The Girl Next Door

Israeli society is being divided and ripped asunder from every side. If its only remaining common denominator - service in the IDF - is taken away, it will disintegrate.

My neighbor, generally a calm person, clutched my shirt and would not let go. "You have to hear a story," he said. And since I like stories, I invited him in, made coffee and sat down to listen.

The neighbor was excited: "You won't believe what happened to my daughter." "What happened?" I asked warily. "No, don't worry, it's actually something good," he said. And since good things are rather rare in these parts, I pricked up my ears.

"She began her army service two months ago," he began, "and now she has finished basic training and is in a specialist course. At the ceremony concluding her basic training, the commander said it can't be taken for granted today that young people will enlist, so he sees every young woman in the parade as someone with values, someone who is prepared to give of herself for the general good."

"Okay, so what's so special about that?" I asked.

"You know my daughter," he smiled. "What does she have to do with values? She is not prepared to give a thing to anyone, and certainly not to the state.

"But something happened to her during her basic training. It was possible, for the first time in years, to speak to her quietly. She took everything seriously. She prepared her lessons, read on the Internet about the Lamed Hey (35 soldiers killed during the fighting that preceded the state's establishment in an attempt to reinforce the Gush Etzion settlements ) and even listened to what was said during the ceremony on Memorial Day.

"She even went to the shop to buy Bristol paper to prepare an 'effective presentation' of a topic, something she never did when she was at school. And you have to understand, these commanders are only a year older than she is, at best, whereas in school, the teachers were adults with pedagogic experience."

"And how about physical training?" I asked. "After all, she's not so interested in sports."

Here, too, he had a surprise.

"It suddenly turned out that she is able to do sports. Every morning they did fitness training and she joined in. She carried tables and lifted chairs. She was suddenly no longer spoiled. And her headaches and dizziness disappeared.

"One time I took her to her base with a friend. You should have heard the two of them en route, rehearsing methods of camouflage and shooting so they would pass the next test. I pretended I wasn't listening, but I promise you she never prepared for a matriculation exam like that."

Now it's true that isn't why the Israel Defense Forces were established. The army's purpose was never to turn teenage girls into mature young women. But even though that wasn't its purpose, it nevertheless helped to achieve it.

It's also true that not everything in the army is ideal. Just this week, the IDF ombudsman published his annual report, which included thousands of examples of humiliating and disparaging behavior by commanders toward their subordinates. Yet that is the exception, not the norm - and it's good that such cases are publicized and dealt with.

Even today, the IDF remains the melting pot of Israeli society. Only there can someone from North Tel Aviv meet and befriend soldiers of Ethiopian origin. Only there can a kibbutznik and a new immigrant from Russia do military exercises in the same squad. And all of them know that anyone who does not toe the line risks hurting his comrades.

Therefore, it is vital to reject the idea of abolishing compulsory service in favor of a professional army. If that happens, only the lower classes will do military service, while the elites will not enlist at all, as is the case in the United States. Only those seeking social and economic mobility will go into the army, where they can climb the ladder of professional advancement in a way that is difficult in civilian life.

If the IDF becomes a professional army, it will be easier for leaders to pull the trigger and go to war, because neither their sons nor their friends' sons will be in the army. Former minister Yossi Sarid, who is also opposed to abolishing compulsory service, once told me how at cabinet meetings, whenever there were reports of a military operation, ministers would surreptitiously leave the room one after the other to telephone and find out where their sons serving in combat units were.

What can one do? Everyone worries about those closest to him.

Israeli society is being divided and ripped asunder from every side. If its only remaining common denominator - service in the IDF - is taken away, it will disintegrate. Without that prop, what little unity and sense of mutual responsibility still exist will disappear.