Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Deconstructing Start-Up Nation

Disclaimer: Like nearly everything on this site (aka, my public journal/blog), the following purports to tell the truth as I have experienced it. My account is not designed to make money, to present anyone/anything in the best or worst light, nor to do anything but share my experience and attitude about my military service. I am a Zionist and am committed to the wellbeing of the Jewish state. But this blog is not intended as an instrument of hasbara (advocacy)--unlike the work which we will now discuss.

I love Start-Up Nation, the Malcolm Gladwell-esque bestseller that pitches Israel as a phenomenal economic success story. My passion for the book is summed up in the message a seasoned Israeli conveys to a young American Zionist in one of the early chapters: “Israel does not need more professional Zionists or politicians, Israel needs successful business people.” Inspired, the young American abandons a career as a professional advocate for Israel and becomes one of Israel's leading venture capitalists, a full time preacher for financial investment in the Jewish State. He is not selling out on his ideals--he is selling in, focusing his energy on the very front Israel must succeed in to remain relevant in the modern world. Too many young idealists come to Israel believing they will make a difference by joining the army or making peace with the Arabs. Start-Up Nation is a reality check, a reminder that Israel can best help itself, its neighbors and the wider world by thriving as a center of commercial creativity.

So much for the love. My issue with Start-Up Nation is the book's own love for the IDF--and the glowing terms it uses to describe an institution that sounds nothing like the beast I have tangled with over the last two years. I have no problem with someone loving the Israeli army (some of my best friends suffer from this strange illness ;-). But when the object of their affection is more myth than fact, as a member of that falsely mythologized military I am compelled to tell it like it actually is.

The Israeli Army in Start-Up Nation is the incubator of all incubators, responsible for creating the gutsy, quick thinking, networked entrepreneurs at the forefront of Israel’s economic miracle. Dozens of IDF vets that have gone on to achieve startling success in the private sector are quoted crediting their military service for their current success.

A careful reader may note that all of these veterans are graduates of only the most elite units, places where soldiers enjoy far more latitude to innovate than in the regular army. In fact, these elite units tend to serve as stand-ins for the whole army throughout Start-Up Nation. To the extent that conscription allows the IDF place the brightest kids in the best units and thereby produce a future business elite (capitalism by its very nature demands a business elite, the have and have-nots), I agree that the IDF plays a critical role in nurturing Israeli innovation. But the writers go further, arguing:

Talpions (graduates of the hyper elite Talpiot unit) may represent the elite of the elite in the Israeli military but the underlying strategy behind the program’s development—to provide broad and deep training in order to produce innovative adaptive problems solving—is evident through much of the military and seems to be part of the Israeli ethos: to teach people how to be very good at a lot of things, rather than excellent at one thing.

If only this was true. The reality is that combat training in the IDF is quite "broad." What is missing is the second part of the equation: the depth. My peers in some of the IDF's top combat units routinely complained that our scattershot training--a week of navigation, a day of shooting, maybe an hour of krav maga once a month--left us with few relevant skills. Success in combat depends on responding to a threat as a team. As the American journalist Sebastian Junger wrote after spending a year with an American platoon in Afghanistan, "Stripped to its essence, combat is a series of quick decisions and rather precise actions carried out in concert with ten or twelve other men. In that sense, it is much more like football than say like a gang fight. The unit that choreographs their actions best usually wins." In the paratroops, my platoon devoted so little time to fine-tuning our "combat choreography" that when the rare exercise placed us in a simulated firefight, chaos reigned. Our training was to blame. Instead of learning to fight as a military unit, we spent weeks learning a little bit of nothing, dabbling in navigation and ruck-marches, training seemingly designed to build up our resolve rather than our combat wherewithal.

