What’s Killing Israel’s Lone Soldiers?

Young Diaspora Jews account for only 2 percent of soldiers serving in the Israeli army, but in the past year the suicide rate among them has been disproportionately high. Haaretz investigates why

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From top left clockwise: Alex Sasaki, Michaela Levit, Dylan Walt, Stephan Martines and David Gordon.
From top left clockwise: Alex Sasaki, Michaela Levit, Dylan Walt, Stephan Martines and David Gordon.

UPDATE: After Haaretz's investigation, the Israeli army takes action, opening a support center for lone soldiers — a decision that reflects major shift in army’s approach to Diaspora Jews

Greeting the hundreds gathered in Tel Aviv last week for the big celebration, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu declared via video message: “What dedication! What solidarity! What commitment!"

“We have endless admiration for you,” he added.

Haaretz Weekly Ep. 37Credit: Haaretz

President Reuven Rivlin followed with his own accolades. “You are the true Zionists,” he told the young crowd. Picking up on the theme, Jewish Agency Chairman Isaac Herzog called the young men and women cheering and waving Israeli flags “a true example of what Zionism is all about.”

It was a welcome ceremony for 300 Diaspora Jews – the majority of them from the United States – who had decided to pack their bags, bid farewell to friends and family, and join the Israel Defense Forces. They were brought to Israel by a program known as Garin Tzabar, an offshoot of the Israel Scouts movement that provides orientation and support services before and during their military service.

Participants at the welcome ceremony in Tel Aviv for lone soldiers in the Garin Tzabar program, August 2019. Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

>> PODCAST: How our investigation into lone soldier suicides hit a nerve. Listen to Judy Maltz

The recruits are reassured that although they had left behind friends and family, they should never consider themselves alone in Israel.

The atmosphere was electrifying as singers, dancers and drummers crowded the stage. The soon-to-be soldiers were hailed by dignitaries who lined up at the podium to greet them as “true heroes.” They were told they were “writing a new chapter in Jewish history.” And they were reassured that although they had left behind friends and family, they should never consider themselves alone in Israel.

About 3,500 foreigners served as volunteer soldiers in the 1948 War of Independence. Most of them were Jewish, many came from the United States, and a large number had already seen action in World War II. They brought with them experience and skills that would prove invaluable on the battlefield. Among them were fighter pilots who would help create the Israel Air Force and lead some of its early missions.

They were known as the Machal force – a Hebrew acronym that translates as “Volunteers From Abroad” – and Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, once famously referred to them as “the Diaspora’s most important contribution to the survival of the Jewish state.” It was a message hammered home at last week’s ceremony.

At any given time, close to 3,500 soldiers whose parents live outside the country serve in the IDF. They are known as “lone soldiers,” with about 1,200 from North America, a similar number from the former Soviet Union and the remainder from other countries.

Although they tend to stick together and keep their distance from mainstream Israeli society, a series of recent tragedies has drawn national attention to the plight of these young men and women.

In May, the body of Michaela Levit, a 20-year-old combat soldier from Boca Raton, Florida, was discovered outside her base. She had shot herself in the head, after writing a farewell note to her family. The daughter of Israeli parents, Levit was described by family and friends as an outstanding student and athlete. She was the fourth lone soldier to die in a matter of six months, the third American among them. (Three of the four deaths have been confirmed as suicides.)

No mention was made of these soldiers at last week’s gala salute to lone soldiers. Clearly, it would have marred the festive mood.

Although soldiers whose parents do not live in Israel comprise only 2 percent of all recruits to the IDF, they accounted for a disproportionately high share of military suicides in the past year. According to figures provided by the IDF spokesman, in 2018 the number of overall suicides in the army dropped by nearly half compared with the previous year, to nine. But among those nine suicides, two were lone soldiers.

The first six months of 2019 saw another two suicides by lone soldiers, with a third death under investigation as a possible suicide. No figures on overall suicides in the army during this period were made available.

Asked to comment on this spike in numbers, the IDF spokesman said the army had teams of mental health experts at its disposal, whose job is to reduce the number of suicides. “At the same time, the IDF investigates every individual incident in order to prevent further incidents and to draw lessons from them,” he said. The spokesman insisted that “the rate of suicide among lone soldiers corresponds to their share in the army.”

