Guest Post from Idan Gazit @ the IDF & Israel (via Boing Boing)

My friend Idan Gazit wrote the most amazing comment on Boing Boing today and I thought it deserved to be a post all it’s own. Since I’m currently blogging and he’s a dormant blogger, I get to post it here. Idan and I have been friends over IM, blogs, Twitter and Flickr for close to a year and if I ever move to Israel, he’s the one that gets the referral credit. This comment/post/essay is in response to a stream of comments about Israel and the IDF about this photo collection. (Site down due to Boing Boing traffic.)
Another reason I’m posting it here because it is the type of clear-headed, experience based information that needs to live on the web and be indexed by Google. When he gets Pixane up and running, I’ll let him have it back. If you get here via a search and it is your first time here, don’t bother leaving a hateful anti-Israel comment. I’ll delete it. It’s my blog and those are my rules.
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Hi folks. There seems to be a lot of speculation and off-topic politics in the thread, so I thought I’d contribute what background I could share as a secular, jewish dual-citizen of the US and Israel. I think this will supply some backstory useful to understanding and appreciating these images.

I’m not going to write about Rachael Corrie or genocide or whatever, I’m not going to argue with people who form their opinions on the basis of CNN (clueless), the Guardian (biased), or Fox News (evangelical & scary). My comments reflect my personal experience, having “been there” for several years as part of my military service. Take it as you wish. I’ll reply/write more if you ask nicely and don’t flame.


REGARDING: “Compulsory Service”

Service in the armed forces is currently three years for boys and roughly two years for girls. Can you get out of it? Sure. I don’t know statistics, it’s possible, but not easy. You can’t just go into a psychologist’s office and say that you’re a gay pacifist with lower back pain and dreams where you kill your commanding officer with a toothbrush. Getting released from service is a difficult process, and forever stamps you with “psychological discharge” in your army file, which is something that your employers are later interested in.

That being said — Israel is much different than it used to be. In my parents’ generation (1970’s), dodging your service was HEAVILY stigmatized. My mom once told me of the one boy in her class who (whisper whisper) didn’t *want* to serve! *gasp*. Like that.

Today, there is a sense in much of Israeli society, particular among the secular, left-leaning Tel Aviv crowd, that the military has lost its moral imperative due to the occupation. Youths speak openly of not wanting to serve in the military. How many of them get off the hook? Again, without statistics (which I doubt the army would release) I don’t know, but not many. To get released you must fight the system hard, and the system makes your life truly miserable for the duration (can include prison time, threats of crappy postings when you finally break down and get inducted, etc). In the end the army doesn’t really want somebody that they believe to be a danger to their integrity, but you have to prove it to them by vigorously standing your ground in the face of misery for a while first.

Of note, the Israeli military doesn’t consider homosexuality dangerous to “troop morale” and won’t release you from service on the grounds of your sexual orientation alone. If a gay man claims that he would be uncomfortable serving around a lot of straight men in a combat unit, then the army finds other places for you to serve, usually something terribly boring (stockroom manager, truck driver) and asks you to choose. I served with a decorated gay officer. He was good at his job and that’s where everybody’s level of interest ended. I didn’t know or care who he hooked up with on weekends and neither did anybody else — it just wasn’t a matter of comment. “Don’t Care” versus “Don’t Ask / Don’t Tell”.

So service is pretty compulsory, if only because they make it the path of least resistance. The ones who *really* want out need to *really* want out.

There is one exception: entire batches of women are often exempted from service because the army doesn’t have use for the “manpower”. Which leads nicely into…

REGARDING: “Women in the IDF”

While women can choose to serve in many combat units now, for a long time this wasn’t an option. The Israeli army has long delegated the role of instruction to its females, partly because the girls weren’t eligible for actual combat service, but also probably because 18-year-old boys listen quite attentively to not-much-older girls.

“Instruction” isn’t as easy as it sounds, particularly in the combat corps. These girls aren’t instructing you how to pack your gear, they’re teaching you how to fire your rifle accurately or how to drive a tank. Machismo is rampant among Israeli 18 year-olds, so these female instructors need to be be convincingly *better* at the job than the cocky young stallion who thinks he’s all that because he just got issued a uniform and a rifle. These girls undergo the same training that the men receive, plus instructional training on how to “handle” the young machismo-bombs and train them in their method of warfare. For most men in combat service, these women are the *only* women they get to see on base, and yes, you cannot just “go home” when you please. In the beginning, you usually spend up to a month on base, with a weekend leave. As you gain in seniority, your leaves gradually become closer together and longer, the crapwork and guard duty being pawned off on some young private.

There are a million secretaries and random boring support roles that are largely filled by girls. For the motivated/intelligent, being a secretary is like a 2-year prison sentence — so the army usually offers motivated girls intelligence or instructional posts, and if they refuse, they get to be secretaries.

