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Toking on the Base in Israel

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Israeli soldiers walk on the Israeli side of the Gaza border, near Kibbutz Mefalsim, May 15, 2018.
Israeli soldiers walk on the Israeli side of the Gaza border, near Kibbutz Mefalsim, May 15, 2018. Credit: Amir Cohen / Reuters

Cannabis consumption among Israeli soldiers (both in the military and doing national service) is increasing. By 2017, no less than 54 percent of the troops were using it, according to an article in the daily Yedioth Ahronoth based on a survey by the Anti-Drug Authority a few months ago.

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How should we interpret the increase in the use of marijuana and hashish among soldiers? Has all the talk about legalization made it easier? Is it the more-flexible policy of enforcement and punishment of smokers in the military? The Yedioth article doesn’t analyze the reasons for increased use, so we have to rely on guesswork.

The reporter, Amir Shouan, spoke to male and female soldiers in various units and learned that there are also commanders getting high, and commanders who know which of their soldiers use cannabis. And there are soldiers earning some nice money using apps to sell hashish. Drug dealers even give soldiers discounts.

The use of the drug isn’t limited to leaves at home. “In many units, some of them operational and sensitive, cannabis smoking has become widespread on the bases themselves,” Shouan writes.

The immediate tendency is to find a positive explanation for the phenomenon. The soldiers, young and programmed as they may be, feel that what they’re doing is bad: breaking into homes; waking up children in the middle of the night and pointing guns at them; shooting at the inmates in the prison that is Gaza, whether they’re demonstrators, fishermen, shepherds or farmers; securing the demolitions of people’s dwellings and cisterns; or standing idly by under orders while masked Jews attack Palestinian shepherds and farmers.

Reinforcement of sorts for this interpretation comes from a soldier named Shira who told Shouan that she was suffering emotional problems because of her service, “And then the only thing that comforts you is the toke. Cannabis helps you relax, get through the pain – mental and physical – and thoughts. And when you do it with another person, when you have someone who’s your partner in crime, for a moment you forget all your problems.”

Yuval, a combat soldier, explained why soldiers get high: “To get through the situation in a nicer, fun way. Sometimes many things make no sense, annoying orders or all kinds of things we have to do that we don’t agree with. When you’re wasted, it goes right past you. You say, ‘Fine, great.’”

Thoughts, disagreement: Bertolt Brecht wrote an optimistic poem back in 1938 called “General, Your Tank”: “General, man is very useful / He can fly and he can kill / But he has one defect / He can think.”

Maybe the soldiers realize that something is essentially wrong with serving in an institution whose job is to suppress 4 million subjects who oppose the military junta rule imposed on them. Maybe the toke helps veil the hypocrisy. The soldiers are depicted as the people’s defenders, while they know that their mission is to ensure the peace and expansion of the settlement enterprise.

The optimistic interpretation says that the soldiers at every moment experience the dissonance between Israel’s pretense to morality and what they’re actually required to do. Getting stoned pleasantly dulls the shame. The increased use of cannabis stems from an expanded sense of shame.

The pessimistic interpretation will remind us that we’re well after 1938, and that Brecht was wrong. Soldiers think their generals are right. They identify with their role and mission, in Israel as well. They’re only looking for ways to improve their performance.

One type of emotional harm attributed to cannabis use is increased aggression. In an army like ours, which at all times must signal to its subjects that their correct and eternal place is on the bottom, personal aggression isn’t a fault. It’s part of the job description.

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