Much of the discourse in Israel has naturally focused on whether society provides these young men and women with enough psychological and financial support. After all, they have left behind family and friends – not to mention the basic comforts of life – to come and fight for Israel when, unlike their local peers, they are under no obligation to do so.

But a Haaretz investigation reveals that by the time many of them join the army, it is often too late to address their problems. It shows that Israel does not undertake adequate background checks before putting these young men and women in harm’s way; that many of the young recruits do not sufficiently comprehend what military life in Israel entails; that large numbers lack the proficiency in Hebrew and familiarity with Israeli culture required for successful adaptation; and that many see the army as a form of escape from difficulties and challenges they face back home.

Despite these failings, the investigation suggests that the lone soldier program continues to be nurtured and encouraged because so many fundraising organizations and government-funded initiatives have a vested interest in keeping it going.

‘Holes in the filter’

By most accounts, the vast majority of young Jews from abroad who enlist in the army do fine. They tend to be highly motivated – often more so than their Israeli peers, for whom enlistment is not a matter of choice.

With few exceptions, the young men among them volunteer for combat units, often explaining that as long as they’re going to serve in the IDF, they want to be doing something meaningful and challenging. Many are also driven by the dream of settling in Israel, seeing army service not only as a necessary but also desirable part of that transition. As a former high-ranking officer whose position in the army required her to interact closely with many of these lone soldiers cautions: “Let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater.”

Sara Netanyahu, honorary president of Garin Tzabar Israel, welcoming future recruits in 2018. Credit: Haim Zach GPO

The problem, in her opinion, is the vetting system. “The holes in the filter are way too big,” she says.

Based on dozens of interviews with current and former lone soldiers, their commanders, comrades-in-arms and representatives of organizations that assist them, this would seem to be the consensus – and could help explain not only the disproportionately high incidence of suicide among this particular demographic, but also the relatively large proportion of lone soldiers discharged from the army each year after being found unfit to serve, or institutionalized following mental breakdowns – not to mention those who choose not to return from the annual 30-day furlough abroad to which they are entitled.

According to figures provided by the IDF spokesman, in recent years, on average, about 14 percent of lone soldiers drop out.

A., a former lone soldier from Canada who served in an elite commando unit and asked that his name not be published, admits that he lied about his history of opioid abuse when he joined the army.

When Israelis receive their first call-up order to the army (known as tzav rishon), they are generally required to produce documentation confirming that they are physically and mentally fit. A., who moved to Israel on his own at age 16, says no such forms were requested of him. “They just asked if I took drugs in the past and I said that I hadn’t,” he recalls.

Lone IDF soldiers who came to Israel from the United States (illustrative).Credit: Tomer Malichi

For Israelis, the enlistment process begins in high school and involves an extended series of interviews and tests. The army has easy access to their medical records — as well as their psychiatric and police records, if such exist. In the event that mental health concerns are raised, the parents of a recruit may be asked to participate in their child’s psychological assessment.

That never happened with A. “The army didn’t even ask if my parents knew I was enlisting, or try to contact them,” he says. “The only thing they asked for was proof that I wasn’t an only child.” In Israel, children without siblings are not permitted to serve in combat units without the written consent of their parents.

U.S. comedian and former lone soldier Joel Chasnoff documented his Israeli army experiences in his often-hilarious 2010 memoir “The 188th Crybaby Brigade: A Skinny Jewish Kid from Chicago Fights Hezbollah.” One of the first things that amazed him about joining the vaunted Israeli army, he recounts there, was how simple it all was.

'You’d think it’d be difficult for a foreigner to join the Israeli army,' Joel Chasnoff writes. 'In fact, it was as easy as signing up for a library card.'

“You’d think it’d be difficult for a foreigner to join the Israeli army,” he wrote. “In fact, it was as easy as signing up for a library card. The only hard part about it was convincing the immigration officer at the Israeli Consulate in New York that I wasn’t out of my mind.”

LiAmi Lawrence, the founder and director of KeepOlim, a nonprofit organization that advocates for immigrants in Israel, confirms that things haven’t changed much since.

“A big part of the problem is that there’s no due diligence,” he says. “‘You want to join the army?’ ‘Yes.’ ‘Have you ever done drugs?’ ‘No.’ ‘Have you ever been depressed?’ ‘No.’ ‘Okay, then go get your gun and your uniform and get on the bus.’ If they did some due diligence, a lot of these kids would never make it into the army.”

