This piece is one of an ongo­ing series that we are shar­ing from Israeli authors and authors in Israel.

It is crit­i­cal to under­stand his­to­ry not just through the books that will be writ­ten lat­er, but also through the first-hand tes­ti­monies and real-time account­ing of events as they occur. At Jew­ish Book Coun­cil, we under­stand the val­ue of these writ­ten tes­ti­mo­ni­als and of shar­ing these indi­vid­ual expe­ri­ences. It’s more impor­tant now than ever to give space to these voic­es and narratives. 

Thurs­day, Novem­ber 16. Zoom. From where I sit on my couch in Jerusalem, it looks like a hot day in the Negev. The palm trees out­side the large square stand calm: no breeze. Today my daugh­ter Priya fin­ish­es her train­ing course in the Edu­ca­tion Corps. While fam­i­lies usu­al­ly attend this cel­e­bra­tion, this year the base is closed to vis­i­tors due to the war. As two hun­dred or so sol­diers march out, I catch the briefest glimpse of Priya. See­ing her among all those girls and boys, in army green, I think—she’s real­ly in the army

I’ve sent her back and forth to her base since August; I have washed the crisp new uni­forms she wears on the street and the soft old ones she wears at the base. Who else wore this shirt and these pants before her, I always won­der, as I hang them in the sun to dry. What sto­ries are in its wrin­kles, or the small tears at the back of the neck? The worn elbows and frayed cuffs? Then I turn to won­der­ing what sto­ries her crisp uni­form will absorb before she comes home at the end of her ser­vice and returns to wear­ing civil­ian clothes like the rest of us. When I hang the laun­dry, I pause in the sun, rec­og­niz­ing the uni­ver­sal­i­ty in this coun­try of what I am doing. But because I am an immi­grant, I turn the uni­form in my hands, still aston­ished by a child of mine in this vast machine whose defin­ing pur­pose is phys­i­cal defense and whose defin­ing impres­sion is force. As a pro­fes­sor of lit­er­a­ture, vir­tu­al­ly none of my col­leagues in North Amer­i­ca or Europe have chil­dren serv­ing in the armed forces. My social media feed fea­tures posts accus­ing the IDF and the Unit­ed States of a geno­ci­dal cam­paign against Gazans, while neglect­ing to men­tion Hamas at all. Schol­ars seem to be resolv­ing what appear to me intractable moral dilem­mas far more rapid­ly and sum­mar­i­ly than any one of them would ever dare to read a poem.

On the same com­put­er screen as I read those posts, I now see a livestream of the new recruits of the Edu­ca­tion Corps. An army builds a nation builds an army,” Priya’s very young com­man­ders have told her. Repeat­ed­ly. It’s a cliché but when your child drafts prac­ti­cal­ly right into a war, you have to ask which of the clichés bear truth. This is an army of all. Civil­ians or sol­diers, it’s just a mat­ter of what day or year it is, what you hap­pen to be wear­ing. As Octo­ber 7 proved, it doesn’t even always mat­ter what you’re wear­ing, or whether you’re armed. So many ordi­nary peo­ple became noth­ing short of heroes when the need arose. In jeans and a T‑shirt, with no weapon but a piece of bro­ken glass, Aner Shapi­ra defend­ed thir­ty young peo­ple like him­self at a music fes­ti­val and ulti­mate­ly saved eight lives by throw­ing sev­en grenades out of a crowd­ed shel­ter as ter­ror­ists threw them in. Sur­vivors say he intro­duced him­self and told them not to wor­ry. He assumed com­mand. Lots of Israelis drove their own cars into areas that had become war zones in order to res­cue their fam­i­lies, includ­ing four Bedouin fam­i­ly mem­bers from Rahat and a for­mer IDF gen­er­al and his wife from Tel Aviv. Both first res­cued many who were not their fam­i­ly mem­bers, return­ing mul­ti­ple times into unspeak­able dan­ger. What did unspeak­able dan­ger look like on Octo­ber 7? Like the hail of mis­siles, end­less grenades, fires, thou­sands of masked ter­ror­ists (some dressed to look like the IDF), swarm­ing the main roads, then comb­ing the shel­ters and forests for escap­ing Israelis. Corpses lying every­where. The for­mer gen­er­al was in street clothes. He was armed with a pis­tol. Those he set out to res­cue were his son and grandchildren. 

