Saturday, July 30, 2011

Politics by Other Means

Give me liberty, or give me death!

My terms are less dramatic than those framed by Patrick Henry in his famous speech on the eve of the American Revolution. Give me kav or grant me tash, is how my battle-cry with my superiors has evolved since our initial firefight over the sarsap position. My central request has remained to serve with my peers as a combat soldier on our current deployment. Failing that, and acknowledging that transferring to another combat unit has never been a viable option (no unit would take a soldier with only two months left purely due to the paperwork hassle), my quest has been for maximum tash, slang for comfort, in other words finding the least numbing way to spend my remaining weeks in the military. My pursuit of either of those two terms has taken a variety of dramatic turns over the last month even as my position has remained decidingly static in the interim.

When I left off last time, my company commander (mem’pei) had scathingly informed me that I would be formally punished for resisting the lowly logistics position (sarsap) I had been assigned. My attempts to find advocates for my cause had seemingly come up empty and I headed to a week-long break (I was attending a lone soldier post-army career workshop) from my unit with little reason to be optimistic about what awaited me on my return.

My first week back set the stage for how I would pass the time over the remainder of the next month. With my entire unit deployed in the territories, I was assigned to be one of three soldiers that are needed to stay back and watch over the home base. With no real gear to watch over and everything locked up that has not been carted off to the deployment, there was little to do besides catch up on movies, reading, running and trading bitter jokes with one of the other soldiers marooned with me on our home base, a lone solder from Belgium with his own reasons for being on base.

There was a purpose to my staying on base this first week. At some point, promised my lieutenant, you will meet with the battalion commander (known as the magad, a senior officer that is my company commander’s immediate superior). The magad has a reputation as a nice guy and so when we met on Friday morning he let me say my piece. The problem was that the issue at play had now moved from my desire to remain a combat soldier rather than a sarsap (which had fueled the disagreement until now) to the magad’s insistence that I sign a third year. This new direction did not come as a surprise, since I was all too aware that the lone soldier advocate I had initially turned to for assistance, Zvika Levy, had for better or worse seized on this lone detail of my army story and communicated it to the senior officers he spoke to on my behalf.

I gave the magad a similar explanation to what I had told his manpower official during a previous encounter: When I came to the Paratroops eight month ago, I clearly expressed to the relevant officer that I wished to serve in a unit that did not require me to serve more than my remaining one year of service. I was nevertheless placed in the special forces, where soldiers are formally required to serve a full three years (quite rightly, as far as I am concerned), but without anyone asking me to sign extra time until now, two months before I am scheduled to discharge and begin the rest of my life. With all due respect sir, I concluded, at this point in time I find it difficult to be pressured into signing on an extra year, especially when I am by no means the only lone soldier to serve less than three years in this (and many other) special forces unit(s).

The meeting with the magad ended with him informing me that I had until Sunday to agree to sign an extra year. After he left, his manpower chief, who had been sitting in over the course of the meeting, approached me with a glint of undisguised menace in his eyes. That was the good cop routine, he paraphrased in referring to his superior’s words. Now I am going to tell you what will really happen. On Sunday you will meet me and either (a) agree to sign a third year, (b) disagree and I will sign it for you, (c) if I am unable to do so (which of course, he is, making his threat meaningless and frankly, hilarious!), I will instead make the remainder of your service a misery.

There was no reason to wait the weekend for me to tell these guys what they apparently had not yet absorbed: I had zero intention of signing on an extra day let alone another year. To clarify, my decision has nothing to do with a “hate the army” attitude or any such nonsense. It merely reflects the fact that I am ready to move on with my life and do not see my present circumstance as obligating me to serve more time as, for instance, they did when I initially agreed to serve a total of four years when I first enlisted.

The manpower chief was absent to receive my cataclysmic decision on Sunday. He also failed to make himself available over the remainder of the week. So after consulting with Tziki Aud, another noted advocate for lone soldiers, I regretfully set aside my central goal of continuing as a combat soldier and began the struggle for maximum tash. I had two weapons in my tash arsenal: (a) a meyuhedet, the thirty day vacation from the army all lone soldiers are entitled to once a year that I have never used; (b) Course Nativ, a seven week long course on basic Judaism all new immigrant soldiers have the right to attend. Had I remained as a combat soldier, I had intended to pass on both rights in order to maximize my active duty service. Now that my goal was maximum tash, the two tools seemed to offer me a smooth ride until mid-September when I would start chafshash, the vacation soldiers receive before their discharge from the army.

