Due to Israel’s small size, almost every soldier in the IDF returns home on a weekly or biweekly basis, enjoying the comfort and company of family. Approximately 5,000 soldiers, however, do not enjoy this benefit. These soldiers – labeled “lone soldiers” by the army – either come from dysfunctional homes (20 percent) or are volunteers from abroad (80 percent).
In a recently published book, Lone Soldiers: Israel’s Defenders from Around the World, veteran Jerusalem Post reporter Herb Keinon profiles 14 of these lone soldiers, who come from such diverse countries as Morocco, Australia, and India. He recently spoke with The Jewish Press.
The Jewish Press: Why do these lone soldiers from abroad join the IDF?
Keinon: For a number of different reasons. Some come out of traditional, Zionistic fervor. Some come for religious reasons. Some come looking for adventure, influenced by movies like “Rambo.” Others, like some of the Russian kids, come because they want to leave the countries they were born in. Each kid has a different story.
Your son is in the army. How does his experience differ from those of the lone soldiers?
My kids were born here [in Israel]; they have to go into the army. It’s expected, it’s part of life’s trajectory, and they primed for it. From the time my son was in 9th grade until he went into the army, that’s all he was thinking about. To the same degree that kids in America obsess about the SATs and college, Israeli kids obsess about the army – what they’re going to be doing, and what units they’re going to get into. They’re mentally and emotionally prepared.
Kids in America who come to the army don’t have that. They don’t know exactly what they’re getting into; they haven’t been prepped and primed. They’re coming in with a whole different emotional mindset.
In the book, you write about the sense of loneliness some of these soldiers experience. Can you elaborate?
There are a couple of components to it. First of all, when you make aliyah there’s a degree of loneliness because you’re entering a foreign culture – the language is not your own, the food is not your own, the television shows aren’t your own, etc. Secondly, you don’t really know people. I mean, you may know people, but they’re not close friends who you go back with many years. Finally, the army can be a very difficult and lonely framework, and you need a lot of support. My kid comes home every Shabbat or every other Shabbat. These kids don’t.
How do these soldiers learn Hebrew?
There’s an ulpan beforehand, but it’s still tough. I mean, you’re sitting out there on a firing range and your officer is yelling at you in Hebrew to do something with your gun it’s difficult, but it’s overcomable.
One thing I’d just like to point out: These kids come with an incredible sense of motivation. They want to be here and they want to succeed. They get into a lot of top units and their motivation is something that the other soldiers see, which to a large extent inspires them.
Was what your experience writing this book?
I found the whole project inspiring because all you read about is how awful the IDF is, how it’s committing horrible crimes against Palestinians, and how half the country doesn’t want to go into the army. We tend to forget that there’s another side to the coin. The other side is that you’ve got these kids who, to a large extent, out of very idealistic motivations, are actually volunteering to join the army. It gives you faith that Zionism still has something that attracts people to sacrifice a lot for.
What would you say is the book’s most inspiring story?
The story of Michael Levin, the kid who died in the war in Lebanon. He came from Philadelphia and served in the paratroopers. During the war in Lebanon in 2006 he was actually on a furlough visiting his family in the United States, but when the war broke out he got on the next plane and fought to join his unit in Lebanon. That’s quite a story.
Has the IDF always had lone soldiers, or are they a new phenomenon?
Lone soldiers have been around for a long time. In the 1948 war you had a lot of U.S. veterans who came over and fought in the Israeli army, bringing with them a great deal of military experience, which, at the time, the country needed. The movie, “Cast a Giant Shadow,” was about one of these veterans, Mickey Marcus, who played an important role in the battle for Jerusalem.
Since that time, there have been trickles of volunteers who have come, but until 10-15 years ago, there wasn’t a framework in the army for them. The army didn’t really know how to deal with them, so they kind of got lost. In the last 15-20 years, though, lone soldiers have become more of a phenomenon and more kids are doing it.