Regardless of the effectiveness of IDF training (there is a lot of good, along with all the bad and ugly), Start-Up Nation is chiefly concerned with presenting the Israeli army as a bastion of responsibility and initiative. According to the book, soldiers, especially officers, are entrusted with vast resources and life and death decisions that leave them well placed for success in the private sector. There is a lot of truth to the first part of that statement (the second part is pretty tough to argue one way or the other). Eighteen year old grunts sign off on expensive military hardware, meaning they assume vast financial responsibility (for loss or injury to the gear) even before they shoulder the mortal responsibility that may come with using the hardware. Likewise, twenty-one year old lieutenants often find themselves wielding real power, especially if they are combat officers and are tasked with leading their peers into battle.

The flipside to these admirable lessons in responsibility is a culture that teaches soldiers to be decidedly irresponsible. Part of the problem is that the army is the very worst sort of welfare state. It feeds, clothes and orders its charges around, creating a corp with a baseline infantile responsibility threshold. Soldiers have no motivation to take responsibility when the army will either boss or provide all their

This bottom-up (the 'bottom' expects someone 'up above' will take care of everything) side of the problem parallels the real rot in the system: the top-down tendency to force your subordinates to take responsibility for the work you should do. Everyone in the army knows that the military resembles a pyramid--the higher you are in the system, the more people beneath you. And if you have subordinates, then they are the people you pass on the chores that your boss passed on to you. The buck stops no where in this army. Everyone dumps on the people beneath them. Grunts end up covered in everyone's filth. Perhaps that is why the miasma of irresponsibility that plagues the Israeli army is often referred to by that most dispiriting of army slang terms, zrikat zayin. In common usage, the phrase means not giving a damn. When applied to the wider army culture, it captures the sense of disinterest in taking responsibility when you can just throw the obligation on to someone else.

The ugly reality of this ethic exposes the myth that Start-Up Nation builds of military leadership. While the army certainly provides peerless leadership opportunities for those that lead men in combat or control vast resources and complex systems, the brunt of officers operating in military bureaucracy easily fall victim to the push the buck philosophy. With national security at stake, failure is not an option. Unless, of course, someone else can be blamed. Israeli politics follows a similar credo, perhaps because the ex-generals and ex-commandos that govern the country learned how to operate in the army.

Initiative, not responsibility, is the real concern of Start-Up Nation. To prove that the former is rife within the army, the authors explain what the slang terms rosh katan/gadol are all about:

In the Israeli army, soldiers are divided into those who think with a rosh gadol—literally a “big head”—and those who operate with a rosh katan, or “little head.” Rosh katan behavior, which is shunned, means interpreting orders as narrowly as possible to avoid taking on responsibility or extra work. Rosh gadol thinking means following orders but doing so in the best possible way, using judgment and investing whatever effort is necessary. It emphasizes improvisation over discipline, and challenging the chief over respect for hierarchy. Indeed, ‘challenge the chief” is an injunction issued to junior Israeli soldiers.

Rubbish. For starters, 'challenge the chief' does not exist outside of elitist intel units, pilot squads and the prestate Palmach militia. In the rest of the army, including top commando squads, questioning your officer--sometimes even voicing a contrary opinion--is a surefire way to find yourself in the dogbox. Push your luck too far and the insecure chief who does not enjoy having his authority challenged will likely make the remainder of your service horrible. More to the point, the army does not reward rosh gadol behavior. Often a soldier is praised for displaying a rosh katan. The point is that initiative is largely secondary. What matters is knowing which insecure authority figure will judge your behavior in any given circumstance and acting accordingly (see slang dictionary for more).

