A Tank for Every Child

Independence Day means IDF flags in school and stories of bravery in war recited to children. Israel still raises its sons to be warriors

"Mom, I don't want to be a soldier. I don't want to die." That is what my son said to me one day in the car. Out of the blue, without any preparation. He was 5 years old.

At that time, we repeatedly heard songs by Aviv Geffen as we drove between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. One of the regular passengers, in her early teens, had just discovered the singer whose songs (at least when he started out) were full of explicit anti-war messages. Weeks later, the pacifist declaration reverberated in bedtime chats, at mealtimes and on the way to preschool.

My son was concerned, and justifiably so. He had become aware of the connection between being a soldier and dying. Today, three years later, when he is questioned cautiously about the army, it seems he no longer supports that outspoken view so completely. This time he surprises by so naturally using words and phrases like "combat soldier" and "to enlist," even though they remain abstract concepts for him.

Even more surprising, the question of what they were gong to do in the army has come up among his friends, 8-year-olds. Apparently the pro-army steam-roller in the educational establishment here has influenced them. It has one aim - to get 18-year-olds to enlist in the army en masse and to ensure they see this step not only as a necessary but also as fulfilling their heart's desire, the fulfillment of an ideal.

In his gripping book, "Isha Borahat Mibesora" (A Woman Flees Tidings) David Grossman describes in great detail the process of turning a sensitive young boy into a soldier who is dying to give his utmost. The story is typical of many youngsters. In the book the mother, Ora, flees from the message her son Ofer has died. Ora mourns the son "who was lost to her forever from the moment he was nationalized" and she searches in the man he has become, who blows his nose so noisily, "a weak echo of his childhood." She recalls how, as a fragile and frightened boy, he went wild when he found out that people kill cows to eat meat, and he was only 4-years-old. Time and again she asks herself how he became a soldier who begs the army to take him on an operation after he is discharged, how he was transformed from a child into a fighter, from fragility to toughness.

A gift for a soldier

Though Israeli society has apparently grown more individualistic, with regard to the army it seems there has been a supreme effort to maintain the old ideals. Dr. Hagit Gur, a lecturer at the Seminar Hakibbutzim College's Center of Critical Pedagogy, and author of the book "Militarism Behinuch" ("Militarism in Education", published in Hebrew by Bavel, 2005) believes Israeli society has always directed its citizens from an early age to identify with serving in the army. "In early childhood, children think about themselves in a matter of fact way," Gur says. "If they are told people stand on Memorial Day in honor of fallen soldiers, the logical conclusion is that it is possible to die when serving in the army." However, she says, with time and as social pressures increase, children learn it is legitimate to be afraid and to be deterred by death. "The accepted messages that are transmitted in school are that we are under siege, in danger and fighting for our lives, and that the army watches out for and defends us," she says.

Israeli society either consciously or unconsciously encourages feelings of admiration for the army, Gur adds. Parallel to strengthening the consensus around the army, there is a process of shutting up and suppressing other points of view and desires that go against the grain of the mainstream, the correct and designated course for boys, she believes. In particular, Israeli society does not grant legitimacy to expressions of fear or doubt, she says. In general, it is problematic for a boy to be wimpish and to show weakness. The weak are harassed by Israeli society. The urge to become tough and to grow "a thick skin" is stronger in Israeli society than elsewhere, she believes.

The military discourse has gained such massive control of everyday life, Gur says, that an attempt to escape from it and to develop non-aggressive or non macho personal opinions is almost hopeless. She quotes Prof. Cynthia Enloe of Clark University, an expert on the social influences of militarism, who says militarization is a process that spreads in and pervades society without seeming problematic. Toys for boys imitate weapons. Computer games, films and the media are all filled with aggressiveness and violence and contribute to making boys tough so they can be soldiers, she says. The militaristic discourse pervades schools, too, she says, whether in the way the myths of the Jewish holidays, such as Hanukkah and Purim, are portrayed - the victory of a few over many, of light over darkness - or in Memorial Day ceremonies in which courage and those who died for their country are glorified. Not surprisingly the army opens its bases to the public on Independence Day, and children jump on the tanks.

"The children admire strength," Gur says. She writes in her book that on Independence Day, messages of open militarism are conveyed. Lessons are taught about the War of Liberation. The implicit, and sometimes explicit, message is the "bad Arabs" wanted to throw us into the sea, the armies of seven Arab countries invaded but we won and the state was established.

Independence Day is celebrated in preschools as the festival of the army. It is common practice to hang the flags of the various IDF corps as decorations and to tell stories of valor from the War of Independence. Gur proposes an alternative, that Independence Day be a time to discuss human rights and the Declaration of Independence's pledge of equality regardless of religion, race or gender. This alternative is already accepted practice in some educational institutions.

The gift sent to soldiers on Independence Day or during wars - the parcel that children wrap up at their teacher's request - is also part of the same socialization, says Gur. Do soldiers really need the socks or the candy? she asks. But the children get the message: "Today you are sending a parcel to the soldiers, and tomorrow you will be the one to get one."

Passport to citizenship

Contrary to Gur's description, at one Jerusalem school there was no interest in sending parcels to soldiers during Operation Cast Lead in Gaza, and the subject of socks made a few parents giggle. Can this be the first sign of subversion in relation to the army?

Dr. Gilad Padva of Tel Aviv University's School of Cultural Studies, says a dual relationship to the army has developed in Israel, and the military has lost some of its status. Nevertheless there is still a large public for whom "the IDF is a sacrosanct matter, and its name is mentioned with reverence."

A child, says Padva, gets most of his opinions and models of male identification from the home rather than from the school. The area where he lives is definitive, he says. The army is much less admired in central or north Tel Aviv than in communities in the periphery. The picture is thus complex. "On the one hand, there are more people who want to reexamine the place of the IDF in Israeli culture, society and politics," he says. "There is criticism today of the cult of the army and militarism, of parachuting senior officers into central positions in politics in local authorities and in education; on the other hand, there are people who consider it a cultural asset of permanent value, and not merely a security necessity, and who believe the IDF must be strengthened."

For years, the army and militarism were a central and concrete part of the creation of Israeli manhood, and children were educated in a pro-army spirit, he says. "After the military victory in 1967, children would dress up as a soldier, just so and not even on Purim, and go like that to preschool. The father would tell his children about what he had done in the army. Parents would take their children on trips in the footsteps of military operations. Today, however, most of the population educates their children to see the army as the least of evils - the army is a necessary part of the defense of the country; it is not an object of admiration. Hardly any children dress up now as soldiers and simultaneously the masculine ideal has changed. There are more men who can be more easily described as metrosexual. All the same, the boundary is well-defined. There is almost complete consensus over conscription. Most of the parents in Israel, even among the left, are shocked if a child decides not to enlist. That's also because they believe that military service is an inseparable part of growing up and a kind of passport to citizenship, and the children generally accept this when they are small."

A., a Tel Aviv boy, is an exception. One day his mother proudly told him on the way to preschool that his big brother had received a callup to the air force. He stopped and stared at her. "Will you send me to die also?" he asked. For almost a decade now he has been engaged in a debate with his parents about going to the army. It puts him off. "He is exceptionally sensitive to violence of any type, even in the school playground," says his mother. "This is killing his father, but I have been persuaded."