Soldier boy: My baby has joined the IDF
THIS WEEK, on the morning of his nineteenth birthday, my son Maor was dropped at the meeting point in Jerusalem at 7.30 am and taken by bus to Tel Aviv to be given an introductory talk, his dog-tags and his uniform. After some blood tests, he then boarded another bus to base to begin his training in the IDF.
This is not the usual start to a birthday morning in our family. Birthdays begin with hugs and a breakfast table laid with surprises, balloons and presents. Instead, my boy left that behind and took a bus ride into manhood. This experience will challenge everything he knows, take him to places and situations neither of us can currently envisage, and test him mentally, physically and emotionally to the very limits. And he can’t wait.
As for me, I was in London that morning, going off to teach. Taking a deep breath to bat the tears away. Not because I’m a clingy mother and can’t deal with my children growing up, but because this isn’t university or a gap year he’s going away to. My most excellent son is going to war. He’ll learn to shoot a weapon and to fight. He’ll see things he’ll never be able to unsee, and hear things I don’t agree with and never taught him. He’ll encounter danger and hostility — and possibly hatred, aggression and bigotry. And even though of course I’m wiping the very thought from my mind and tfoo tfoo tfoo and God forbid, waves of nausea rise in me because I know what the situation is and what those dog tags are used for.
I also feel … well, I’d use the word conflicted, but that’s a word I’m going to avoid, given the circumstances. Let’s say ambivalent. I’m happy for him because he’s wanted to do this since he was a boy. Being fully aware of who he is and where his talents lie, I know it’ll be good for him and he’ll be a truly excellent soldier. He’s enthusiastic about this next stage and about defending and protecting the land and people he feels New recruits to the IDF (above); Emma and Maor as a baby strongly about. I couldn’t be prouder. My tears are of pride and love as much as anything. Especially as he’s chosen to do this: he doesn’t have to go. He was born in Israel, but we moved to London when he was four, moved back to Israel when he was nine and then returned to London when he was eleven, and stayed. As we spent a year in Israel after he turned 10, he’s not eligible for Mahal, the 18-month volunteering programme. For him, it was all or nothing — he had to do nearly three years of army service or do something else with his life. He chose all, and not only that, he insisted on a combat unit, so he’s drafting to Caracal. Set up in 2000, it’s a relatively new division named after a desert cat of indistinguishable gender as the battalion contains both male and female soldiers.
Now, I know nothing about the IDF. I didn’t even realise that the different battalions (Nahal, Golani etc) defend different areas of the country until recently. Good old Google. So when he told me the name of his unit, I looked it up. I discovered their job it is to patrol the IsraeliEgyptian border, and their base is in the Negev.
Which made me smile: Maor showers twice a day, hates sand and he doesn’t like heat much either, so that’s going to be interesting. Other than that, he’s happy. Apparently, he can do interesting courses in Caracal, and possibly train sniffer dogs which, as a dog-lover, Maor’s keen to do. Once he starts, he’ll probably find something else he’s interested in, but he’ll figure that out on the way.
As he embarks on his IDF journey, so do I. I’m now a member of the Facebook group Mothers of Chayalim Bodedim (Lone Soldiers) and although I’m mainly a silent gulping observer, I’ve messaged a woman in Canada whose daughter drafted to Caracal last week, as apparently, the girls draft first. Maor and I laughed on the phone that it reminded us of Year Sevens going into school a day before all the older, scary kids turned up, but this was a lame joke. Noteworthy Caracal soldiers include Second Lieutenant Noy, the first female officer to command a sniper platoon; Elinor Joseph, the first Arab woman ever to serve a combat role in the Israeli army; and Captain Or Ben Yehuda, who was awarded a military decoration when two-dozen armed men opened fire on their position in an ambush in October 2014. Wounded in the volley, Captain Ben-Yehuda managed to get on the radio, call for back-up, administer first-aid to her driver and return several magazines of gunfire at her attackers while waiting for reinforcements. These soldiers deserve the utmost respect, and understandably, even though the girls serving in Caracal have to sign up for a third year, this is the unit my 16-year-old daughter now wants to serve in when she turns 18.
So this might not be my last experience with the IDF, but it’s most definitely my first — not only because I grew up in London, but because I grew up not Jewish. My friends didn’t go, my second cousins twice removed didn’t go — when I say I have no experience of this, I mean I have no experience of this at all. To my estranged Israeli husband and his family, this is second-nature, but not to me or my side of the gene pool. Growing up in south London in the 1970s and ’80s, the conflict in the Middle East wasn’t our conflict.
I viewed it in the head-shaking manner of an outsider: here, I thought, were two stubborn-headed, volatile groups of people who’d never see eye-to-eye, fighting over something I couldn’t entirely comprehend the meaning of. It was a maelstrom and, frankly, I was happy I had nothing to do with it. And now, in a twist of perfect irony and fate, my family and I are Jews and Israelis, and this now has everything to do with us. My son, my much-loved boy, is now going right into the very centre of that maelstrom, and my younger daughter and son are likely to follow. If you’d told me that when I was seventeen, I’d have laughed at you.
But here we are. When Maor boarded that bus, I began my IDF career as well. Over the next three years, I’ll learn things I had no inkling I’d ever need or want to know about. I’ll follow his progress, hear his weekly exploits and support him on the phone through his ups and downs. I’ll look up weapons and berets in a bid to comprehend his new life, and I’ll bond with the parents of other soldiers, past and present. And as I teach war poems like Poppies to my GCSE students, it’ll be from a much more personal angle. Because my boy and I are embarking on a new journey. How do I feel about that? Happy, sad, terrified, touched, blessed, honoured, freaked-out and fascinated — those are just a few emotions for now. It’ll be interesting to see how we get on over the next three years. But let’s just get through this first week.