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Growing Up in Israel, Part 9

Ilana Masad
July 23, 2015

To IDF or Not IDF, That Is the Question

by Ilana Masad

Read other installments in this series here.

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WHEN MY FRIENDS and I turned 16, we all began receiving, in the order of our birthdays, our first call to arms — that is to say, our first summons from Tzahal, the IDF as it’s known in English. This was expected, but a little nerve-wracking.

I remember the base where I was to show up, since it was just a bit down the road from the hospital in which my father had died. There was a guard booth, where a soldier either permitted or denied access to cars coming onto the base. There was a line of police barricades along the sidewalk to the left of that booth, to ensure that people walked in on the sidewalk rather than from across the street where cars were trying to enter. There was a beige corrugated-metal roof hovering over part of that sidewalk. Finally, there was the other booth, not for cars, where I showed my ID card and my summons and was told where to go on the base.

The intake consisted primarily of physical and psychological evaluations and the "psychotechnic" test. For the physical, a urine sample was needed, and whether or not you were thirsty, you were given a bottle of water and told to drink the entire thing while waiting in the drab corridors of the base (which looked very much like most Tel Aviv high schools) until you could pee in a cup for the doctors and be deemed healthy and not pregnant.

The psychotechnic test was conducted at rows of computers, alongside many other people, and included a whole variety of questions from math problems to reading comprehension to morality questions at the start and end to make sure you’re consistent in your truths (or lies). Once you finished the test, the computer spat out a number that you didn’t get to see, which was given in short order to the psychotechnic evaluator — a woman, usually — who took you into a small room and asked you lots of questions. Mine was kind, only two or three years older than I, and her demeanor, attitude, and technique of questioning would change depending on the person in front of her. She was the good cop, the bad cop, the pretty psychologist, the sympathetic sister, whatever she needed to be to get you to be truthful.

I know this because I almost became one of these evaluators myself.

SOMETHING MANY NON-ISRAELIS don’t really understand is that military service is utterly normal in Israel. There are no TV ad campaigns luring young men and women into the military, and no recruiters coming to high schools and college campuses to convince students to go to ROTC. Joining the IDF is mandatory for any able-bodied, able-minded Israeli teenager.

I’ve noted before in this series the proliferation of soldiers simply walking around in Israel, with or without guns, with combat boots or the slightly more comfortable low black shoes, with uniforms orderly or messy. There are rules about what you can and can’t do in uniform. You can’t listen to music on headphones (many do this anyway, but you get a whopping ticket or a lot of extra weekends on base if you’re caught by the military police, who, in non-conflict areas, seem to have nothing better to do than to patrol for music-loving soldiers). You also can’t jaywalk or cross against the light, even where there are no cars coming. On the plus side, bus rides are free, you get half-price movie tickets if you show your IDF identification, and you are part of the large machine that makes Israel what it is: a country that feels it is surrounded by enemies and that is always at the ready for the next war, the next mission, and the business of spying on other countries (par for the course for any military organization, I should think).

Most importantly, though, you are part of a community. In many Western countries, attending college or university is the bonding experience that middle-class people will remember for life, the time that changed them and established them in friendships that they’ve kept ever since. In Israel, that’s the IDF. It doesn’t matter what sort of unit you serve in, whether you’re a janitor or an armed guard or part of the elite Golani fighting unit, whether you love your job in the army or hate it: What’s important is that you are part of a group of people, first in basic training, and then in the unit you’re in, and you bond over misery and enjoyment alike. This is the formative experience of most Israeli teenagers and young adults.

IF YOU'RE SMART and make good grades, the IDF wants to test you for something specific. I was invited to the first round of tests for Modi’in, to which many intelligence units belong. For some reason, my test scores made the IDF think that I would be a good fit for a technical engineering position. In the interview, I basically said I had no idea why I was there; I had no interest in mechanics or engineering. Keep in mind that I am a native English speaker. I had always assumed that if Israeli intelligence wanted me for something, it would be for one of the secretive units in which English translation is essential. But likely due to my psychological evaluation, I was not invited for that kind of position, and received a brusque letter from the technical engineering unit saying that they regretted to inform me that I hadn’t been chosen. Amusing, since I’d basically said, “Thanks but no thanks” in the interview.

Next, I tried out for the IDF’s prestigious media programs. The newspaper, Ba’Machane, which means “In camp” and which is pretty dull, was my top choice. Not because I would be covering huge events, but because it involved writing. While I got to the top round of testing, I was not accepted. A friend of mine who was, however, quit after the first week of training for it — it was extremely intensive, involved memorizing hundreds of military terms and the political situations of other countries. I’m glad I wasn’t accepted. I’m really bad at memorization.

My final summons for a particular position in the army was to join the psychotechnic evaluation unit. The training is supposed to be fascinating (it involves visiting prisons and talking to prisoners, learning about teenage psychology and psychology in general, and a very short basic-training period), and I had, at the time, some idea of being a psychologist one day. I passed all the tests and interviews, and was accepted.

The psychotechnic evaluators’ most important job is to decide whether teenage boys, 16 or 17, are able to serve in combat units. Deciding on potential life and death, potential trauma and injury terrified me: I didn’t feel sure that I could handle the repercussions. In reality, I probably could have, since there is a numbing sensation to much of what goes on in the army. Many Israelis, in their teens and early twenties, simply get used to making life-and-death decisions every day. Some are scarred by the experience, even while having the time of their lives. Some numb themselves, during or later. I could see myself going numb to what my decisions meant, but I didn’t want to.

So I didn’t go. I’m not a refusenik, because I didn’t go to prison — because, frankly, I didn’t want to waste my time on it, nor did I believe that going to prison would make one iota of difference in a military service with which I have many moral and political issues. So I got out of my mandatory service by other means, technically legal, morally iffy. Some of my friends resented me for it for a time. And sometimes I regret it. The experience was so essential to so many of my friends, so essential to being Israeli. But I’ve always been only half Israeli — and that stubborn, blunt Israeli half did not want to be part of the machinery of the IDF.

Ilana Masad, a fiction writer, is a columnist for McSweeney’s and has contributed to The Rumpus, The Toast, and the Chicago Tribune literary supplement. Masad is an Israeli-American who spent most of her childhood in Israel, with twice-a-year visits to the U.S., and now lives in New York.