We often hear of modern Israel becoming a post-Zionist state, having lost its roots, vision and direction.
Judging by the potential and selflessness of many our young people, I’d say that this premise is hogwash
Kids mature earlier here in Israel. It has to do with the complex milieu in which they grow up and the army service they’re expected to do upon reaching age 18.
They start hearing from the military in 10th grade. During that year, 16-year-olds begin receiving formal military orders requiring them to attend interviews, medicals and psychometric examinations aimed at establishing their physical and mental fitness for service and the type of units they might join. Even before they actually enlist, the process can be difficult. Kids don’t always get into the units they want and must deal with the disappointment.
After they’re inducted, things don’t necessarily become easier. Basic training is gruelling, both physically and emotionally, especially – but not only – for fresh conscripts in combat units. Young people, used to their parents’ pampering, often find the rigorous training exhausting and demeaning. They lose their sense of personal sovereignty.
Kids are often changed by the experience. They do things they don’t necessarily want to because they’re ordered to do so, and they learn about teamwork, but also to be independent. Some become leaders. Many deal with issues that few kids their age must face elsewhere. Serving at a roadblock in the West Bank or going into battle in Gaza is enough to provide moral dilemmas and nightmares for years.
If giving up two or three years of their lives isn’t enough, thousands of high school graduates choose to spend an extra year – before enlisting – doing public service in poor neighbourhoods, development towns, absorption centres and the like.
Others join year-long programs, called mechinot, that prepare them to take leadership roles in the military and teach them about the diversity of views on many important issues in Israel. Kids live together and learn to fend for themselves. More than 2,000 young adults are currently enrolled in 34 different mechinot around the country.
Every generation believes that it was more able and willing to give to the country than the present one. Today, these sentiments are fed by reports of increasing rates of draft-dodging and desertion. The numbers, however, don’t support this impression. According to recent data, 25 per cent of Jewish males required to serve in the military don’t actually end up serving, up from 12 per cent in 1980. The increase appears alarming, but it isn’t really, primarily due to the dramatic rise in potential haredi inductees, most of whom get service exemptions or deferments. Experts who analyzed the numbers found that actual draft-dodging only rose from four to five per cent over the past 25 years.
Meanwhile, motivation is rising. This past August, 72 per cent of recruits who were fit to serve in combat units asked to serve in such units, up four per cent from last year.
The picture is not all rosy, however. As in other western societies, young people use drugs, and alcohol abuse among adolescents and young adults is on the rise. Police stats suggest there’s a general decline in youth crime, but serious crime is on the rise.
Soldiers on weekend leave from their army units go to pubs and discotheques, enjoying well-deserved breaks from the army. At least once a month we learn of the tragic results of a night out on the town. A month ago, in Rishon Lezion, a soldier in the Golani Brigade who fought in Gaza during Operation Cast Lead was stabbed to death on his way to an evening of fun with friends when he got into a squabble with drunken youths only 200 metres from his home.
So things aren’t idyllic, but they never were. Yet with the calibre and altruism of many of youth today, we can rest assured that the future of this country will be in good hands – better hands than those of today.
On a personal note. it’s not easy being a soldier’s parent. My kids are younger, but in the last year, some of our friends’ kids have begun military service. Parents’ lives change. Some worry constantly, especially those with kids in combat units. They don’t take vacations abroad, at least not together, and want to be around for any eventuality and to provide TLC when their kids do get home.
It’s all part of living in this country.