army?

Why do young Americans like myself move to Israel and join the IDF?

I want to feel like I’m part of a cause.
Israel is my country.
I’m really excited to do something that I believe in.
I want to defend the homeland.
Its about serving the country that I love.

My own answer to the question asked of every volunteer IDF soldier appeared in these pages back in the summer of 2009. Last Thanksgiving, I made a go at providing an answer for the rest of my foreign-born peers who serve in green for the blue and white. The latest bunch of inspired immigrant soldiers aired their own answer, transcribed above, in a recent Nefesh B'Nefesh video. While not representative of every volunteer Israeli soldier, the above lines do voice the passionate Zionism that drives Americans to take up arms in defense of the Jewish state.

Zionism, in short, is the reason why. The dream of redeeming a people and building a country at the crossroads of civilization. A vision (delusion, some may say) young idealists like myself nurture from afar until the legacy of fallen heroes like Mickey Marcus and Hannah Senesh compels us to suit up in a new-found home. The army, we are sure, is the ideal vehicle to pursue and fulfill our Zionist ambitions.

Except when it isn't. And the candid reality is that save for the odd ceremony and inspired commander, Zionism is absent from Israeli military life. Or as a former lone soldier told me, the Israeli army is where Zionism goes to die. The IDF is an illogical mix of frustration, hilarity, tedium and exhaustion. Grunts are too worn out to be very idealistic. We leave the myth-making to the stories that follow in our wake.

This cannot be true, the believer might say. What is enlistment but the readiness to put your life on the line for a cause. Days may go by when that cause falls out of sight. But everyday in uniform is an affirmation that when my number is called, I will not falter. This people, my imagined community, is worth the ultimate sacrifice.

Zionism, moreover, has its own historic chord to military service. Transforming the defenseless ghetto Jew into a modern Maccabee was early Zionist creed. And military force, from the pre-state groups like the Palmach and the Irgun to the once-a-decade wars, is largely responsible for Israel's existence. "Judea fell in blood and fire," goes a famous Irgun song, "and in blood and fire Judea will rise again." Herzl and Ben-Gurion wished otherwise. But history required the idealist to take up arms that six decades of struggle have not allowed him to lay aside.

So the believer insists. The problem is that the army deals with mundane reality. The soldier is too tired to dream, too overcome with the necessary and the asinine to consider ultimate sacrifice or strategic threats. A green malaise of sorts colors military service, overwhelming primeval blue and white desires.

No soldier suffers from this dearth of Zionism like foreign volunteers. High-minded ideals largely fueled our arrival in the army. Coming to terms with their absence, engaging the daily drudgery of military life robbed of higher meaning, can be quietly devastating. Some fell back on the baseline assurance that, if nothing else, volunteering to serve is fulfilling a basic responsibility shared by all citizens (save for ultra-orthodox and Arab communities, of course!) of the state of Israel. Many others finish the army on empty, drained of the enthusiasm and ideals that first carried them to these trying shores. It is enough to raise serious doubt as to whether enlistment is the right choice of national service for so many of the energetic young Zionists that move to Israel every year.

Joining the army may very well not have been the right choice for a seasoned young Zionist like myself. But it is a choice I would repeat, and do in fact reaffirm everyday. Not out of a consideration of right and wrong. More from a deep seated curiosity and necessity to learn things about myself and others I may never have appreciated away from the Israeli army.

I enlisted as a Zionist, well informed that much of what I have described above would likely come to pass. While I remain as fired up about my Zionism as the day I landed in this country, a year in the IDF has bled humdrum army greens into the blue and white visions that flew me to these shores.

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