Monday, April 25, 2016

Left-wing activists pile onto the Israel State Archives

Prequel: I warmly recommend reading my previous post, from a month ago, before reading this one. (Clearly, I don't blog often). That one was about how a left-wing NGO called Breaking the Silence and its defenders claimed that its working relationship with Israel's censor proved there couldn't possibly be anything wrong with BtS. A delicious irony to keep in mind as you follow today's installment.

A while ago I read William Doyle's The Oxford History of the French Revolution. Besides the good overview it gave of the events, I came away with an interesting thought he presented near the end of his tale, about the motivations of the Jacobins. Once people shed their allegiance to  traditional modes of thought and belief, and began to pride themselves on their pure rationalism, they often came to believe that their own understanding of the world, being rational, was the only possible one, and eventually, the only legitimate one.

Which means replacing the old systems with a new one made no-one any more tolerant. Instead of burning heretics at the stake, they guillotined them; the progress was in the decreased amount of pain inflicted upon the non-believers as they died.

Recently I've seen an example of the righteous indication of some of our own Jacobins from close up (no executions were involved, thankfully). It began when I announced, in February, that the approaching launch of our new website would mean the end of ordering paper files to the reading room. The catalog would be online, along with millions of pages of the scanned files; readers interested in seeing files we hadn't yet scanned would order them online and we'd upload them as quickly as possible.

The response, I admit, surprised me. There are any number of serious problems to the way the Israel State Archives (ISA) has functioned over the past 60 years, with the result that access to the documents is limited. No one ever took me to task for most of these deficiencies, and the staff and I have been laboring to correct things not as a result of public pressure but because we see tremendous room for improvement; we have been fortunate in convincing the powers that be in the relevant ministries that although the correction will require significant funds, it must be done. Launching the new website was to be the first time the general public would begin to see the improvements we've been laboring on for a number of years.

Well, within a week of announcing the imminent changes I was inundated by complaints from researchers, perturbed that those of them who regularly come to the reading room in Jerusalem would soon be required instead to remain at home and use the Internet. Assuming it was all a comic misunderstanding, I invited anyone who was worried to come to a meeting where I'd present the new website and answer any questions. (The website was already online at an unmarked URL). We spent a number of hours discussing the issues, at the end of which one of the researchers announced that he'd been convinced: it's a magnificent project you people are doing, he said.

Well, no. The campaign of letters of complaint grew, and soon was spearheaded by some of our NGOs. One sent me a six-page legal letter admonishing us, then wasted no time waiting for our response and leaked the document to the media. The thrust of the argument: 1. Nothing can replace the value of paper ind if we try we're effectively hampering historical research in Israel; 2. The fact that some security-related documents will be submitted to the censor will likewise be the end of free inquiry (never mind that this is the law, and isn't actually new). 3. The authorities will inevitably use this new ability to control who sees what to ensure the "wrong" people don't see the "wrong" documents.

No recognition that most of the documentation isn't open, and the entire effect of our actions is to open some of it immediately online, and the rest of it ASAP, while prioritizing the materials requested by readers.

On the day the new website limped online (I expect the teething problems to continue for another few weeks - this isn't a simple operation) the media swung into action. Haaretz went first. Then came 972 Magazine, online home for Israelis who really don't like most things their country does. Both writers had requested to talk to me, and neither had waited until the bureaucracy authorized me to respond. Once I did, the fellow at 972 found we're actually not as evil as he'd first reported, though interestingly his Hebrew-language report on our conversation was subtly more positive than its English-language version.

The kerfuffle soon attracted the attention of non-Israelis. Dan Williams of Reuters demonstrated the difference between journalism and activism, carefully talking to people and assuring he had the facts right. His report was considerably more balanced; he didn't find a tale of the Israeli authorities out to muzzle free inquiry but rather a tempest in a tea-cup.

The prize for Jacobinism went to a group of notionally professional and cool-headed American academics: the Middle East Studies Association (MESA). I saw no indication that anyone there reads Hebrew, nor made any attempt to contact me to learn what was going on. I don't think they even visited the website they were so robustly damning. They must have been contacted by some of our locals who cannot be bothered by nuance in their dash to damn us, and from these informants they gleaned a hodgepodge of data to draw the most damning indictment on what we're doing which they then publicly castigated us for.