This is why the army releases so many girls from serving: there are only so many useful posts to be filled, and even so many secretarial jobs. Each inducted soldier costs the military quite a pretty penny (gear, food, training, healthcare & insurance, measly monthly stipend, etc). At some point the army decided that it didn’t want to spend lots of money to “jail” thousands of motivated girls in secretarial posts that the army didn’t really need. So nowadays, many girls are simply released from service.

For girls who opt (or are forced) to go the secretarial route, this is also thought to be the source of much of the sexism and awful gender relations in Israel. The stereotype of “macho commanding officer men” and “secretary women” is not a good recipie for gender equality later in life. Case in point: Moshe Katzav, our previous President (a largely ceremonial role in israel, the Prime Minister is the real head of government), raped and blackmailed quite a few women in his office. In his office! He got off with a slap on the wrist and full pension benefits. That man deserves a special place in hell, but this isn’t the forum.

REGARDING: “Firearms & Safety”

Yes, almost every 18 year old boy and girl is carrying around a rifle. Handguns are reserved for those with specific needs (pilots, submariners) and officers. Yes, per capita, there are FAR LESS gun-related fatalities in Israel because everybody gets firearms safety drilled into them during basic.

That bears repeating: everybody who gets a gun first gets a weeklong dose of firearms safety, including being taught how to strip a rifle, how it works, how it malfunctions, and even REQUIRED lessons on firearms and morality (aka the IDF’s “Purity of Arms” lectures). Forget for a second whether or not the “purity of arms” part is being heeded in today’s military (I think not) and let me relate what this firearms safety stuff entails.

When I was issued a rifle, my sergeant plainly stated to us: “From now on, this rifle is more attached to you than your penis is. You NEVER leave it alone. You NEVER point it at somebody. You NEVER leave it alone. You NEVER leave it alone. You NEVER EVER EVER point it at somebody.”

Literally, he meant what he said. The rifle never sits on the ground next to you. It’s a lot like a baby — you always have a hand on it, somehow. When you shower, you shower in pairs — your buddy holds both your rifles and you scrub quickly, and then you trade off. It’s like the rifle needs your body contact to survive. I already anticipate the har-har gay jokes. Save some electrons and get your adolescent giggles elsewhere.

You sleep with the rifle in a fashion that makes it hard to steal the rifle. More than one poor Joe in basic has learned the hard way (army prison) that the sergeants like to sneak into your tent at night and take rifles away from those who weren’t vigilant enough. I slept with my arm looped twice through the rifle strap, the rifle under my pillow, inside my sleeping bag. You do pushups with the rifle balanced on your fingertips. Kitchen duty? The cooks arrange their rifles in a standing cone, “tripod” style, and one soldier watches while the others work. Even the method in which the rifle is carried is dictated to you: with the strap diagonally across the chest, muzzle pointed earthwards, as opposed to slinging it off of one shoulder like a handbag, where the muzzle can point upwards (dangerous) and the rifle can be easily torn from your body (dangerous).

It’s only a bunch of anecdotes, but I think it makes the attitude towards rifles clear: they’re DANGEROUS and IMPORTANT and NOT TO BE TRIFLED WITH. That’s why you see anybody with a rifle holding it close. Naturally the amount of “stupid enforcement” drops off once you’re out of basic and out from under the thumb of your sergeant, but this mentality regarding firearms is not a bad one to foster in any society, in my opinion.

Extreme? Sure. But in the words of a famous IDF disciplinarian: “if you make sure that every soldier’s uniform buttons are in place then you won’t need to deal with larger infractions”.

Wow, that was a lot longer than what I thought I would write. I hope some of you enjoyed a little first-person perspective about the IDF that didn’t come from either rah-rah-Israel or zionism-is-apartheid. If I had one suggestion to you, the reader, it is to understand that Israel is complex and that most of the people talking about it have no farking clue. Occupation is evil and so are suicide bombers, but they’re apples and oranges and debates about moral equivalency don’t get us closer to less dead bodies. Arab countries lie through their teeth to western media and the Israeli army isn’t manned by angels with “Justice Guns” that only harm the wicked.

Israel, like most countries, is parts good and evil, but it’s not too different from the USA. The difficultly is in identifying the good and damning the evil when so many parties actively try to manipulate the information you receive.

The best thing to do, in my opinion? Figure out how to get rid of oil and we’ll be one GIANT step closer to putting out the fire in the deserts. You want peace in the middle east? Make noise about green energy-independence in the USA. A few billion dollars to solve the fuel-cell riddle will reshape the Middle East faster than any number of troops or planes. The USA is the only nation that is both capable of taking this step and large enough that the solution would be widely adopted. It won’t solve everything but it’s Something We Can Actually Do To Improve the World.

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