Since the Israeli Defense Force’s inception in 1948, foreign enlistees have flocked to the country in search of service. These soldiers have become known as “Lone Soldiers”, a term referring to their lack of immediate family within Israel. Lone soldiers have taken part in every major war fought by Israel, and consistently number in the thousands. Freelancers has secured an interview with an American lone soldier, currently training to become a member of the IDF’s 35th Paratrooper Brigade. His name and some details of his service have been omitted for security reasons.
Welcome to Freelancers. What led you to join the IDF as an American?
I joined the IDF as a lone soldier, meaning I have no immediate family living within Israel. I joined because I believe in Israel’s right to exist and to fight against radical terrorism. I was also inspired by stories of other foreign volunteers and lone soldiers. I want to make clear though I’m not a Baruch Goldstein. I truly believe we can all live in peace regardless of ethnicity or religion.
Have you been able to make yourself at home in Israel, and how have you found the country so far?
I feel at home, native Israelis are very welcoming and accepting of Lone Soldiers. Many programs are set up to help us transition and contribute to Israeli society. The program I went through consists of having a group of similar aged people draft into the IDF, while also making aliyah (moving to Israel and becoming a citizen). They set you up on a special kibbutz (kibbutz are basically small villages where everyone chips in, from farming, to construction, and to cooking) where you live for a year or for your whole service if you so wish. They also recommended me to a Hebrew school. There are more local programs within Israel that give benefits and support to lone soldiers, whether it be a shabbat dinner or employment networking.
How easy is it to join the IDF as a foreigner and did you receive any visitations/attention from the US government beforehand?
Fairly easy if you are and can prove you’re Jewish, and are within the age range, with no mental or physical disabilities. They take 18-23 but if you’re older it’s not impossible you just really have to fight to get in. If you don’t know any Hebrew they’ll send you to Hebrew school called Ulpan. I did not get special attention, at least not that I know of.
How’s the average day to day life of an IDF soldier?
Boring lately, everyone’s freaking out about coronavirus and everyone’s flights to their home countries got cancelled. In regular times, usual PT stuff, running, roll call, etc. But lately just guarding.
Any interesting or funny stories from your service so far?
Nothing too exciting, shower room antics, scorpions in tents, standard military stuff. During one of our jumps someone’s parachute was checked and was found to be defective, so the whole jump was cancelled. Annoying for everyone, but he didn’t get killed so it’s all good now.
What sort of training is required to become a paratrooper in the IDF?
Paratrooper training is lengthy. It lasts about a year, training consists of Krav Maga (military martial arts discipline created by the IDF), reconnaissance, weapon mastering, field survival, and jumps. Then at the end we have to complete a 50km march to get our berets.
Were you given the IDF para’s famous red boots right away or are they issued post-graduation?
Red boots are given at graduation. I’m training in black boots right now as I’m not a para yet.
What’s with the IDF beret shapes? (folded on both sides vs. on one side). I’ve observed both but don’t entirely understand when one or the other would be used.
Beret shapes are just an Israeli thing. It’s entirely down to the unit’s traditions on how they wear them. The Givati Brigade’s beret is purple just because the first commander’s daughter loved the color purple.
Are yarkits (four-pocket tunic) worn during operations or just in the barracks?
Just a barrack piece.
Is it uncommon to see an Arab of any Abrahamic religion enlisted in the IDF?
The Druze volunteer in the IDF even though they’re not required to. They’re a minority in Israel but over 95% of them enlist.
How much freedom are you allowed to choose/use your own equipment, and did you bring any personal equipment?
Depends on the unit. Our term for tacticool stuff is ‘wassach’. I brought my own Eotech optic that I had on my AR-15 from the US.
What rifles are the paras currently using, and do soldiers tend to prefer any particular weapons system?
M4’s. Most people don’t like the Tavor because of the awkwardness of reloading and lack of an adjustable stock. I prefer the M4 because it’s what I’m used to.
What would you say the effective difference between para and non-para IDF is?
You could think of us as an equivalent to the US Marines, always the first in. We’re all put through basic leadership training which the other units don’t get so it’s definitely a step up. If shit hits the fan we’re all prepared mentally and psychologically to adapt and take control. Different culture too, we’re almost circlejerky and the rest of the IDF makes fun of us for being gay, but we’re also highly respected with an extensive operational history, so take it as you will.
How much have you had to/not had to deal with the stigma of fighting for such a controversial military, especially as a foreigner?
In Israel most people either don’t care or will love you for it. Outside Israel, people either don’t care or will hate you for it. I’ve travelled outside of Israel with my American passport to avoid any confrontation or questioning. I mostly keep my service to myself but I’ve heard of some people getting harassed for it.
What do you see as the greatest threat to Israeli security right now?
Hezbollah. They’ve gained a lot of experience in Syria and are armed and trained by Iran. Our politicians can’t even form a government after 3 elections. Hamas and Palestinian terrorism are really the small fry, it just gains the most attention and serves as an opportunity for combat deployments. The next round of proxy warfare between Israel and Iran will be devastating, God forbid.
Who would you say most Israelis support in the Syrian Civil War?
Majority of Israelis do not support Assad, nor do they support the rebels. Sympathy goes towards civilians. Many Israelis are in support of an independent Kurdistan and see Turkey’s invasion as particularly concerning. Israeli-Turkish relations are not the best so to speak. We don’t like the Assads, but we like jihadists even less. It’s really down to who’s the lesser of two evils for us.
There was an article published recently by Haaretz about IDF marksmen on the Gaza border. It was interpreted by many readers as demonstrating a desire to wound or kill protesters, rather than disperse them as they are supposed to. What are your thoughts on this article, and what is the general sentiment towards Palestinians in your area?
I also saw and read this article. I am not a marksman, nor have I been deployed yet, but I can say with confidence that many in the IDF do not share this sentiment. The sanctity of human life is drilled into us, through military training and even in Judaism and Israeli society. Palestinians live and work among us, we live and work among them. All of us want peace. We all want to live a happy and full life. Unfortunately it is the extremists, whether they be Palestinian terrorists or Israeli politicians, that continue the conflict. We do not hate Palestinians, just terrorists. Casual racism is very much the norm however, it’s just something that has been instilled in native Israelis that have lived through the intifadas and the worst of the terrorism waves. This is mainly amongst the older generation however. Younger Israelis are much more progressive and accepting. Israelis in more rural areas and that are closer to the West Bank and Gaza probably have a different opinion. This may be sort of a generalization but more rural areas are less educated (worldwide I’d say), so they’re less accepting of things they don’t know. Areas that are closer to Gaza or West Bank feel the brunt of Palestinian terrorism more frequently, so are more inclined to be racist or non-accepting of Palestinians Arabs.
Well, that’s all of the questions we have for you. Is there anything you want to say to wrap things up?
My message to readers would be to look at the Israeli-Palestinian conflict like they do other conflicts. Through multiple angles and through different views. Just like they don’t believe everything they see on TV about Syria, do the same for Israel, and for everything else. I don’t want to break it down so simply (because it isn’t), but you must remember that both sides just want peace and somewhere to live where they are accepted. A few take it to the extreme and the majority suffer.