His Uniform, My Responsibility

A friend has volunteered to drive. He'll drop us off in a suburb outside Tel Aviv, near the entrance of the Israel Defense Forces induction center. My son and I will talk, with our eyes on our watches, and I'll hug him, and he will swing his duffel bag over his shoulder and walk in. I'm writing beforehand. You are reading this after the event.

For my son, as he has described his feelings, that gate marks the precise physical location of the end of childhood. For me, it marks the end of the countdown that began with his birth. It is the line between one type of anxiety and another, shaded in a deeper gray.

Let me add quickly: I'm not writing about physical danger. After enduring all the army tests that Israelis his age undergo instead of filling out college applications, he has received an assignment that isn't likely to include being shot at. But it's militarily important and imposes that small, weighty fragment of responsibility -- like a speck of an ultra-heavy radioactive element -- that an individual soldier bears for what an army does.

Indirectly, I know that I actually imposed that responsibility. It is the end product of a chain reaction that began before he was born, when I made the decisions to live in Israel, rather than in the United States, and raise children here. After I arrived as a student, one reason I stayed is that Israel was a place where political passion never went out of fashion, where strangers argued politics on the bus, where it was rude to phone a friend during the evening national news because the news mattered.

Now, because of one of those parental decisions that predetermine a child's life, my son is becoming a soldier. This is the moment when politics -- of Israel, of the Middle East -- becomes absolutely personal. And he is getting his olive-colored drabs just as Israeli politics are turning particularly nightmarish.

For my friends in America, army service and the expectation of one's child serving are the most alien parts of Israeli life. In a very schematic history, it seems to me that "army" has had three meanings among most liberal Americans my age. Our fathers passed on the memory of joining up in 1942 or 1943, when doing so was scary but morally uncomplicated. They were defending their country; the enemies were evil. When we were high school students during the Vietnam War, the draft was a hostile act of our own government, which threatened to snap us up and send us to fight in a war without reason. Afterward the U.S. army went all-volunteer.

A generation later, I listened from abroad to the debate about invading Iraq. In the educated middle class, the argument usually sounded intense but abstract: Supporters of the invasion generally did not imagine their children under fire. Even committed opponents did think of their sons and daughters as conquering distant cities. Their opposition was real, but not quite that personal.

Understandably, my American friends can think about the Israeli army just as abstractly. At the height of the second intifada, I had an argument with an American Jewish professor who was on sabbatical in Israel. It was after services at my synagogue, and each of us had a teenage son listening to us tangle. The visitor recommended the anti-terrorism strategy that Alan Dershowitz had just suggested: razing a Palestinian village in automatic retaliation for each terrorist attack. I asked if he would agree with Dershowitz if his own son had to pull Palestinians from their houses. He insisted that he would. To me, this was evidence that he did not look at his son's face and imagine a draft date rushing toward him. Then again, I find equally arid the question, which I've occasionally heard over coffee in New York or Los Angeles, as to why my son doesn't declare himself a total pacifist and refuse to serve.

Among most Israeli Jews, as much as I can weigh a whole society's views, the attitude toward service is close to that of my father's America, but amplified, adrenalized. The enemies are real and near and would rid the world of us, were it not for our army. The fact that Arabs have made peace with us, starting with Egypt in 1979, is directly due to their recognition that they cannot dislodge us. Military service is not quite as universal as it once was. But for Israeli Jews -- except for those in the self-segregated ultra-Orthodox community -- it remains an assumed stage of life.

Since the first invasion of Lebanon in 1982, a minority has grown that holds another, more complex view. At its foundation remains the consensus: We are under threat and need a military. But atop that foundation is a layer of recognition that the army is also used for political purposes of questionable efficacy and morality. It is used not only to stop terrorist attacks from the West Bank but to defend settlements. Some methods used to prevent terrorism have become collective punishment of Palestinians in occupied territory. In Lebanon in 1982, the army was used in pursuit of Ariel Sharon's megalomaniac dream of regime change. In Gaza, very recently, the military was unleashed, but without achievable goals. The army would have less to do had negotiators been allowed to do more. This is an abbreviated history; I could add much more.

Those who have refused to serve as a matter of principle have mostly been reservists called up for duty in occupied territory. Being older, and being civilians most of the year, they find it easier to formulate a critique. They are explicitly, firmly selective in their conscientious objections. In 2002, two years into the second intifada, I wrote about members of Courage to Refuse, a movement of reservists. Their leader, David Zonsheine, was a lieutenant in the paratroops, a combat vet, and a former leader. Speaking to me, he argued intensely for universal service. But he no longer believed that he was defending his country by maintaining the occupation. His critics on the left said that an individual soldier could not untangle what part of his task was defending the country and what part was defending the occupation. And they argued that selective refusal was a dangerous attempt to politicize the military. The struggle to end the occupation had to remain within civilian politics, they argued.

So I will take my son to the induction center. I have to hope that his task will be made up of what is essential, not what is objectionable. I also know that the relative balance will be determined not by him, or even his commander, but by those who sit around the Cabinet table.

This will not allow me to relax. The outgoing government, under the supposedly centrist Ehud Olmert, set loose the furies in Gaza. The new government will be led by Benjamin Netanyahu, whose rhetoric is built from fear and the fantasy that the military can solve all problems -- and in relative terms, Netanyahu will be the moderate in the coalition of aggressive rightists he is putting together.

In the interregnum between the two governments, my son is getting his uniform -- receiving his chance to serve and his burning sliver of responsibility. The burden of political activism he leaves to me, to his mother, to our friends, to the failed parties of the Israeli left. Never has the need for political change seemed to me so personal, so demanding, so out of reach, and so immediately necessary.

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