When Israeli Soldiers Become Parents
Israeli parents are eager that the "need" for their children to enlist will cease to exist. October 7th painfully reminded us that this "need" is still very much a part of Israeli society.
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Military service in Israel is not just necessary and mandatory. It is a rite of passage, marking the official end of childhood, a singular episode that exposes Israelis to the all-too-real dangers of life in the Middle East.
Within Israeli society, conscription is an integral part of developing personal and career skills, and a stamp of approval that can either help or hurt your future education, job, and even romantic prospects.
Many high school students voluntarily enroll in programs to boost their chances of being accepted to highly competitive positions. Those who aim for an elite combat unit might opt for an intensive physical training regimen led by a professional trainer, whereas future conscripts who want to land an intelligence role usually take computer programming or cyber-security courses.
During the latter grades of high school, IDF representatives walk into classrooms to drum up excitement to serve the Jewish state, and every eligible youngster is required to do a “tzav rishon” — the first official step in the army’s draft process — a day’s worth of examinations. Following completion of your “tzav rishon,” the army sends you a “profile” score which reflects your physical and mental fitness, and indicates which military units and positions you are eligible for.
Finally, you receive a “tzav giyus” (literally, “draft letter”) which states your enlistment date. The transformation from civilian to soldier starts at an induction center, where new recruits receive their uniforms, interview with officials, complete forms, and go from station to station to prepare for the journey ahead. From there, they travel directly to their brigade training base, where they’ll undergo basic training, as well as additional training depending on which unit they’ve been drafted to.
The new soldiers also take part in a swearing-in ceremony attended by their families. For combat soldiers, the last and most meaningful step is the “Masa Cumta” — the beret march. Soldiers march overnight, carrying their weapon, vest (with six magazines and two canteens), and stretchers, between 30 to 70 kilometers. Upon arrival to their destination, soldiers receive their unit’s beret in a moving ceremony attended by their families.1
These ceremonies are a microcosm of where the line between “country” and “kinship” becomes blurred. Israeli parents (like any other parents) are fearful of and hesitant about sending their children to the army. Every generation of Israeli parents, who served in the IDF themselves, is eager that the “need” for their children to enlist will cease to exist.
October 7th painfully reminded us that, while it’s nice to hope for “peace in the Middle East,” the reality is that the IDF still needs to draft all eligible 18-year-olds. Even the ultra-Orthodox, who historically do not serve, are now showing surprising interest in enlisting. At least 2,000 ultra-Orthodox men, mainly ages 26 to 39, signed up to serve in the IDF after Hamas’ massacre.2
Other Israeli religious Jews, such as those known as “Religious Zionists,” usually serve in the IDF as part of a program that combines army service with religious education. Thus, they are given more limited jobs in the IDF because the army has them for two years, compared to a more secular male soldier who serves around three years.
At the same time, the IDF has realized that soldiers who enlist with a great sense of purpose — a combination of religious fervor and Zionist spirit, plus stringent military training — make really great combat soldiers. Hence why there are a disproportionate number of Religious Zionist soldiers currently in Gaza.
“It’s insanely disproportionate, and it absolutely impacts the thread of fiber and resilience of our community,” said Rachel Moore, a Religious Zionist Israeli. “We’re a small neighborhood, which means my friends’ kids are my kids, and they are growing up much faster than they should have to. That’s not to mention the young fathers who live here and are in reserve duty. It is not a slice of a typical demographic makeup of the country, and we definitely feel that.”
Much of Israel’s political echelon is also not exempt from the anguish that comes with their children’s conscription. Former IDF Chief of Staff and current politician, Gadi Eisenkot, lost his son and nephew in Gaza just a few weeks ago — within the span of a few days. Another one of Eisenkot’s nephews was injured by a mortar shell.
Since the Israeli Declaration of Independence in 1948, fixed-term military service has been compulsory in Israel. The IDF’s draft laws only apply to citizens who are Israeli Jews (males and females), Druze (males only), and Circassians (males only).
Since the Druze and Circassian communities are far less populous, their women are exempted from the draft laws altogether. Women from the Jewish majority are not exempted from the draft laws, but serve for shorter terms than their male counterparts. Israel does not conscript non-Druze Arab citizens of Israel, though their men and women are welcome enlist voluntarily, and some do.
Unique among the country’s Jewish-majority population are the Haredi Jews, who have traditionally enjoyed full exemption from mandatory military service through a special government arrangement that was organized by Israel’s founding prime minister, David Ben-Gurion. This arrangement has become increasingly controversial in Israeli society, with growing discontent towards the increasingly populous Haredi community not “sharing the burden” of national duty.
On the other end of this spectrum are “lone soldiers” — conscripts with no immediate family in Israel, such as new immigrants, volunteers from abroad, orphans, and individuals from broken homes. There are more than 7,000 lone soldiers currently serving in the IDF, 45 percent of whom are new immigrants, coming from Jewish communities in some 50 countries (mainly North America, Ukraine, Russia, France, and South America).