A lone soldier’s superiors are obligated to grant him a meyuhedet. But they get to decide when to grant him the month vacation. Since I am effectively out of the army come mid-September, my superiors seemingly had to grant me the break immediately. Guided by Tziki Aud, I also tried to persuade my superiors that doing so was the best option for all of us, since at this point I was not doing anything anyways and resolving my service without bitterness seemed in the best interest of everyone. My company commander refused to play ball. When he could not reject the request out right, he approved it for the final month of my service, effectively taking it away since I am already on break during that time from chafshash. According to military rule, he could only do this if he could cite an overarching military need to not grant the meyuhedet sooner. So he did, claiming that manpower shortages prevented him from granting me the break before the end of September.

Before I realized the lengths my company commander had gone to deny my meyuhedet, I came to the conclusion that I needed someone to intercede on my behalf and speak with him about my vacation request. He was not answering my calls, and considering our past discussions, I had little reason to believe he would even listen to my reasonable request for an explanation. So my kibbutz father called on my behalf and, instead of getting a straight answer as to why the meyuhedet was being held up, was informed that I would be granted a second meeting with the new magad that in the last week had replaced the genial man I had spoken with two weeks previously.

Two weeks passed and no meeting with the new magad was scheduled. I was not surprised: if I could not figure out why a meeting was necessary, why would a brand new battalion commander, with a hundred pressing responsibilities, see the need to meet with me? In the meantime, however, my lieutenant was replaced, a routine re-ordering of the ranks that always takes place to a special forces platoon at this point in its history. The new platoon leader told me he saw no reason why I should not return as a combat soldier. Suddenly it seemed that a simple solution to this whole unnecessary drama had arrived. My new lieutenant said he would speak to the company commander and keep me abreast of developments.

Another week passed with me still minding the store, so to speak, on base. In the last month I have watched more movies than I have seen in the past decade, not to mention returned to running every night like I did before joining the army. Since asking my kibbutz father to intercede on my behalf, I had taken a break from working the phones on my behalf, waiting patiently instead to meet with the new magad. Just as I was thinking time was nigh to become active again, my new lieutenant called and informed me that the company commander had ordered me transferred out of the unit immediately.

While I was shocked, the news also served as a call to action. For two days I returned to the phones, speaking with Tziki Aud, kibbutz friends and a new military office for lone soldiers (the office, to my surprise, were helpful within their limited abilities to help). Until I got to the bottom of why my company commander had effectively denied my meyuhedet request, it seemed unreasonable to transfer out of his unit and, as he clearly wished, allow him to slip away. The endless phone hours eventually revealed what I mentioned above, that he had claimed a manpower shortage in effectively denying my request. The excuse would have been bogus enough during the past weeks while I was whiling away the weeks providing no source of manpower. But now that he was ordering me out of his unit, the idea that our unit faces a manpower shortage so severe that I cannot be allowed out is impossible to keep up without acknowledging a craven act of dishonesty for what it is. When I called the company commander himself, he denied his own words and then simply said he did not care since I had to fulfill his order to leave his unit (and remove him from this whole stitch) or be charged with refusing an order and get sent to military jail.

I briefly considered refusing to transfer out of the company until my superior came clean about why he had lied and refused to grant me my meyuhedet request. Once I got that silly idea out of my system, I completed the necessary paperwork and said goodbye to the unit. There was no dramatic Dreyfus moment when I turned in my gun for the last time. This disagreement is far from over. And while I am not sure where events will move from here, I still have a few options left to keep things interesting.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Education, Sexual Harassment, & Religious Radicalism

Sayeret Matkal spent the weekend on my kibbutz. The Israeli army’s premier special-forces unit did not just come for cheap hotdogs and steaming summer afternoons (a meat factory and the heat are what the kibbutz is most famous for). Two dozen support staff from the unit visited the kibbutz in order to deepen their understanding of religious Judaism. They came to see a religious community in action. And they left having successfully crossed the gulf of ignorance and misinformation that keeps religious and secular communities in this country so far apart. The kibbutz served as the bridge across that gulf, providing an example of how religion can be shared with secular soldiers in a way that deepens their sensitivity and self-knowledge rather than cheapens Jewish tradition and worsens intercommunal strife.

