Top IDF officer works to eliminate divisions, foster coexistence
As Golani Brigade readies to intake new class, training base commander sets agenda.
Lt. Col. Eyal Assraf has served for the past year and a half as commander of the Golani Brigade's training base, but unlike the offices of other commanders, in his office there is nothing personal. No family photographs or certificates of appreciation from the units in which he served.
When asked about this, he cites the words of Maimonides who said that when a man goes to war, he must put his life at stake and not fear or be afraid, nor think about his wife and children, but erase memories from his heart and devote himself solely to war. He adds with a wide smile, "In addition, I don't need a picture to remember what my wife looks like."
The November draft starts next Sunday, and traditionally, the first youngsters to be absorbed into the army's ranks are assigned to serve as fighters in Golani. Five hundred and fifty young men will arrive at the base in Wadi Ara, where they will spend the next six months in basic training and advanced training before being transferred to the brigade's battalions.
In recent years Golani has been the preferred destination of recruits in combat service - six young men fight over every vacancy in the brigade.
Contrary to other commanders in the army who travel among various high schools to attract youngsters to their units, Assraf says that he doesn't promote Golani in schools. "It's not necessary." According to him, "I'd be glad if more would come from Tel Aviv. Maybe promotion is necessary there."
The rush to enlist in Golani does not make Assraf's life easier. He commands a system that is meant as the gateway through which more than 1,600 civilians pass each year and become skilled fighters, within half a year. In today's Israel, that doesn't only mean discipline, battle heritage and combat training, but also a daily confrontation with social, economic, religious and political divides that are rampant in the society.
A year ago Golani commander Col. Ofek Buchris, with the backing of the previous GOC Northern Command, Gadi Eisenkot, made a significant change in the way the brigade recruited draftees. In the past, Golani absorbed a high percentage of soldiers from lower socio-economic backgrounds, which contributed quite significantly to its image as a wild and undisciplined brigade. In the last three years of recruitment however, Golani received the same percentage of "problematic" soldiers as the other infantry brigades.
The Israel Defense Forces' absorption and selection process can in fact balance the number of soldiers from various socio-economic levels in each brigade, but the army does not check the religious beliefs of the draftees.
Assraf's predecessor, Amit Fischer, said he was appalled to discover that among the hundreds of officers and commanders of the Golani Brigade's training base, there was only one secular kibbutznik other than himself - and he had the rank of staff sergeant. Assraf, who is a graduate of the Ateret Cohanim Yeshiva in Jerusalem's Old City and a resident of the Eli settlement, doesn't have that problem.
About half of Golani officers today wear skullcaps. But Assraf is definitely making efforts to solve - at least at his base - the tensions caused recently by religious male and female soldiers serving together. "In all my positions in the army, I didn't once get up in the middle of a ceremony - even if a girl was singing. That did not destroy my spiritual world," he says in reference to the issue of women singing [in front of male religious soldiers] that has caused a storm in the IDF. "The vast majority of religious soldiers likewise know how to live in peace with such things."
Nevertheless, he voices veiled criticism of the commanders whose soldiers refused to listen to women singing at military ceremonies. "What is needed is the correct familiarity with, and attitude toward, every soldier without pushing him into a state of conflict. It is not a big honor for a commander to push soldiers toward refusing a command."
An additional issue that recently caused unrest among young soldiers was the deal for the release of abducted soldier Gilad Shalit. Here, too, Assraf has to maneuver between conflicting demands, but he delivers a strong message: "When I talk with soldiers and commanders, I emphasize that I want a Golani fighter, whether he is a cook or a quartermaster, to know that he has to fight until he loses consciousness and to do everything to prevent being kidnapped. And if he realizes that there is an attempt to abduct another soldier at a hitch-hiking station, he must shoot at the wheels of the kidnapper's vehicle and in the direction of the driver, with the understanding that he runs the risk of hitting another soldier."
In addition to practices at the firing range, exercises, and weapons lessons, about 15 percent of the training period is devoted to moral issues. One of the subjects that is discussed with Golani soldiers is "carrying out a mission which lacks national consensus."
According to Assraf, the goal is for commanders to "deliver an unequivocal and clear message of coexistence with the other in the army - Druze, Circassian, Ethiopian, new immigrant - in the most general sense, and that is what distinguishes this brigade. Religious belief and worldview are in no way parameters here, and in every exercise the soldier charges with his helmet and camouflage paint on his face, and you don't know whether he is wearing a skullcap or not, or what color his skin is. Until he opens his mouth, you also can't tell how many years he's been in Israel."