A Letter To My Son The Israeli Soldier

Since I cradled you as a swaddled newborn, the countdown to this day has ticked quietly in my mind. As you grew, so my hopes echoed those of generations of parents; that the “situation” would somehow change, that there would be an end to the draft, that we could somehow avoid this relentless sucking up of the nation’s 18-year-olds into the IDF — three years for boys, two for girls — some of whom would return adults, some scarred, some not at all.

And now as the app on your cellphone marks off the remaining days and weeks, I try to reconstruct the blasé philosophy of my own recruitment; how I came to this country knowing army service was part of the package, how I could have delayed, even avoided, it, how essential a step becoming a soldier felt to my social integration here.

I marvel at the beautiful adolescent you have become; now taller than I, and more athletic, fitter and slimmer than I ever was. I take huge and silent pride in your academic achievements, excelling where I floundered, and unflustered by long hours of thought.

I smile at your cool indifference to the coterie of girls who flit around your orbit, and I feel your frustration at having to shift your forward gears into neutral for three years in uniform. While your age-group peers around the world are leaving school with thoughts of gap years and university, of sex and drugs, of freedom and experimentation, you my son will be guarding bases in the dead of the coming winter nights, stripping and cleaning your weapon, verifying ID cards at checkpoints, and who knows what other activities too dangerous to contemplate. As your English cousins throw rucksacks and laptops over their shoulders, from yours will hang an M16 semi-automatic rifle. The same rifle your mother learned to shoot as a girl, and the same one I brought home to her on leave.

And you wish you didn’t have to do this, and I wish the same. I look at how this place is changing and how things stay the same, and I am afraid. I fear for you and our family, for your generation, for the country.

I know when we say goodbye, unsure when we will next meet, that I will feel a stabbing in my heart; the pain of a father acting against the instinct to protect his child. I felt those pangs at your circumcision, I felt them peering through the kindergarten window when you searched for a familiar face, I felt them when I myself answered the call to reserve duty, leaving my still-young family behind. And now in my mind, as I prepare to hand you over, I see you at the gates of the base by which we must part. I see your embarrassed smile as I embrace you and kiss your softly bearded cheek. I see the tears in your mother’s reddening eyes, and as you turn away with a cheery wave, I wonder what value any of this really has.

The future is always around the corner but it never stays for very long. Yet, and yet, I see a budding dictatorship taking root in our desert midst. It lashes out freely at its critics, helps itself to ever-larger portions of land, and forces opponents — and only its opponents — to reveal sources of finance. I see cultural funding allocated on the basis of the political leanings of the artist or performer. I see interference in the freedom of the press. I see the supporters of a professional football team openly decry the recruitment of players of the “wrong” beliefs.

And as you prepare to answer your country’s call, I wonder just what this country is. Who are these people that are taking you from me? My son, I hope you can find your own meaning in the coming months and years. As for me, I am afraid.