Daniel Nisman - Friend a Soldier
Daniel Nisman, 24, served in an IDF special forces unit. Photo by Daniel Nisman
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Yagil Beinglass
Yagil Beinglass, 25, served in an IDF combat infantry unit. Photo by Yagil Beinglass
Aaron Blak
Josh Mintz, 26, served in an IDF demolitions infantry unit. Photo by Aaron Blak

A group of Israeli soldiers have launched an initiative to highlight a different side of the army they serve, inviting visitors to a new website, Friend-a-Soldier, to engage in dialogue with them.

“There is a monolithic perception of the Israeli army,” said Daniel Nisman, a 24-year-old Cleveland native and CEO of the website. “Many people see soldiers as nothing more than a uniform. I wanted people to see the human side of the IDF.”

It was with this mission in mind that IDF veterans Daniel Nisman, Yagil Beinglass and Josh Mintz founded Friend-a-Soldier, an interactive website that allows visitors to ask Israeli soldiers anything they choose regarding their service, the Mideast conflict, military policy and Israel.

Visitors to the site are asked to select a soldier and submit a question; that soldier then responds to the queries to the best of their knowledge, based on personal experiences and opinions. The site is in no way affiliated with the IDF and the participants’ views do not represent official army policy.

There are currently eight former IDF soldiers -many of them active reservists - taking part in the project. Each has their own unique perspectives on the IDF, Israeli policies and the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

Mintz, a 26-year-old U.K. native, described how before the inception of website, the three founders found themselves engaging people in chat rooms and other online forums in an attempt to dispel preconceived notions that dehumanize IDF soldiers.

They soon realized that expressing their own opinions, participating in dialogue and sharing links to music and human interest pieces were all invaluable mechanisms in bringing about a real paradigm shift in people and their perceptions of the IDF and those who serve in it. These were no longer faceless men in green, but young adults who enjoy popular culture, play video games and most importantly are open to discourse.

“We were disillusioned with the existing forums that have been created for soldiers to express their opinions and experiences in the IDF,” said Beinglass, a 25-year-old originally from Sunnyvale, California.

“We felt like they all had a hidden agenda,” added Nisman, “and we wanted to create a forum that would allow soldiers to speak candidly about their experiences on the one hand, while giving people throughout the world the opportunity to ask whatever they want in a safe, non-politically driven setting.”

Friend-a-Soldier was founded in 2010 based on the creators' belief that through engaging in what the three call "people’s diplomacy", forging personal connections and deepening mutual understanding, grounds for peace, even on a limited scope, could be established.

Mintz described how apathetic people have become to government-driven hasbara (Israel advocacy), wanting nothing to do with anything emanating from the Foreign Ministry. “We are trying to be digital ambassadors,” said Mintz.

The main mission of site is to actively promote a paradigm shift vis-à-vis Israel, and the IDF in particular. The facilitators bill the site strictly as a conduit for dialogue, and do not identify with any specific political affiliation or group.

The three IDF veterans hope that as the site becomes more established, soldiers who have completed their mandatory service will be able to utilize the site as an outlet to express themselves. They see their site as a constructive and honest vehicle to expose the human side of the IDF and those who serve in it.

In the future, Nisman, Beinglass and Mintz would like to have former IDF soldiers from Arabic-speaking, Bedouin and Druze sectors and other minorities answering questions on the site.

FaS accepts questions from anyone interested in posting, but it has claimed its target audience as individuals from countries with which Israel does not have diplomatic or friendly relations. For citizens of these countries, say the founders, the internet is the only medium by which they can communicate with Israelis.

“You would never have a website where you can engage in dialogue with a Hamas rocket launching squad,” said Nisman. “The fact that this site exists means we have nothing to hide.”

Mintz added that if such a site was ever created, he would be thrilled to take part and obtain a better, more accurate understanding of individual Palestinians’ narratives.

The questions asked on the site vary, spanning humanitarian, political and legal dilemmas, with the majority focusing on personal and policy oriented issues. Visitors come from all walks of life: Jewish youth asking what it is like to serve in the army, skeptics bent on delegitimizing Israel and the IDF, mothers asking if they need anything and people who genuinely wish to learn about the army and the conflict.

Nisman related how he was once asked about the controversy regarding the demolition of the home of slain Israeli soldier, Roi Klein, a former major in the Golani Brigade who was killed in the Battle of Bint Jbeil during the 2006 Lebanon War after jumping on a grenade to save his fellow soldiers. His home was built illegally on state land.

Nisman responded saying that although Klein was a hero, there is also a law that everyone must abide. “Just as if I was living in California and I built illegally on state land the government would have every right to tear it down,” said Nisman, “so too in the case of Klein’s former home, regardless of his heroism.”

Mintz’s father said he found that FaS is the most reliable way to reach his son. The elder Mintz himself used the site on multiple occasions to ask Josh whether he will be coming for dinner, to see if he received the letter he sent in the mail and to make sure he remembered his mother’s birthday. He has even gone to the trouble of filling out his personal details, ‘Name: Richard Mintz, About Me: I’m your father’.