It is a lovely experience to sit with a favorite teacher again after many years out of their classroom, and Rodef Shalom congregation provided that opportunity for myself and several other local rabbis by bringing Dr. Paul Liptz to Pittsburgh as their scholar in residence this weekend. Dr. Liptz is an esteemed teacher of political science in Israel who has taught a full generation of rabbinical students at the Hebrew Union College’s Jerusalem campus about the intricacies of Israeli- Arab relations and geopolitics in the region. He has also been a leader in Israeli Defense Forces education unit teaching officers about the history, culture and ethics of the Middle East. A native of Zimbabwe who immigrated to Israel the day before the 1967 war broke out, Dr. Liptz is one of those teachers for me who brought a subject alive for me in a way that I remember and draw upon in my own teaching work. He made Israel not just a historic place of religious study for me but a living, complex geopolitical state in a convoluted part of the world. His passion as a teacher and for his subject brings it from an analytical topic to an active, organic reality. I credit studying with him for helping to develop my affiliation with Zionism to a deeply integrated sense of place in the world body politic.
While studying with him recently, he mentioned that Israel is one of only two militaries in the world with dedicated education units like the one he serves in. The other is Russia and that unit is a holdover from the Soviet Union era when political indoctrination was part of military service. This fact fascinated me both as a former reservist and as an educator. Israel's education corps serves a variety of unique roles in that country including:
• assisting commanders in educational programs
• preparing teens for their military service
• incorporating and advancing minorities and special communities
• values and Spirit of the IDF
• the IDF in a Jewish and democratic state
• developing leadership skills
• immigrant absorption
• heritage and culture
• IDF history and knowledge of Israel
• completing education degrees and language mastering
• military media
Israel shares population challenges similar to the United States in that it is a nation of immigrants. In the US though, our military is voluntary so an applicant without minimum English language skills or other educational requirements can be rejected as unqualified. Israel's military though is not only compulsory but a critical dynamic for social integration in Israeli society. In the US, only 1% of our population serves in the military at any given time, but in Israel roughly 55% of males and 45% of females serve a mandatory three year enlistment and this includes new immigrants. (The remainder often are exempt by law from service such as Ultra-Orthodox Jews or Israel-Arabs or for various other reasons.) The Israeli army has therefore been a place where new immigrants or poorly-educated ones receive language training, social studies and other knowledge in order to not only be able to perform well in the military but to be able to function in Israeli society too. They recognize that they have a social service role and take responsibility to educate enlistees for success in Israel itself and not just the Israeli army. This is such a different mindset than we have here in the US where the military relies on the public schools and universities to educate citizens, including new immigrants, and then competes with other employers and opportunities for their participation after graduation.
Israel's education unit plays a very important role in compensating for the realities of human development in its enlistee too. In the US, military officers must complete a bachelor's degree for eligibility under most circumstances. That means a new officer comes in to the military at 23 or so already having been trained as a critical thinker and hopefully an ethical one as well. In Israel, officers still rise through the ranks and postpone college until their mid to late twenties since they will be serving in the military reserve for several more decades. (Dr. Liptz mentioned an encounter with an American officer once who marveled that Israeli officers have twice the rank at half the age in comparison to American officers.) But there is a challenge in having such young line officers in that they may be asked to make exccedingly difficult decisions in battle that are exacerbated by their relatively little adult life experience and education. The IDF's education unit conducts trainings for these officers in ethical and moral decision-making as well as problem-solving in battle in order to compensate for their inexperience. While an American officer might have undergone similar hypothetical exercises as a matter of course in a philosophy or other social science course as an undergraduate, an Israeli officer equivilent in age to an undergraduate has actual lives under his command and the dilemmas being faced could easily be very real on their first unit assignment.
At its core, the IDF Education Corps is in the business of adult education and does it with a very unique population and under very unique circumstances. A tip of my kippah to Dr. Liptz and his fellow educators in the IDF - they are proving every day that education is a critical component in the success and survival of not just Israel's military but each Israeli in it.