In Israel, military service is mandatory for most people over the age of 18. Men serve three years and women serve two. Exemption from military service is rare and highly controversial. All Israelis who complete their compulsory military service subsequently become part of the army’s reserve force. The Israeli army is one of the most prominent institutions in the country, wielding enormous influence over the economy, culture and politics.
Conscientious objectors are socially ostracised and often jailed for refusing to serve. Israelis view military service as a family obligation or moral duty. Most Israelis see it as a positive experience - a prerequisite to a successful career that gives young Israelis the opportunity to network. Israeli society romanticises military service, but for some soldiers, reality proves different.
Some soldiers are so psychologically damaged by their time in the army they begin to question the state they served. Growing numbers seek answers by travelling overseas. India and Berlin are two top destinations. For some ex-soldiers, it's a journey from which they never return.
Mandatory military service can leave Israeli soldiers with post-traumatic stress. Upon military discharge, they are given a cash bonus. Many use that money to buy a plane ticket out of Israel, to get some distance and heal psychological wounds. Most are drawn to India, with its promise of spirituality and easy access to recreational drugs.
Berlin is another popular destination for Israeli travellers, who don’t need a visa to enter European countries. About 30,000 Israelis currently live in Berlin. Some refuse to return to Israel as a way to protest the occupation.
Other Israelis believe it's better to criticise their country from within. They refuse to enlist. They also refuse to leave Israel. These conscientious objectors are a small, but vocal group.
Breaking the Silence is an Israeli NGO made up of soldiers and veterans. Its mission is to publish the testimonies of Israeli soldiers who return to civilian life and "discover the gap between the reality which they encountered in the [occupied] territories, and the silence which they encounter at home". Ex-soldiers speaking out against the brutality of the Israeli army is a powerful way of challenging the occupation, they say.
The occupation and military conscription have a profound effect on young Israelis. One young soldier says it turns young people into "monsters in a distorted reality". Their time in the army leaves them with deep psychological wounds that can haunt them for the rest of their lives.
Overseas, many ex-soldiers become alienated from Israel. They say people in Tel Aviv live in a "bubble" and that the future of Israel is "hanging by a thread". The yearly exodus - to India, Berlin and other destinations - threatens the Zionist vision of Israel as a safe haven for Jews. As a result of the occupation, Israel has become a place from which even some of its own soldiers want to flee.
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