An army of the peo­ple also means that among the more than two hun­dred hostages in Gaza are young women just like my daugh­ter, eigh­teen to twen­ty-one-year-old cit­i­zens who were not giv­en a choice about serv­ing their nation. In cap­tiv­i­ty, they are clas­si­fied by Hamas as com­bat­ants in spite of the fact that they were not armed at the posts from which they were abduct­ed after see­ing their fel­low female sol­diers mur­dered. We will almost cer­tain­ly wait a very long time for the free­dom of these young women unless our army can res­cue them in some mir­a­cle of strat­e­gy and action. 

A mat­ter of a few months is not only the dif­fer­ence between com­bat­ant and civil­ian, but also the offi­cial dif­fer­ence between child and adult, so that the sev­en­teen-year-old Ofir Engel, with whom my six­teen-year-old son played bas­ket­ball in Jerusalem, will still be eli­gi­ble to return from Gaza among the women and chil­dren. The heartache of whether to send a child to first grade as the youngest of his class this year or the old­est of his class next year, now rewrit­ten as the ques­tion of whether your bas­ket­ball play­er is still child” enough to be returned from Gaza, or adult” enough to die there. We are not alone in such con­di­tions; war and even every­day inequal­i­ty and injus­tice make some people’s chil­dren some­how unde­serv­ing of the pro­tec­tion accord­ed oth­er people’s chil­dren. It is worth remem­ber­ing that child” is a polit­i­cal category. 

But on my lap­top screen, the sol­diers march into for­ma­tion. Hav­ing heard Priya and her friends com­plain, I can’t help but notice how ill-fit­ting so many uni­forms are. Which sug­gests to me how ill-fit­ting army ser­vice prob­a­bly is to so many eigh­teen-year-olds who are draft­ed invol­un­tar­i­ly. Yet, by and large, I have to say these sol­diers look pret­ty hap­py. Zoom is bet­ter than in per­son for check­ing faces. These faces are young, unlined with wor­ry, quick to ani­mat­ed expres­sion and joy, even in a mil­i­tary march. As the cam­era pans the large group, beneath the berets, amidst all the iden­ti­cal cloth­ing, I rec­og­nize a few of Priya’s friends who draft­ed with her. Their par­ents had brought them to Tel HaShomer, too, dropped them off in street clothes with big back­packs, as if they were head­ed to sum­mer camp. They had greet­ed each oth­er with big hugs and yells, as if they were head­ed to sum­mer camp. Two hours lat­er, I got a pho­to of Priya trans­formed. In uni­form, arms around her friends, all of them in clunky boots and thick black socks, in late Israeli summer. 

Three months into Priya’s ser­vice, as a moth­er, it seems to me that the IDF, at least in its non-com­bat units, is some social organ­ism I may nev­er under­stand: oth­er and self, insti­tu­tion and club, stren­u­ous dis­ci­pline and strange fun, school and camp, sweat and style, to be gamed but also to be lived. An army builds a nation builds an army”: Priya is just as like­ly to say this seri­ous­ly as she is to say it cyn­i­cal­ly. And then seri­ous­ly again. 

