Why Do So Many Diaspora Jews Want to Join the IDF?

"I can't say that I came here for Zionist or even Jewish reasons," said the paratrooper sitting next to me on Seder night last Monday. "I got into so much trouble back home, all I wanted to do was party. Running away from the police was what made me fit enough for combat service. I thought that coming here and doing army would help me get my shit together."

The others sitting around the table nodded, they wore berets and insignia of combat units, their accents gave away their origins from all corners of the English-speaking world. The paratrooper from San Francisco, a Bostonian serving in the Kfir Brigade who gave up a baseball scholarship to get away from a traumatic breakup with his girlfriend and join up, the Asian-looking Aussie who after five years of living on the streets of Sydney followed in his grandfather's footsteps and joined an elite unit of the Border Police.

We were sitting at a central Seder organized by the Israel Defense Forces for 400 "lone soldiers," serving here without any family to go home to for Passover.

With the main part of the Haggadah and the four-course meal almost over, they coalesced into language-based groups. English was the second most dominant, after Russian.

Better soldiers, better citizens

Despite being naturalized Israeli citizens, few of them are really certain they will continue living in the country after they are discharged. For most of them, the army is the main attraction Israel has to offer. Some of them are the children of Israelis who emigrated decades ago, often before they were born, and their decision to return to the land of their heritage was motivated by their reaching conscription age.

Others have no family connection whatsoever; The decision to leave home and enlist was made almost on the spur of the moment. Some considered whether to join the Marines, weighing deployment to Afghanistan against Gaza.

Jews from around the world have always come to Israel to serve in the IDF. The Mahal volunteers of 1948, many of them World War II veterans, supplied much needed combat expertise to the fledgling army. Thousands of new immigrants who arrived in leaky boats during the first months of independence, mostly Holocaust survivors, were sent into battle with scarcely any training or equipment. Hundreds were killed and some lie to this day in unmarked graves.

In the following decades, there were always some who entertained a romantic idea of heroism in the desert. But the IDF had become a better organized and staffed army and besides unique cases of veterans of foreign conflicts, such as an American combat pilot who had flown in Vietnam or Russian snipers who had fought in Chechnya, it was harder to quantify the contribution of these soldiers in relation to the considerable resources needed to support them.

Many of them arrived with high hopes and motivation, only to be worn down by the brutal and illogical realities of military life. But still they continue to arrive, in recent years in larger numbers.

Over 3,000 lone immigrant soldiers are currently serving in the IDF. About half of them came from the former Soviet Union and are planning to live here in the long run, the army being a necessary part of their integration.

But a growing number are from the West, young Jewish challenge-seekers, over 500 soldiers from the United States and hundreds more from other Jewish communities around the globe. This number may still seem relatively small but has been growing exponentially over the last few years. Officers in the IDF's Personnel Directorate are already talking openly of tapping into the global Jewish potential as a possible solution for the shortfall in enlistment due to lower birthrates and the growing proportion in the population of Israeli Arabs and ultra-Orthodox, who do not serve in the army.

Is the IDF becoming the Diaspora's foreign legion? Has toting an M-16 and patrolling the back roads of the West Bank become more popular for Jewish teenagers than taking a year off before college to go and pick oranges on a kibbutz?

One of the unique societal roles the IDF plays is helping integrate young immigrants into society. "I know that if I can prepare an Ethiopian boy well for the army, he will be a better citizen afterwards," said Lt. Col. Itai Krin, commander of the Michve Alon base of the Education Corps, where the IDF runs its army preparation courses for immigrants.

He has a point, army service has always been a major socializing factor, not only for immigrants but also for young men and women in disadvantaged parts of Israeli society. For the children of families that have already decided to live in Israel, a positive military experience is usually a bonus.

More than the IDF

But what does it say about Israel when a growing number of young Jews abroad identify it today solely with the IDF. For them it seems that immigrating isn't about joining a society, with all its benefits and duties, but simply wearing a uniform and learning how to kill.

Programs like Birthright have tried to capitalize on this identification. Every busload of birthrighters is joined by a group of soldiers who accompany them throughout their visit. It adds sex-appeal to the program and gives the IDF an opportunity to boost its credentials as the defenders of the entire Jewish nation.

The army's generals are simply jumping on a good opportunity from their point of view, but this is still a worrisome trend. In an age when over 90 percent of the Diaspora is concentrated in the West, the fact that the most potent image Israel can market to young Jews is its army is a sign of failure for Israeli society in general.

It means that despite success in the fields of academia, technology and business, the country is still seen as Spartan, insular and parochial, and therefore appealing only to adventure seekers and roughnecks. It means that a growing proportion of young Jews who find it difficult to identify with a Jewish army which is acting in ways that to them are anathema to their universal ideals and even to their Jewish notions of tikkun olam, repairing the world, will find themselves even further estranged from Zion.

Bolstering Israel-Diaspora military ties at the expense of other types of bonds will add soldiers and ultimately Israeli citizens but will turn away other significant swaths of the Jewish people.