The Israeli army that I know from mine and numerous close friends' lived experience is unfortunately not defined by young men and women taking responsibility and getting rewarded for their initiative. Yet the absence of that reality is not my main concern with Start Up Nation's portrayal of the IDF. My real gripe is the book's pollyannaish presumption that Israel has its compulsory military service to thank for producing a nation of mature university grads that even have international experience due to the global trek Israelis embark on after the army. An alternative narrative, absent from Start-Up Nation but no stranger to anyone attuned to contemporary Israel, is of young Israelis that try to escape the dispiriting experience of serving in the IDF through several years of itinerant global travel, dominated by drugs, danger and lording over disadvantaged local peoples. This is a narrative that takes into account the many conscripts whose military experiences best resembles the metaphor painted by a former lone soldier: “quiet gentle guys [like] Hayim are like sweet fruit. Then the army comes along and mashes them into a pulp.” Start-Up Nation wants you to believe that the Israeli army is the Ivy League of Outward Bounds, an experience with only positive externalities for the state. It is a grand claim, makes great PR, yet unfortunately is distinctly off-key.

Perhaps my ear was so attuned to the writers' military misstep because one of the authors is closely tied to the most authentic portrayal I have ever read of what it is actually like to serve in the Israeli army. I have written several times about the writing of Alex Singer, an American volunteer whose letters were published by his family after his death in battle in 1987. Alex’s published journal spares no punches in expressing the frustration and angst of the typical Israeli soldier. His words echo in the life my friends and I know as soldiers in the same force Alex served in two dozen years ago. His words are absent, though, in the IDF that his older brother portrays in Start-Up Nation. It is not my place to begrudge Saul Singer, Alex's older brother and one of the author's of Start-Up Nation, the opportunity to build on his brother's legacy in the manner he chooses. Nevertheless, the legacy Alex left with me, and with so many other conscripts, is the harsh reality of an often hopelessly frustrating military. Portraying that military otherwise, even for the best of reasons, leaves a kernel of disappointment within my general admiration for Start-Up Nation.

My criticism is less fair if we agree that Start-Up Nation is not about the IDF as much as it is a book designed to advertise Israel's economic miracle, and by extension, Israeli society at large. If allowing the IDF to be portrayed as a shiny, one-trick pony advances Israel's image, then--in this case, at least--count me in as a believer.


The other popular book I recently finished reading is Dance with Dragons, the ponderous fifth tomb in the best sword-and-sorcerer series since Lord of the Rings. The originality and quality of the earlier novels in the series, the ponderous pace of publication and a popular HBO serialization wrapping up its first season have brought tremendous attention to this latest read. Attention it unfortunately does not deserve.

Yes, the book is a bore. Anyone who has read the previous four books, each one nearly a thousand pages, will naturally hang on every word (over 400,000 words, they say). When you have followed characters through so many pages, slowly imagined a world that is gradually expanding from book to book (and now even onscreen), anything that continues the journey will be well received--especially because the author remains a fine wordsmith. What he has lost is a keen sense of drama, of suspense, and most damning of all, imagination.

I started reading the series in the late nineties, shortly after the second novel was published, when I stumbled across the first book in the public library. The cover illustration of the dark haired protagonist on a dark charger in a snowswept forest caught my imagination. The first novel, of course quickly exceeded my best expectation, hooking me for a series that a decade later looks like it likely will never end.

Tolkein invented a formula that the genre has never abandoned, alternatively its greatest strength and weakness: the imagination to create entire worlds, with vast histories and fables. The best books in the genre are merely Dungeons & Dragons games put to pen by a serviceable wordsmith with a slightly original plotline. They write a first standout novel, imaging a world that wins countless admirers whom are then taken along across numerous sequels, each more disappointing than its predecessor. There are many lessons in this, perhaps the most sublime is recognizing that in our passion for innovation we take refuge in the familiar rather than demand the constant imagining that truly excites us from the start.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Suicide in Uniform

Last Thursday a soldier was killed fighting terrorists on the Egyptian border. Last night a soldier was nearly killed by jumping off a three story building on my base. One a hero, the other a suicide. So it goes.

The would be suicide climbed atop my three story barracks building late on Tuesday night. Onlookers thought at first he was trying to get a cheap view into the top-floor girls shower-room. It was not until the soldier began hollering and approaching the edge of the rooftop that he got everyone's attention. As a few soldiers tried to talk him back from the edge, the instant response team--normally charged with responding to border infiltrators--crept up behind the unstable soldier and pulled him to safety.

