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Jewish Journal

L.A.‘s Hidden Battalions

by Sheldon Teitelbaum

August 9, 2001 | 8:00 pm

(From left) An Israeli soldier instructs Miriam Fischer of Germany on the correct way to aim M-16 automatic assault rifles at a basic training camp for tourists in the Negev Desert's Sde Boker Army Base.   Photo by Natalie Behring

(From left) An Israeli soldier instructs Miriam Fischer of Germany on the correct way to aim M-16 automatic assault rifles at a basic training camp for tourists in the Negev Desert's Sde Boker Army Base. Photo by Natalie Behring

High-power Israeli Defense Force (IDF) squads have been traveling to choice tourist destinations worldwide this summer, but not for vacation.

According to reports on Y-Net, the Web site for the Israeli newspaper Yediot Ahronot, the squads were scouting projected sites for recruitment stations. These recruitment stations, said the report, would go up either in consular offices or at Jewish schools and community centers in cities such as Frankfurt, London, Paris, Bangkok, Bombay and Johannesburg, as well as New York and Los Angeles.

Led by IDF adjutants with the rank of lieutenant colonel, the squads were asked to work with local consulates to devise mechanisms and procedures for the emergency recruitment and airlifting of Israeli reservists sojourning abroad. Israelis reporting in would be directed to special Tel Aviv-bound El Al flights. Seats aboard flights would be accorded to volunteers, based on their respective army backgrounds and the needs of the army at the time. Upon arriving at Ben Gurion Airport, returnees would be directed to special kiosks, where IDF Manpower Branch personnel would process orders and attach stragglers to units.

News of these activities and plans caused a stir in Israel and abroad because, according to the Washington Times, they seemed to offer "the most concrete indication yet that Israel is preparing for a wider conflict in the Middle East."

But Meirav Eilon Shahar, Israel's Los Angeles consul for communications and public affairs, told The Journal that reactions to what remained a routine attempt to devise a "consular structure" for emergency wartime recruitment were completely "out of proportion to the reality."

Contacted for media follow-ups, the IDF spokesman's office emphasized the routine nature of the adjutants' activities. "This conflict has been going on for a long time, and there's always a chance for deterioration," said one officer, "so this is part of the readiness. But we're not defining this [series of expeditions] as marking a change of something in the current situation."

In addition, Dr. Zvi Elpeleg, a senior researcher with the Jaffee Institute for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University and a former Israeli ambassador to Turkey, said, "Neither I nor most of my colleagues and associates envision the eruption of a regional war at this time. Such a conflict would be the last thing our neighboring states need or want."

Dr. Ephraim Inbar, director of the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies at Bar Ilan University in Ramat Gan, said the IDF doesn't believe escalation is imminent. "The opening of recruitment centers was planned well in advance, and [is] part of the realization that many reservists go abroad immediately after the army, particularly from the combat units." Inbar has been quoted as saying that there are as many as 18,000 potential combat reservists traveling through India at any one time.

Shahar said that Israel, over the years, has expressed varying degrees of interest in the mechanics of reaching, recruiting and returning the many battalions of young Israelis who wend their ways around the world after putting in their compulsory two or three years of service.

Los Angeles, with a permanent Israeli population of 150,000, according to consular estimates, attracts many such wayfarers, who often stop here for short periods to replenish their finances before continuing on to the next leg of their world travels.

According to estimates given by the Jaffee Institute and other sources, anywhere from 3.5 percent to 5 percent of the IDF's entire combat reserve potential can be found at any given time traveling abroad. During Ehud Barak's tenure as chief of staff, though, the emphasis was on making a smaller, smarter, more dynamic army; interest in this potential wellspring therefore declined.

Now, according to reports in the Hebrew press, the standing army finds itself with far greater numbers of recruits than it wants or needs. Exemptions from service are far easier to obtain than previously, and the stigma attached to evading service is minimal.

This surfeit of manpower does not seem to extend to the reserves, however, which may explain the sudden interest in Southern California's hidden battalions. In Israel these days, the burden of duty increasingly seems to fall unevenly on the proportionately fewer backs of combat reservists.

And if recent surveys are to be trusted, many of them are none too happy about it. One poll conducted earlier this summer indicated that some 44 percent of combat reservists feel like "suckers" for complying with this arrangement.

The IDF's response has been to seek ways to reward those shouldering the greatest burden. Earlier this month, for instance, following a potential strike by Air Force combat pilots seeking the same kind of life insurance available to members of the standing forces, the IDF extended policies to all members of the reserves. Substantial pay raises, meanwhile, have been meted out to combat-ready soldiers both in the standing army and the reserves.

Whether such enticements appeal to Israeli Angelenos, however, is doubtful.

Certainly, older residents, who may have families and the normal array of familial and financial obligations, will find it difficult to simply up and go, even in a full-scale call-up. Nor, according to Shahar, would the army have much use for them.

"Anyone who hasn't served in a combat unit for 10 or more years probably wouldn't be accepted into service anyway," she told the Journal.

One potential recruit for emergency service is Amir Blachman, a 29-year-old Brentwood resident. Blachman, who if not called up will be starting studies at UCLA in the fall, was born in the United States to Israeli parents, and was raised in Southern California. He volunteered to complete national service during his early 20s, though, and spent two and a half years in uniform as an Air Force instructor at a Southern airbase. Only a day before returning for a personal visit, Blachman told The Journal that in an emergency call-up, he'd jump aboard the first plane that would take him.

"I wouldn't say that this would be everyone's response," he said, in light of the talk he's been hearing at Friday-night kaffee-klatsches over the summer. "There are people who are here who are just burned out from the army and Israel, as well as people who may have put down roots and could not easily leave their homes and families. I won't judge them, any more than I'm prepared to judge American Jews who won't visit Israel now because they are concerned for safety. I just know that I'd have my bags packed in an hour."

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