Tuesday, 20 November 2012

The Army

For the last several months I have been troubled by the question of army service, and it has all felt much more acute with the current conflict. I hesitated about writing about it, partly because I still don’t have an answer, and partly because it seems like a personal issue and wouldn’t be of general interest. But it does touch on a topical Israeli matter, so I thought I’d see how it goes…
I also wrote a bit at the end about my personal views about what’s going on in Gaza (and all of Israel up to Tel-Aviv and Jerusalem).

As an immigrant doctor I am officially due to be conscripted for 18 months as a Medical Officer. I would then serve up to 1 month every year of “Millu’im” (reserve duty) until I’m 45, and be available for call-up in times of war. What is unusual about my situation is that I am being given the choice whether I want to do this (partly due to an army administrative c*#k-up). And so the big question for me is whether to volunteer?

Service in the army has historically been a big deal here: It forms an old-boys network, as proven by the number of prime ministers, cabinet ministers, and even hospital senior managers who served together in elite units.
It has also been a great social leveller: unlike Eton, Oxford and Cambridge, admission into the elite combat units tended to be from all strata of society, e.g. the current leader of the opposition (Mofaz) came from a classically under-privileged background but served as an officer in Sayeret Matkal before starting his political career.

Conversely not serving was a sign of either physical/psychological illness, or shirking of civic duty.

However, much of that has changed. Less than 50% of those who could serve actually do, and employers are no longer allowed to ask about service at interviews.

So why consider volunteering? (Or as Israelis put it: “Are you crazy?!”)
The truth is, it can’t be because the 18 months are fun or heroic. A friend (Adam Albert) wrote an excellent and funny blog describing his time as an army doctor (http://www.adndeb.blogspot.co.il), and it is tough and demoralizing: 120 hour weeks playing GP to essentially healthy, whinging 19 year olds. And I have a huge amount of respect for Adam in managing to get through it.

I am also not sure in my specific circumstance that it can be justified as being the best service to the country:
The head of my department has been suggesting various projects (e.g. research) I could do at Hadassah, some of which could definitely be more useful to Israel. In contrast, I am hardly the greatest physical athlete, or combat soldier.

Those arguments against service may well win in the end, but there still seem to be a few in favour that I haven’t been able to get around:

Firstly, it is still a big right of passage shared by most Israelis. Everyone has stories of their army service, and everywhere you go, you see people in uniform. To be Israeli and not have served makes me feel like I have missed out on a big part of what being Israeli (unfortunately) is.

Secondly, there’s no getting round the fact that it is a duty. If I volunteer and the army (unbelievably) chooses to place me in Hadassah doing research, that would be their choice. But as Ze’ev, a former boss of my mum’s put it: “Israeli men don’t use their time “usefully”; they serve their country for 3 years”.

Finally, and perhaps most positive of the reasons, is the prospect of better jobs in the future. During Milu’im you can get assigned to more special units, and I know of doctors who currently or in the past have served in such units as 669 (combat search-and-rescue/civilian helicopter evacuation), Alpianistim (the alpine trained troops in the Golan), Sayeret Egoz (elite unit of Northern Command), and Sayeret Matkal (the most elite unit in Israel and amongst the best in the world). But to do those, you must do your time as an ordinary doctor for 18 months first.

That is currently where I am at. I have agreed with my Head of Department that I will do 2 years of pure clinical training, and then we’ll see. I am currently edging towards volunteering at that stage, but the opposing pressures are great.

I know this is getting long, but I feel that I can’t finish without mentioning my experience of the recent conflict.

To start with, I wanted to say something about the political question: Was Israel right to enter into Operation Pillar of Cloud?
I see myself as firmly on the Left of the political spectrum. I believe that the Palestinians have a right to their own country and that it is in Israel’s interests for it to be independent and prosperous. My Right-leaning friends often object that the Palestinians will just use their country as a base to launch rockets, and my (admittedly slightly cynical) response is: “that’s fine”. They would then be treated like any other country that chose to launch rockets at a neighbour - it would be an act of war, and may the best army win.
Ever since I arrived here the newspapers report almost daily counts of rockets hitting towns in Israel, and they increased markedly in recent weeks. I don’t expect the British media to have covered that (it’s hardly of interest to most Brits), but it does give some context.
If we on the Left are serious about the Palestinians getting a state, than we must also be serious about that state being held accountable.

Leaving politics aside, my own experience of the war has been thankfully minor. Jerusalem has had one rocket attack, and I happened to be on holiday in the North at the time. My sister on the other hand, in Tel Aviv, has had frequent air-raid sirens and temporarily moved out of her flat to her friend’s, because it has a reinforced room.
What I did see was huge movements of troops and armoured vehicles when we were travelling on the roads (I won’t name units and where they were going on the internet). The whole atmosphere has also changed. Everyone is talking about the conflict, and some people with real anxiety.

At the moment, there is talk of a cease-fire but it’s all very vague. Let’s hope that calm will finally come to this region once and for all.

P.S. Since writing this we had another rocket hit the Jerusalem area this afternoon. I was in clinic at the time and didn’t hear the sirens (either a worrying sign about local civil defence measures, or a positive sign of how much stone and concrete was between me and the outside world!)

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