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The lone soldier.
Hundreds of pro-Israel campus activists graduated this year, and dozens of them plan to enlist in the Israel Defense Forces (IDF).
Serving in the Israeli military before, during, or after college can be a logical extension of a student’s commitment to campus Israel efforts. They serve in various forums, including hesder, Garin Tzabar or directly enlisting independent of any organization.
The IDF defines a soldier whose immediate family does not reside in Israel as a lone soldier. Various benefits such as an increased salary, a choice of an adopted family or kibbutz, an allotment of cell phone minutes that can be used to call abroad, a free plane ticket to visit family outside Israel and an extra piece of luggage when making aliyah all are part of the lone soldier experience.
Today, 5,600 “lone soldiers” are enlisted in the IDF, and some of them worked tirelessly on behalf of Israel on U.S. campuses prior to donning IDF uniforms.
Brian Maissy is a past co-president of UC Berkeley’s Tikvah: Students for Israel, and soon he will become a lone soldier through the Garin Tzabar program. He noted a direct correlation between the challenges he faced as a campus Israel advocate and his decision to move to Israel and join the army.
“I saw injustice on campus,” he told ICB. “Students [were] spreading lies about Israel. I took it upon myself to counter the falsehoods and teach the truth about Israel and Zionism.
“I look at my army service the same way,” Maissy continued. “As a member of the Jewish people I have an obligation to help defend the Jewish state. My decision to enlist is an acceptance of that responsibility.”
Dov Lerner, 24 and former ZOA president at the University of Maryland, just signed on for two more years of service in the foreign affairs unit of the IDF. After four years of his active involvement in the Israel campus scene at UMD, including combating the BDS movement on campus, Lerner has a nuanced experience of what it means to be a lone soldier.
Speaking to ICB about the final night of a weeklong field maneuver exercise, Lerner shared a profound experience that he said he wants campus activists to understand.
“That night, we sat around a campfire and received food baskets from generous donors,” he said. “Everyone immediately tore apart the packages and began consuming the large quantities of chocolate, wafers and Bamba. I sat there staring at the package, which read: ‘To the heroes defending the land of Israel, stay safe and have a happy Purim, from the Brooklyn Chapter of the ZOA.”
When Lerner performs seemingly absurd tasks like running and shooting drills, or “washing a battalion’s worth of forks while on kitchen duty, or while mopping the library,” he must constantly remind himself of why he chooses to defend the country.
However, none of those absurd moments matched the feeling he got when he received those gift baskets from the ZOA. Six years earlier, Lerner had been packing those same packages for Israelis and now, in uniform, huddling around the fire to keep warm in the frigid desert night Lerner’s officer turned to him to ask, “How does it feel to be on the other side?”
“It is very different making the case for Israel on campuses than actually sitting on the border with a gun guarding the country,” Lerner said. “Having done both, I know that they are both extremely necessary.”
Another former campus activist who went on to serve as a lone soldier in the IDF’s elite Shaldag commando unit recalled that his attendance at an AIPAC conference 10 years ago, as a high school student, had a pivotal effect on him.
The former activist, who requested anonymity due to the sensitive nature of his military duties, recalled that Benjamin Netanyahu had met with a crowd of college student attendees at the conference. The past and future Israeli Prime Minister recounted a scene soon after his arrival at MIT: Fresh out of three years of IDF service, the new freshman found himself handing out leaflets at a pro-Israel rally. At first glance, Netanyahu thought little of its significance, but soon thereafter, he said, he realized that campus activists abroad and IDF soldiers “fighting the same battle.”