Via Wiki­media Commons

As a member of the recent Pas­sages trip to Israel, my fellow stu­dents and I got to learn a bit about Israel’s mil­itary, the Israeli Defense Forces, and listen to a panel of active-duty officers. Their stories made a strong impression on all of us.

Since we got back six weeks ago, I’ve found myself doing some heavy thinking about the IDF and the young men and women who serve in it. Which is weird, right? I mean, why should a foreign mil­itary force halfway across the world matter so much to me? It’s not even my country.

And yet it does matter. Lis­tening to those who have served or are serving in the IDF gave me a glimpse of a pow­erful per­spective that, I think, few people in our com­fortable world at Hillsdale get to under­stand. If we want to see the real con­se­quences of the hypo­thetical ques­tions we love to pose around Saga tables, we could do worse than to spend some time lis­tening to their stories.

Most young Israelis — 75 percent of men, 58 percent of women — are drafted into the mil­itary at the age of 18. Before their 22nd birthday, many of them will enter extremely hostile envi­ron­ments, be forced to make dif­ficult deci­sions, and sadly, see some of their friends and family perish in service of their country. Con­frontation with evil and warfare at such a young age makes Israelis develop a unique per­spective worth exam­ining.

Because of per­sistent security threats, Israelis are forced at a young age to make serious moral deci­sions that have very real con­se­quences.

“The IDF is an insti­tution made up from mainly young and enthu­si­astic people who are for the most part trying to do the right thing, but in certain envi­ron­ments, things begin to look dif­ferent,” said Mychal Zachariah, former IDF intel­li­gence officer and graduate student at Uni­versity of Chicago.  “I remember talking about the right thing to do in a complex sit­u­ation… You’re forced to deal with certain things that a non­mil­itary envi­ronment doesn’t make you think about.”

Freshman and IDF officer Shavit Rootman talked about the pressure that this envi­ronment creates.

“I don’t think [Israelis] have the time to think or even speak as 18-year-old Amer­icans think,” Rootman said. “There’s always this tension, always some­thing to push you into the corner… in the IDF you learn to channel this tension pos­i­tively.”

“Rejoicing in the chal­lenge” takes on new meaning when applied to these young people. We all need to listen to the stories of those who serve in the IDF, for this simple reason: Their per­spec­tives and stories make the abstract con­cepts we study very con­crete. We talk a lot about freedom, per­sonal respon­si­bility, and honor. Talking about those ideas is one thing — living them out under violent pressure is another. Sol­diers in the IDF must learn to embody these con­cepts in their daily lives, both at home and on the bat­tle­field, if they are to thrive in the chaos of con­flict.

That’s not to say those who serve in the IDF are nec­es­sarily ideal models of virtue, however. The IDF is a human insti­tution, with human faults. Nev­er­theless, the urgency of the envi­ronment and the day-to-day ten­sions of the Middle East lend the complex stories of these sol­diers great sig­nif­i­cance.

At Hillsdale, we are blessed to study alongside many American vet­erans who share the same per­spective that my friends in the IDF offered me. We should seek out those who have served in both forces and talk with them. Ask them ques­tions and listen to what they say. Become their friends, and try to under­stand their per­spec­tives. Their maturity and expe­rience will change the way you see the world, and maybe help you grasp more fully the meaning of Edgar’s beau­tiful line in “King Lear,” “Thy life’s a miracle. Speak yet again.”