The benefit to their intervention was their willingness to publish my response. So now there's an online, English language description of what we're doing, at the MESA website, and also on the ISA blog.

Ah yes - and the website itself, warts and all, is here. From now on, things will only improve.

Saturday, March 26, 2016

A comment on Breaking the Silence

About 10 days ago Channel 2 TV, Israel's most popular channel, aired a longish report claiming Breaking the Silence (BtS) investigators are not limiting themselves to collecting stories from IDF veterans about ugly IDF behavior, but have branched out into what looks suspiciously like gathering general military intelligence. Following the ensuing uproar Minister of Defense Moshe Yaalon tasked the relevant agencies to investigate. At some future date - easily weeks from now, perhaps many months - we'll hear either that the investigators found nothing worth criminal process, or that they did.

Lots of folks aren't waiting for either scenario to happen, and are using what we already know to bash their political foes, one way or the other. Much of this is predictable, and lacks any real value while convincing only the convinced.

One strand of the argument, however, has been a bit startling, and to my mind, noteworthy. This is the claim made by BtS defenders that the organization can't be doing anything wrong since all its publications go through the censor. (Here's an example of the genre). It's an odd line of defense, as the allegations were that BtS is collecting classified information, not publishing it; the mere collection, if proven, might be criminal - a matter I'll leave firmly for the experts.

The reason I'm blogging on this however, in spite of my obligation to stay firmly away from political matters, is that it shines a fascinating light on the IDF, on BtS, and on Israeli society.

In a better world, Israel wouldn't have a censor at all. In that world, Israel would be at peace. In the world we're in, Israel has never been at peace, and does have a censor. The censor's activities, however, are closely observed by the Supreme Court, and it's staff do their best to leave as light a footprint as possible, and to block as little information as possible.

Breaking the Silence, meanwhile, presents itself as a brave organization which stands up to Israel's establishment, especially it's military establishment, so as to tell its citizens (and the rest of the world) about the moral price its soldiers pay to maintain the occupation.

Or perhaps it's not so brave? For it turns out that everything it tells, it tells after it has gone to the censor (a military outfit), and the censor permits. One assumes (I haven't tried to check) that occasionally BtS goes to the censor with an item which for whatever reason can't be made public, and then BtS remains silent.

So where, pray tell, is the bravery? What silence exactly is being broken? Whatever BtS tells, it's not things the IDF wants kept secret, since the IDF could use the censor to keep it so; or conversely, even when BtS has an unpleasant story to tell, the IDF doesn't silence it. Rather than brave dissidents, perhaps we're seeing a military establishment which is open to public scrutiny to an admirable degree, and a society which supports the IDF, supplies occasional soldiers who dislike what they see, and enables them to publicly tell their tale and even take it on international roadshows?

That would mean it's not a tale of the moral damage occupation inflicts on Israeli society, but rather one of many methods Israeli society uses to try and preserve its moral standards.

Sunday, March 13, 2016

On Jeffrey Goldberg on Barack Obama

If Twitter is to be believed, there's been a bit of interest in Jeffrey Goldberg's 70-page article in The Atlantic on President Obama's foreign policy doctrine. Since I expect lots of better informed folks are having their say about it, I'd like to come at it from what I fear may be an unusual angle: the importance of story-telling.

On the simplest level, Goldberg's piece contains a story about his unusual access to this president. There can't be many others who repeatedly interview the president one-on-one, and then are given the chance to spend six hours over an extended period and in various places so as to write one article. Goldberg's not going to have that kind of access with President Trump or even President Clinton - tho for a while there he seemed to be laying the ground to create it with President Christie. Wasted effort, that.

 In a nutshell, the story Goldberg tells about Obama, and probably the story Obama wished Goldberg to tell, is that whatever he once was, nowadays Obama is a cerebral and calculating Realist, who will do what it takes to protect America but won't use military force for anything less - and whose definition of what threatens America is quite narrow; he also takes care not to be swayed by emotions or by public opinion trends, preferring to concentrate on rational interests - America's, and everyone else's.

