An Israeli Army Doormat Breaks the Silence

In Israel, former soldiers understand each other. They've seen the same things, but disagree on the interpretation. Bystanders, however, don't have a say.

Nissan Shor
Nissan Shor
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An illustrative image from the film 'Zero Motivation' shows a scene in which an Israeli soldier carryies a tray of coffee cups to an officers' meeting.
An illustrative image from the film 'Zero Motivation' shows a scene in which an Israeli soldier carryies a tray of coffee cups to an officers' meeting. Credit: Eran Cohen
Nissan Shor
Nissan Shor

I am not a soldier. I don’t have a soldier’s character. I never wanted to be a soldier and soldiers hold no special interest for me. My military service doesn’t define me, nor did it leave behind any marks or scars. I don’t look back on it fondly; no nostalgia for that period envelops me like a song performed by an army entertainment troupe. I did my service because at the time there were no other options. I wasn’t a big hero or an ideological radical. Draft evasion wasn’t in the lexicon. Evasion was what disturbed bohemian kids did. We were good kids. The state turned us into bad ones, but that’s a different story.

I had one declared purpose in the army: To pass the time like margarine melting slowly in the Mediterranean sun. I was your standard Israel Defense Forces doormat – a noncombat “jobnik,” with the exotic-sounding position of technician in a hyperbaric, oxygen-therapy chamber at the Israel Naval Medical Institute in Haifa. Yes, there is such a thing. No, I don’t have the energy to explain what it is. Yes, it was five minutes from home.

Every morning I’d arrive at the base with Haaretz tucked under my arm. The master sergeant posted at the entrance would give me a look of genuine disgust, but then again, in the late 1990s being a leftist wasn’t considered an offense punishable by confinement to a base or imprisonment.

I would change into a field uniform with a white T-shirt sticking out, and sit down on a tattered leather armchair in my commanding officer’s office. He was a mustachioed NCO with abundant black hair that was smoothed down by jojoba gel of a phosphorescent green shade. He’d lost a pinky when trying to replace the fan belt of a Peugeot 504 army van that had broken down somewhere near Jenin, toward the end of the first intifada.

He was about 50 and had no great ambitions, either for himself or for me, so we got along very well together. Every morning between 9:30 and 10, he’d ask me to make him a cup of black coffee with lots of foam. I became a foaming expert – no small feat with black, “mud” coffee. The secret is to mix vigorously half a cup of boiling water and ground coffee, and then to add hot water gradually with a centrifuge-like movement, until foam forms and rises to the brim of the cup – or, rather, the de rigueur glass. My commanding officer would examine the coffee carefully, ensure that I had managed to achieve at least five centimeters of solid, dark foam, and then give me a proud paternal look. “Well done, terrific foam,” he would say, patting me on the shoulder as he took a sip. The foam left a wet signature on his thick mustache.

After he finished the coffee, he closed the office door and nodded off on his chair in front of a stack of file folders that were left open in the event that some unexpected guest should turn up. I played Snake on my Nokia 5110 and fell asleep too. Together, we would have a siesta, wake up and go home. In this way I wasted another day and another day and another day.

Illustration.Credit: Sharon Fadida

I never “rubbed up against” the Palestinian population. The first and last time I came close to serving in the territories was when I was sent to do guard duty at the Erez checkpoint on the edge of the Gaza Strip. I tried to get out of it. I reminded my commanding officer that I was an expert in making black coffee with foam and that it would be a shame to waste my abilities on routine security activities. He said it wasn’t up to him, so I was sent to the quartermaster to sign for a weapon and told to report to the checkpoint on Sunday. I think I was the only soldier in the history of the IDF whose father drove him to the Gaza Strip. I didn’t know how to get there and I was afraid to use public transportation. Anyway, it wasn’t all that far.

At the checkpoint, I was posted with a few other jobniks at one of the pedestrian crossings. Some schmuck who served as the education NCO on my base was sent on the mission with me. He was a dwarf of 1.60 meters, a PR man for trance parties in his spare time. He had an exemption from wearing army boots and from shaving; his beard was as neat and trimmed as that of Prince in the period of his “Diamonds and Pearls” album.

Straightaway this guy assumed the role of local sadist, from which he obviously derived great pleasure. A hunched old man in a keffiyeh who passed through the checkpoint drew shouts of “Yalla, yalla, oudroub, oudrub” (“Move it, move it, make it snappy”) – from him, and a light jab in the bottom from the butt of his M-16. The elderly man did his best to move quickly, and all the soldiers doubled over with laughter and slapped each other on the back.

Out of embarrassment and disgust I developed a headache, and requested permission from the checkpoint commander to go to the infirmary. I was given sick leave that released me forthwith from the mission because of a severe migraine, which reflected my mental state more than my physical health.

I called my dad to come and take me away from this appalling place. Two hours later he arrived in his car. He was worried. I told him that everything was alright. I tossed my duffle bag in the trunk, got into the car and didn’t look back.

I am not a soldier. I don’t possess a soldier’s character. In Israel soldiers talk to one another. Some break the silence, others are against that. Some are proud soldiers, some are former proud soldiers. Some are past soldiers, some are present soldiers, some are soldiers of the future. They understand each other. They saw the same things. They only argue about the interpretation of events and the conclusions that should be drawn. Afterward they compete among themselves: Who was more of a grunt, who has a higher rank, who’s more of a man.

Bystanders don’t have the right of speech in this case. We’re in the Wild West, let’s remember. There are those who shoot – and there are those who hide behind fences. We are still waiting for the guys with the rifles to decide that the war is over.

I chose to be a bystander. One visit to the Erez checkpoint at the end of the ‘90s was enough for me. I grasped the principle very quickly. You don’t have to be very smart for that. Soldiers do terrible things – that’s one of the fixed and unchanging rules of history. Some of them later regret what they did. That too is a well-known tendency. And some call their father to come and take them home.

I’ll make black coffee with foam and be silent.