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than a day before I was to commence Course Nativ (a seven week military seminar on basic Judaism) that my spot had been rescinded.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.

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