This ends up highly unsatisfactory, to my mind. Start with the ideas Obama himself is influenced by, according to this article. He and Goldberg have both read Hobbes. They've probably both read Samantha Powers on genocide. They both allude to, and perhaps have both read, Huntington's Clash of Civilizations. Yet when they turn to formative stories from which to draw wisdom, their metaphors all seem to come from Hollywood. The Godfather. Batman! And of course, Star Trek, from which Goldberg draws the concept that Obama is Spokian, while too many voters may be Kirkian.

Surveying their philosophical reading list, there's no indication they've read Huntington's student, Francis Fukuyama. Which is regrettable, as Fukuyama could have explained to them that tribalism isn't a retreat from rationalism by frightened and benighted folks who can't clearly see their own best interests, which seems to be how Obama and Goldberg both understand it. Rather, tribalism is an ancient, venerable, and very powerful principle of organizing society, with a far more compelling attraction than modern enlightened humanism or democracy; in many societies it's the default, not some cheap populist escapism.

The Hollywood part is more troubling. It wasn't always so. The other day I spent some time watching Robert F Kennedy speeches, and was struck by the ease and naturalness with which he quoted Classical writers. Here, watch him doing it in an unscripted speech when announcing Martin Luther King had just been assassinated. Educated men throughout the West could do that for many centuries, up until just recently. Obama and Goldberg are of the first generation who can't, and their substitutes are pale, a thin gruel indeed.

Yet the deeper significance of the replacement of ancient story-tellers with ephemeral ones from Tinseltown is that no matter how rational we tell ourselves we are, how coolly analytical of interests and dismissive of emotions, it's ultimately stories we turn to, when called upon to understand the world around us.

And that, to my mind, is the profound flaw in the Obama Doctrine as Goldberg so ably describes it. That it overlooks the true power of stories to trump cool analysis (pardon the pun).

If you've been following the current chapter of violence in Israel, you'll be acutely aware of how it's all about a clash of stories, with Israelis and Palestinians seeing quite different stories when watching the exact same news reports. The 30-years-war currently engulfing the Arab world is about stories, not interests. The collapse of European smugness in the face of refugees with radically different stories is itself because of stories. The rise of Putinism is all about a story, not calculated interests at all. Does anyone think the Iranians are listening to the same stories the Americans are?

Anyone who has ever watched an advertisement on TV should be aware of this.

Thursday, February 11, 2016

The lack of proof of Israel's crimes proves the crimes

Last week I was e-mailing back and forth with Prof. Donna Robinson Divine of Smith College about an upcoming academic event. Along the way we detoured into a discussion of the sorts of things one can hear these days at academic conferences. Prof. Divine has given me permission to post the relevant segments of our correspondence for public consumption:

The panel on Israeli Archives at the American Historical Association meetings placed a great deal of emphasis on Yishuv period and on the War of Independence with one panelist actually stating that if she and others had access to the documents, they might be able to show that policymakers planned the displacement of Palestinians.​  Then, she added that if they could prove that a so-called policy of elimination [of the indigenous read Palestinians], they could secure the return of all the refugees in accordance with international law.
Whoever the panelist was, she was not adhering to the truth. By and large, the documentation of that period is open. All she needs to do is come and use it. And if there's a specific file which has been sealed – here and there, there are such files – she should request of the State Archivist that he look into the matter so as to open it.
The documentation shows very clearly that there was no such policy. Since that's the case, she's reverting to falsehoods. In essence what she's saying is that although the record shows that what she wishes were historically true isn't historically true, she's claiming that the record must be wrong; and the reason the record must be wrong is that the evil Zionists are falsifying it.
I summarized the view of one of the panelists, but alas, she was not the only person in the room or on the panel expressing that view.  Some of us in the audience--through q and a--tried to restore the balance [...] The American Historical Review devoted one of its recent issues to an exchange of views on archives and that was the theoretical framework deployed by the chair of the panel. From my reading of the field of Middle East Politics [US, England, Canada] the people who embrace this kind of so-called intellectual perspective are the ones gaining tenure and academic prestige.  It is probably worse for the academy than for Israel but I am committed to do what I can try to reverse the course.
So, to summarize: it is now acceptable for a panelist at a prestigious academic conference to claim that the lack of documentation of Israeli crimes proves not only that Israel committed the crimes, but that it's being devious and hiding the documentation. This, at a time when the archives are open, the documents in them have been searched exhaustively, and they do not support the thesis the academics wish they would support.

