It was David Ben Gurion, Israel’s first Prime Minister, who said that the Israel Defence Force (IDF) was not just the means of defending the country but was also a powerful force for developing Israeli society.
Since the beginning of the State, huge numbers of immigrants arrived on Israel’s shores from all over the globe. They had to learn a new language, find housing and employment and adjust to a completely new way of life.
Various means were employed to help them integrate but by far the best method of absorbing the newcomers proved to be when they were able to join the army. This acted as an effective ‘social leveller’, reinforcing the egalitarian principles upon which the country was founded. Today recruits from all backgrounds go through lengthy training procedures and develop social identities that transcend their previously held attitudes from different social and economic groups.
Army service is the time when lifetime friendships are forged and skills acquired that lead to wider employment opportunities. In addition an informal network provides for preferential treatment to former soldiers in the job market.
Nowadays there are a few Israelis who choose to leave the country to avoid National Service. However 80% of Israel’s young people still recognise military service as a duty that they are willing and proud to undertake.
At the age of 17 they undergo a series of tests to assess their profile. This determines their suitability for the various roles in the army. The highest profilers become fighter pilots and parachutists. At the other end of the scale are the ‘Jobniks’ who perform more basic tasks.
Sadly however, there was a category of youngsters who, through no fault of their own missed the opportunity to serve in the army, such as those classified as having ‘special needs’.
Such teenagers with hearing or sight impairment, or with physical or mental difficulties, grew up already aware that they were not the same as everyone else. At the age of 18 they saw their friends and contemporaries join the army, while they themselves were turned down. This left them with a strong feeling of rejection and a lack of self-esteem.
Fortunately in 2004 Colonel Ariel Almog had the vision to found a project to integrate these youngsters into the IDF on a special four-year voluntary program during which time they played a valuable role in the service of their country. At the end of this period, it was noticeable how much more easily they were absorbed into the workforce of the community at large.
Colonel Almog’s project, called ‘Great In Uniform’, demonstrated how much the IDF benefits from the contribution of these special youngsters.
Jobs are allocated according to an individual’s ability. Those with autism prove to have a unique talent for focusing on electronic maps, being able to identify even the smallest changes, an activity that most non-autistic recruits would find difficult. The IDF Intelligence Unit has had significant success thanks to the singular contribution of their autistic soldiers.
Regular soldiers take pride in the achievements of their ‘special needs’ group who become a welcome addition at a number of military bases. In turn the advantage to the recruits is inestimable. Their confidence grows as they realise they are genuinely making a difference. As Major Motti Dayan explained “They are an inseparable part of our unit, just like any other soldiers”.
For some, joining the army may be the first time that they leave home alone, but they quickly learn to become independent and adapt to their new roles. As with other soldiers they follow educational programs to learn the values of the IDF and tour the country learning its history.
Towards the end of their training they embark on a special trek that culminates in the ceremony when they receive their berets. It was deeply moving for me to see their evident pride when they put on their beret for the first time and saluted their commanding officer. For them and their watching families this represented the culmination of a dream many thought could never be realised. Said one recruit “I’ve been waiting so long for this. It will remain with me for the rest of my life”.
To see the joy of these soldiers and that of their families made me appreciate the value of this unique project. It enables this ‘special’ group of people to achieve their potential, gives them dignity and the chance to hold their heads high and feel equal amongst their peers. This is an aspect of the IDF that, sadly, is largely unknown outside the country.