I was minding my own business in bed when I first became aware of the attempted suicide. A senior officer barged into my room with a distracted soldier in tow. "Get dressed, and get outside," the officer told me bluntly. "Me and my friend here need some privacy for a few minutes." I slipped out the door wrapped in a sheet and quickly discovered that one of my roommates, the skinny guy now sequestered in the room with the officer, had just tried to jump to his death.

My roommate, a noncombat soldier serving as a truck-driver, had a long simmering beef with his assignment in the army. Matters had come to a head and he was now desperate to be reassigned to an "open base," where soldiers return home after the close of the workday. His superiors had not expressed much interest in his request and so, stressed into a corner, he had ended up at the edge of a three story rooftop late on a Tuesday night.

Suicide is rarely the decision of a stable mind. Yet what surprises me about my roommate's attempted suicide is not the deed itself but the fact that relatively few peers follow his lead. I am by NO MEANS calling or in any way wishing more soldiers would commit suicide. I am merely commenting on what anyone within the army knows to be true: the attitude among most soldiers is so negative, there is such a culture of bitterness and repressed anger, that a fair observer can only be surprised that the number of attempted suicides is not even higher.

Suicide is already a problem within the Israeli Army. Exactly how much of a problem is difficult to say (cursory research reveals no public data on the number of attempted suicides, a more relevant figure than successful suicides), since data is scarce--no doubt in part because the army does its best to prevent the media from reporting on soldiers taking their own lives. Those articles that do make it to the mainstream media tend to be about particularly bizarre suicides, like two Druze soldiers that killed themselves in April 2010 within moments of the one hearing of the other's death. Or the soldier who killed himself as French President Sarkozy left Israel in June 2008. Nearly a decade ago, a surge in soldier suicides (35 soldiers killed themselves in 2005, far more than the number of soldiers killed in training or the line of fire) led to a spate of public scrutiny and new army measures designed to sensitize commanders to the risk of suicide.

Understanding why Israeli soldiers commit suicide is really not so difficult. The reason is not, as some left-wing and anti-Israel critics like to claim, a response to human rights violations or having been turned into cold-blooded killers by an immoral occupation force. Instead the cause is rooted in the age and culture of a mandatory military. Soldiers are the same age as the demographic (19-25) that is most prone to suicide worldwide. While the Israeli army tries to avoid inducting youth with suicidal tendencies, universal conscription makes its simple for troubled teens to still find their way into uniform.

Once in the army, the problem is not that the army makes people violent (if anything, the Israeli army teaches combat soldiers to express violence in a controlled fashion). The problem is that the army makes people frustrated and embittered. The nature of a restrictive, insensitive institution is that young people with problems get even more embittered. For every Israeli that glides through the army, two dozen of his peers reach the end of their service with so much buried resentment that a year long trip overseas becomes the necessary means of finding the inner peace to move on with their lives.

The army likes to claim that extensive investigation has shown that suicide is not directly connected to military service. These reports miss the whole point: Most soldiers consider suicide because they find themselves unable to effectively come to terms with non-"military issues" insides the confines of the military. Claiming that the military has no role in such suicides is as morally obtuse as it is functionally dangerous in designing an effective response.

Friday, August 19, 2011

A Fallen Orev in the Attack near Eilat

The soldier who died yesterday was one of ours. For over an hour on the afternoon of Thursday August 18, heavily armed Palestinian terrorist squads attacked civilians and soldiers on the southern desert road leading to Eilat. Eight Israelis were killed, and more than thirty wounded. Moshe Naftali, 22 years old, was, like me, a sergeant in the Orev reconnaissance battalion. His Orev unit is part of the Golani Brigade. Mine is attached to the Paratroopers. Besides the color of our berets, the training and duties asked of us is mostly the same. Before his unit began patrolling the site of yesterday's attack, my unit was responsible for security in the area. Had yesterday's attack take placed six months ago, the soldier under fire could easily have been me.