The archives in Israel have lots of problems. I spend all my professional hours on trying to fix them. (Watch this place to see some interesting and significant reports in early May). The claims made by the unnamed panelist are simply not true. But Israel's detractors don't care about facts, They care about hitting Israel. Which means that they aren't engaged in "legitimate criticism of Israeli policies", to use the standard phrase, but rather in something quite else. Antisemitism springs to mind.

Update: Dr. Divine sends in a comment on the aftermath of her encounter with researchers who blame Israel in spite of, or even because, there isn't any evidence for their thesis. It gets even worse:
DRD: After completing the Archives Panel, I turned to finish another of the panels I developed on the topic of the 'settler colonialist perspective'. I asked some of the very people who embrace this view of Israel--and who charge Israel with denying them or those adopting this view access to relevant archives--to participate in a panel that would interrogate this approach. In fact, with one particular person, I pointed out that there would be archivists at the conference holding out the possibility of determining whether or not Israeli archives are indeed 'open'. The academician who already has charged Israel with denying access to those challenging the country's legitimacy refused my offer because of a strong commitment to the boycott movement. Charge Israel with denying access and then prove it by ever refusing to gain access. Wonderful!


Today was the 19 anniversary of Israel's most lethal military accident, when two large transport helicopters flying troops into Lebanon collided, killing all 79 personnel aboard both. This morning I listened to a radio interview with a bereaved mother, talking about her beautiful son who should have been 40, but died at 21. As happens in Israel, she's still in touch with many of her son's mates (that's the closest thing English has to the Hebrew word Chevreh). Yes, it can be very painful to watch them go through life, but in a strange way it's also comforting: this is what Avi might have been; this is the stage he would be going through; these are the things he would have been doing, or thinking, or saying.

Asked if it ever still happens that she'll see a stranger on the street who resembles Avi, she  stumbled for a moment. Once, she said, as I was driving, suddenly in the back seat of the car in front of me there was a young man who seemed just like Avi. I never arrived at wherever it was I was driving to; I just kept on driving behind that car.

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

תפקיד בכיר בארכיון המדינה

אני מעלה פוסט זה לכמה ימים בלבד, עד שתוקפו יפוג בעוד שבוע.

ארכיון המדינה מחפש כרגע מנהל אגף ציבור, תפקיד מקביל למנהל אגף ממשל שאוייש לפני כחודש. מדובר בתפקיד חדש, שהוקם במסגרת רה-ארגון כללי שבוצע בעקבות שתי החלטות ממשלה שהגדירו מחדש את תפקידי ארכיון המדינה על-מנת שיתאים למאה העשרים ואחת.

מנהל אשכול ציבור ינהל את כל פעילות הארכיון הקשורה בהוצאה של תיעוד מן האוספים אל הציבור, כולל חשיפה של תיקים רגישים, קיטלוג בשיטה חדשנית, הפעלת אתר אינטרנט חדש שתוכנן כך שכל חומרי הארכיון יוכלו להיות מוצגים בו, שירות קהל עדכני למצב החדש, ועוד כמה פרוייקטים גדולים. על מנהל האשכול להיות איש (או אשת) תוכן, אבל גם בעל יכולת ניהול מוכחת. עליו או עליה להיות מסוגלים לנהל תהליכי שינויי מורכבים, עם צוות מגוון מאוד של עובדים.

מדובר באתגר גדול, מסובך, ומאתגר מאוד, עם רמת עניין גבוהה ביותר.

פרטים אפשר למצוא באתר המכרזים של נציבות שירות המדינה. על המועמדים להגיש את מועמדותם בתוך שבוע.

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

This is what long-term education to hatred will do (Update)

We're about two weeks into a period of intense Palestinian attacks against Israelis. Just today three Israelis have been murdered. The names haven't been published yet, but they were all killed in civillian contexts: taking a bus, walking down the street. Yesterday the victims included a 13-year-old riding his bike near his home. He was stabbed by two cousins, one of whom was 13 years old himself.

