Saturday, 26 March 2011


Who would've believed it? After everything I may have said in the previous blog, last Wednesday I was officially accepted into commanders' course and successfully started 'makim', which is what we soldiers call the course. So, for the next three and a bit months, I will be based on this army base in the south, where I will learn how to be a class commander of a combat brigade in the IDF.

It's still quite unbelievable for me to think that I have actually gone to makim. Doing commanders' course has always been something that I was interested in doing but it never seemed like a realistic outcome for a number of reasons; including the fact that I am only doing a two and a half year service and also because I am generally a lazy soldier and not particularly suited for makim. However, I packed my bags and arrived to the new base last week, and am absolutely thrilled to be starting this new and exciting part of my army service. Before leaving the preparation for makim at the tzanchanim training base, a number of high ranking officers came to speak to us about the journey we are about to start. For some of those going to mkaim now, it could be the start of a long army career (for me, two and a half years is more than enough!) and going to makim is the first line of 'tafkid' (having a position in the army). That's why makim is quite a big deal as it is the initial stepping stone in qualifying the next generation of those who will lead our army in the coming years. This is what those who spoke to us tried to drill into our minds; that someone needs to take over the reigns of the army when this generation of officers retire. Personally, I haven't and won't ever consider making a career out of the army, despite that an army career gives you a degree, good pay and, most importantly, a meaningful line of work, but there are those who are with me now in makim, who may be the next head of Tzanchanim or Golani. For me however, I just want something different with my life but it is still an absolute honour that I have been chosen to go to commanders' course as part of the service I am giving to the army.

Being in commanders; course means I need to wear a new shoulder tag... It's definitely much uglier than the tzanchanim one!

So the day I had been waiting for arrived and we were sent to the base for makim, in order to see if we would be going to the course. To my absolute shock, my name was called out, as opposed to a couple of others who were not accepted. The reason why I got in was probably down to my fairly good performance during the whole of the preparation course and that being a lone soldier always has a good effect on everything! So I got to my new base and like it normally is when you arrive to somewhere new and strange, the first day is kind of depressing, since you don't know where anything is and don't know anyone either. In the first couple of days of the course I was like a walking frown, missing my friends in Gaza and the life of kav in general. The biggest thing was probably the shock in the change of conditions; from being in a nice, heated room with six of my friends, where I had my own personal space and wardrobe, to being in a wet tent with 16(!) strangers, with no personal space whatsoever. Like all things though, I got used to it quickly and being in tents for the next three months will definitely be an experience. The 16 "strangers" are now good friends and I will get to that in a bit...

The course itself is ok, the biggest annoyance is that it is very much like a "rosh shel tironut" (basic training thinking) i.e. lots of standing on time and inspections, something that I haven't done in nearly a year. Whereas most of the guys have just come out of adavanced training (Aug '10) and are babies in the army without any experience in the gdud, I am a year and a half in the army already with six months of kav Gaza under belt. This is another reason why it was surprising that I got into makim, as they usually don't send guys as old as me (army old as opposed to age) into commanders' course. I have got used to the basic training feel of the course already and understand that the reason it is like that is because a lot of these guys will end up being commanders of basic training themselves. I won't go into too much detail of what we learn during the duration of the course as some of it is beyond public knowledge, but I will try and let you know what the course entails on a basic level. This week was mainly an introduction to the course and the entrance exam consisted of a written, shooting and fitness test, where I managed to secure a personal best of 7:40 seconds in the 2km run. We also had a lot of lessons this week, some of which I can't talk about and other stuff; where we learnt about how to be a commander on a day-to-day basis, dealing with you're soldiers' problems, teaching them lessons and passsing health & saftey procedures. This week was also Purim, which was one hell of an experience, as you'll see in the video at the end...

Being in a tent is horrible...