Out­side of Israel, the IDF is known for its might, and many asso­ciate it with sheer ruth­less­ness. Near total skep­ti­cism greets its claims to min­i­mize civil­ian death and dam­age. I have learned most imme­di­ate­ly from my Pales­tin­ian stu­dents how threat­en­ing the IDF uni­form can be. I grew up in a world in which the image of a (male) sol­dier with a gun and a Bible, and a pray­ing (male) sol­dier, was seen to be deeply mov­ing. The Jew­ish army was imag­ined to be relent­less­ly moral. Per­haps in the 1970s and 1980s, this was still a post-Holo­caust rev­er­ence. I don’t imag­ine a per­fect­ly moral army; no army can occu­py anoth­er peo­ple and remain who some of us want them to be. This is the fix the army and the nation find our­selves in, and we will not be able to get out of it until the occu­pa­tion ends. But should the occu­pa­tion end tomor­row, sol­diers will prob­a­bly still be sworn in at the West­ern Wall; Bibles and guns will go togeth­er. Not only do such images not move me any­more, they fright­en me because they can under­write a very wide range of actions, and a very wide range of val­ues and atti­tudes. Reli­gious force (which is what a gun and a Bible stand for) does not usu­al­ly end with self-defense but enthu­si­as­ti­cal­ly exceeds it. And self-defense, too, tends to be far more extreme if you see the ene­my in reli­gious terms (and if they see them­selves in reli­gious terms, too). 

Here is my prob­lem, though. I may not have illu­sions about the moral­i­ty of Israel’s occu­pa­tion. But the army — unlike the gov­ern­ment — can­not be the recep­ta­cle into which I pour all my anger and dis­be­lief and cyn­i­cism because the army builds the nation builds the army. 

I don’t know how to eval­u­ate the army in macro because I know it most­ly through the micro. Which is also an impor­tant form of knowl­edge. I know it now from this unfold­ing Zoom cer­e­mo­ny. I know it from the funer­als I have attend­ed in the last month in which the fam­i­lies and com­man­ders and friends of fall­en sol­diers are them­selves a reveal­ing tes­ti­mo­ny to just who the fall­en per­son was. I know it from the most recent and cur­rent Chiefs of Staff who may be per­son­al­i­ties on TV and the radio but have also been, respec­tive­ly, the broth­er-in-law of a dear friend, and an alum of my son’s sto­ried Scouts chap­ter in Jerusalem. So that when men of this kind say they take all pre­cau­tions to avoid col­lat­er­al dam­age, I believe them. These are not men who tweet in the mid­dle of the night and then erase their tweet. There are per­son­al con­nec­tions, and they do not strike me as liars, or unre­li­able, or any­thing less than extra­or­di­nar­i­ly seri­ous and cog­nizant of their respon­si­bil­i­ty. Very lit­tle they say has giv­en me cause to doubt their inten­tions. And pub­lic peo­ple here say what they mean: see, the gov­ern­ment. If I wor­ry about their lead­er­ship, it is a wor­ry that equal­ly pow­er­ful female lead­ers are still miss­ing in the top ech­e­lons of this democracy’s military.

Mean­while, the male and female reservists who are now fight­ing this war are peo­ple to whom I am con­nect­ed through my uni­ver­si­ty and syn­a­gogue. They are vol­un­teers in polit­i­cal protest move­ments. They are doc­tors and teach­ers, jour­nal­ists and tour guides. Lawyers, social work­ers, even some paci­fists and anar­chists who served in ways they could tol­er­ate because their phi­los­o­phy came up against oth­er truths they acknowl­edged. And I know count­less par­ents of the young sol­diers in manda­to­ry ser­vice. I know the way they raised their kids.

I know an army that reflects the world I know. I know there are oth­er armies inside the same one that holds mine, because there are oth­er worlds in Israel, too. I know this very, very well. Again, in the micro, sol­diers wrote cyn­i­cal and cru­el mes­sages to Gazans on rock­ets that they then fired into Gaza. It makes my stom­ach turn. That is the army, too. But I also know some­one who wrote to the Chief of Staff to demand that he make that act a pun­ish­able offense. My friend thought it wasn’t wor­thy of our army,” which may need to fire rock­ets but can­not do so as a bul­ly takes plea­sure (you could argue a rock­et is a rock­et, but per­haps not). The army suf­fers from racism and sex­ism, both of which end up devalu­ing and cost­ing Israeli and non-Israeli, Jew­ish and non-Jew­ish, lives. This, too, is true. And the state­ments and pro­grams of our cur­rent gov­ern­ment, in the per­sons of prime min­is­ter, defense min­is­ter, and so many in the cab­i­net, make it much hard­er for the army to think about its defen­sive mis­sion with­out broad­ly dehu­man­iz­ing a full, var­i­ous peo­ple. Here, too, an army builds a nation builds an army,” in the worst way.