Palestinain society sends itself into spasms of bloody and murderous irrationality from time to time; at the moment the present case doesn't seem the worst of them. Yet what's striking about this time is the age of the culprits. If in the second Intifada there were hundreds of suicide muderers and would-be-murderers, most of them were young adults, and they mostly had some sort of organization behind them. Someone had to give them an explosive belt and drive them to their target inside Israel. This time many of the attackers are teenagers, some even young teenagers; and since they're using kitchen knives, all they need is access to their mothers' kitchens.

The pundits will pontificate on their motivations. Israel's critics will say it's all about the occupation. Israel's enemeis will say it's about Israeli brutality and general evil. The historians wil probably not have unravelled it many decades from now, and they, like the pundits, will find comfortable pat explanations.

The part that impresses me is the public atmosphere forming the minds of Palestinian teenagers. In order for significant numbers of them to be willing to be killed for the chance to stab an Israeli, they must be steeped in hatred to a degree most Western pundits can't even recognize. Many westerners don't even accept the reality, let alone the legitimacy, of the concept "enemy". These young Palestinians seem unable to accept the reality, let alone the legitimacy, of their common humanity with Israelis. For this, blame their parents and grandparents and society at large.

Spend decades telling yourself, your children and your grandchildren that Jews have no legitimate reason to be here, and that now they're here they spend their days cooking up nasty ideas about how to be cruel to Palestinians and destructive towards Islam, and eventually this is the result you'll end up with.

Thought experiment. Imagine you're a typical teenager. (Most of us were, once upon a time). If you don't know Arabic, spend a solid month reading only Mondoweiss commentaries and its comments section. Don't expose yourself to any other source of information. At the end of the month, see how you feel about Israel and Jews. (They're by and large interchangeable even at Mondoweiss). Now, once you're well-disposed to feel negative, imagine it hasn't been a month, it's been every day since your birth, and the birth of your grandparents. The echo chamber isn't limited to a website, it's your entire world. And you yourself either know people who've been harmed by Israelis, who are always and exclusively motivated by the urge to harm Palestinians, or at the very least you know people who know of them. And you've been trained never to ask what the Israelis were responding to, because Israelis don't respond. They always initiate persecution of Palestinians.

And now, imagine that recently your whole world has been telling that the Jews are about to destroy the most sacred spot there is, and they've upped their malice and are shooting people on your side because that's the way they are.

End of experiment.

Update: Avi Issacharoff, one of the few journalists who really knows what he's talking about and also has something interesting to say, thinks the current violence is mostly the result of incitement about the Temple Mount. The Palestinian leadership and media have been convincing themselves Israel is about to harm the mosques, and their followers are convinced they must defend it. Assuming he's right, or even if he's only partially right, it begs the question How stabbing Israeli civilians might possibly be a way to defend Al-Aksa Mosque.  More significant, to my mind, it's a perfect example of irrational hatred. Israel isn't about to harm the mosques. Simply: Not. No question about it. Which means that a pile of Palestinian public figures and their followers are lying to themselves and each other, convincing themselves and each other, and then setting off to to kill Jews because of the lie.

Which has of course always been standard antisemitic behavior, centuries before Israel began building settlements. Centuries before there even was an Israel, for that matter.

Sunday, October 4, 2015

Tova Herzl's Madame Ambassador

Tova Herzl's fun new memoir Madame Ambassador - Behind the Scenes with a Candid Israeli Diplomat, intended to answer three questions. What do diplomats do when they go to the office (explicit question), Are Israeli diplomats any different (explicit), and What did she do (implied question). Along the way she also answered two questions of mine (one explicit, the other implied).

Full disclosure: Tova and I have known each other since we trained as tourist guides together, many years ago. How many? Lots. Neither of us had launched our professional careers at the time, and look, Tova has already written a fine memoir about hers. At one point in her memoir, however, she talks about how being a transient diplomat means loosing contact with many second-tier friends, which is kind of generous of her, since the losing of social ties can be a mutual activity, even when one doesn't keep changing countries. Still, for all our travels and travails, we're still in touch, and I watched Tova struggle to find her voice in writing this book, and occasionally made what were probably unhelpful comments about this section or that. All the more reason, then, to tell of my delight when I finally sat down and read it, cover to cover.