The best part of makim, without a shadow of a doubt, is that it combines soldiers from all over the army. The commanders' course is for all infantry soldiers, so in my 'tsevet' (team) there are guys from the five regular infantry brigades (Tzanchanim, Golani, Givati, Nachal and Kfir), as well as one from the Druzi unit and one from the Bedouin unit. This means that each tsevet is a real melting pot of soldiers from all the different units in the army and results in, what can only be described as constant banter, jokes and friendly rivalry between the units. Each one is totally loyal to their own brigade and this results in 24/7 arguments about who is better, who had a harder 'shavua milhama' (war week) or whose 'kumta' (beret) has the nicest colour, to name but just a few. As an extremely loyal tzanchan, I know that for most of these things tzanchanim is far superior, but then again the Nachal guy thinks the same about his brigade. The difference however, is that we are actually the best and everyone secretly knows it but is too proud of his own brigade to admit it!! All in all, it leads to hilarious conversations normally ending up in everyone ganging up on tzanchanim. They're all just so jealous of us paratroopers!!! As stereotypes go, each brigade is known for something else, but we all know stereotypes can be very misleading. In saying this, however, I have to admit that in some cases and more often than the average, the stereotypes can be true! Anyone who has a specific affiliation to one of the different units should not get offended here, merely this is all just part of the friendly banter that I have been subjected to for the last couple of weeks. Golani, are either non-disciplined, loud and sefardi, or they are religious. Givati, are hard-working and in shape, but their brigade has no resources so their army stuff is kind of rubbish. Nachal, are good, honest guys but there are also those who are laid back and too relaxed. Kfir's quality of soldiers are defintely lower than the other brigades (!) with a lot of the soldiers' profiles being extreme (too tall, short or fat) but it has to be said that they are hilarious guys!!! And what about tzanchanim. Stuck-up, don't break the rules, ashkenazi, think and know that we are the best. This whole stereotype rant is all done in a very harmless way and it shouldn't influence anyone on where they want to go in the army.

From left to right the range of different kumtot in makim: Tzanchanim (red), Nachal (green), Druzi unit (black), Golani (brown), Kfir (camoflauge) and Givati (purple).

As I said, none of this truly represents the different brigades and they are all good soldiers in their own special way. It's just fun to joke about all the other brigades and despite how much we all love our own unit, it is very interesting to see what goes on over at the other side, so to speak. I think that explains why we wear each others berets at every opportunity possible. The differences just help to define each brigade in their own special way and this is continued to the level of the differnet 'gdudim' (batallions), 'plugot' (companies) and even 'mahlakot' (platoons). The guys in my mahlaka are absolute kings and I have already got close to a good number of them. I've never had problems with making friends while in the army (something I was actually very afraid of when first drafting, as you'll see in the earlier blogs). but this time it's even more special to make friends, as these guys have had a slightly different army experience to me. They are all interested to hear my story; first of all to hear about my time in Gaza but generally to hear about my aliyah journeyand my life back in London. I can already say that some of the guys in my tsevet are good mates and am looking forward to reunite with them tomorrow.

This year for Purim I dressed up as... a Givati soldier!!!

I think it's suitable to mention something about what's going on here in Israel. If you've read the news (although some networks like to ignore the problems of the Israelis and concentrate on other things), then you'll know that there have been a barrage of rockets from Gaza, an explosion in Jerusalem and a massacre in a settlement called Itamar, all in the last fortnight. I don't know what's going to happen here but the awareness of the country and the urgency and emergency levels of the army have defnitely increased. I hope a war will not happen but it is fitting that at this point in Israel's current situation that I should be going to makim. Essentially, the point of going to makim is not to be a commander of basic training, punishing your soldiers with press-ups, instead it is to lead a class of soldiers into battle, As vicious as it sounds that is something that is instilled into the course, in order for us to be prepared for the fact that if a war were to break out at any time in the future, then class commanders are the first line of leadership in combat. Since starting makim, I have come to realise that this style of thinking is not exclusive to commanders' course alone. The whole army is set up and routined in the way it is because in the event of an attack on Israel, the army needs to be 100% ready to deal with our enemies. We are surrounded by countries and terrorist organisations who want to kill every Jew living in Israel and destroy everything we have spent building in the last 63 years. As much as the army can be a fun experience where you gain friends and do stuff that has no connection to war whatsoever, the reason why we have an army is solely because we have to be on constant alert from the threat of terror and war. You can be a cook in the army for three years and never even touch a gun, but it is still important to remember that each aspect of the army is there because of the role it plays in the bigger picture: the defence of our homeland. I never like the blog to have a political edge to it but due to the current atmosphere here in Israel, I felt it was important to mention.

Back to the army tomorrow for another two weeks of makim, I will be sure to post again when I am next out and will carry on telling my story. I want to dedicate this blog to the families of those who were injured in the Jerusalem bomb and to the Fogal family, who were inhumanely massacred in their home in Itamar. Until next time...

Dancing at Purim...

Saturday, 12 March 2011

Feeling the competition

This weekend marked the fourth seminar of my garin; a reunion that I have with all the lone soldiers with whom I lived with (and continue to live with) on Kibbutz Ortal. This seminar has been more significant for me than the previous ones, mainly because I have been doing kav Gaza for the last five months, closing nearly a month at a time and, therefore, not seeing some of my friends since the last seminar...

