For Israeli teens, the call to serve

Draftees: Weeks from high school graduation, 17-year-olds look toward military service with questions and trepidation.

April 30, 2002|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

JERUSALEM - Ori Vainer is a muscular high school pole vaulter who morosely jokes that he doesn't have to worry about the future because he will end up in a military cemetery.

Adam Schwartz yearns to follow in his father's footsteps by becoming an army medic, even though his dad warns him of the perils of war.

Hamutal Gur, like her fellow high school seniors, no longer goes to movies or cafes. She avoids riding buses. She dutifully calls her parents each time the thud of a bomb and the wail of sirens echo in the city.

Ori, Adam and Hamutal, each 17, are two months from graduating from Givat Gonen School, one of Jerusalem's best. Spring will bring final exams, a low-key graduation ceremony and a night of senior skits when students can poke fun at their teachers. Maybe also an exotic vacation, to Greece or Turkey.

Those things would be familiar to their American counterparts: Study, celebrate, relax, then prepare for the next step. In the United States, it is college or a job. For seniors at Givat Gonen, it is the Israeli army.

Ori, Adam, Hamutal and most of the other 107 seniors will trade textbooks and baggy jeans for weapons and army uniforms. The men will serve for three years, the women for 21 months.

It is an assignment they have long prepared for, through a battery of fitness and psychological tests and classroom discussions. But they are trying to come to grips with being soldiers when the country is beset by a war within earshot.

"We live the news," Hamutal said.

Their turn to serve

Israel's military, the Israeli Defense Forces, is replenished yearly by draftees out of high school and bolstered during crises by reservists whose skills are honed in annual training.

What has changed is the kind of battles the military fights. The wars of independence and survival have been succeeded by a frustrating struggle against guerrilla fighters, suicide bombers and a Palestinian population enraged by Israel's military checkpoints and invasions.

Israeli high school students watch and await their turn. A year ago, Adam thought seriously of becoming a conscientious objector, but now he wants to soldier in the West Bank, where fighting between the army and Palestinian gunmen has been fiercest.

"In the last few months, I see this as a fight for our existence," he said.

Ori is more skeptical.

"This conflict has no conscience," he said. "I come from a family where we don't think land is worth dying for. We don't think it is worth killing for."

These high school seniors might wear the same clothes, go to the same films and listen to the same music as their counterparts in the United States and Europe, but they seem to grow up faster. They live in a country where battle lines are blurred. And students are encouraged to discuss the moral choices they might face when they don military uniforms.

About 60 percent of Israeli high school seniors enter the military. Israeli Arabs, about 20 percent of the age group, are not required to serve. Another 20 percent gain deferments. Ultra-Orthodox men attending yeshivas, schools for religious study, account for about half of those deferments.

War on their minds

Hamutal dresses like many teen-age girls here - in black shoes with thick rubber soles, chic black pants and a white shirt. Her designer glasses frame an expressive face. A teacher, impressed with her spirit, called her a "holy one."

One of her great-grandfathers emigrated from Poland to Palestine at the start of the last century, when Palestine belonged to the Ottoman Empire; two grandparents arrived in 1946, when Palestine was ruled by Great Britain, two years before Israel became a state. So Israel is undeniably home - her parents' home, her grandparents' and great-grandparents' home. It is also an undeniably difficult place to live.

"Every morning, I am getting up and seeing that someone is getting killed," she said. "I don't feel safe anymore."

At school, everything seems familiar, even safe. Givat Gonen is housed in a three-story building amid low-rise homes in a gentrified neighborhood. Security gates ring the campus and guards are stationed at the entrances. In the courtyard, a synagogue rises next to a basketball court.

The school hallways are decorated with plants and colorful art. In the main office, a picture of assassinated Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, a winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, hangs on the wall.

And there is free-flowing talk, classrooms echoing with laughter.

War is very much on the mind of this generation, and students have questions about service and survival.

Some of those questions are answered by Asher Barnea, a history and civics teacher with a soft manner that belies his experience as a paratrooper who served in Lebanon.

Barnea was one of 11 children in a family that emigrated from Morocco in 1963. For a year and a half, they lived in tents. Part of their climb here came through military service, a glue that holds Israeli society together. Barnea and his five brothers all served.

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