Unfortunately, secular soldiers are rarely exposed to Judaism so sensibly. In a final report issued to the chief of staff a month ago, the outgoing chief of military personnel reviewed the most pressing issues faced by the army. Underlining the entire report is a clear message that the military must get a grip on religious radicalization, otherwise the cherished image of the IDF as the “people’s army” will be no more.

The rising tide of religious radicalism in the military is largely expressed through discrimination against women. Using trumped up claims of sexual modesty, religious officers and members of the military rabbinate (a division of the army charged with ensuring food is kosher and religious rituals can be observed within the force) have pushed to keep women out of many military assignments.

The personnel chief’s report, together with another report by the chief of staff’s advisor on women’s affairs, is filled with examples of gender discrimination. In one case the top graduate of a course, a female soldier, requested posting in a particular battalion (a privilege accorded to the top graduate) only to be rejected because the religious officer commanding the battalion did not want women as staff officers. The number of female shooting instructors has been cut back following complaints by religious combat soldiers that they do not feel comfortable receiving instruction from women. In the Intelligence Corps, religious cadets demand that female instructors teach from behind tables. Religious soldiers from hesder yeshivot—institutions that combine religious studies with military service—protest the presence of female staff soldiers (responsible for tasks like education and social-services) in their units. In one infantry brigade, a religious commander requested that no mixed entertainment troupes be sent to the base. Military ceremonies have come under particular criticism. Voices within the military rabbinate have called for forbidding women from singing (such as at a recent Yitzhak Rabin memorial event) and even placing floral wreaths during military funerals. In an example of an issue not concerning women, religious soldiers have complained that military tours of Jerusalem reference Islam and Christianity. “A Jewish army does not have to talk about other religions,” a religious soldier insisted in speaking out against the tours.

The irony of all this sexual discrimination is that the army once had a serious problem with sexual harassment. Today’s women are again threatened, but now due to modesty gone wild rather than sex. The shift reflects the growing presence of religious soldiers in combat units and command positions (previously discussed here). Twenty years ago less than five percent of officers were religious; today the figure is nearly thirty percent. The increasing dependence on the national-religious community, especially in light of the decreased motivation to serve in more secular sectors, obliges the army to take greater heed of religious soldier’s demands.

In a recent series of Haaretz articles, sociologist Yagil Levy, who has studied the IDF closely, argued that a “critical mass” of religiously observant soldiers in field units and at command levels has strengthened demands for shaping the army’s culture in the spirit of “thy camp shall be holy,” alongside unofficial arrangements in some units. Levy claims that senior officers are paralyzed when dealing with religiously volatile issues, and that the General Staff has resigned itself to the military rabbinate’s expanded role vis-a-vis the religious education of secular soldiers. The next stage is under way, he says: a rise in manifestations of “gray” refusal and politically motivated rebelliousness by soldiers, with the army afraid to confront them.

Others think the army has become a battlefield for “external” players, to its detriment. As a friend remarked, “Like everything else in this country, the internal battle gets waged through the army. Religious harassment against women is no different.” Haaretz quoted a religious officer providing a more subtle analysis. “What the secular public doesn’t understand is that religious Zionism is not monolithic but a collection of sects and tribes,” explained the officer. “Some of them are using modesty in the IDF as a pawn against other rabbis. Some of the problems are imaginary; rabbis inflate them for their needs and the army takes fright. When you ask religious soldiers in the field, you find there are other things that bother them, and women’s modesty is not necessarily at the top of the list.”

In light of these tensions, the visit to my kibbutz by the noncombat arm of Sayeret Matkal is all the more remarkable. Not only for the sensitive way in which the largely secular troops engaged religion. But because seeing that sensitivity applied to educating soldiers is all too rare. Outside of elite units like Matkal, soldiers are rarely exposed to any degree of sensitizing educational programming. As far as I am concerned, a key problem in the army is the education corps. The problem is not so much bullying by the religious radicals as a plain and simple failure by the corps to do much educating.

Even with limited resources, the education corps could do so much more. Funding is not necessary because the training soldiers undergo—the land upon which they march, the hills where their forerunners sacrificed so much—has all the necessary tools to create historically informed, ideologically astute troops. The key ingredient is a motivated platoon leader, a lieutenant made to understand by the education corps how critical it is that he intertwine lessons about the country’s land and people into his soldiers’ training. My lieutenant in the air force was an outstanding example in this regard. He truly believed in the need to make Zionism and the country’s history a living and breathing part of our training. A week did not pass without a lesson about the significance of where we trained in the history of the state of Israel and the Jewish people. Every platoon leader could follow his example if the army, through the education corps, took to heart the responsibility of creating a “people’s army.”

