Arriving back to the 6-man mixed dorm, a strong smell of smoke and fermented mud greeted us along with two tired looking faces. Tomer and Andi had just arrived from the aftermath of the local psychedelic Ozora Festival – two seemingly open minded Israeli youths travelling around and having a good time, not too dissimilar to ourselves. It transpired however, that their interests in travel were very different to our own. Home for them was Israel and since 1949 the Israeli Defence Force has had the authority to enlist any citizen, current laws making sign-up mandatory from the age of 18.
Over a coffee and a Dobos Cake at a cafe on the edge of a dusty square we were soon into deep conversation, the majority of which focused on the reality of growing up in the religious state of Israel. Andi explained that she and “every other woman had to serve two years in office-based counterintelligence work”. Whereas Tomer, as a male, had spent three years in full combat duty as part of a mortar team touring in the Gaza strip and the West Bank.
For these two very liberal-minded individuals it was clear that their attitudes towards both the conflict and institutionalised military emphasis did not align with that of the Israeli government, a view that I knew would be reciprocated by my student peers back home. However, I was swiftly reminded that the difference in Israel was that the issue is much closer to home; the hostilities are taking place on their country’s own borders. Secondly, the Israeli youth had grown up in this system. Throughout school, adolescence and their childhood each one of them was aware of the impending years of service.
This disillusionment was propagated throughout the troops with 36-straight-hour shifts at border checkpoints, unsatisfactory rationing and unforgiving punishments. Tomer, often on the wrong end of one of these sentences, was incarcerated in the base for 50 long days after allowing a civilian to slip through a security post unchallenged. These stories of warfare and camaraderie seemed so far removed from our student bubble at Nottingham.
It struck me as strange that the same fascination and disbelief was reflected in their faces as I began to explain to them how life was back in Britain. The fact that it was normal for most of my friendship group to attend university took them by surprise. What I had previously taken for granted and thought of as almost an inevitable 17 year slog within the education system had suddenly become precious.
Despite everything over the last three years, Tomer remarked that he “…would not have changed anything even if given the opportunity to not serve in the Israeli Defence Force”. It had been the huge learning curve he’d needed, forcing him to become independent and ultimately these experiences have shaped him into the man he is today. Andi, for her part, looks back less favourably. The endless administration of covering up 24 months of state control for a system and a cause that she didn’t buy into had lost its charm.
Although the maturity from both of them shone through in a way that would suggest that many teenagers in Britain could greatly benefit from a similar military-based scheme, it was apparent that over the years, the lack of freedom and the stunted career progression had taken its toll – an inevitable outcome of an experience we will never have to comprehend.
Photo courtesy of Tamar Levine