This is the ninth in a series of stories told by former IDF soldiers about their time in service and life in Israel, brought to you by StandWithUs and Jspace.com. Ilana is one of the 13 soldiers on StandWithUs’ 6th annual “Israeli Soldiers Stories” tour, which had two legs in 2014: February 16-March 1 and March 30-April 14. Email campus@standwithus.com or highschool@standwithus.com for more information. Learn more here: http://www.standwithus.com/campaigns/soldiers/

Ilana, 24 presents a different side of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) than combat, a side most people don’t know about, even some Israelis. She was an officer in charge of the welfare of combat soldiers. She looked after the well being of hundreds of soldiers, identifying and solving difficulties and offering support. Army service became the inspiration for what Ilana wants to do, which is continue to help under-privileged people achieve a better life. When not studying for a degree in international relations and media at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, she volunteers in a Lone Soldier’s center for soldiers whose families are not in Israel.

1. What unit did you serve with in the IDF and why did you serve there?

I was my own version of a social worker. I wanted to give back to my community by working with soldiers who needed help. After visiting their homes and families to deepen my understanding of the issues, I found ways to provide the needed support. This included financial, educational, psychological, medical and social. In other words, I was given the privilege of taking care of those who were taking care of me.

I was very moved by the sacrifice Lone Soldiers make: they join a different way of life, they postpone college and they don’t have family to go to on Shabbat and holidays. This is a community that needs to be supported and embraced so they never have to feel different from any other solider.

I worked intensively with many different populations such as Druze, Bedouins, Christians, Jews, etc. Despite this colorful arrangement, the differences are not felt: all soldiers receive benefits from the army. There is a freedom of religion in the celebration of the various religious festivals and respect for dietary and cultural restrictions.

2. Can you share some anecdotes or stories about active duty that illustrate what life was like?

One of my soldiers Tespa, was an Ethiopian Jew who came to Israel as a young boy. His name means “hope” in Amharic. His mother named him after his father was murdered by bandits during the perilous journey to the safety of Israel. He was thrilled to give back to the country that provided him a safe haven.

One Friday, I heading home for Shabbat, keeping an eye out for Tespa, who was always quick to wish me a good weekend. I noticed him at the kitchen door, receiving bags of food from the army cook. Pressing him gently, Tespa finally revealed his bleak situation.

His mother, a single parent was struggling to finance the family. Tespa dropped out of high school  help support his 8 siblings, including a brother confined to a wheelchair. I went home with him that night to assess what kind of help was needed.

Entering Tespa’s family home, I saw a small, empty apartment. Basic furniture was missing. There were only 3 beds for the 9 children. The refrigerator was almost bare. There was no heat.

We went immediately into action. Together with his commanders, we ensured that his family received monthly grants of money, food packages, and basic furniture such as beds and heating ovens. His fellow soldiers were so touched that they organized a fundraiser to pay for the little brother’s medical procedures.

The IDF is not just about defense of Israel. It is also about friendship and empathy. The camaraderie these soldiers share, and the values inspired in them, raise these 18 year-olds to be moral and conscientious young adults. The IDF moral code, which we are all taught and keep in our soldier ID card’s throughout our service holds the value of human life above all others, and is what motivates these young people to help others.

3. What motivated you to speak about your experiences on this tour?

I was raised on my parents’ stories, who made Aliya from England because they felt a deep connection to the state of Israel. I always felt pride and achievement in my country, but realized there is a disproportionate gap between reality and world perception of Israel. It’s unfair. I realized that its not enough that I know, it needs to be explained to others.

4. Have you received any pushback? How do you deal with difficult situations like that?

On a number of U.S. universities, anti-Israel people asked provocative questions. The most important thing is to remain calm. People are passionate about their beliefs, you it best to just explain that you are here to dialogue and give them a perspective the may not realize. If thy are reasonable, they will listen.

One one campus in San Diego, California, we spoke during the Public Comment period of a divestment resolution brought in front of the student senate. After, Yishai and I headed to our scheduled talk at the Hillel House. Members of Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) who introduced the divestment resolution and spoke out against Israel, also walked there. There was a planned walk-out, but we convinced them to stay. Rather than stage an empty demonstration, let’s try to listen to each other and maybe make some headway. They agreed! We were able to answer their allegations with facts, and some were surprised to learn how many IDF soldiers are deployed delivering social services to poor communities, both Jewish and Arab. After, we walked them to their cars, continuing our dialogue.

5. What message do you want people to take away from your story?

The Israeli Defense Force is built of the Israeli people, which is why it is a mirror of the diversity in Israeli society. It’s not just soldiers on the front lines. It’s a diverse multi-cultural society comprised of multiple religions and ethnicities. These are real people.

The IDF is a necessary framework because Israel’s existence has been threatened many times. The IDF is used optimally – to instill morals, a sense of pride in your country, a desire to give back and the importance of fighting for it. Each soldier learns cooperation, friendship, unity and caring. They become the future leaders of Israeli society.

.ORG-Connection: StandWithUs is dedicated to informing the public about Israel and to combating the extremism and anti-Semitism that often distorts the issues.

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