This is the first in a series of stories told by former Israel Defense Forces (IDF) reserve duty soldier-students about their time in service and life in Israel, brought to you by StandWithUs and Jspace. Shir is one of 12 speakers traveling around the United States as part of StandWithUs’ 7th annual “Israeli Soldiers Tour,” putting a human face to the IDF uniform. Last names are withheld for security purposes. These stories have never before been told.
Shir’s love for world travel, exploring different societies and, of course, advocating for Israel, comes from her family. They immigrated from Yemen and Iran, and helped found the state of Israel. Now 25, she studies political science and communication at Tel Aviv University. She chaperoned teenage groups from the US around Israel and in different European countries teaching them about Israel and Judaism. Shir postponed army service for a year to volunteer with the Jewish agency and educate about Israel in Cincinnati, Ohio. She returned to Israel and was assigned to the intelligence corp of the Israel Defense Force. “It’s important to understand that we call it the defense force because that’s what we do. We defend our country and try our best not to harm innocent people along the way,” she emphasizes.
How does it feel to represent Israel in this way?
I feel very blessed to be a representative of the stand with us organization. Especially these days, when we are facing attacks on a daily basis in Israel, it is important for people to know the truth. Meeting high school and college students and community members is an amazing opportunity for me to show that we are all humans. Israel has the right to exist and we should be able to say it out loud with no fear. Advocating for Israel is a part of who I am. I am lucky I can come to the US and share my story.
Have you experienced any particularly tense moments in the IDF?
The Israeli Intelligence force collects and publishes intelligence information for the general staff and the political branch. My unit, 8200 forwards real-time notifications of potential threats or factors that constitute a danger to the residents of Israel. Thanks to the 8200, many innocent lives are saved on a daily basis and disasters are prevented.
What is it like to live in Israel?. My country is surrounded by four Arabs countries: Lebanon, Syria, Jordan and Egypt. Although we are at peace with two out of the four, there are terrorist groups in those countries. These groups such as Hamas in Gaza, Hezbollah in Lebanon and the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt want to destroy our country. They don’t care if they are killing innocent people along the way and spreading hate and fear – their goal is to demolish Israel.
In March 2010, I was in the south of Israel collecting information. An ordinary day, when suddenly we got notice of a possible real threat. Unfortunately, many of the details of this story will remain confidential to protect those involved.
An unidentified person was getting closer to the Israeli border. Was it a terrorist or an ordinary civilian? We immediately switched to alertness mode. During a shift, the department is divided into soldiers who collect the information and pass it on to their superior and the commanders who get the information and pass it along to the higher authorities and the combat soldiers themselves.
Soldiers and commanders stood ready that day. Tensions were high as the commanders ordered us to give them every little piece of information we obtained. We were facing a difficult dilemma because we still didn’t have a complete picture. On one hand, our goal is to protect the citizens of Israel and prevent terrorists from entering our borders; on the other hand, we knew that sending the combat soldiers in could cause damage and hurt innocent people from the other side.
We decided to send combat soldiers to the area while ordering them to stay still and not make any move without a specific command. When we reach the point that innocent people could get hurt and the odds were the same for Israelis and non-Israelis, we decided to follow the IDF moral code and ordered the combat soldiers not to act.
After making this temporary decision, we continued to collect data. Soon, we realized that those who entered our borders were in fact terrorists and had evil intentions and that we made a mistake by not taking action and waiting. Thankfully, the combat soldiers didn’t get hurt and there was no damage, but the soldiers in the field had to work much harder and put their lives at greater risk because of us.
At the end of each shift, we gather and prepare a report. We examine every action good or bad, ordinary or extraordinary and look for mistakes. We check whether we followed the right course and if we could act in a better human way the next time. We learn from our own actions.
When we examined our course of action, we concluded that despite the risk and factoring in that we might have been too careful not to hurt innocent people from the other side, we agreed that in certain situations, the IDF has to give the benefit of the doubt to our enemies to maintain the army DNA of one who keeps its compassion, humanity and morality above all.
What moment of your service are you most proud of?
A year into my service, I felt I wanted to contribute even more and applied to become a commander. As a commander, I guided a large grope of soldiers who, similar to Israeli society, are very diverse. One of my soldiers had a hard time adjusting to the army lifestyle. She had a rough childhood and it affected her teen years. Once I started guiding her, we not only strengthened her army skills but we built her confidence made her start believing in herself. By the end of my service, she applied to become an officer and she is still serving the IDF.
What would you like people to know about serving in the IDF?
The soldiers in the IDF go through basic training to become the best soldiers who follow the IDF values. The spirit of the IDF is a moral code that all soldiers are taught and required to follow. The IDF code of ethics has specific values such as human dignity, responsibility and credibility that are the foundation of every activity – regular or irregular. As a soldier I learned those values and later on when I became a commander, I taught my soldiers the same.
The IDF is composed of regular people, who have different opinions, who don’t always agree and more often, stand on opposite sides. The bottom line is that although all soldiers look alike in uniform, and seem to act alike because of the strict rules, behind every person in a uniform is a personality and a whole life story. The IDF proves Aristotle’s mathematical theory that “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.”