Israel is a revelation. Though we’d read about the country for years and formulated many opinions (“There must be a two state solution!”), we never truly understood the complexities and the nuances of the country until we stepped foot there. (As a side note, we are beyond impressed how Obama struck such a perfect tone during his visit there and threaded the needle with such unsurprising precision.)
While we delayed our visit by a couple months because of rising tensions in the region, we arrived into the bosom of many passionate intellectuals, going about their lives without anxiety or fear, each with unquestionable love for their country, and (if we might read subtly between the lines) the slightest glimmer of hope for a better tomorrow.
Israelis live with an existential reality that the rest of the world doesn’t possess. Because the country was born from the horrors of the Holocaust — an explicit program to exterminate the Jewish people — the Israelis possess the notion that at any moment their country could cease to exist. As Americans, we have our share of anxieties, but none of them include the idea that one day there could be no more America. This existential reality is part of the Israeli DNA, it explains the oversize personalities we encountered, the passionate way in which they live, the fierceness in their voice when they talk about their homeland, and the tight knit bond they feel with their countrymen.
We met many young men and women who were either in the midst of their compulsory military service or on the verge of heading off to the army. Their mothers were full of trepidation just as any military mother would fear for the safety of their children. But the military — the required service that every Israeli must complete (except for the Ultra-Orthodox, another story in itself and the root of many current domestic arguments) — the military is the remarkable key to not only Israel’s military strength, but it is the thread that weaves their society together and makes the country such a special place.
In the U.S., because we are not required to sacrifice years of service to our country, we live in our bubbles. The wealthy in America go from private schools to private colleges, generally keeping social and professional relationships in a narrow sphere. But the compulsory military service in Israel takes every eighteen year old in the country and tosses them into the same stew. Rich and poor, northerners and southerners, kids from Tel Aviv, kids from Jerusalem, and kids who grew up on kibbutz all unite for a common experience, sleeping in the same barracks, enduring the same daily anxieties — which creates a country bound by common experience. This impressed us beyond words.
We don’t believe, at this point in our history, that compulsory military service is required in America. But watching the example of Israel and the way these two years of forced integration and co-habitation bind generation after generation, we are inspired that compulsory national service — be it helping to build infrastructure, build schools, teach, participating in government or charity — would be an incredible and invaluable thing for our own country. That was our first takeaway from Israel.
And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Welcome to the Middle East.