Before I joined the army, I tried my best to sympathize when Israeli soldiers and civilians were killed by terrorists. As a soldier charged with defending the state of Israel, my feelings today are very different. If civilians are killed, like the Fogel family in March, I am frustrated at my--and the army as a whole-- failure to not do more to prevent such attacks. When soldiers are killed, I am reminded of my commitment to make such a sacrifice even as I fight a frustration that comes at not finding myself closer to the action. Casualties also remind me that the relatively calm security situation in the last three years is deceptive. Violence in this region is never far removed from daily events. As a combat soldier (in name, if not in present reality!), yesterday's attack is a bloody reminder that several months of calm in no way reduces the risk of the work we do.

As the rumors ripped around my base yesterday afternoon, it was difficult to grasp what was really happening down in the southern desert. First we heard a bus had been blown up. Once that report was updated to a bus taking fire from marauding terrorists, everyone on base spoke of heavily armed terrorist squads at loose in Israel's southern desert territory. Then came reports of rocket fire. Was Eilat the target? Were the rockets originating from the Egyptian controlled Sinai desert or the Palestinian Gaza Strip? And what were we, what was the army, doing in all this mess to get the situation under control?

By nightfall, authoritative news finally reached my base and I learned of the series of attacks on traffic along the main highway to Eilat, as well as the military response. The Israeli army had actually been prepared for an incursion in the area by Palestinian terrorists for several weeks. So while the exact timing of the raid surprised security forces, soldiers were in place to prevent a greater tragedy. Handcuffs found on the bodies of the terrorists suggest that a key goal of the attack was to kidnap soldiers, ala the (kidnapping of Gilad Shalit near the Gaza Strip, plus the) Hezbollah attacks on the northern border that prompted the war in Lebanon in July 2006.

Had soldiers been kidnapped, or had the army not succeeded in preventing more civilian casualties, there is a good chance that yesterday's violence could have spiraled into a larger conflict akin to the war in Lebanon or the fighting in Gaza in January 2009. Thankfully, that bullet seems to have been dodged. If not for a laundry list of laudable reasons (prevent further bloodshed and misery), then at the very least for one selfish one: Nothing would make the menial duties I am presently engaged in until the end of my service further demoralizing than if a conflict erupted and instead of participating in what should be the cumulative test of my service, I am left behind on base cutting weeds and collecting garbage.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

To the Point of No Return

No Nativ for me.

I was shocked when the army informed me less than a day before I was to commence Course Nativ (a seven week military seminar on basic Judaism) that my spot had been rescinded. I was one signature and ten minutes away from ending the fiasco that had dogged my last two months in the Paratroops Brigade. Instead I was ordered back to base, slapped with a draconian punishment, and returned to my previous duties cutting weeds and collecting trash for the remainder of my military service.

How the hell did this happen?

When I last left off, it was Tuesday, August 9, the Fast of the Ninth of Av, and I was watching my base recede into the distance for the last time. After two weeks of menial avodei rasar (serving as the base’s garbage collector and weed whacker), I was finally putting the mess that remained of my career in the Paratroops Brigade behind me. Having failed to receive the meyuhedet clearance I am entitled to, I had cut my losses and set off to file the paperwork that released me from the Paratroops and assigned me to Course Nativ for the remainder of my service. The manpower office had given me clear instructions that I leave our forward operating base on Tuesday to collect my gear at home and report Wednesday to our permanent base to give in my gear and transfer out of the brigade. Thursday morning I had to be at the Jerusalem offices of Course Nativ to ensure I did not lose my spot in the seven week education program.