Friday, July 22, 2011

Man in the Right Arena?

Foreign volunteers come to the Israeli army with the idea that serving as a soldier will put them front and center in the news coming out of the Holy Land. “No longer will I simply read what is going on from afar,” thinks the starry eyed future lone soldier, “but I will became an actor, Teddy Roosevelt’s man in the arena, ‘whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood.’” While there is no shortage of dust, sweat and blood in the army, few soldiers play a central role in the decisive politics of the Middle East. Most, for that matter, have no idea about regional politics. Not because they have no interest. Soldiers simply have few opportunities to follow the news. This is especially true if you are a new immigrant with weak Hebrew skills unable to breeze through a local newspaper with ease.

So when my fellow soldiers began muttering about politicians passing extremist legislation and people sleeping on the streets in protest (separate stories, as it turns out!), I decided the time was long past to catch up on the local news. What I read shocked me: a successful consumer uprising against the price of cottage cheese, a more dramatic if less successful tent city protest against high housing prices, a doctors strike that has continued for over four months and two inflammatory bills in the Knesset, one that was approved to make boycotting Israel illegal and a second that seeks to create governmental committees charged with investigating human rights organizations.

Good lord, what is happening in this country?

The medical system has essentially come to a standstill, as doctors fight for higher wages. The government, rather than come to some reasonable solution, has instead asked the population to avoid any medical necessities for the significant future!

Israelis are pointing to Israel’s Arab neighbors as compelling examples of citizen protest. The cottage cheese consumers followed suit, and forced producers to lower prices through a Facebook campaign that attracted over a hundred thousand supporters. As if to take the example of Tahrir Square one step further, away from the safe confines of social media and into the streets, thousands of folks across the country have pitched tent cities in urban centers to protest high housing costs. Most of these folks are young adults from the middle class, a mainstream protest that one academic noted “is revolutionary in a big way, the fact that middle-class students began to struggle, that they feel that there is no future within reach for them - we are talking about the mainstream of society - this has never happened in Israel.”

The democratic process is in the hands of professional politicians like Danny Danon, the sponsor of both extremist bills, who described the legislation as “a lesson in democracy” designed to punish “political organizations that are outside the consensus.” So much for what I was taught in elementary school, that democracy is designed to protect the rights of the minority, the same minority that deviates from the consensus.

It is small comfort to read the words of Danon’s party elders, longtime Likud leaders like Reuven Rivlin and Benny Begin (son of the former Likud leader and PM Menahem Begin) that have mournfully castigated their own party’s legislation as “threatening to catapult us into an era in which gagging people becomes accepted legal practice (Rivlin)” and “[casting a large banner over the Knesset] bearing the words: ‘Here, it is dark’ (Begin).” Such leaders echo back to a forgotten generation of Israeli politicians that, for all their mistakes, were (or at least, gave off the impression as) men and women of real substance and human empathy.

It is an even smaller comfort to consider that all these news-stories would be swept under the rug were a nasty security threat to rear its head. Israel cannot allow men like Ahmanijedad, Nasrallah and the trigger happy leaders of Hamas to distract the country from serious cracks in the social order. For all the propaganda Arab leaders have thrown against Israel, it is not hatred of the Jewish state that is driving the Arab masses into the streets. It is fractured social systems, states that fail to protect the weakest members (including those outside the consensus!) of the population.

A soldier whiling away time in the army while reading of such compelling national crises cannot help but wonder whether he is waging the right fight. Perhaps this soldier, and other young Zionists burning to make a real difference in this country, can remember what Teddy Roosevelt was speaking about when he called on his audience of young adults to become men in the arena, stained by dust, sweat and blood. The year was 1910 and the audience was a hall of young Frenchmen who within a decade would die as soldiers in the trenches of World War One. But Roosevelt was not calling on them to enlist. The title of his great speech was Citizenship in a Republic.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

Doing Right by the Beret

I hate wearing a wet sock on my head…It makes my skin break out...It does not have a visor, does not shield the sun, does not absorb sweat well...

Listening to soldiers complain about the beret makes it easy to understand why a headpiece that has been associated with soldiery for over a century is so deeply unpopular with the modern military man.

And to appreciate why the army is abandoning the beret.

