At 15-years-old, I found myself crawling through the desert in a combat simulation when a scorpion stung me. The simulation was part of a weeklong Gadna military training program provided by the Israel Defense Forces during my six-week United Synagogue Youth (USY)/Conservative Movement teen tour. In a lot of pain, I was rushed first to a military clinic and then to a civilian hospital. The doctors and the nurses were puzzled by my lack of Hebrew comprehension and did not understand why I was in uniform. In those scared moments in the emergency rooms, I just wanted to shed my IDF outfit and be treated as the child I still was.
I revisited the Gadna experience when I staffed a USY Israel Pilgrimage trip during college. Just like when I was 15, my group lived on an army base, dressed in soldiers' uniforms, studied the history of IDF, engaged in rigorous physical training and learned to shoot semiautomatic weapons. For most of them, it as one of the highlights of their trip, just as it had been for my peers and I a few years earlier.
On my most recent trip to Israel this November, I had the opportunity to spend Thanksgiving with the Conservative movement's Nativ gap-year program. Alumni of the program, like me, are invited to join the current batch of recent high school graduates for a festive feast and mini-reunion. Before dinner, there were evening services and presentations from the staff and participants in the program. The director of the program recognized those alumni in the room who were celebrating life milestones like marriages, the birth of children or making alliyah over the last year. He went on to laud the commitment of those olim (immigrants to Israel) who recently joined in the IDF and encourage the 17- and 18-year-olds in the room to follow suit and immigrate to Israel and enlist in the military. As I looked around the room and saw clusters of young men and women in uniform or carrying their weapons in the sanctuary, I felt troubled by the continued cycle of the military inculcation in my former Jewish youth movement.
When I got back to the United States I wanted to find out if my pre-holiday meal experience was unique or if the promotion of violent institutions was still a systematic part of my former youth movement's Israel education.
I examined the Israel affairs section of USY's website. I found many instances where the movement promoted serving in the Israeli army, USYers regaling their Ganda experiences and programming suggestions that encouraged simulating military combat. For example, in "Your Guide to Being an Israel Affairs Vice President," USY's website suggested:
Teach your chapter about the army (everyone knows the basics so try to find little known facts or bring up dilemmas that can be discussed). Conduct a brief soldier training then go using their new gadna training, have USYers go play capture the flag or lazer-tag. Have chapter members come dressed in army regalia.
There are times when war is necessary. However, putting M-16s in the hands of 15-year-olds, glorifying violence, and playing war games minimizes the real consequences and suffering associated with combat. It pains me that we have to mourn the loss of people like Michael Levin, a USY and Nativ alum killed in action while serving in the IDF. His death, like all combatant and civilian casualties, are the agonizing, traumatic realities of conflicts.
Conflict and violence remain ever-present in Israel. Preparing our children for combat is only one form of response to that reality. We can be doing a better job of encouraging critical thinking and explaining the difficult moral complexities of war to our youth. In addition to exposing our youth to soldiers, we should also introduce them to Israel's heroic peace-makers and pursuers of justice; that too can enhance their Jewish identity and strengthen their connections to Israel. As Hillel taught, "be of the disciples of Aaron -- a lover of peace, a pursuer of peace, one who loves the creatures and draws them close to Torah" (Pirkei Avot 1:12).
Joshua Bloom is Director of Israel Programs for Rabbis for Human Rights-North America. He has work in the fields of peace, human rights and democracy building in Central America, southern Africa, the Balkans, Central Asia, Eastern Europe and the Middle East.