Ilan Benjamin, a former lone IDF soldier, says the Machal program "is totally pointless."Credit: Mike Fishbein

After completing his army service in 2012, California-born Ilan Benjamin wrote the book “Masa: Stories of a Lone Soldier.” Speaking by phone from his apartment in Berlin, where he now lives, he recalls the case of another American who served with him, who had been rejected by the U.S. Army “because he was so psychologically damaged.” But that didn’t stop him from getting into the IDF. “I definitely thought the army sometimes turned a blind eye,” says Benjamin.

R., a lone soldier from the U.S. West Coast who asked that his name not be published, relays the following exchange with a military doctor during his first call-up to the army. “They asked me for my medical documents. I told them I had none but that I was completely healthy. They gave me a perfect score, but I could have easily lied.”

Asked for comment, the IDF spokesman said, “We don’t distinguish between those who are lone soldiers and those who aren’t lone soldiers in the enlistment process, but rather between candidates for service who are new immigrants and candidates for service who were born in Israel.” The IDF spokesman added that special tests are available for new immigrants who lack proficiency in Hebrew.

Lawrence, an immigrant from the United States, says that most of the lone soldiers he encounters are motivated by “this notion of being a hero and of saving the Jewish people – which is beautiful in theory.” But many, based on his experience, also bring lots of baggage with them.

“A lot of them have messed-up lives, and their parents think the IDF is some sort of panacea that’s going to fix whatever’s wrong,” he says. “Sometimes it’s the kids themselves that come with this idea.”

Scared straight

The consensus among those who interact regularly with lone soldiers is that such issues affect only a minority. Shifra Shahar, CEO of A Warm Home for Every Soldier – an Israeli group that supports and advocates for soldiers in need – begs to differ. As someone who has spent the past decade in frequent contact with lone soldiers, their commanders, their parents and adoptive families in Israel, she believes the problems are far more widespread.

Shifra Shahar, CEO of A Warm Home for Every Soldier.Credit: Olivier Fitoussi

“To be sure, there are good soldiers among them who come for ideological reasons and who are more or less suitable for military service – but from my experience, they are the minority,” Shahar explains. “Most of them come here to escape problems back home. They can’t find work, they have no inclination to study, they’re the black sheep of their families. Many come from broken homes. Some even have criminal records. And someone out there has somehow succeeded in convincing them or their parents that the Israeli army will straighten them out. Unfortunately, in most cases the army only aggravates whatever problems they already have.”

Because of privacy laws, she notes, it is much easier for soldiers coming from abroad to hide their medical, psychiatric and even criminal records than it would be for Israelis. Since many lone soldiers want to serve in combat units, according to Shahar, they have an incentive to hide vital information from the army so that they are not disqualified – as evidenced by the above-mentioned case of A.

Arthur Lenk, Israel’s former ambassador to South Africa and a former lone soldier himself, agrees that there are serious holes in the vetting system.

“These lone soldiers drop in from Mars, and I don’t know that the IDF is doing the required level of checking on them,” he says. “If we’re going to put these kids in harm’s way, we’ve got to know them as well as we know our own.”

Ksenia Svetlova, a former member of Knesset who served on its Committee for Immigration, Absorption and Diaspora Affairs.Credit: Daniel Tchetchik

The absence of information, adds Lenk, works both ways: “Many of these kids from abroad,” he says, “are given the propaganda. But I’m not sure they have the full set of information they need about the army like Israeli kids do, who have siblings and parents who’ve already served.”

Ksenia Svetlova, a former member of Knesset who served on its Committee for Immigration, Absorption and Diaspora Affairs, concurs. “I spoke to many who finished their service, especially young men, who told me they were completely unprepared, because nobody told them what the army experience was really going to be like,” she says. “And it’s definitely not for everyone. Their parents don’t know much either. The army says it will take care of their kids, and they believe them.”

Many lone soldiers from North America come through Garin Tzabar. According to a spokesman for the organization, participants are required to complete four three-day seminars – in other words, a total of 12 days of orientation – before enlisting. Their Israeli counterparts, by contrast, have been preparing for their army service – mentally, at least – from the time they are small children.

D., a lone soldier from the United States currently serving as an army commander, notes the large gap between what she had been told before signing up and what she discovered after her induction. “In the U.S., everyone tells you that in Israel it’s one for all and all for one, and everyone’s friends because of the army and prepared to die for one another,” she relays. “But in reality, you quickly understand that this isn’t the case, and the IDF wasn’t exactly waiting for you to join.”