For the last two weeks, I have been based at the Tzanchanim training base, taking part in the preparation for commanders' course. All in all, it has been a fun, but exhausting fortnight, and one where the outcome is still to be decided, as tomorrow I will know whether or not I will be going to commanders' course. In all honesty, it is unlikely that I will be going to 'makim' (commanders' course). As my mum said, I have said this sort of stuff before, for example after the tzanchanim gibush, but this time it is definitely different. I have been sent to the preparation for makim, on a conditional basis, i.e. if anyone else screws up, I would be taking their place. On top of this, I'm fairly 'vatik' (veteran) compared to the rest of the people there, and it is the norm to send people to makim as early as possible in their service. The only way for me to have any chance of going, is if my grades from the last two weeks (a combination of scores from the fitness test, navigations, shooting and, most importantly, a written test on just about everything connected to the army) are exceptional, which I can tell you now, are not that great. Whatever happens, it has been a great experience in this preparation and has given me an idea of the competition and professionalism that is vital in becoming qualified to be a 'mefaked' (commander).

Mucking around on the radio with my lone soldier friend from Canada, just before a navigation starts.

As I said, I actually had a fun couple of weeks in the army, mainly due to (as it always is) the people I was with. I was in a class with 12 other guys, all from tzanchanim, who had all been sent to the preparation course with the intention of them becoming commanders once they have finished the course. It was a real mix of guys; there were soldiers from all the batallions of tzanchanim (101, 202 and 890) and from a range of different draft dates, from November '09 (yours truly) to the very 'fresh' August '10, who received their red berets a mere fortnight ago. I made quick friendsips with a lot of them and, as it always seems to happen since I'm that lone soldier from London who is always speaking English, I became known by everyone in the course. Being one of the oldest ones there, meant that I was able to strutt my 'pazam' (time done in the army) around and use it to my advantage, sort of like how schoolkids do to those in younger years! This was definitely a new experience for me, especially since in the gdud, we are youngest draft and are constantly made to realise it through things like kitchen duty. Apart from the fun of being amongst the older soldiers there (by the way, 'older' doesn't necessarily mean age in the army, as not everyone drafts when they are 18, due to various different reasons, for example I am actually older than my officer in the gdud!!!), it was also cool to tell these guys stories from gaza and what it is like be in the gdud and do something real, as opposed to training. The guys I'm with are all real stars and it just shows the level of quality that those who go to makim, normally have.

Quickly going over the route of the next navigation.

It was not all fun and games though. For the first week we did navigation, which I had done only about month ago. In that sense it was good, since I was one step ahead everyone else (the whole course is rather competetive) and my navigations were all successful. However, I am now a bit sick of navigation in general, despite it being one of the most enjoyable and rewarding things in the army, and especially sick of carrying that f***ing 15kg radio on my back over hills upon hills, for 12km every night! The second week consisted of lessons from morning 'till night, on all the material we learn about as a soldier and as a commander. For me of course, this is twice as hard, not only to concentrate in Hebrew in a classroom for 13 hours a day, but also because the language itself is not your usual street-slang, which I can half-handle, instead it's technical words that even the Israelis were struggling with! Being back at the Tzanchanim training base and having long, full days, felt like I was back in basic training, which made me realise how much I miss the 'old days' and that even when I was being forced to stand on time and was being discplined in every aspect possible, I was and always have had a cracking time in the army. I am, without a doubt, a big 'mor'al' (someone who loves the army), which is normally used in an insulting way, but I don't care!!!

That's what a week of navigation does to you...

Everything was made so much sweeter by the fact that football results have gone my way in the last couple of weeks. I saw Arsenal drop out of three competitions, while my team, Tottenham, have made it through to the quarter-finals of the Champions League for the first time ever. The whole course definitely knew about this information as I have not stopped talking about it for the last week and that when everyone was in the classrooms during personal revision time, I was in the tuck shop watching the Spurs game on television! To top everything off, it has also been an amazing weekend here with my garin. It's so fantastic to spend some time with the guys who I still consider my first real family here in Israel and we had a good laugh this weekend in the North.

Garin Bazelet - a year and a half since we made aliyah!

So tomorrow is D-Day for me. Either I get accepted into commanders' course or I return to my company on the kav. I think I have made myself clear as to how much I want to go to 'makim' but I know that there is a high possibility that it won't happen and I need to be prepared for that. I am probably closing next weekend whatever happens, so happy Purim to you all, try not to get too drunk!!!