I descend the bus steps in the late-August heat of 2008, somewhere in the Negev. Behind me are eight other American Jews, the oldest of us only sixteen. We have been together, more or less, for the greater part of two weeks on a Jewish Federation trip—a more robust, high school-friendly version of Birthright. Paired with nine Israeli teens, we hit all the Welcome To Israel sites: Masada, the Kotel, the Shuk, the Dead Sea, a camel ride in the desert, the Bedouin Tents. My fellow Americans on the trip are bowled over by Israel’s beauty, its textures. That morning, we are bused to a military base to participate in Gadna, a boot-camp providing both Israeli and Diasporic Jewish teens with a taste of IDF basic training.
I mention that it is my American cohort that is bowled over by Israel only because my experience is different. From start to finish, I am an outsider on this trip, mostly because I am technically an insider. Born in Israel to American activist parents, I moved to the Midwest when I was five, and grew up bamboozled by the American Jewish narrative about Israel. I didn’t understand why Jacob K waxed poetic about Israel when he’d never been to the country. When Sarah B cared more about Israeli politics than she did about American politics, I rolled my eyes. So in preparing for this high school Birthright trip, I decided to cultivate a convenient scoff, ready to be thrown at any American who claimed to know the country. (Really, when I think about it, what I was doing was protecting myself from the knowledge that while I did not feel particularly American, the Israelis we were all about to meet would never think of me as Israeli.)
One of the biggest concerns coming from most of the American parents before we leave is about our safety from violence. Now, violence in Israel means many things to many people, and I understand that when I say “Israeli violence,” many of my Arab friends have strong reactions. But for the American parents learning that their children were going to be participating in an Israeli Defense Forces bootcamp, the Israeli violence they reference is this amorphous, faceless threat that touches anyone so much as thinking of visiting The Holy Land. Because — and on this, they are right — it’s completely untenable to promise to anyone in Israel/Palestine that they will not experience violence. While there are certainly quiet moments that feel secure for Israelis, there is no guarantee how long they will last. It is the chaotic, ever-present threat of potential fighting (on the back of an ever-present institutional oppression of Palestinians) that convinces Israelis that no one will understand them, and convinces Americans that they must support Israel at all costs. What I discover on this trip, however, is that even in experiences designed to confront this uncertain violence, the primary goal is to keep American Jews comfortable.
Gadna is a military program dating back to before the foundation of Israel, but legitimized by policy and law in 1949 after the War of Independence/Nakba. Its intended purpose is to provide a week of preparation to Israeli teens on the cusp of their IDF draft, but Diasporic Jewish teens often participate as well. Here we have a split; Gadna for Israeli teens was criticized in 2007 for being unduly militarized. For Americans and other Westerners, it’s understood to be a joke. And yet in the American Jewish package of Israel, a four-day experience at a watered-down military boot camp in the desert is a simple and effective way of putting us face to face with the existential threat from which Israel is constantly defending itself. Gadna is supposed to be the perfect package of military propaganda, group bonding, ruin porn, and tourist slumming. For our American organizers, this package, once unwrapped, would have us all make Aliyah and enlist in the IDF.
When we come off the steps of the bus, we are met by our commander: a tall, slender, Russian Jewish woman who instructs us not to speak out of turn and shows us how to stand with our hands in a diamond shape behind our backs. In the next few hours, any foreboding I had about the coming four days is quickly washed away. Pretty soon, stepping off the bus to the entrance of Gadna feels a little like stepping off the bus at the entrance of an amusement park and discovering that the only functioning ride is the carousel. This week in 2008 (and 2008 is not a year without violent conflict in Israel, don’t forget), Gadna is an amusement park with a good marketing team but a steadily lackluster attitude. The soldiers in Gadna do not look as if they believe our experience, and their role in it, is important. They do not wax poetic about the threats coming to Israel from all sides. There is no waxing at all — poetic or not. Mostly they seem bored. This makes sense when you remember that they’re all, like, 19.
What is so confusing about Gadna is that we expected it to be a bit like an amusement park with sick roller coasters — a ride you know you can get off of at the end, but a ride that threatens danger nonetheless, even if it’s imaginary. But the rides this week at Gadna are like the kiddie section — underwhelming and safe.