So what do diplomats do? They work hard, apparently, and none of us ever give them much thought. They apparently need to know just about everything on the land they serve in, and the land they serve, and make as many useful connections as possible. They're required to smooth all interactions between both sides, so that a crass but acceptable joke made by one non-diplomat doesn't ruffle too may feathers of the other side. They need to ascertain the visiting politician doesn't get stuck in traffic, and that their own elected leaders understand how their actions will be seen by the locals they're interacting with. They need to know which idiotic local journalists need to be slapped on the wrist and which should be shrugged off. How to dress for which social event, and what needs to be achieved there (and what not). How to relate to all the other diplomats in town, some who are friendly and supportive, others anything but. They deal with economics, trade, and development, culture, politics, sport and science.

They need to do this intensively, then pick up and move elsewhere and start all over again in a new context. Moves which carry with them much promise and new opportunities, but also the jettisoning of significant baggage from the previous chapter. Unlike software coders or social media marketers, ultra-sound operators or bloggers, none of whom existed 50 years ago (OK, a handful of coders calling themselves programmers did already exist), diplomats have been around for centuries. All the more startling, then, that such a Diplomacy for Dummies handbook hasn't been written until now; if you read it, it's reasonable the knowledge you'll acquire will still be up to date after you complete the reading.

Are Israeli diplomats different? Any universal story must be grounded in the particular before it can be of general interest; any diplomat must represent some country in some other country. Yet Tova's story does have particular Jewish and Israeli and Arab parts. Being the daughter of Holocaust survivors representing Israel in the Baltic states, for example. Burying Michal Franklin, a beloved niece murdered by a Palestinian suicide murderer in 2002, while representing Israel to an overtly pro-Palestinian South African regime and society. Balancing the positions of the Jewish State and the local Jews. Visiting an Arab ambassador of Israel in a nearby country, however, was a welcome respite, as he kept kosher, as part of his understanding of his job. So there was that.

The book is organized in a series of short topical chapters: presenting credentials, working the media, life with a bodyguard, using the diplomatic post and so on. (Interestingly, there's nary a word about any sort of intelligence matters. Maybe there weren't any). Yet as we progress, it's also a memoir, giving us Tova's personal story, which is interesting as any Israeli active in the first century of the Jewish return to history.

Then there were my two questions. Right before the end of the book, Tova tells of her friend Yaacov who wondered if an Israeli who knew the language and closely followed all the electronic media couldn't know as much about the country without having to be an ambassador; perhaps the entire profession has become an anachronism? Tova's specific response is unconvincing: she tells how much she knows about Israel which a distant Hebrew-speaking observer would miss out on: that wasn't my question. There are many non-Hebrew-speaking diplomats in Israel who are no better educated about us than distant Hebrew-speakers. Yet coming as it does at the tail-end of the book, her specific response isn't necessary. The entire book has by that stage refuted the assumption of my question. It turns out that diplomats do a real job, and if you're interested, this book will demonstrate what it is.

It has also answered a question I've been toying with for a number of years - first formulated, by the way, by Tova herself: Might I wish to be an ambassador? Some ambassadorial posts go not to career diplomats but to others. There are about two of them which I might, at least conceivably, have a shot at if I really wished, given my rank, qualifications and connections.

It would mean doing the job she has described so well, parts of which I would like and parts, not at all. Just like real life. It would also mean additional years of not speaking my own mind, and of representing the system. This is hard enough where I'm currently at, and would be too tedious to try anew anywhere else. That' however, is a subject for another day.

Monday, August 17, 2015

The passage of forty years

I first arrived in Israel late in the afternoon of July 16th 1967. I knew enough about the country not to expect camels and desert everywhere, but it did seem fitting that our first view from the windows of the plane was of sand dunes. By the time we exited the terminal it was dark, and we climbed aboard a taxi which had no air conditioning so the warm evening wind blew in through the open windows. The road up to Jerusalem was probably two lanes, but it wasn't crowded. Most Israelis  didn't own cars in those days. I remember it snaked up down and around, hugging the contours of the Judean hills; I also remember that we passed though a number of towns, and there were lots of people out on the streets, enjoying the respite from the heat of the day. Eventually we reached Jerusalem, and the cab driver had to ask directions to our destination, a hostel-like place in Kiryat Hayovel.

