More and more frequently, I am confronted with alarming examples of the growing chasm between Israeli Jews and American Jews. Sometimes it is the Israeli misperception of American Jewish life that rankles me. On other occasions, I am dumbfounded by the lack of understanding of Israeli realities and sensibilities on the part of American Jews.
I would put an opinion piece by Joshua Bloom, director of Israel Programs for Rabbis for Human Rights North America published recently in the Huffington Post into the latter category. In his article, Blum criticizes Gadna experiences for North American teens visiting Israel. Gadna (an acronym for g’dudei noar ivri) is the Israel Defense Forces pre-military program for pre-army age teens. Gadna is staffed by IDF soldiers, and a minimum weeklong Gadna stint has, in recent years, become a typical component (sometimes optional, sometimes mandatory) of many youth group Israel adventures.
Bloom seems to think that there is no justifiable reason for a week of Gadna on these trips. For him, American Jewish youth learning about life in the army, visiting different kinds of military bases, engaging in physical challenges, learning orienteering and survival skills, getting briefed on IDF history and training to shoot a weapon amount to “the promotion of violent institutions.”
I beg to differ. I personally did Gadna for three summers in a row when I was a teenager back in the mid 1980s, well before it was a common thing to do. And I didn’t just do one-week stints — I toughed it out for six weeks at a time. Those 18 weeks were probably the most formative ones of my life. Looking back nearly 30 years later, I can say unequivocally that I emerged from those summers not only more physically fit, but also a different, more aware person. And let me assure you, I did not turn out to be a promoter of violent institutions.
I gained a clearer understanding of the importance of the IDF. By getting to know the army through Gadna, I developed a deep respect and admiration for it as an institution. At that same time, I managed not to get brainwashed in the way Blum seems to fear, in that, while I support the IDF, I can still take peaceful stands and take issue with certain questionable military policies or deplorable acts by individual soldiers.
Equally important, Gadna gave me insights into Israeli society that I would never have gained otherwise. Being 24/7 with Israeli teens — both as my fellow chanichim (course participants) and as my madrichim (soldier counselors) — gave me a better idea of what it is like to grow up Israeli (which includes knowing that you will one day have to serve in the army) than could any other experience. Not to mention that having orders barked at me at 5 in the morning really improved my Hebrew language abilities.
I learned about the Israeli (Jewish) society and psyche not from lectures, but by spending time with my fellow Gadna-niks. I observed how Aviva, a tough and proud officer and the only girl in a large, poor Moroccan immigrant family living in Dimona, approached her army service as a ticket out of the working class. I got to know Eitan, who was assigned to the noncombat Gadna corps for his military service because he was an only child, his father having died in the Six Day War while Eitan’s mother was pregnant. I became best buddies with Rachel, a slightly wacky firebrand. She taught me the fine points of relieving oneself in the field, and I saved her more than once from getting dangerously lost in the desert by reading topographical maps for her. We are still close today.
Finally, Blum suggests that “putting M-16s in the hands of 15-year-olds, glorifying violence, and playing war games minimizes the real consequences and suffering associated with combat.” I can tell you from firsthand experience that nothing will teach you to have a true appreciation for the destruction that can be done with an M-16 better than being made to handle one. I had to practice performing safety checks on my gun so many times that I could probably still do one in my sleep.
Feeling the painful kickback as you shoot a real semiautomatic weapon is nothing like pressing a button on a video game controller. Seeing your bullet rip through a practice target is a real wakeup call you can’t get from playing “Call of Duty,” which I would argue is far more of a glorifier of violence.
I agree with Bloom that we should expose our youth to “Israel’s heroic peacemakers and pursuers of justice,” and that we could be doing a better job of encouraging critical thinking and explaining the difficult moral complexities of war. I just think that Gadna can and should be an essential piece of that effort.
(Renee Ghert-Zand is a regular contributor to The Forward, which previously published this column.)