Yet this same army per­sists in train­ing an Edu­ca­tion Corps even while it wages the most crit­i­cal war of a gen­er­a­tion. The many girls and the few boys with whom Priya draft­ed all elect­ed and were select­ed to serve as teach­ers or coun­selors with­in the mil­i­tary. Some will work with sol­diers who didn’t fin­ish high school with a diplo­ma or who were at risk as teenagers and want to com­plete their edu­ca­tion before they fin­ish their mil­i­tary ser­vice. Some will teach sol­diers who are recent immi­grants from all over the world to Israel and don’t yet know Hebrew. Some will teach sol­diers who are not legal­ly Jew­ish and want to find out more about Jew­ish his­to­ry, cul­ture, and reli­gion. Some will teach reha­bil­i­ta­tive cours­es in mil­i­tary jail. All of them will assume respon­si­bil­i­ty for oth­ers approx­i­mate­ly their own age or old­er in ways they nev­er have before, wear­ing uni­forms that I imag­ine grow­ing soft­er and soft­er as their own edges get hard­er, tougher, more confident. 

I watch now as the com­man­ders begin to walk among the sol­diers, affix­ing the ropes and pins. The cam­era moves slow­ly, cap­tur­ing the rela­tions among the sol­diers, and between each one and their com­man­der. Mil­i­tary order is released dur­ing this part of the cer­e­mo­ny and sud­den­ly sol­diers are hug­ging each oth­er, wav­ing to the cam­era, mak­ing hearts, call­ing out, Hi Ima!,” with broad smiles while some turn away from the cam­era shy­ly. A hap­py, sweet dis­or­der holds for a few min­utes as the com­man­ders move from sol­dier to sol­dier, but even over cam­era, I can feel some­thing begin to shift. A sub­tle cur­rent in the air, a buzz that moves from body to body. The laughs and smiles yield to tears. First you see one sol­dier wip­ing her eyes, and then anoth­er, and then you see longer hugs, of com­fort; one sol­dier is real­ly weep­ing, and a com­man­der leans in for a long hug and a whis­per in the ear. 

And sud­den­ly this cer­e­mo­ny, with par­ents absent, strikes at me as a moment in his­to­ry. These girls and boys draft­ed in August 2023. They are fin­ish­ing their course in Novem­ber. They will always be the sol­diers who joined the army on the eve of Octo­ber 7, the Black Shab­bat. They will always be the sol­diers who were returned to base two days after that Shab­bat, to weeks of guard duty, know­ing that guard duty had failed at neigh­bor­ing bases, that sol­diers and civil­ians had been mur­dered and abduct­ed, and that for days, the army had engaged in bloody bat­tles to regain con­trol of Israeli territory. 

That first week back at the base, Priya told me, was a long series of sol­diers walk­ing with cell phones through the base, sob­bing out loud. An unimag­in­able amount of bad news got­ten almost exclu­sive­ly by phone call or, at slight­ly broad­er cir­cles, on social media. A base sealed from all out­siders. More than two and a half weeks with­out a break to come home, except for funer­als. It was that week that Priya let me know that one of the sol­diers who was in her com­pa­ny, Idan Baruch, had been mur­dered in his home at Kib­butz Be’eri. He had been shot when he left his burn­ing house, and he had left because he was asth­mat­ic and couldn’t breathe in the smoke. His grand­moth­er was also killed, and one younger sib­ling is still, to this day, unac­count­ed for. And so now, today, at the course grad­u­a­tion, the colonel at the head of their entire divi­sion, an impres­sive woman, con­grat­u­lates them all and notes the sin­gle stu­dent who did not com­plete the course, no longer among the living.