I especially remember the feeling of exuberance in the air. A few blocks from our destination the cabbie pulled up in front of a group of people sitting around a camp fire; a young boy rushed up to us and shouted in excitement "We won! We won!" Two blocks down a young woman also expressed delight in the victory, before directing us around the corner.

It was a month after the Six Day War.

I flew into Israel on the 16th of July this year, too, late in the afternoon. The sand dunes are all gone, covered by housing projects of 15- or 20-story residential towers. (There probably weren't more than two such buildings in all of Israel in 1967). The towns are crisscrossed by broad multi-lane highways, all of them clogged with vehicles. On the road up to Jerusalem we didn't enter a single town; the highway stays out of them all. Arriving in Jerusalem we saw no dancing groups of celebrators. People don't do public celebrations on hot summer evenings anymore.

48 years have seen a lot of change.

Forty years ago today, on August 17th 1975, I enlisted in the IDF.

The IDF in those days was still reeling from the Yom Kippur War. A year earlier recruits were reportedly given three choices upon enlistment: they could join the tanks, or the tanks, or the tanks. By the time I arrived people were volunteering to the paratroopers and being sent to the one or two other infantry units, but most people went into the armoured corps. Most of the army seemed to be there in those days; once there they served either on the Golan or in the Sinai. The enemy was Egypt, or Syria; I never had a single military encounter with Palestinians in my entire three-year stint - or for that matter, in my subsequent 30-40 months of reserve duty spread over the next 25 years. I had an officer who was certified as being shell-shocked, and a company commander who wasn't certified but should have been.

The first evening in the recruitment depot Evyatar and I crawled out under a fence and went to find a public telephone to call home. Being 18, we weren't afraid of fighting or dying; but we were apprehensive about sharing tents and training with the loud and rough-looking soldiers from parts of society we'd never interacted with. I suppose they may have been prickly about us, too, but we didn't see this at the time. Doing first rounds of kitchen duty was frightening: we were ordered around by soldiers who seemed to delight in our sense of apprehension and disorientation.

It was hot. It was strange. It was radically different. We had boarded the bus in Jerusalem cocky with the sensation that we were joining something big and important; now it looked mostly foreign and disconcerting. And l-o-o-o-n-g! Three whole years! In this?! Three. Whole. Years. Would we ever return to a normal civilian life, such as the one we'd just left so blithely behind?

Yes and no, in retrospect. We did, of course, because three years isn't, actually, very long. We didn't, in many ways, because by the time we got out we ourselves were very different.

That first evening, in a hot tent on a prickly blanket on a steel-frame cot was one of the most important points of my life. The thing is, I knew it at the time, too - and yet I didn't. Donning the ugly and uncomfortable olive uniform and clunky boots gave us the feeling of now being adults, citizens, contributors to society, lords of our destiny. And also hopelessly young and inexperienced, rookies, untested and insignificant cogs in a large machine which didn't at all care about who we'd been so far. We knew we were on the cusp of one of life's biggest adventures; we didn't have the slightest inkling of what we were facing. We knew we were setting out on a rite of passage; we didn't comprehend the rite or where we'd pass to. The system was reeling after war, and it looked solid and impregnable; we were over-confident and exuberant; ignorant of what we'd be called upon to deal with and what growth we'd be required to perform.

Evyatar eventually made it all the way to full Colonel. I climbed up to first sergeant. Yet each of us and all of us really did acquire a personal confidence based on achievement and the satisfaction of successfully coping, functioning in the system, and mastering its requirements. By the time we walked out, we really were adults, citizens, contributors to society and, oh yes, lords of our destiny to the degree this is granted to mere mortals.

And a good thing, too, because the country was changing. From two-lane roads across sand dunes, to highways between hi-tech development centers; from the simplicity of singing around a campfire on a hot summer evening to the complexity of a multilayered, multifaceted society smack in the middle of one of the world's most volatile regions. There is more than one path we can take in life, and more than one direction society can move in. Our ability to participate in the way we have, to contribute in the ways we've managed, to own our society for better and for worse, were profoundly forged by what followed when we woke, for the first time, in those hot ugly tents on the morning of August 18th 1975 to face our first full day in the army.