On my last trip to the United States, I met a young man who told me that he wanted to serve in the Israeli army. I told him to go to hell.
Not in such blunt terms, of course. But my response caught the guy by surprise.
After all, I’m the author of a memoir about my service in the Israeli military. Don’t I think it’s the duty of all young Jews to serve in the Israeli military?
No, not when the young Jews in question aren’t Israeli and have no intention of making their lives in the Jewish state.
You see, the young man told me that he was certain he wanted to live his life in the United States, but he felt compelled to “do his duty” to the Jewish state by serving in its army. He’d do a year of service and then come home, satisfied that he’d done his share.
I meet guys like this all the time. They’re generally intelligent, motivated and fierce patriots of Israel — a country where they don’t reside.
Unfortunately, the Israeli army and programmers of Zionist education for young people cater to them through programs like Machal, a framework in which young Jews from other countries serve in the military, and Sarel, a program that offers an opportunity to do a short stint in uniform in a support position.
To my mind, these popular and much-lauded programs give the wrong message to young Jews in the Diaspora — namely, that the essence of Zionism is military service. If you’ve done the army, they seem to be saying, you’ve done your part and you can go home.
Nothing could be more foreign to Zionism’s historical heritage. From Hibat Zion through Herzl to Ben-Gurion, the goal has always been Jewish settlement in Israel. It became apparent early on that a Jewish army would be necessary to protect Jewish settlement and achieve and protect Jewish sovereignty, but that army was always an instrument, not a goal in and of itself.
So young Jews who want to do their part for Israel should make a good faith effort to make lives for themselves in the Jewish state. If it works out, and if their age and physical condition qualify them for service, then they should by all means serve in the army. If they serve, they should be proud — but they should always keep in mind that an army is a necessary evil, not an ideal. It’s living here, holding down a job, raising a family and participating in political and cultural life that are the essence of Israel patriotism.
I’m not an aliyah fanatic. I realize that it’s not right for everyone, and that many people try to make the move but don’t succeed. But military service should only be a product of aliyah, not a surrogate for it.
Israel should shut down Machal and Sarel. Young people who want to do something for the country should be directed to the community services and NGOs that are desperate for volunteers. A month or a year teaching Ethiopian immigrants, organizing children’s activities in a battered women’s shelter, doing office work for an environmental organization, or painting bomb shelters in the Galilee or Sderot is of far greater value — and much more Zionist — than the equivalent time spent in uniform.
That’s what I told the young man: Israel has more than enough soldiers. What we’re lacking are committed and active citizens.
Haim Watzman is the author of “Company C: An American’s Life as a Citizen-Soldier in Israel” (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2005) and “A Crack in the Earth: A Journey Up Israel’s Rift Valley” (Farrar, Straus & Giroux).