I remem­ber that among the assign­ments Priya had to com­plete for the course was some­thing called Mes­i­mat Per­ach.” She explained to me impa­tient­ly that this was an ele­ment of haz­ing: with no expla­na­tion, they were sent home one shab­bat in Sep­tem­ber with a flower assign­ment,” and asked to make of it what they would. Priya took a poem she loved and dried flow­ers against the paper on which she’d copied the poem by hand. She told me that Idan came back describ­ing Darom Adom,” his plea­sure in the way the whole south turned to fields of red blos­soms in the sea­son of the anemone flow­ers. He told the group how much he loved his home on Kib­butz Be’eri, that it was where he want­ed to live always. Today, at the grad­u­a­tion, they all wear a tag with his name on it. I don’t wear a tag but it is fair to say that I think about him very fre­quent­ly. I think of his fam­i­ly. I think of the way their com­pa­ny should be one more than it is.

By the end of the cer­e­mo­ny, maybe forty-five min­utes, I can see that Priya’s cheeks are red with the heat. I am remind­ed of the dance recital she was in when she was twelve. I was seat­ed at the back of the orches­tra sec­tion at the Jerusalem The­ater, and she was danc­ing among many oth­er girls dressed in black leo­tards, but even from there, some­how I could see that she wasn’t feel­ing well. When I went back­stage to find her after the show, she near­ly fell into my arms, sick. So now I see her red cheeks and know she didn’t put on sun­screen, that she needs water. Her hair is pulled back in a pony­tail under her tight wool beret and I can feel its tex­ture in my fin­gers as if fin­gers can remem­ber, too. 

When HaTik­va,” the nation­al anthem, comes to a close, the sol­diers begin to hug and cel­e­brate. One sol­dier who has received an award for excel­lence is tak­en by sur­prise by her broth­er, a com­bat sol­dier whom she had not seen since Octo­ber 7, who has got­ten spe­cial per­mis­sion to sur­prise her at the base. (Priya explains this to me lat­er, though I see it on screen.) It is not typ­i­cal in Israel for any sol­dier not to get home for five to six weeks; it is a very small coun­try and dis­tances are quick­ly tra­versed for a Shab­bat, or even for a few hours. But this wartime is inten­sive. Days and weeks have gone by with­out phone calls, let alone reunions. And so this reunion between sib­lings brings every­one who sees it joy, and also immense relief: he’s alive. And I know that I am not alone when its shad­ow image makes itself vis­i­ble, too: all the sib­lings who have not returned, whether from the tun­nels of Gaza, or from the music fes­ti­val, or from the kib­butz­im and towns of the south­ern bor­der, or from the tanks in the south and the north. 

I want to be there in per­son, too, like this broth­er. I want to hug my child. To try to under­stand this dou­ble­ness: child and adult, civil­ian and sol­dier; body and soul. At Aner Shapira’s funer­al, his grand­moth­er said in her eulo­gy for him, love doesn’t die.” When she said it, I believed it. I heard its truth in her voice. And when I wash the uni­forms Priya brings home, dirty, sweaty, worn, and worn again, when I shake them out to dry in the sun, I think, there is much we choose, and every­thing we don’t choose. I bring them in from the sun, she folds one, puts on the oth­er, and goes back out into the world. 

The views and opin­ions expressed above are those of the author, based on their obser­va­tions and experiences.

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Ilana M. Blum­berg is asso­ciate pro­fes­sor of Eng­lish Lit­er­a­ture and past direc­tor of the Shaindy Rud­off Grad­u­ate Pro­gram in Cre­ative Writ­ing at Bar Ilan Uni­ver­si­ty in Tel Aviv, Israel. She is the author of Open Your Hand: Teach­ing as a Jew, Teach­ing as an Amer­i­can, Vic­to­ri­an Sac­ri­fice: Ethics and Eco­nom­ics in Mid-Cen­tu­ry Nov­els, and the Sami Rohr Choice Award-win­ning mem­oir Hous­es of Study: a Jew­ish Woman Among Books.