This Is What Happened When My Dutch Autistic Son Was Drafted to the Israeli Army

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Young Israelis at an Israel Defense Forces recruitment office.
Young Israelis at an Israel Defense Forces recruitment office.Credit: Moti Milrod

My son was born and raised in the Netherlands. He has a very tolerant and pleasant character. Dutch men are sometimes dubbed “cheesehead" (kaaskop), because their hair is blond, like the color of cheese, and – almost as an insult – because they have a soft, pliant nature. Indeed, that’s my son: quiet, polite and kind.

On the other hand, my son suffers from Autistic Spectrum Disorder (ASD), a mild form of autism, and with the syndrome come the symptoms: a limited imagination, an insistence on seeing the full picture (at least as he sees it), difficulty coping with change, which can cause stress and anxiety under certain conditions, and so on.

We moved from the Netherlands to Israel at the end of 2018, and we chose to live on the kibbutz where I was born, with our extended family, nature and quality of life. My son was almost 18 when we came. He integrated quickly, found work, friends and an apartment. We got the first Israel Defense Forces call-up order when he was over 19, and after he’d decided there was no way he was going into the army. This stubbornness is also part of the syndrome, and most teens diagnosed with ASD are not required to serve.

As a father, I had had several conversations with him about this. I explained, and tried to persuade him, but to no avail. As a parent I can explain to my child the importance of the IDF in Israeli society and the difficulties he may face in the future if he doesn’t enlist, but in the end it’s his decision.

It was perhaps naïve of me to expect a pleasant and polite attitude from the IDF. What’s more, the law is clear: Conscription is obligatory. My son arrived at his appointment at 9 A.M. at the Haifa recruitment office. It seemed pretty chaotic there; dozens of teens were banging on the doors.

Young Israelis wait to be drafted at an Israel Defense Forces recruitment office.
Young Israelis wait to be drafted at an Israel Defense Forces recruitment office.Credit: Moti Milrod

I left him near the entrance, we said our good-byes and I started to make my way home. I had gotten to the check post junction outside the city when my phone rang. It was my son calling, asking me to come back to take him home. Because of the coronavirus crisis, the screening day had been cancelled.

When we got home I called the recruitment office. A girl yelled “Yes?” into the phone. I asked her why we hadn’t gotten any notice about the cancelled screening day. “You should have looked on our website,” she said, rudely and impatiently. “It says there that all our appointments for today are cancelled because of the coronavirus.”

I asked her whether it wouldn’t have been proper to inform each of the boys summoned for that day of the cancellation personally; indeed, the place had been full of boys who apparently didn’t know anything about the cancelled appointments. The phone was slammed down in my face.

I felt awful. Maybe I’m being a nudnik, I thought to myself – after all, what had happened? Forty-five minutes driving each way, plus the extra half hour involved in turning around midway to bring my son home; the financial loss from the day he had to take off from work; a few shekels for the Route 6 tolls, and some money for gas. Stop whining, I thought.

Meanwhile, we had managed to forget that unfortunate incident, and then we got a second, first recruitment order, summoning him for mid-June. We got there exactly on time (of course after checking the website to make sure nothing had been cancelled). Once again, I left him at the entrance and drove home.

Late in the afternoon, I got a call from my son. He was tired and confused, and wanted me to come pick him up. On the way home he told me about the disrespectful and difficult attitude exhibited toward him in the office. The conversation with the mental health officer, he said, was humiliating. He had explained several times during the course of the day that his Hebrew reading and writing level was low, but said that no one related to this issue and he was sent without any support to do the requisite psychotechnical tests. Most of them he didn’t understand at all, and those he could have done (because they involved shapes and numbers) he didn’t do because of his poor mood and the pressure he felt.

I would assume it’s clear to any intelligent person that a young man with my son’s characteristics (ASD, lack of fluency in the language and origin in a different culture) needs more attention. All that was required was five minutes of personal guidance before the test began, and a serious and businesslike conversation with a mental health officer who cares and really listens to the boy sitting across from him, without cynicism or blunt hints throughout the conversation about impersonation and pretense. After all, he had a letter in Hebrew describing his condition, signed by a psychiatrist.

It’s important to understand that aggressiveness, chutzpah and rude behavior don’t have to be part of the Israeli lifestyle. It’s not a decree from heaven. There are a lot of countries in the world (we came to Israel from one of them) that have adopted much higher standards regarding everything connected to service, manner of speaking and tolerance. Our lives could be much more pleasant.

If only we could abandon the cliché that we are always the best, and teach our children to recognize both the advantages and disadvantages of Israeli society; if we would only listen more and shout less, we could achieve the same blessed result.

The writer is a returning Israeli. Out of respect for his son, this piece is being published anonymously.