The Israeli Defense Force shows that Israel’s diverse population is united in protecting the country, two IDF reserve soldiers said in a presentation Sunday.
Their tour of America, sponsored by international nonprofit StandWithUs and brought to Hillsdale College by the Students for Middle Eastern Discourse, gave an inside look into service in the Israeli military, which brings together Jews, Muslims, and others to defend Israel.
Hillsdale was the last stop in a two-week tour for Mohammad, a Bedouin Arab, and Ashager, an Ethiopian Jew, who joined the IDF at age 18 to fulfill their mandatory military service as Israeli citizens. Their last names are being excluded for security reasons.
“The state of Israel is not just for Jews. It is for my people, too,” Mohammad said to an audience of about 50 people. “We feel a duty to serve and protect our state.”
The state of Israel is nearly 20 percent Muslim, including 350,000 Bedouin Arabs, many of whom have cooperated with and protected Jews since the conflicts surrounding its founding in the early 20th century, Mohammad said.
In his three years in the IDF, Mohammad served in the Search and Rescue unit of the military. After finishing his service in the IDF, Mohammad joined the checkpoint authority and later studied political science at the University of Haifa, which has a student body half Jewish and half Muslim.
“The Arabs and Jews study side by side in the university,” Mohammad said. “This could only happen in a democracy like Israel. For me, this is Israel. Arabs and Jews work, study, and serve in the army together.”
Ashager’s family moved to Jerusalem, after experiencing persecution in its native Ethiopia, and she said her family’s story echoes that of many other families in Israel.
“You think my story is unique, but I promise it’s not. That’s why we have so much diversity in Israel,” Ashager said. “And the place you see it the most is the IDF. Everyone is coming together to defend our state. You’ll have the son of the CEO of Coca-Cola and the daughter of a cleaning lady serving together. The army is a great equalizer.”
Senior Hannah Fleming said the stories of Ashager and Mohammad helped her think about how life in Israel affects her, especially after traveling to the country with other Hillsdale students in January.
“I have a tendency to get super focused in on what’s happening here and now, but this helped me to reconnect with Israel and think about it more,” Fleming said. “I appreciated their honesty about problems like racism in Israel, but they’re open to talking about it.”
For Ashager, a former officer in a paratrooper reconnaissance battalion, the IDF is one of the equalizing — and unifying — forces between diverse groups, she said.
“People have an image of the army as militaristic, and we do what we do to protect Israel,” Ashager said. “But the other side is the people. It’s a mirror of our society.”
And this unity is necessary for a country threatened on all sides, she said.
“It’s 45 minutes from where I live to Gaza,” Ashager said. “The West Bank is an hour from Jerusalem. This is what I mean by protecting ourselves.”