Or perhaps…I should call this, “Staying True”
So there’s a long story and a short story developing here.
The short story is that despite almost a month of planning and special training, Elie is not going to be stationed for the next eight months at a training base in the south commanding a unit of incoming soldiers. Instead, he’ll be stationed more towards the center of the country and as he did for the last four months, he’ll be commanding a unit of soldiers guarding a sensitive area where Arab communities and Jewish communities are very close together and where, before Israel built the security fence, dozens of terrorists simply walked a few minutes across a field to enter one of several Jewish cities and towns. There, in their quest to become martyrs of Islam, they murdered innocent men, women, and children.
The security fence has done wonders to stop more than 90% of these attacks, but the fence must be monitored and patrolled and there are cases, for work or medical emergencies, where Palestinians are allowed to enter Israel and so there are crossings and these too must be manned. Elie’s group will be involved in the first task, monitoring and patrolling to prevent infiltrations. That’s the short story. The longer story comes down to two rights in conflict and the army’s attempt to avoid a wrong.
Elie was raised in a religious home, attended religious schools and was taught two fundamental principles in our home: you have your principles and beliefs, stay true to them; and, everyone has their own principles and beliefs that may or may not be the same as yours, respect them.
At the age of 18 (give or take a few months), every Israeli, male or female, is supposed to go to the army for mandatory service. This is the law, as it is written on the books. In practice, a large number of young Israelis, secular and religious, avoid the draft, typically in one of several ways:
Many girls do national service rather than the army. This allows them to serve their country while avoiding issues that may compromise their beliefs.
Many religious men choose to study Jewish law and religious text. Very early on, the Israeli government recognized a fundamental Jewish concept, God. To believe in God is to believe in the necessity to thank Him, to pray to Him and so the State recognized that there would be those who would fight on a physical level and those who would “fight” on a spiritual level.
Many secular men (and women) choose other ways to get out of the draft, such as claiming psychological problems, pacifist beliefs, or all manner of other excuses. They simply don’t want to give up to three years of their lives for Israel. Several of Israel’s pop-stars and famous models fall into this category.
And finally, many religious and secular young people are not really physically or mentally capable of serving in the army, or are married and the army chooses not to take them. Some come to live in Israel at an older age and the army decides that they will not be drafted.
And then there are those, like Elie, who do not avoid the draft and even those who acknowledge not only their obligation to serve, but show gratitude for the healthy bodies they are given. Within the army, they are given time to pray each day (three times per day, as perscribed by Jewish law). Within the army, they fulfill both a commitment to protect this land on both a physical and spiritual level, combining facets of Judaism and Zionism. They believe one without the other, is weaker than the two combined.
Even before entering the army, each young man receives a profile, a rating based on his physical abilities. Those above a certain rating are asked, “will you agree to serve in a combat unit?”
Elie answered that he would, and so he does. Young women are not expected to serve in combat units, but there are those who wish to serve in this way, and the army accepts this commitment as well. That is one of the rights involved in the long story.
The second right is on Elie’s side. When Elie went into the army, after they asked him if he would serve in a combat unit, they asked him if he was willing to serve with girls. I didn’t know this at the time, but Elie reached into himself, into his beliefs and the way he was raised and decided that he didn’t feel comfortable with this and so he told the army, as a religious young man, no, he did not want to serve in the same unit with girls.
His goal was to serve the army, not be distracted by women. The time for socializing and matching up with a special woman will come, God willing, but not now, not under these conditions, not in the same unit. The army has faced this choice many, many times and it was nothing for them. They simply put Elie in a combat unit with other men, which meant one of the majority of the units that exist, as most women do not choose a combat role.
For the last 18 months, this issue was a null point. Elie served his country, did his training, guarded its borders, and trained for a day when the country would need him to defend it. And then the army asked Elie to command a unit of incoming soldiers and Elie agreed.
Elie was trained as to what this meant and what he would have to do. He was taught about the special psychological needs of new soldiers and remembered his own first weeks in the army. After three weeks of training, Elie and his group of fellow commanders prepared to go to the training base and on the last day, before they left, Elie’s commanding officer told Elie that the unit he was being given would have five women in it.
Elie came home that night for the long weekend and told me his dilemma, “What did you tell them?” I asked.
“I told them ‘no’.” His decision had nothing to do with women in the army or in combat, and everything to do with how he would be put in a potentially uncomfortable position. As a commander, Elie has been privy to the problems and concerns of his soldiers. In training and in command, he has offered his fellow soldiers emotional support and even physical support.
Each time I have been around Elie as he greets or leaves his unit, I’ve been deeply touched by the amount of physical contact between Israeli soldiers. They hug, they pat each other on the shoulder, they shake hands when they part company, and then they do it again a few days later when they are reunited. They touch each other as a sign of support, a sign of affection. It’s a connection in the deepest sense of the word.
When Elie served in the ambulance squad, without hesitation, he touched anyone who needed his assistance, man or woman. At the scene of a car accident, without hesitation, he would help all passengers, any that needed him. This is a necessity and well within his upbringing. True to his beliefs, Elie knows that saving a life is the most precious of requirements. Touching his fellow soldiers is not done out of necessity; it is done out of love and caring. Other armies, perhaps even most armies function without this extra affection that is so characteristic of our army.
“What does that mean? What happens now?” I asked him, and Elie was smart enough to know that I wanted to know what would happen to him. Would they force him? Could they force him? Could they punish him for not following orders?
No, they cannot force him. Elie is within his rights to refuse. No, they will not force him. No, they will not punish him. They tried to convince him otherwise, but Elie stood true to himself and, in some ways, to the principles upon which he was raised.
What the army decided to do, in the end, was pull another commander from Elie’s g’dud (division) and bring him south for training. And Elie, will go back to his original unit as a commander at a checkpoint, helping guard Israel’s borders with his soldiers.
Women have the right and the honor to serve in the Israeli army, even in a combat role. Men have the right to stay true to their religious upbringing. By assigning Elie to an equal role as a commander on another base, the army has found a way to honor two rights without being wrong.