For example, while it is true that I am asked to army crawl on the rocky desert that scratches at my elbows, or get up at five in the morning to go for a run, I can rest assured that none of me is tested, physically or otherwise. The army crawl lasts less than five minutes. On the run, we end up walking. There are pictures of me on my Facebook shooting an M16 (I forget any gun handling knowledge I learn the following day). We face no wrath from our commanders, as we were warned, but also no context, as we were promised. Most of the time, our commanders try really hard not to laugh at us. The promise of back-breaking physical exertion and preparation, of deeply felt pro-Israel propaganda, never appears. In its empty space, we complain about the heat and tactically steal toilet paper from the Canadians in the next bunk.
This contextless experience bothers me. I am aware that it would be a lot to expect of Gadna to humanize The Enemy (as Palestinians and Arabs are so humanely referred to). My father had served in the reserves when we were living in Israel, and he came to the IDF having worked in Arab communities with other Anglo-Jews, facilitating and participating in peace workshops. He spoke grimly of the reality of the Arab role in the IDF — they are The Enemy, and that’s all. I am only 15, but I somehow suspect that to expect Gadna to serve me a realistic portrayal of Palestinians is a reach.
And yet even opportunities for anti-Arab scare tactics are ignored. One night, we are taken a little ways outside of our base and given a tarp and a few cardboard boxes. “Create a shelter that will last the whole night in enemy territory,” are our instructions. It is communicated to us that this exercise is a big deal because the Chief Sergeant is coming to inspect us himself (our Commander’s Commander!). When he does come, I brace myself. Our group had been so busy bickering about our strategy that we ended up throwing the tarp over a tree-branch. I expect to be reamed for our lack of commitment; to be shown all the ways our structure would enable our death if we were truly Out There; to be spun a tale about the immoral Arab enemies, ready to strike at any time. I needn’t have worried. The Chief Sergeant looks at our shelter and nods, and then turns his head to our Commander and says something that makes her giggle. I think: oh. This is a joke for you too.
On the last afternoon of our four-day experience, our Commander sits down with us on the rocky desert floor and reveals that she is, in fact, only 19. She tells us she had been nervous to lead this training in English. At once, she is transformed from a blank-faced wall of semi-serious authority to someone who is basically our peer. I wonder if this is the moment where I might have to face the reality of being a soldier, where that labor and pain and trauma would be funneled into the message that American Jews should care deeply about the IDF soldiers protecting our “Birthright.” But much like everything else in our Gadna experience, that opportunity slips by without notice. Our commander speaks more about what she wants to do once she is out of the army than what it is like to be in it. This speaks volumes not on the typical Israeli experience of the army, but on the typical Israeli expectations of American Jewish participation in Israel: the reality doesn’t concern us; there’s no way we could understand anyway.
Because Gadna is such a huge program with so many participants and organizers, I have no doubt that for some American Jews, the experience is strenuous and daunting, that you get out of it what you put in. But it is a lie that Gadna shows you an accurate portrayal of IDF service, or even a rosy one. Even in my budding leftism, I didn’t expect to engage with a more sympathetic understanding of Palestinians — this is still a program run by the IDF, after all. But I had expected to walk away with a more curated experience, one that self-selected the right stories and conversations to convince us Americans that all Palestinians are a threat. I was preparing myself to carve out my carefully cultivated distance from pro-IDF obsession, only to find that the Diasporic Gadna didn’t actually care how I felt.
Gadna doesn’t waste its time presenting American Jews with reality, or the propaganda-fueled solutions for uncertain violence in Israel/Palestine — it has Israelis teens to prepare. Meanwhile, our American Jewish institutions are doing the propaganda work for us pretty well on their own. Because the truth is that folks who make Aliyah don’t have to enlist in the army — they can decide that they don’t want to participate in a mandatory facet of Israeli life that presents very violent implications for Palestinians, and also for Israelis. Israeli teens might dread participating in Gadna because it is a reminder that their friends could die soon, or that they might be pulling the trigger that kills someone else. Americans dread participating in Gadna because it’s hot and we have to pee outside. Gadna for Americans knows that Israel doesn’t need Americans to truly understand the country in order to pour money into it.
Gadna has no reason to ask me to consider the Palestinian lives my M16 has ended, that much is no surprise. But the missed opportunity to consider what happens to Israeli psyches when they kill alarms me. It suggests a brilliantly operating function of this perfect package American Jews are sold about Israel. When American Jews are tourists in the supposed land of their Birthright, they are not asked to see with the clear eyes of reality, but through the eyes of a consumer. So if we actually looked, we would see that violence, and the violence of the occupation, is nothing like an underwhelming amusement park at all. If we actually looked, we might decide not to buy the package in the first place.
Accompanying photo © licensed under Creative Commons