Bad Boys, Good Soldiers

Some 1,200 new recruits pass through Havat Hashomer every year. Hardly any of them have a matriculation certificate.

The rank is not as high as lieutenant general - that goes with being chief of staff. It's lieutenant colonel and though this is not the command of an elite combat unit, the competition for the job is stiff. Among the candidates: a squadron commander in the air force and top officers from the commando units of the general staff and of the navy.

Lt. Col. Ran Karny, right, is commander of Havat Hashomer, a military base in the Lower Galilee
Tomer Appelbaum

Lt. Col. Ran Karny is about to complete a three-year tour of duty as commander of the Havat Hashomer base in the Lower Galilee, where basic training is held for the soldiers of the Center for the Advancement of Special Populations. They are better known as "Raful's boys," after the nickname of the late chief of staff Rafael Eitan, who devised the program for disadvantaged youth to do army service. It brings the dilemma of the Israel Defense Forces' role in society to the fore: Professional army or people's army? An organization that executes the orders of the political echelon or a force for social change?

"Our mission is now at the heart of the consensus," Lt. Col. Karny says. "There's no longer an argument about it, as can be seen by the large number of senior officers and major generals who visit here."

Some 1,200 new recruits pass through Havat Hashomer every year. Hardly any of them have a matriculation certificate, and about a quarter of them have not more than 10 years of schooling. They are classified as recruits likely to have difficulty in adjusting to the military, owing to personal problems, difficulties at home or entanglement in crime. The success rate of the base is impressive, not least because the civilian rescue networks, the education and welfare systems, failed with them. Ninety percent of the draftees who do basic training at the base complete it. Of them, 75 percent complete the full three years of army service, 10 percent of them in combat units.

"What sets some of our soldiers apart is that they have no dreams. They are incapable of looking a minute ahead," Karny says. "There are people here with deep inner wounds. There's one soldier who saw his father murder his mother. It's very complex, and the state doesn't have the tools. I am not being critical ... I am not familiar with the whole range of considerations for the distribution of resources, but there are simply no tools. If civil society could cope with this challenge successfully, there would be no need to do what we do here."

The military framework has an advantage, the base commander notes. "When you give someone a uniform, place him here and a commanding officer in a beret stands opposite him, that has an effect." His approach, he says, is that "you tell him the truth - 'I got to where I got because my father was a company commander in the Shaked reconnaissance unit and my grandfather founded a kibbutz, and you got to where you got because of your circumstances. But now it's your choice: The past has no significance.'"

A company commander on the base, Lt. Liat Shaked, says, "It's not just a boarding school for at-risk youth. It's also a springboard to the future. A kid who almost beat someone to death in Ashkelon and spent four months in prison and then couldn't find a school to accept him - the army gave him a chance to excel, and today he is a commander in a Paratroopers reconnaissance unit. They have an opportunity to realize potential at the highest level. It's an encounter with the other Israel, which suddenly dialogues with them with empathy, with no condescension."

Women constitute 90 percent of the base personnel; command and instruction posts there are in great demand. Most of the personnel are from secular kibbutzim and moshavim and many of them do a year of national service before the army or attend a pre-army academy. Others are graduates of the prestigious liberal schools of the national-religious education system.

Staff Sgt. Yotam Jerby came to Havat Hashomer two and a half years ago as a boarding school dropout. He now has an engineering job, operating heavy machinery. He says there's an advantage to having women as commanders: "Anyone with honor will not strike a girl, but with a guy there will be friction."

Lt. Tom Elgart, another company commander on the base, came to Havat Hashomer after serving in a special police patrol unit, where he felt he was not realizing his goals. "We worked in a lot of nightclubs," he says. "When we caught guys with knives, I would give them a talking to in the van and then throw the knife into the bushes and not open a police file. But you can only get to them like that for half an hour. Here you have the chance to get into their deep layers."

Basic training on Havat Hashomer lasts 10 weeks, more than three times the usual IDF stint. It begins with a "forgiveness week." New recruits are forgiven for disciplinary offenses for which they will be punished later if repeated. This is followed by three weeks of basic military training. In the advanced stage they are prepared for meaningful army service and meet with classification officers. This week is made up mainly of educational content about Israeli and Jewish history and the role of the IDF. Those who reach this stage go on to training courses for their next position, and the 10 percent who will enter combat units have to do basic training all over again.

Staying with bereaved families

The military framework offers many disciplinary tools. Says an officer: "I tell them that that I am with them every day, and, on the other hand, anyone who goes AWOL, curses or lifts a hand against another soldier, you go to jail."

In the educational part of the program the new recruits are divided into teams named for combat soldiers who fell in action. The recruits visit their graves and are hosted in the homes of bereaved families. It may look manipulative to cynics, says Karny, but for them "it is pure. It connects them."

In a few months, the "Raful boys" project will mark its 30th anniversary. Karny says using that name commemorates the founder and also has a true element of youth who are a little lost, for whom someone has to take responsibility.

"In the first years there were many more young people from families in new immigrant towns that did not integrate well in the country," says Karny. "Nowadays, we have quite a few who come not from distressed backgrounds but from families who were not there for them and grew up with no boundaries."

The attitude of the new recruits has also changed. "In the past the instructors walked around with handcuffs and truncheons, like in a military prison. Today the approach is far more respectful of the individual. We do not try to break the civilian to build the soldier. That also involved replacing the male commanders so we now have 90 percent women."

Perhaps the change Karny is proudest of is the cooperation with the Paratroopers Brigade. Their training base hosts the new recruits for their field week and sends officers to train those who are earmarked for combat units. "Do you have any idea what it means to a soldier when he goes back to the neighborhood and says he spent a week in the Paratroops?" Karny says. In fact, 25 of the course graduates joined the Paratroops last year.

Karny, who came through the Paratroopers, was a company commander at the officers' school on Bahad 1 training base and commander of the school in the Maglan commando unit. At the age of 30, he wanted to switch to education and would have left the army, had it not been for the opportunity to engage in education while in uniform. "A friend of mine who is a battalion commander tells me that when we save one kid here, it's more important than an operation to catch the most wanted person in Judea and Samaria," he says.