I followed these instructions to the letter. My mistake is that neither I nor the manpower office informed the desk officer that had titular authority over me for the last two weeks that I was transferring out. I had not informed him partly out of a mistaken conviction that the manpower office would do so. But also because until Wednesday morning, I was still holding onto a slim hope that my request for a meyuhedet would be approved and instead of starting Course Nativ, I would be getting out of the army on the thirty day break every lone soldier is entitled to. I had not wanted to overwhelm the desk officer that was serving as my superior for less than twelve days with these various stratagems. Instead I erred and left him in the cold, a mistake that would prove fatal to my desire to get away from this mess once and for all.

My mistake was all the more egregious because my superior since August 2 was the Rasar, a career army desk-officer charged with overseeing brigade-wide discipline issues. In other words, my mistake happened on the watch of the very man obsessed with procedure by the nature of his position. The Rasar interpreted my absence as having gone AWOL. When he contacted me on Wednesday, he refused to accept my explanation that I was merely following orders and processing transfer paperwork. Instead he ordered me to return to the forward operating base to be punished for going AWOL. Having already reached the door of the base where I was to complete my exit paperwork, I made a shot at seeing if they would sign me out and let me skip past this latest confusion. No dice. By this time it was too late to make it to the forward base that the Rasar had ordered me to. Wednesday ended with my communicating to him that I would sleep in nearby Jerusalem and arrive on base the following morning after attempting to speak to the Nativ officers and reserve a space in their course.

The Rasar took my stopover at the Nativ offices Wednesday morning as further sign of insubordination. For my part, I was glad I went since the Nativ officers promised to save me a spot if by Sunday morning I had resolved the AWOL charge. The Nativ registration center was a riot of foreign language, with Russian easily the most common language among the new immigrant soldiers. Besides reserving a spot for Sunday, my highlight of stopping by was running into the Russian soldier that had served as my parachute course instructor—and given me his own parachute insignia that is easily my most treasured keepsake from my military service.

With Nativ taken care of, there was only one thing keeping me from returning to base to face the wrath of the Rasar: the wedding of one of my closest friend tonight in Jerusalem. Returning to base would mean not attending a wedding I had looked forward to for months. While I knew the risks of not returning until Friday morning, I was not certain that missing such a close friend’s simcha was worth the hell I could expect awaited me on my return.

While debating what to do, I took several steps against my commanders for the ugly events of the last few months (not including this latest fiasco). The Lone Soldier Center helped me draft and fax a Hebrew letter to the army complaints office, known as the Netziv Kvilot Chayalim, that outlined how my company commander disregarded army rules in mistreating me. Others helped shared my story with several media figures, including Carmela Menashe, the most prominent advocate for soldier’s rights in Israel. Another sympathetic stranger put me in touch with a former commander of the Paratroop Brigade. After hearing the entire story of the last few months, this senior officer, who still carries great weight in the brigade, agreed that my superiors’ actions had crossed the line on several occasion. He advised me to return to base immediately, promising he would do what he could to ensure my commanders did not screw me over once again because of this latest mess. With a heavy heart, I heeded his words and passed up on my friend’s wedding to return to base.

A series of small miracles ensured I caught the very last bus back to base. Buoyed by this spurt of good fortune, I arrived on base to meet the battalion commander (Magad) as ordered to by the Rasar. The Magad I met had only recently begun his command. As if to make up for his brief tenure and boyish looks, he had already acquired a reputation as a real terror. Our meeting made good on that reputation. Instead of the discussion I had been promised over the phone by the Rasar and the former brigade commander, the Magad ambushed me with a formal hearing to determine my guilt and punishment for the last two days events. Shock turned to rage as he found me guilty of going AWOL, accused me of making a mockery of his command, and remanded me to base for the next twenty-eight days under the command of the Rasar (i.e. the garbage and weed detail). Before leaving his office, I collected myself to tell him, politely yet with barely concealed disgust, that it was him and his officers that were making a mockery of my service and that I had nothing but disdain for this shanghaied judgment.