As part of an academic research project, Rutgers University doctoral student in sociology Lior Yohanani recently interviewed some 30 former or current lone soldiers who came to Israel through Garin Tzabar. All the subjects in his focus group had Israeli parents and had been active in the Israel Scouts movement.

“There is a very strong identity element involved in their decision,” he says. “They see themselves as Israeli, and they see military service in Israel as something they are obligated to do.”

But he also interviewed children of Israelis from very similar backgrounds who had decided not to enlist, in order to see what factors could explain why some did and some didn’t. “What I found is that those who decided they didn’t want to enlist knew that they wanted to go to college and knew what they wanted to study,” Yohanani notes. “Those who decided to enlist did not know what they wanted to study and did not even know if they wanted to go to college at all.”

'Someone out there convinced them or their parents that the Israeli army will straighten them out. Unfortunately, the army only aggravates their problems.'

Shifra Shahar

Yohanani believes “escape” is too strong a word to describe their motivation, “but there is this certain lack of willingness among those who enlist to deal with something in their lives in the U.S., often related to college – and the IDF, in this sense, provides an alternative.”

Ignoring red flags

In several of the recent tragedies involving lone soldiers, certain red flags should have been obvious, experts say.

Alex Sasaki, a lone soldier from California, was found dead in late March. The army is still investigating the cause of death. The 27-year-old had been serving at the time as a combat soldier in the Golani Brigade. In a telephone conversation from his home in Orange County, his father, Steve Sasaki, rejected speculation that the cause of his son’s death was a drug overdose or suicide, as had been widely reported in the media.

Before joining the army, Alex had started studying at the University of Oregon, but dropped out. When “school wasn’t working out for him,” as his father puts it, he began entertaining thoughts of joining the Israeli army. In at least one post on his Facebook page, Alex acknowledged having been addicted to drugs and alcohol. His Facebook page also reveals that not long before he joined the army, one of his closest friends died of a drug overdose.

David Gordon carried a different type of trauma with him. In August 2014, just as Israel’s last big war with Hamas in the Gaza Strip was winding down, Gordon went missing from his army base. He was found dead in a ditch a few days later with his gun beside him.

Dylan Walt with his mother, Belinda Kotton. The 19-year-old South African lone soldier committed suicide half a year into his IDF service in 2014.Credit: Courtesy of the family

Originally from Michigan, the 21-year-old, who grew up in a religious home, had been a fighter in the Givati Brigade. It later emerged that he had been sexually molested by older boys as a child, and had even written a confessional essay about his experiences in The Huffington Post a year before joining the army.

Belinda Kotton, meanwhile, says she didn’t see her son Dylan Walt’s suicide coming. Yet, as she notes, he did suffer considerable heartbreak in his life: Dylan’s younger brother had been killed in a car accident not long before he enlisted, his parents were divorced a few years earlier, and his father, according to his mother, nearly died of a drug overdose. “Whether all this stuff that he hadn’t dealt with suddenly got triggered in his basic training, I honestly can’t tell you,” says Kotton, in a phone call from her home in Johannesburg. “Was it planned, or was it a moment of madness? I don’t know. I have so many unanswered questions.”

A soldier in the Golani Brigade, the 19-year-old South African who joined the army through Garin Tzabar, shot himself dead in December 2014 – barely half a year into his service.

There were no obvious red flags in the case of a lone soldier from New York with Israeli citizenship who killed himself this past November. (His name is being withheld out of respect for the privacy of his family.) That was because, as he testified in a suicide note that he posted on Facebook just before taking his life, he had succeeded in hiding his long-standing struggle with depression from everyone he knew, including his family.

In his final post, he said he had hoped service in the Israeli army would provide him with some form of salvation. “I wanted to serve in the IDF for multiple reasons,” he wrote. “But I’d be lying if I said that my motivations were purely selfless. The military is a maturing experience where you can face real challenge and not only discover yourself but also where you have the opportunity to build yourself up the way you want to. And I wanted that. I wanted the difficulty and the pain and the suffering, the self-improvement I could reap from the experience, all of it. I was looking for meaning. Searching for a reason to live.”

