Citizenship Boot Camp for Israel's Russian Immigrants

THE opening bars of the Israeli national anthem ring out across the parade ground, and all the soldiers in the reviewing stand snap to attention as they sing.

The soldiers on parade, however, new Russian Jewish recruits almost to a man, remain mute.

"They still don't feel the words deep inside," explains one of their instructors. "And some of them don't even know the words at all."

But as they ended their induction course into the Israeli Defense Force (IDF) one recent evening here, the Russians' silence was itself a small step towards their new identity as Israelis.

"When they first came," recalls Sgt. Shira Libros, another of their teachers, "every morning when we raised the flag, what did we hear them singing? The Soviet national anthem. We really had to shout at them."

As the flood of young immigrants from the former Soviet Union begins to enter the Israeli Army, the IDF Education Corps finds itself with a very particular challenge: not just teaching its recruits to shoot, but remolding their very identities.

"There are many purposes to what we are doing with the new immigrants," says Gen. Shalom Ben Moshe, head of the Education Corps. "But the most important thing is not so much to make them soldiers, but first of all to make them Israeli citizens."

Turning youths from many backgrounds and many countries into full Israelis has always been a major role of the IDF, ever since it was founded.

Israel's first prime minister, David Ben Gurion, "said the Army is a melting pot, where soldiers learn Hebrew and love of their country," recalls Capt. Dudi Agmon, who runs the course from which the immigrants were graduating. "This is equally true these days too."

In Israel, a country at war since its inception in 1948, a boy who somehow manages to evade the three years of compulsory military service is generally looked down upon.

Indeed many people here regard ultraorthodox religious boys, who are exempted from the draft, as not quite proper Israelis.

"Army service is an entry card to our society, and the new immigrants know that," says Ben Moshe. The six-week crash-induction course had clearly left its mark on most recruits.

"The most important thing I learned in these six weeks was what it means to wear the uniform," says 20-year-old Victor Gendelman, a hairdresser from Tashkent. "And to some extent I already feel more Israeli. At least I feel superior to other new immigrants who haven't done their service."

His friend Vadim Abramov has a more pragmatic way of looking at things. "I feel more Israeli doing my service," he says, "because I know that the first question I'll be asked when I look for a job is whether I've been in the Army."

But turning the young people from the newest wave of Jewish immigration into Israelis is not like anything the Army has done before. For 70 years the Soviet Jews were cut off from their cultural and historical heritage, and the overwhelming majority of those who came to Israel did so because they had nowhere else to go, not because they were drawn by Zionist conviction.

"The hardest thing for them to learn is to be Jewish," says Sergeant Libros. "And that takes time, you cannot convince them just like that."

Ben Moshe is particularly pleased that the first class of recruits at his new school in Karmiel had scarcely learned to dismantle and reassemble their Uzi's before they were voting in Israel's recent parliamentary elections.

Private Gendelman says he experiences Israeli democracy in other ways too. "The attitude that officers have towards soldiers is quite different in the Soviet Union," he says. "There it would be impossible to sit down with an officer and talk to him like you can here."

Unfortunately, the Army also teaches its new recruits the less positive side of being an Israeli - instinctive mistrust of Palestinians and other Arabs.

"In the Soviet Union, the enemy was abstract," says Private Abramov, who served two years in a Soviet paratroop brigade. "Here it is very concrete, you know there are Arab countries surrounding you and there could be a provocation at any time."

Ben Moshe is keen that the new Russian recruits should translate that kind of attitude into a desire to join a combat unit, not least, he says, because "that is the best way to integrate them with the Israeli boys ... and we must open the Israeli boys' minds to the Russians, as well as teach the Russians about Israel."

But few of the new immigrants seem as drawn as their Israeli-born comrades to the elite units. Instead, they take Yevgeny Kuznetzov's more practical approach. "I want to choose my military speciality with two things in mind," he says. "That it be interesting and that it be useful to me in later life."

By the time Private Kuznetzov starts putting his speciality to use in civilian life, he expects the Army will have done its job with him. "Today I feel Byelorussian," he says. "But when I've finished my three years' service, I think I will feel Israeli."

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