My disgust turned to seething anger as I left his office. By my nature I am calm and collected. While the last few months have frustrated me to no end, I have maintained a sense of humor and reflective distance at even the worst of times. But this final joke of a sentence, stripping me of the course that was to finally get me out of this mess because of a mild error in miscommunication?! After everything else, my patience was done with. For two months I have played the game, hoping that logic, protekzia and the basic justice of my cause would see me through. All that was over. This was no longer about what was right and fair. And it is all too obvious that my well-meaning friends can not be of any real help. If I want something to happen, it is in my hands. The way I saw it, the shmucks in charge had now falsely punished me for going AWOL. So what should I do? Go AWOL on them for real.

As I stewed on base over the weekend, well-meaning friends thought to dissuade me from running away. Everyone warned me what I knew all too well: that if I just upped and left, I was jeopardizing my future in this country. Not a future career or reputation—but the opportunity to simply remain in Israel and avoid extended jail-time. Running away from the army now, with just nine weeks left, meant I would never be formally discharged and forever branded a runaway, liable to be arrested if I return to the country in the next two decades.

One friend urged me to remember that my faith in the country will return far easier than the country’s faith (so to speak) in me. If one of you has to take the hit in the broken faith you have in the other, let it be you, she insisted. Do not do something that will place the country against you. Better to do something that will place you against the country.

More than anyone else, I understand that I came to Israel to live here, not to serve in the army. Enlisting was about affirming my citizenship. To allow my service to harm my deep-seated Zionism seems completely irrational. Of course, the irrationality is part of the reason I was so determined to stand up for myself and leave.

My resolve to do something drastic finally slipped when a close friend urged me to see the next month as my being unjustly imprisoned in order to ensure the future success of my life in Israel. While he urged me not to let several douche-bag commanders ruin anything beyond the next few weeks, I decided not to do anything too crazy to avoid upsetting the faith in Israel of those who love me—friends, family, siblings, mother and most of all, my father. Sometimes running off into the wild to escape the hypocrisy and idiocy of institutional life is right for every reason save for that which is most important: the faith and love others have for you.

Friday, August 5, 2011

Very Best Day of the Year: Civilian Avatar

August second was the very best day of the year. Having been robbed of my military ambition—prevented from deploying with my fellow combat soldiers—I was ordered to report to my new task as a garbage collector and weed cutter (avodei rasar) on the first Tuesday of August. En route to exile, however, the discouraged soldier had a chance to temporarily live the life of his civilian avatar. The biggest surprise I had in switching from soldier to civilian for a day is that it left me bouncing with positive Zionist energy. My disillusioned army self was recharged thanks to the new vistas I saw waiting for me in my future life as a civilian. A chance, even for a few hours, to engage in the sort of creative and dynamic activities that have been persona non grata in my military service had such a welcoming effect that I arrived at my sorry excuse for a final military assignment bursting with goodwill and misplaced yet appreciated enthusiasm.

This most satisfying of days began at night. Hours before I had fled the army to a friend’s apartment, looking forward to one night of freedom before reporting to my mindless new assignment on the morrow. As the final minutes of August first slipped off into the night sky, my sister and I connected on the phone for the first time in over a month. She had just returned from an extended overseas vacation, and was on the verge of starting medical school. Her anxiety and excitement at turning over a new leaf in her life was contagious. I rode the vibes from our phone conversation into an impromptu four way brainstorm session, convened at my request to discuss plans for a project we intend to spring on two close friends in the near future. When my fellow brainstormers called it a night, I kept going. The creative juices we had unleashed would not let me sleep, and so I hacked away at the ideas we had developed all through the night.

Morning’s glory brought more good news. When my friend finally awoke, he lent me a mad-cool blue shirt and sent me off toward Israel’s take on capitol hill. My business was not at the Knesset but nearby, inside the sparkling headquarters of the Joint Distribution Committee (known colloquially as the Joint, as the JDC). The Joint had asked for a meeting to discuss a project they are developing on which I have unique experience. It was refreshing to have a long and intelligent conversation for perhaps the first time in two years where my creativity and knowledge were called upon and respected.

