female IDF soldier
An IDF soldier. Photo by Archive
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Yana Gorelik just wanted to go to a wedding.

She bought a ticket, and probably sprang for a dress and some shoes. Then she hopped on a flight from Canada to Tel Aviv.

Therein lies the snag.

Coming to Israel wasn’t a new thing for Gorelik, who lived here until she was 17 and made regular visits to the country since. But this visit was different. Instead of drunkenly dancing with a bouquet, Yana Gorelik is in jail, waiting to serve a 3-month prison sentence.

Gorelik, 30, herself engaged to be married, was detained at the Ben Gurion airport upon arrival. She did not commit a felony during her flight; rather each of her previous 4,170 days was apparently a felony. Gorelik, whose story was first reported in Ma'ariv, was charged with desertion from the military because she did not return to Israel upon turning 18 to enlist.  She was therefore guilty of draft dodging, the IDF claimed, and needed to be taught a lesson. So an hour after landing, she was taken to a correctional facility to await trial.

Gorelik was born in the former Soviet Union and immigrated to Israel with her family as a child. In 2000, when she was 17, the Second Intifada came and her mother decided to move the family to Ontario, Canada: colder weather and no exploding busses.   She should have returned when she was 18 to serve but didn’t.  Some who know her say Gorelik never felt much connection to Israel. A Canadian news site reported she tried to settle her IDF affair in 2007 but the attempt fizzled out when she learned she'd have to do basic training for several weeks before being discharged. Burdened with a loan that needed to be repaid, she simply couldn’t make the trip.

Gorelik forgot about the whole thing. She visited Israel at least twice, in 2010 and 2011, without problem. She got on with her life and moved to England with her fiancé. But this week, her past caught up with her. Gorelik was sentenced to three months in jail for desertion (the prosecution asked for five). Here’s the irony: She was recently exempted from military service because she had no intention of ever living in Israel.

One girl who did choose to complete her military service was A. or B. or C. (her real name is classified), a soldier in the Caracal Battalion, a mixed male-female infantry unit named after a cat. Unlike Gorelik, D. or E. or F. did enlist but a lot of good that did her: she still became infamous for the crime of being scared. Really, really scared.

Nothing is really known about her, other than what has already been mentioned and that the ambush on September 22 on Mount Harif near the Israel-Egypt border was her first combat experience. During the incident, three terrorists ambushed several Artillery Corps men. The Caracal soldiers were called to assist, and the ensuing battle left all three terrorists dead, along with Cpl. Netanel Yahalomi.  

Where was N.? Hiding behind a bush, fearing for her life.  In doing so, she committed the greatest crime an Israeli can commit, other than dodging military service: she wasn’t brave.  It didn’t help matters that a fellow female soldier from her unit did charge and managed to kill a terrorist.

Very quickly, T. or Y. or O. was derided for her cowardice. "You got scared, you ran away and you did not try to engage," her superior officer told her, according to comments leaked to the press. The way U. tells it, she didn't have a choice: she was on the phone with her mother when she heard gunshots and suddenly saw a terrorist pointing a gun at her.  So she ran for cover and nobody knew where she was for an hour. A search was conducted; they feared she had been captured. G. maintains she did exactly as she should have done under the circumstances.  But at this point it doesn't matter. Even if the investigation finds in her favor, she is, and will probably always be, a symbol of cowardice.

Yana Gorelik and H. are two very different women dealing with very different circumstances. But both, in the same week, came up against an admired Israeli institution and the last Israeli myth: the duty to serve and be courageous. Two girls, two cases, and an important question: perhaps, just perhaps, not everyone belongs in the military. But that question is not only unanswered, it is largely and disturbingly unasked.