In desperate search for recruits, Israeli army targets foreigners

It used to be the kibbutz and its images of fruit picking and communal living that attracted streams of Jewish volunteers to Israel. Now many are looking for a different kind of service, one involving pre-dawn starts, a dose of boot camp and the very real possibility of some frontline action.

A new organisation is actively recruiting scores of non-Israeli Jews, many of them American, to serve in the Israeli army as it faces threats on multiple fronts in a region largely hostile towards it.

"We feel that Israel is fighting for its life," said Jay Schultz, the executive director of Aish Malach, a new Israeli body set up to help foreigners enlist. For many, he said, "this is the right thing at the right time".

While their peers may be easing into university life or setting off on their world travels, Israel's foreign hopefuls are more likely to be wriggling through muddy streams or jumping over walls.

A rigorous six-week boot camp weeds out those not completely committed to a year of military service. Aish Malach is putting its first intake of 20 youngsters through their paces this month before placing them in selected units. Once in, the recruits could be deployed to frontline combat units guarding Israel's volatile borders or to the occupied West Bank, where Israeli troops are often violently pitted against Palestinian civilians.

"They [the army] will send them where they need them. If they say 'Go to Rwanda', you go to Rwanda. If they say, 'Go to the border of Lebanon, you go to the border of Lebanon'," said Mr Schultz.

At present, a little over half of all Israelis are conscripted into the army for a mandatory three years straight after school, while some non-Jews from the local Bedouin and Druze communities serve as well.

Not all relish it, though, and many are able to obtain exemptions on religious or medical grounds, while others simply refuse to serve for conscientious reasons.

Meanwhile, many Jews living abroad are anxious to serve, often motivated by solidarity with a country that is increasingly isolated for its draconian policies in the Palestinian territories.

For years, many failed to navigate the bureaucracy and left disheartened. Some did complete the paperwork while others skipped the process entirely by making aliya – the formal process of taking Israeli citizenship.

Steve Rieber, a 24-year-old from Los Angeles, described how he tried to sign up. "I had been looking around, office to office, to sign up for the army," Mr Rieber said in comments quoted by the Jerusalem Post. "They sent me here and they sent me there, and it got so ridiculous. I eventually ran into a buddy of mine who was joining [Aish Machal] and he told me to join." In part, Aish Machal, which also offers foreigners the opportunity to do community service, sees itself as reaching out to "lost" Jews, those who have become distanced from their Jewish roots and assimilated into other societies. "We know that when you get a Jew to fight for the Jewish People, you connect him to his People for life," reads a section on the organisation's website.

Mr Schultz dismissed the potential pitfalls of an American teenager swearing allegiance to Israel on the one hand and the United States on the other.

"The United States and Israel are friendly allies," Mr Schultz said. "I don't think there are any more problems with loyalty than if somebody volunteering in Mississippi goes to Ghana with the Peace Corps."

Case Study: 'Since I was a little kid, I've been fascinated by Israeli soldiers'

Yaakov Kroll Kroll was just a normal American teenager studying at a community college in Los Angeles when he decided to take up the opportunity to serve in the Israeli army, which had long held an attraction for him.

"Since I was a little kid, I was fascinated by the Israeli soldiers," the 20-year-old told the Jerusalem Post. "I never thought twice about it, I always knew I would do this. And, honestly, I could not be happier right now."

Like his fellow recruits, Kroll always felt a deep attachment to Israel, given his Jewish roots. He barely thought twice about the perils of serving for another country thousands of miles from home.

Ultimately, he said that he felt his attachment was stronger to Israel than to the United States.

"I'm an American, but at the same time, I'm also a Jew," he said. "So if I'm going to take a bullet for somebody, when you get down to it, I'm going to take it for a place I'm more connected to."

Kroll, who wants to serve in a search and rescue unit once he completes his basic training, plans to return to the United State after a year to complete his studies.

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