By Matan Rudner
It’s been a month since I finished my military service and I’d be lying if I said it’s been anything but utter bliss. I’ve gone to bed without setting an alarm clock, I’ve excavated clothing from my long-forgotten wardrobe and I’ve tanned for hours at the beach without a care in the world. But while I left my uniform and gun on a base far from Tel Aviv, three years of memories have stayed with me.
On Dec. 5, 2017, I was drafted to the Israel Defense Forces and began the minimum five weeks of basic training required for soldiers like me who served in noncombat positions. For over a month my fellow soldiers and I slept in tents, shot our M-16s and learned about the history, structure and values of the IDF. They weren’t the easiest few weeks, but after preparing to enlist for so long, I was happy to have finally started.
Upon completing my training, I began a course for my position and reached the inevitable bump in the road: bureaucratic gridlock that leaves so many Lone Soldiers in limbo for months at a time. Instead of continuing on to my pre-determined position, for months I bounced around the country between bases and jobs. For a while I was on the Egyptian border interacting with the Multinational Force & Observers from the Sinai Peninsula, later I answered reports from the Temporary International Presence in Hebron, and in between I spent a month sitting in offices on a base near Tel Aviv, waiting for a real job.
Eventually I ended up in the unit I’d admired since before my service — the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories. In the unit’s course, my fellow soldiers and I learned Arabic, the military and political history of the West Bank, and the day-to-day operations of our unit. It was an intense course and when it was over, I was finally assigned to an intelligence position in our headquarters, the Civil Administration of Judea and Samaria.
It was there, on a base at the entrance to Ramallah, that I spent the majority of my service, and where my day-to-day life came to resemble the classic military routine: inspection, roll-call, shoe-shining, from the barracks to the office to the guard tower and back again. For the most part, it was interesting. I enjoyed the work that I did, the conditions were fine enough, my commanders were always understanding of my needs as a Lone Soldier, and I served alongside Israelis from every socioeconomic and ethnic background from all across the country. And for an American high school graduate, I certainly gained enough experiences for a lifetime. I got to travel with my unit throughout Judea and Samaria, discovering Hebron and Shechem and Binyamin; I helped facilitate the organization of thousands of Eastern Christians who came to be baptized in the Jordan River for Epiphany; and I even got to spend 10 days on Birthright as a soldier, sharing my adopted country with American Jews my age.
Perhaps most importantly, I saw firsthand what our military occupation means for Israelis and Palestinians and my outlook on the conflict has in turn been shaped by what I experienced.
Truth be told, it was the hardest time of my life. The conditions, especially compared to those of my friends in combat positions, were fine; I always had enough food to eat, my barracks had air conditioning, and I was lucky enough to be home in my apartment on most Shabbatot. But submitting to an institution that controls every aspect of your life — according to Israeli law, soldiers are literally the property of the army — was emotional turmoil, especially for someone with pre-existing issues with anxiety and depression. And like so many others, throughout my service I dealt with an inefficient military health care system that treats its soldiers like numbers instead of human beings. It often felt like a nightmare.
It may, therefore, seem counterintuitive to say that, despite it all, I don’t regret my service for a single second. Because service in the IDF is just that: service to something bigger than myself, service to the idea that the Jewish people deserve to be free and safe in our homeland. I may have hated my life while in the thick of it, but my country needed me to serve and so I did. How it made me feel and the troubles it caused me aren’t of any consequence. I did my part and now I can reap my reward as a civilian of this country. I have the blessing to wake up every day in a country where Jews can be free. And when I see soldiers in their full uniforms walking down the street in the heat of summer, I smile to myself and breathe a sigh of relief and pride.
Dallas native Matan Rudner made aliyah in August 2017.