Why I Sent My Son to an Israel Defense Forces Combat Unit

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Soldiers from the Golani infantry brigade on their graduation march at the end of training, May 30, 2013.Credit: Nir Kafri

My son Omri, who is 19, just completed a year of national service teaching Hebrew and math to children from Bedouin tribes in the Negev and volunteering at Alut, the Israeli Society for Autistic Children. Omri enters the army in November; he volunteered for the paratroopers.

Two weeks ago, in a phone call from Boston, a nephew in the United States whose son immigrated to Israel to serve in a combat unit asked me if I had second thoughts about Omri’s volunteering for the paratroopers. I told him I didn’t — I was completely at peace with my son’s decision. But then second and third thoughts crept in and wouldn’t leave.

The thoughts were more about “where is this country going?” “Where are we going?” “What is our future?” It’s no secret that there is a strong sense of a rift, a split — at least among us, the secular, liberal, democratic, thinking, caring public. In short, Haaretz readers.

This is not the country we dreamed about and fought for. It is becoming more ultra-Orthodox every day. Arabs, women, gays and lesbians, Mizrahim, people who serve in the reserves after their regular army service, even the “white tribe” to which we belong don’t have equality. We’re a small and steadily disappearing minority. The language spoken on our streets is not our language, the most-watched television shows don’t interest us, and that’s just for starters.

In short, there are a myriad reasons not to live here, let alone not to serve in a combat unit, since only suckers do that. So why do I still live here, why did I refuse to obtain a Polish passport when I had the chance (my father came from Poland), when everyone around me is doing everything possible to get dual citizenship, preferably European? Why do I think Omri should serve in a combat unit?

I’m not sure I have a definitive answer. I think about it constantly. It’s no longer automatic, the way it was in October 1973 when I was on a trip to the United States. As soon as I heard that a war had broken out I told my wife we were taking the first flight back because “what would I tell my (as-yet unborn) children when they asked me, ‘Daddy, what did you do in the war?’”

Maybe I’ve changed; when you’re 24 you don’t ask questions, when you’re 64 you do. Or maybe it’s the country that has changed, or maybe you’ll never know.

But last week something happened that helped me understand. I was at a funeral in Be’er Sheva, the funeral of a man I didn’t know: the father of Orit, who is married to Noam, a good friend. Moshe Ben-Attar died last week, aged 89. He grew up in Tel Aviv, joined the Etzel pre-state underground militia and was imprisoned by the British for three years at Latrun. (He didn’t brag about it; his family learned about it years later.)

After independence he moved to Be’er Sheva to help settle the Negev. He worked at Solel Boneh, the labor-owned construction company, and went to Eilat to build the airport. Every Friday he returned to Be’er Sheva, and on Saturdays he would take the family on a day trip to explore the country and teach the children to love it. He never asked the state for anything, he only gave. He was a humble man who on Friday nights wore blue pants and a white shirt, for the Sabbath. Salt of the earth.

What does he have to do with us? I feel a connection to him and everyone like him. They believed in what they were doing, and this gave their lives meaning. They were like my father, who immigrated from Poland when he was 14 and worked in the orchards and in construction, and my mother, who was born here because her father had to flee Russia and came to Israel on a horse and wagon.

So one can be a cynic, as I usually am, and ask: What does that have to do with me? I’m a hedonist, I have to live in a place that’s good to live in. But one can also search for meaning in life. Some people do it by studying with a guru in India for years. I’ve found my meaning. I’m an Israeli because I was born here. I’m not getting a Polish passport, because I think a foreign passport is more than just a flight ticket — it has a deeper meaning for me.

I remind myself of an uncle, now deceased, who immigrated to Israel from Poland in the 1930s and never went abroad because he figured he “knew the goyim.” I always laughed at him about that, but maybe there’s something to it. People who have experienced extreme anti-Semitism and have finally reached their own country are unwilling to go through it again, or even to recall it.

Man is a herd animal. He likes living in a herd, being part of a group. I feel myself part of the group called Israelis. Being part of a group means paying dues, otherwise it’s not special. A due I pay happily is military service, and the closer to combat duty the more special a member of the group you feel. The quarterback. It’s not right for everyone, but it is for me, so that’s why I chose to serve in the elite Sayeret Golani, back in the day.

So after my search for meaning, and amid my sense of belonging and above all the feeling I can’t turn my back on my personal and national history and everything I’ve believed in and followed my whole life, I support Omri’s decision to join the paratroopers.

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