For Them, The Draft Is A Fact Of Life

Israeli students share their experiences of military service

For most Harvard students, a House Democrat’s proposal to replace the U.S. volunteer army in Iraq with a drafted force seems unappealing—and unlikely. But for some undergraduates on campus, the prospect of being conscripted to fight in the Middle East has always been a fact of life.

Military service is compulsory for Israeli Jews—three years for men and two years for women—barring medical and religious exemptions. The handful of current students at the College who served in the Israeli Defense Force (IDF) before coming to Harvard say the interlude forced them to think about themselves and their country.

“It is always difficult for me to explain to Americans the full story of my military service,” says MishyHarman ’08, who spent three years in the IDF before coming to Harvard. “Blowing up houses sounds horrifying, and it is. But I say this out of a complete inner understanding that Israel has a right to exist and a right to defend itself.”

Harman said that while he was in the army, the Israeli government had a policy of destroying the homes of individuals whom it had determined to be terrorists.

“For most of my service I lived with a very deep internal conflict. I was politically opposed to the operations I was ordered to do,” he says, later adding in an e-mail that he is critical of the Israeli military “only because I hold us to higher standards than anyone else.”

And while many Americans balk at the proposal by Rep. Charles Rangel, D-N.Y., to reinstitute a draft, Harman says Israeli youths often consider military service a “rite of passage.”

Efi E. Massasa ’09, who also spent three years in the IDF, says that the service is at “the core of Israeli citizenship.”

“Some people feel like they were exploited, and some feel like they gave a lot. I feel like I gave a lot,” he says. “But either way, 18 to 21, you give the best years of your life to the army.”

For young Israelis, military service often takes on a formative personal role akin to the experience many American students hope to find at college, says Shira Kaplan ’08, who served in the IDF for two years.

“I had a great time in the army,” Kaplan says. “We lived in barracks. We shared meals and played frisbee. I loved it, I really loved it.”

And, Harman adds, like young Americans at college, “many Israelis form their political convictions in the army, right and left.”

Kaplan, who attended high school in Italy, says she was tempted during her senior year to put off military service and apply to U.S. colleges first, but her parents encouraged her to return to Israel to enlist.

“‘How can you forget you are Israeli?’ they said, and I am so glad they did. Through the army, I reconnected to my Israeli identity,” Kaplan recalls.

At Harvard, these students have a chance to reevaluate the identities they formed in the military.

Massasa says that going to school with and living with students from Arab countries gave him a new perspective on the turmoil in his homeland.

“My friends who stayed in Israel can criticize or support Israeli policy, but they do it from inside of Israel, so their ability to see the other side is restricted,” Massasa says. “At Harvard, I met people from Lebanon and Jordan. Sometimes it was awkward, but it opened up a lot of possibilities for conversation that I didn’t have in Israel.”

Mohammed J. Herzallah ’07, originally from Ramallah, West Bank, says while he has Israeli friends and has studied Israeli society, “as a Palestinian, I hope that my Harvard peers who served in the Israeli army have come to appreciate the scope of suffering in the Palestinian territories.”

Nadav S. Greenberg ’10, who spent three years in the IDF before starting at Harvard this fall, says first hand experience in the complex and emotionally charged conflict allowed him to approach college with a greater appreciation for dialogue.

“I personally believe very much in the importance of dialogue. My service in the army strengthened that belief, and I think Harvard is a great place for dialogue,” he says.