An Atheist Pilgrimage Part III


Media by Michael Schmitz

Standing at attention for our closing ceremony at the Sdeh Boker Gadna Base, overlooking the Negev Desert.

Three weeks ago, my Israeli high school program enrolled its American students in a four-day mock military camp called Gadna. Yes, a mandatory military camp.

Gadna is widely known in Israel and serves the country’s teenagers as an introduction to the military. Though not physically strenuous, this camp still seeks to instill discipline and military values into all its participants. Those who attend are taught to always stand at attention in the presence of their unit commander (a real, active-duty soldier in the Israeli military), always address their commanders by their title, and always be dressed in uniform to the military’s standards.

Many of the students in my American program were looking forward to this experience. Some had already been planning to join the Israeli military when they would immigrate to Israel in the near future, and some had recently had their resolve to go to Gadna strengthened in light of the recent attacks from the Gaza Strip when 400 rockets had been aimlessly fired into Israel to target civilians.

I think it’s important to talk about the Israeli military and my interactions with it at Gadna because of its global controversy and its social importance within this country. To understand Israeli society, it’s necessary to take a look at its military. Unlike America’s professional army, all eligible Israelis, upon turning 18, are conscripted into the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF). This draft, which was originally created to bolster the military of the tiny nation, is extremely important to Israeli culture. Though its primary purpose remains the establishment of a large military to defend Israel, the popular institution also has taken on national social significance. 

Media by Michael Schmitz
Picture of my friends from my high school program and I after being assigned our uniforms at Gadna.

The IDF is Israel’s melting pot. When Jews from all across the world make Aliyah (immigration to Israel), their children are drafted into its military. In the IDF, all these conflicting cultures and identities are mixed together to create an Israeli nationality. The years of service an Israeli serves in the military are often considered to be the best years of his or her life. People I’ve met who were exempt regret not going and people who have gone cherish their memories of the IDF. It’s the recognized end of childhood. It’s where soldiers meet lifelong friends and spouses. It’s the universal experience of each Israeli citizen that binds their country together.

Jews who immigrate and are between 18 and 23 are required to enlist in the IDF. Selling American Jews on immigrating to Israel means selling them on the idea of the IDF.

At Gadna, I was taught military drills but also the IDF’s philosophy. We were told that it was one of the only militaries in the world that combines “purity” and “arms.” For instance, we were treated to the anecdote of an Israeli medic helping an injured terror suspect and the claim that Israel has never declared war in its history. I recall in one particular class our commander gave a lesson on the term “homeland.” Despite the fact that many of us considered America to be our homeland, the fact was that a homeland is the land of one’s ethnicity. No matter where us Jews were born, Israel would always be our homeland whether we accept it or not. 

Resonating with the values of the IDF and its purpose to safeguard Judaism, 5 to 6 of the 13 boys in my group affirmed their desire to enlist in the Israeli military. If the homeland ever made the call, these individuals would be willing to lay down their lives.

The reason why I’ve chosen to recount these events is because it’s important that both the Jews and non Jews of the United States know what’s happening here: we’re being cultivated as the next wave of immigrants and soldiers. 

Perhaps the facts might agree with the claims made by the IDF. Maybe they are the most pacificistic and moral military in the world. They could be telling the truth or they could be lying and spreading propaganda – the fact is I don’t know. What I do know is we’re being slowly coerced. Each day, little by little, us international Jews are taught to accept the Jewish state (Israel) as our only homeland and our only salvation.

Media by Michael Schmitz
Outdoor classroom at Gadna, where my unit’s commander taught us about the moral superiority and necessity of the Israel Defense Forces.

My brother, who works for the U.S. military and is getting his master’s degree in Israel while I live here, has had his allegiance questioned by Israelis. Upon meeting one of my teachers, she asked, “If you’re interested in serving in the military, why not join the IDF and help the Jewish people by giving them American secrets? You should be fighting for your people, not for the U.S.”

While this program has given me exciting opportunities to travel to the Middle East and cultivate lifelong friendships, I regard its underlying message with caution. It has tried to teach me that I can’t trust gentile (non-Jewish) society. Rather than live amongst Christians or Muslims and risk persecution, I’m told that the rest of my life ought to be spent maintaining the Jewish nation in Israel. My personal aspirations, interests and identity mean nothing. All that matters is whether my hands will be used to somehow to build the Jewish homeland.

Being groomed for recruitment by a foreign power makes me incredibly uncomfortable; here, my personhood has been reduced to my Jewishness. Israel’s fixation on whether I have been circumcised or had a bar mitzvah attacks my Jewish identity more than any antisemitism I have experienced in America.