By Jojo Weiner
This Yom Hazikaron, as in previous years, I visited the grave of Gidon Posner z”l in the military cemetery in Kfar Saba. Gidon was born in Israel but moved with his parents to England as a child. Like me, he was a student at JFS. He and his family were active members of the shul in Edgware of which my father was then the rabbi, and our families became close. When he finished there he decided to move back to Israel, leaving his parents behind, and join the IDF as a lone soldier. He was soon drafted to the Nachal Brigade. A year and a half into his service, on a rainy night in February 1997, he was on his way to a secret mission in Lebanon when the helicopter he was in crashed into another helicopter, killing all 73 soldiers on board both aircraft.
Everyone in Israel – at least all those I’ve met – knows at least one soldier who fell during their service. Everyone has somewhere to be on Yom Hazikaron. In the days running up to Yom Hazikaron the newspapers, television programmes and Facebook feeds are filled with stories of the heroic endeavours of the fallen soldiers, dying in battle for our sake, sacrificing themselves to ensure that we may live our lives in freedom and security.
But the truth is that not all soldiers die in battle. Before the memorial ceremony in Kfar Saba began, I walked around some of the other graves to see how the soldiers are remembered. For those who died in battle, the gravestones are specific: “Fell in battle in Jenin, 2003”; “Fell while fighting in Lebanon” and so on. But most of the graves are more vague: “נפל בעת שירותו”, meaning simply “Fell while in service”. Apart from that, it was interesting to see the number of girls’ names on the graves. The stories in the online, printed and televised media almost all relate to men, as until recently only men could serve in combat units.
So who are all these invisible soldiers? Why don’t we talk about them?
In 2016, 41 soldiers died; only four of them – less than 10% – ‘in battle’, as a result of terrorist activity of some sort. The others died in motoring accidents, some in training accidents, some from illness. 15 committed suicide.
In Israel there is still a heavy taboo around mental health issues and we simply don’t talk about these things. Those who are granted exemptions from army service are stigmatised for trying to get out of fulfilling their duty to the country. The army is a place where everyone is trained to use a gun, and many carry them on their person at all times, so that lethal weapons are almost always immediately available to soldiers. To add to all of this, apart from those who serve in combat units, there are many more soldiers who serve in non-combat, often office-based positions. The army is full of jobs that simply don’t need to exist, and many soldiers while away their two or three years in boredom, counting down the days until it’s over. Many people in Israel today believe that we could live just as safely with a small, professional army where soldiers are paid properly and no one is forced to give years of their life to almost entirely superfluous jobs. But this suggestion is also taboo: the traditional Israeli ethos that promotes the ‘all for one, one for all’ attitude makes it impossible for anyone to seriously consider implementing such a radical reform.
Quite apart from that, the stigma associated with getting help in the army is powerful enough to ensure that many who require it are put off from seeking any advice at all. When I was going through a difficult period of my army service, involving high levels of stress and little time to sleep at night, the thought crossed my mind to go to the army psychiatrist. I wasn’t trying to get out of anything or be granted extra privileges; I just needed someone to talk to: someone within the system, who knew what I was going through. But one of my friends told me that if I were to seek advice it would be recorded in my file and my chances of being accepted to officers’ training course would be harmed. Of course this was not true, as I later learned, but the damage was done: I decided not to take my chances. Mine wasn’t a close call; but in so many other cases, this could easily be the difference between life and death.
But people are dying. It’s hardly surprising that every year soldiers choose to end their lives, and are able to do so with relative ease. And perhaps the saddest thing of all, as I see it, is that they are barely remembered.
Of course, I am not saying we shouldn’t pay our respects to the heroism of those who died in battle. They deserve every letter of the articles published in their memory. So this article is dedicated to the memory of Gidon Posner, who I wrote about at the start, but also to that of Amit Alexander z”l, a talented musician and skilled writer from Kibbutz Ein Hanatziv, and later a student at Yeshivat Ma’ale Gilboa, who took his life during his military service. May their memories be blessed.