Stephan Martines, a lone soldier from Russia, was missing for several days in February before his body was discovered in a soldiers’ hostel in Haifa. He had been living there since being discharged from the army a few weeks earlier due to mental health problems. The 22-year-old had hanged himself in his room.

The Birthright effect?

Tziki Aud, a senior adviser at the Lone Soldier Center in Memory of Michael Levin.Credit: Olivier Fitoussi

Young Diaspora Jews have been enlisting in the army ever since there was a State of Israel. But their profile has changed over the years.

Tziki Aud, a senior adviser at the Lone Soldier Center in Memory of Michael Levin (named in honor of a lone soldier from Philadelphia killed in the Second Lebanon War), says that lone soldiers of an earlier era tended to have a stronger Jewish and Zionist identity, and showed a greater desire to integrate into Israeli society.

“Today, joining the Israeli army has become something of a trend – like something for Jewish kids abroad to do, just like ours here in Israel go backpacking to South America and the Far East after the army,” says Aud, who has worked closely with lone soldiers both in his current job and his previous position as an executive at the Jewish Agency.

In the past, he says, lone soldiers would feel guilty if they left Israel after completing their army service. “Today, they don’t as much. Maybe that’s why they make less of an effort to adapt to life in Israel and tend to hang out among their own.”

One possible explanation for this new crop of lone soldiers is the success of Birthright. In the 20 years since its inception, the program has brought some 600,000 young adults on free trips to Israel – many of them unaffiliated Jews or children of mixed marriages who might otherwise never have visited the country.

Max Steinberg, a lone soldier who was killed in the 2014 Gaza war. Credit: AP

Alex Sasaki, for example, fell in love with Israel on his Birthright trip in 2013. It was his first visit to the country; he knew no one and had no family in Israel. According to his father, who is Japanese-American, Alex did not grow up in a home with much of a connection to Israel or Judaism (although Alex’s mother was born Jewish). He did not have a bar mitzvah and his family did not belong to a synagogue. After his Birthright trip, according to his father, Alex was able to extend his stay in Israel by signing up for a program sponsored by Aish Hatorah, an Orthodox outreach organization. “From that Birthright trip, he connected with something,” his father says.

Max Steinberg also got his first taste of Israel on a Birthright trip – and it was during that visit in 2012 that he decided to sign up for duty. Steinberg, who hailed from Los Angeles, was one of three lone soldiers from the Golani Brigade killed in the 2014 Gaza war. In an interview with The Washington Post soon after he was killed, his mother Evie recounted that her son’s decision to move to Israel was prompted by a visit to the national military cemetery in Jerusalem during his Birthright trip, where he discovered the grave of an American lone soldier who had died in battle.

When Max returned home after Birthright, his mother said, he quickly lost interest in college and booked his return trip to Israel. Like Alex Sasaki, Max Steinberg had no family or friends in Israel and spoke no Hebrew when he signed up for the army.

New demographic, new problems

Garin Tzabar director Alon Kuba.Credit: ANIR LAVI / hazofim Garin Tzabar

Garin Tzabar was originally launched in 1991 as a way of helping children of Israelis living in the United States who were interested in returning to Israel and serving in the army. Most of the early participants were Hebrew speakers deeply connected to Israel.

In its initial years, the organization would send a group of 20 participants to Israel each year. Over the past 15 years, the numbers have increased dramatically and, according to director Alon Kuba, Garin Tzabar now brings as many as 400 lone soldiers to Israel each year.

‘Whether all this stuff that he hadn’t dealt with suddenly got triggered in his basic training, I honestly can’t tell you. I have so many unanswered questions.’

Belinda Kotton

It is worth noting that, today, fewer than 40 percent are the children of Israelis. This would suggest that they are less likely to speak Hebrew, less likely to have family in Israel, and less likely to be familiar with Israeli culture – compounding the difficulties the average soldier already faces.

Indeed, among the biggest challenges many lone soldiers report during their military service is insufficient command of Hebrew. In civilian life, not understanding instructions can be a nuisance; in a combat unit, where soldiers are training with live ammunition, it can prove life-threatening.

Mika, a former lone soldier who moved back to New York, says the fact she has an Israeli mother and grew up speaking Hebrew gave her a clear advantage over many other lone soldiers in her Garin Tzabar group. “I was giving some of them private lessons on the side,” she relays.