Too soon I was heading back to the army. But the day’s delights were not over. En route to the central bus station, I overheard two female soldiers debating when to get off. After providing them with directions, it was natural to fall into conversation with one of them, especially when it turned out that all of us needed to take the same long bus ride south. It was even more natural to sit next to the girl I was speaking with, not only because she was strikingly attractive but also because she displayed an intelligence and humor well beyond her years. Most of our conversation turned on what it means to be an observant Jew. She insisted she was completely secular, having never observed Shabbat nor a single Jewish holiday. But when I explained that my Jewish faith is fueled in large part by an attachment to community, she agreed that she shares this faith as well. She in fact turned out to be a passionate advocate for Jewish customs and tradition, values that she eventually agreed suggest that she is not as divorced from Judaism as she had previously supposed. If there was one thing lacking in the previous night’s brainstorming and the morning’s discussion at the Joint, it was a really cute girl to converse with. Granted that favor at last, I boarded the final bus that would take me to my new assignment in an incredibly good mood.

All the creative juices, intelligence conversations, and cute girls over the last twenty-four hours had turned a day that could have marked the nadir of my military service into a day I hope to not soon forget. I was feeling so good that I even convinced myself that the next few weeks of demoralizing work were akin to the volunteer labor of selfless Zionists like Rahm Emanuel, who travel from halfway across the world to do manual labor in programs such as Sar-El. Except unlike those suckers who pay out of pocket to clean moldy gear and paint fences, I would be doing similar work for a wage. Two weeks of blue and white service, was how my recharged Zionist self insisted on looking at the task that lay before me.

I knew I only had two weeks with a shovel and mop in hand because I had already received a go-ahead to attend the next seven week education course on basic Judaism that is offered to all soldiers born overseas. Known as Course Nativ, the only course I could take before discharging from the army in October was the one that began on Thursday August 11. What that meant was that I had until Wednesday the tenth to receive approval from my new superiors for the same meyuhedet vacation I had unfairly been denied by my former superiors. Since the previous company commander had not granted me my requested meyuhedet on the spurious grounds that he lacked enough combat soldiers to let me leave, now there seemed no reason why my new company commander could possibly not approve the meyuhedet. If I could not seal the deal on the meyuhedet by the tenth, then I realized it was worth it to simply get the hell away from the whole battalion, abandon any hope for the meyuhedet I by right deserve, and decamp to Course Nativ for the remainder of my service.

The new company commander never raised any problems with my meyuhedet request. The problem is that he never raised anything at all in failing to meet with me (whether willfully or through plain negligence, I cannot say for sure—army rules order him to meet with me within a single week regardless) for the two weeks I was under his command. The writing was on the wall: it was well past time to put as much distance between me and the battalion as possible. So on Tuesday August 9, the morning of the Jewish fast of Tisha b’Av, I left base to complete the army paperwork that would transfer me to Course Nativ. As the military base faded off into the distance, I was sure I was seeing a forward operating base for the last time as a soldier (outside of reserves one day, of course). The Ninth of Av, a day of mourning marking the destruction of the Jewish Temples and dispersion of the people into exile, seemed to be providing a fitting coda of sorts to my military odyssey.


I had one final reason to celebrate on August 2. Three of the guys that had departed with me from our Air Force squad were starting lieutenants’ school. I felt only happiness for them, especially since two of them were again serving side by side in the same squad, training now to assume command and lead the future young soldiers of the IDF. Mixed up in that happiness, however, was the irony that on the very same day that my peers were commencing the ten-month long lieutenants course, I was starting my own new assignment as a garbage collector and weed cutter. How it came to pass that I ended up here, and they made it there, is a question that lingers as I grit my teeth and look towards finishing the last few meaningless weeks of my military service.