Wednesday, July 5, 2017

Israeli Defense Forces: What a Democratic Army Looks Like

The Israeli Army is what a democratic army looks like. I would have said that before setting foot in Israel, but after two train rides, two bus rides, and walking in both Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, I saw an army that is of the people.

First, they are young.  I shared bus stops and train platforms with dozens of men and women somewhere around 20 years old at the most with backpacks, smartphones and automatic rifles.

They are also fit. I went to Iraq with a unit in which four in ten of the soldiers flunked the basic fitness test. All the Israeli soldiers I saw would bury me in a fitness test. And they should. Our all volunteer army cannot compel people, so they entice. And some people they entice are really not the kind of people who should be in the military.

They are part of Israeli everyday life. No one thinks it strange to see a young man sling his weapon under his arm so he can read a book while he waits for a train.  At one bus stop a young woman made a practiced move swing her carbine from her side to her front then holding the muzzle with her left hand she bent forward flipping her hair long over her head and brushing it. She then wrapped it into a ponytail. And her weapon was in her control the whole time.

The Israeli soldiers on the street are not like the knots of four French soldiers in combat gear and carrying assault rifles that patrol train stations and airports with their game face on. They are part of everyday life. They read, the laugh, take selfies, smoke. One woman I saw walking and both sip an espresso and smoke with the same hand.

The Israeli Army is a patriotic army. Everyone serves. Everyone makes some sacrifice. Some make every sacrifice. And just as in America before the Vietnam War, no one could run to be Commander-in-Chief of the nation after dodging the draft. That person could not run for anything. Benjamin Netanyahu, the current Prime Minister, was wounded in action in 1972, was part of a Special Forces team in the Yom Kippur War and left the military a captain with a distinguished record. From Truman to Eisenhower to Kennedy, Nixon, Ford, Carter, Reagan and Bush 41, our postwar presidents were all veterans.

A Greek Born in Kazakstan, Living in Germany


Dmitri and Bruder Timotheus at the Memorial/Museum Marking the former border between East and West Germany.  Br. Timotheus was Cliff Almes when we served together in Wiesbaden in the late 70s. He switched to a new uniform when his enlistment ended. Since 1979 he has been a Brother at Kanaan in Darmstadt, Germany. I spent the last week of June at Kanaan. Cliff and Dmitri and I visited Fulda together. More on that later.

During my stay in the Guest House at Kanaan, the man in the room  next door was on a long-term visit. Although he was born in 1967, his story wove together several threads of the politics of refugees and genocide in the 20th Century.

Dmitri was born in Kazakstan in the Soviet Union in a Greek community that came to what was then Russia in the midst of revolution in 1918. His grandfather and many other Greeks had been living in Ottoman Turkey for several generations. As the Ottoman Turks retreated at the end of World War I, the slaughtered more than a million Armenians in one of the first documented genocides. The Turks were allied with the Germans and losing the war.

As they withdrew from the Balkans, they began persecuting and killing Greeks within their borders. Dmitri's grandfather managed to escape to Kazakstan. They managed to survive the rule of Stalin. By the time Dmitri was ten years old in 1977, the Greek government worked out a deal to repatriate Greeks living in the Soviet Union.
During the first years of his life Dmitri spoke Russian and Greek, but to the his Russian classmates, he was a Greek. In school in Greece, he was a Russian. In fact, the returning Greek community was under some suspicion of being Soviet agents until the Soviet Union collapsed. He now lives both in Athens and comes for long stays at Kanaan, helping with the work of the ministry there.

In addition to Greek and Russian, Dmitri speaks English well. I had either breakfast or dinner with im several of the days I stayed at Kanaan. He also joined Cliff and I on our visit to Fulda. He never served in the military, but his life was affected by both the World Wars and the Cold War much more directly than mine. His family survived the murder of Greeks by the Turks at the end of World War I, the murder of anyone under Stalin's reign of national terror. He was rejected by Russian nationalists where he was born and under suspicion by Greek nationalists when he returned home.