The army said in response that it provides lone soldiers who lack basic language skills with a three-month course in Hebrew as part of their service. But many of them, as well as their commanders, report that the program does not bring them up to the level required for understanding basic instructions once they begin their training.

A. says his inability to communicate well in Hebrew and his lack of familiarity with Israeli culture proved to be major liabilities during his military service. Describing abuse he took from an especially tough commander, he recounts: “The vulgar and direct language was really hard for me, but I couldn’t say anything because I didn’t want to be called a crybaby.”

D., the female commander, notes that on many army bases there is only one person around to deal with the personnel issues of hundreds of soldiers, including lone soldiers. “Some even didn’t know English, and I barely knew Hebrew,” she says.

But perhaps the greatest challenge for soldiers like her, she says, is loneliness. “You are alone during your vacations, and every time you have a problem, you are the one who has to deal with it,” she says. “I know a lot of people who couldn’t hack it, and simply left their rifles at the base and got on a flight back to New Jersey or wherever without telling anyone.”

The lone soldier ‘business’

The lone soldier program has experienced greater visibility in recent years, thanks in no small part to a network of private organizations and government-funded initiatives dedicated to preserving and promoting it.

Indeed, few of them existed as recently as a decade ago. The Lone Soldier Center in Memory of Michael Levin was established in 2009; Habayit Shel Benji (dedicated to British-born Benji Hillman, killed in the Second Lebanon War) was established in 2006; and Chayal el Chayal, an organization that mainly serves Orthodox lone soldiers, was established in 2010. These organizations provide a range of services that include housing, Shabbat meals, mentoring, laundry and fun days.

In addition, there is the Lone Soldiers Program, a collaboration between Nefesh B’Nefesh – an organization that facilitates aliyah from English-speaking countries – the IDF and Friends of the IDF, one of the largest Israel-focused charities in the Jewish world. According to a spokesman for Nefesh B’Nefesh, the annual budget of the Lone Soldiers Program is $3 million. Two-thirds comes from FIDF and the rest from private donors.

A Friends of the IDF gala. Credit: Shahar Azran

FIDF raised a reported $139 million in 2018, up $17 million from the previous year. A spokesman for the organization said that, on average, each year it allocates a total of $5.5 million for the “well-being” of lone soldiers. While lone soldiers are the recipients of only a small portion of the funds it raises, FIDF frequently features them – along with their personal stories – in its fundraising appeals. It also makes a practice of flying in lone soldiers to its fundraising events in the United States.

Ilan Benjamin, who participated in one such event in Hollywood while serving in the IDF, recalls: “They serve a good purpose, but I had this sinking feeling all along that I was being used. They had me speak in front of thousands of people. Antonio Banderas and Barbra Streisand were in the crowd and, I have to say, I felt a bit like a pawn.”

The operating budget of Garin Tzabar, according to a spokesman for the organization, is 13 million shekels ($3.7 million) a year. About 70 percent comes from the Israeli government and the quasi-governmental Jewish Agency, with private philanthropists contributing the rest. The organization’s fundraising efforts undoubtedly benefit from the presence of two high-profile women at the helm: Miriam Adelson, the wife of billionaire casino magnate Sheldon Adelson (and major donor to the Republican Party), serves as honorary president of Garin Tzabar USA, while Sara Netanyahu, the wife of the Israeli prime minister, serves as honorary president of Garin Tzabar Israel.

To be sure, this support system for lone soldiers grew out of a real need: The Israeli army operates on the assumption that its soldiers go home every weekend or two and have family members around to take care of their laundry, prepare them home-cooked meals and indulge them. And on those weekends they are forced to stay on base, they can often rely on parents to come visit with bags full of goodies.

A lone soldier at a Garin Tzabar event.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

Not lone soldiers, though. As Joey Bendah, a lone soldier who ended up immigrating to Israel, wrote in an essay published several years ago in The Jerusalem Post: “I can now confirm that there’s one thing harder than being a soldier in the IDF, and it’s being a lone soldier.”

He continued: “When lone soldiers return home after weeks of guard duty on Israel’s borders, they want nothing more than the luxury of relaxation. Instead, sleep-deprived lone soldiers stay up for hours, doing laundry to ensure that their uniforms are clean before returning to base. And when the laundry is done, lone soldiers need to go grocery shopping before stores close for Shabbat; that is if they want to eat something tasty after weeks of combat rations.”