Another 50 percent are Israeli orphans or come from low socioeconomic backgrounds. Some of them are ex-ultra-Orthodox Jews who were shunned by their families and communities because they decided to renounce their religious beliefs. In most cases, lone soldiers are placed in combat units, come highly motivated to serve, and receive higher pay and other benefits compared to “normal” soldiers.
One British mother, whose 25-year-old son, a former lone soldier, was called up to reserves on October 7th, described the feelings of living abroad with a child in the IDF:
“When they are training, it is all fun and inspiring and you’re so proud of them. But now this is the reality. It is happening. My heart is in my mouth. He is giving his life and he is prepared to do this. That means something. The lone soldiers are choosing this, and they are committed to this. They are special people.”3
Israeli celebrities have also become soldiers again. During the first week of the Israel-Hamas war, one of the country’s most famous actors, Tsahi Halevi, was already in reserves. And this week, “Fauda” star Idan Amedi was seriously injure by an explosion in Gaza, while carrying out reserve duty in the Combat Engineering Corps. Amedi was airlifted to a hospital near Tel Aviv, underwent surgery, and is expected to recover.
Even Israelis living around the world, from New Zealand to New York, rushed to airports, eager to make their way to Israel after Hamas’ massacre. Some of the Israelis living, working, or just traveling abroad who were trying to make it back said their reserve units were among those called up. Others said they hadn’t yet been called or couldn’t reach their commanders, but expected to be asked soon.4
In other cases, Israelis who are too young to serve in the military, as well as non-Israelis with close ties to the country, have been trying to travel to assist family members or volunteer.
Economic constraints on the IDF have caused leadership to reconsider its structure and slowly shift towards a more modern military. In 2013, a quarter of all potential conscripts were exempted from military service, most of them for religious reasons. There is an alternative voluntary civilian national service in Israel for those that cannot or do not wish to serve in the IDF, and most participants are young Jewish women from the Religious Zionist sector.
The IDF has reportedly concluded that it will, at some point in the future, end conscription in favor of an all-volunteer force, and Israel is said to be studying how the United States and European nations ended conscription and transitioned to all-volunteer forces, for a possible future transition.
But October 7th may have put these plans on ice. Israeli parents knew their children would serve, but most of them didn’t expect a full-blown war — especially after Israel reached peace agreements with several Arab countries; normalization with Saudi Arabia was progressing; and Israelis were increasingly vacationing in Jordan, Egypt, and the United Arab Emirates.
Instead, the mass mobilization of some 360,000 reservists has upended families across the country, and many Israeli parents (especially mothers) are turning to one another for support.
“The war falls on the shoulders of women — mothers, wives,” said Einat Roichman, who started “Drafted Women,” a support group with 100 participants. “The agony is not just on the battlefield.”5
Israeli obstetrician-gynecologist Rakefet Yoeli has twins in combat units. Her father was a decorated air force pilot who fought in several of Israel’s wars, and her husband commanded a tank unit.
“My parents never believed their children and grandchildren would have to join an army, much less fight,” she said. “They thought there would be peace by now.”
But the twins grew up proud of their family’s military legacy and long dreamed of serving in elite combat units.
“I wanted them to play trombone,” said Yoeli, “but they wanted to be combat soldiers. I couldn’t stop them.”
Now, many soldiers, especially those in combat positions, are unreachable by phone while they serve to defend Israel on any one of its five fronts: in Gaza and the West Bank, as well as on the borders with Lebanon and Syria, and across the Red Sea against the Houthis in Yemen.
To “distract” themselves from thinking nonstop about their largely unreachable children, Israeli mothers have elected to volunteer in waves, such as meal preparation for soldiers and displaced Israelis who normally live on one of Israel’s borders.
“The feeling that you do something behind the scenes helps a lot,” said one Israeli mother. “But we still feel all the range of emotions: from sadness and happiness, to pride and no sleep.”6
For military families, there’s a unique challenge in dealing with the conflicting demands of two “greedy” institutions: military and family.
And for parents who have lost a child to military service, one study found strong associations between a parent’s decision to continue life despite traumatic loss, and several indicators of coping, including meaning-making.7
Hence Gadi Eisenkot, at his son’s funeral one month ago, vowed that 25-year-old Master Sergeant (reserve) Gal Meir Eisenkot’s sacrifice “will not be in vain, and we will be deserving of it.”
“From Civilian to Soldier: The Combat Training Process.” IDF.
“Not just prayers: War sparks unprecedented mobilization by ultra-Orthodox Israelis.” The Times of Israel.
“British parents fear for their children serving as IDF soldiers in Israel.” The Jewish Chronicle.
“Reeling From Hamas’ Attack, Israelis Around the World Try to Head Home to Join the Fight.” TIME.
“Israeli Mothers Knew Their Sons Would Serve. But They Didn’t Expect War.” The New York Times.
“How parents of Israel's new military recruits cope.” DW.
“Bereavement among Israeli parents who lost children in military service: Protective factors for coping with loss.” Death Studies.