Yes, despite adding a dashing suggestion of French √©lan to the otherwise benighted military costume, the army has decided to replace the beret with the pedestrian patrol cap. No longer will the beret nestle atop a shoulder or sardonically fall across a soldier’s brow.

No longer, that is, in the US army. Because the attention grabbing announcement doing away with the beret was made by the American military. Israel, which embraced the beret in the 1950s to counter the ragtag attitude of its infant armed forces, has no plans to abandon the most iconic symbol of the modern Maccabee.

In the Israeli army, the beret (kumta) is a mandatory item in a soldier’s dress uniform. Tucked neatly atop the shoulder, it is only worn during formal ceremonies. In the infantry, where the everyday uniform is a less formal green set of fatigues, a beret or field cap must be on the shoulder or head whenever soldiers are on base. Elite units play by a different set of rules, so when I arrived in the paratroops from my former air force unit I was unused to wearing my beret unless I was heading home for the weekend.

I also gave less thought to my beret because soldiers in the air force posses the force’s distinctive coal colored beret from day one. Infantry soldiers do not receive their berets so easily. For most of their training, infantry troops wear the dull green beret they receive when they first join the army (this beret is hence known as a kumtat bakum, after the name of the induction base: Bakum). The colored berets unique to each brigade (brown to Golani, purple to Givati, neon green to Nachal, maroon to Paratroops, camouflage to Kfir) are obtained after a long and grueling march (known as the masa kumta, beret march) that typically represents the culmination of training. The march ends with a festive yet formal ceremony, the tekes kumta (beret ceremony), where commanders hand out the coveted colored berets, with a favorite soldier typically receiving the commander’s own beret as a special honor.

Regardless of how the Israeli soldier earns his beret, the rules of what to do with it are very clear. Some prefer to spray their new berets with deodorant and then set them on fire, other rely on the old school shaving knife, but the objective is the same: to rid the beret of its fuzzy exterior and reduce it to a dry leather-like carcass. Berets that have not undergone this treatment, not been shiftzured in army lingo, are mockingly referred to as chatulot (cats) for their fluffy fur. A beret in this condition screams of a rookie soldier, a tzair (youngster) deserving of scathing mockery.

The rush to look like a veteran soldier is such that berets are torched and nearly cut to pieces. The worst part is, as every soldier who has used his beret as an emergency pillow on a bus will attest, is that a defluffed beret makes a horrible sleeping companion, and frankly resembles a dried doormat more than anything else. Save for a few cursory passes with a sharp blade, I kept my berets nice and fuzzy and never had a reason for regret.

Saturday, July 2, 2011

Workshop Preview of Coming Attractions

A week devoted to discussing life after the army could not have come at a better time. After the turmoil of the past week, I eagerly awaited getting away from my unit and joining a gaggle of friends from my kibbutz at one of the army’s career workshops (sadna shichrur) for lone soldiers. The regularly scheduled week-long workshop in Ramat Gan is provided to lone soldiers in the final months of their service. Each day is crammed with presentations and classroom discussions on what a young adult needs to know in order to get his life on track after the army. While I felt the amount of time budgeted for discussions could have been better put to use providing us with a more detailed timeline of relevant financial and bureaucratic necessities, the workshop was full of positives. At the end of the week my resume was translated into Hebrew, my professional prospects were receiving the assistance of a first-rate career counseling firm whose services are provided gratis for the next year, and my network of lone soldiers had been immeasurably widened thanks to the many new faces I befriended.

The real benefit of the week, however, came through the break the workshop provided from the unfriendly winds stirring in my regular unit. It was a break in more ways than one. Not only were my garin friends with me in uniform for the first time in our collective service but the end of each day’s session at four PM meant there was loads of free time to mess around in Tel Aviv and elsewhere. We went to the beach, ate out every night, and I even managed to sneak in a festive liquor-friendly wedding when an Israeli friend from grad school got married on Wednesday night. The morning sessions and evening chilling widened my horizons far past the narrow concerns that have dominated my attention over my army service.

One of the great ironies, and unfulfilled expectations, of my service is that I enlisted with the stated goal that the army would provide me with the space wherein I would be reminded and inspired of my dearest values and most cherished goals. Personal space, internal and material, is of course a rarity in an army that reduces even the grandest of thinkers to narrow minded tacticians. Peering out the window this week at the sunny skies that await after the army left me with the small comfort that perhaps my two years in the wilderness will spur even greater creativity and excitement upon my discharge.