Price to the system

Today, Israel has one of the mightiest armies in the world. Thanks to natural population growth and immigration, it has more than enough 18-year-old conscripts joining its ranks each year to fill every possible position.

Not only are volunteers no longer required, but in some cases – owing to their special needs and challenges – they actually pose a burden on the army. As Shifra Shahar, from the soldier advocacy group, reports: “Not one, not two and not 10 company commanders have reported to me that having one soldier like this takes more energy from them than an entire company.”

Soldiers coming from abroad can choose between two options for serving in the army: a shorter volunteer service (Machal), after which they must leave the country, or an extended service that entails immigration and taking up Israeli citizenship. Many of those who choose the latter track come via Garin Tzabar.

‘We are not a volunteer army, nor need we be in 2019. We draft lots of our own kids, and there’s no reason we should be taking in mercenaries.’

Arthur Lenk

Among critics of the lone soldier program, few suggest disbanding it altogether. Their argument is that lone soldiers need to be better vetted, better informed and better prepared.

“First off, I would require anyone coming from abroad to spend a year in a pre-military gap-year program,” says Shahar. “During that year, it’s possible to get a much better sense of who they are – and it’s also a great opportunity for them to learn Hebrew. If they can’t speak the language after an intense year like that, I’d say they’re a lost cause and it’s not going to happen in the army either.”

She says she would also require all overseas army candidates to sign a declaration, in the presence of a lawyer, confirming that the information they have provided is accurate and, if not, that they understand they could face serious sanctions. “I’m convinced that these sort of measures will weed out many of those not suitable for the army,” she says.

Arthur Lenk says that if it were up to him, he would require Israeli envoys abroad to visit the homes of IDF candidates and check out their families. (In Israel, it is common for commanders to visit the homes of recruits at the start of their service, as social workers might.)

If there is something that should be eliminated entirely, say the critics, it is Machal. “It’s totally irrelevant and unnecessary in this day and age,” says Shahar.

Prof. Yagil Levy.Credit: Eyal Toueg

Lenk concurs. “The IDF is not the French Foreign Legion. We are not a volunteer army, nor need we be in 2019,” he says. “We draft lots of our own kids, and there’s no reason we should be taking in mercenaries.”

During his military service, recounts Ilan Benjamin, there were several Machal soldiers serving alongside him. “The whole program is totally pointless and they were a complete drain on the system,” he says. “These guys come, they get trained, and then they’re gone. Basically, they get to go back and brag that they were in the Israeli army.”

Since Machal volunteers are not committed to staying in Israel, says Yagil Levy, a political sociology and public policy professor at the Open University of Israel, their motives for serving are probably not exclusively ideological. “It might be interesting to investigate whether they have agendas that might be in conflict with those of the army – whether, for example, people like this are more prone to aggression,” he says.

Despite its problems, Levy says he does not anticipate any major rethinking of the lone soldier project, because both Israel and the Jewish world have strong interests in maintaining it. “There is definitely a big interest on the part of Diaspora Jewry — especially in the United States – in keeping it going as part of the greater Zionist project,” he says.

“But I also think the Israeli army has an interest in maintaining it,” he adds. “When young people from around the world come here out of their own free will to join the army, that’s something that raises morale and the fighting spirit. It is no coincidence, I believe, that of all the soldiers in the army they could have celebrated the Passover seder with this year, both the chief of staff and Israel’s president chose to do so with lone soldiers.”

The IDF spokesman did not respond to a request for comment about allegations that lone soldiers do not receive enough information about what their military service will entail. Neither did he respond to those calling to disband the Machal volunteer program or to allegations that lone soldiers pose a burden on commanders in the army.

But there are signs the army is starting to address the plight of lone soldiers more seriously. Last week, Maj. Gen. Moti Almoz, head of the IDF’s Manpower Directorate, sent out a letter to all senior commanders with the following subject headline: “Preventing suicide in the IDF.” Part of the letter referred specifically to lone soldiers.

“Recently, several decisions have been taken regarding lone soldiers, and they will be shared with you shortly,” it said. “This issue requires follow-up and special sensitivity. We have a very big responsibility, especially with regard to permanent assistance in various areas (housing, money, electrical appliances,etc.). A commander is required to be acquainted with the lone soldier, his place of residence, his living conditions, where he goes on vacation, his family and friends.”

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