Jasmin Levit was 12 years old when she decided to join the army in her father’s home country.Jasmin Levit comes from Helsinki. Ruut Cohen went to secondary school in Vantaa.

Jasmin Levit picks up the phone in Herzliya, near Tel Aviv. She is on her lunch break. There are people speaking Hebrew around her; the strong consonants of the language can be heard in the background.

Levit speaks Finnish on the phone. She is a 21-year-old Finnish citizen. Her mother is Finnish and her father Israeli; she has spent around half of her life in Israel and the other half in Finland. When she was living in Helsinki, she went to the local Jewish school and continued her studies at Länsi-Helsingin lukio.

Then she dropped out of secondary school and joined the army. In Israel.

Conscription for all

In Israel, conscription extends to everyone, including women. Men serve in the army for three years, women for two. Seven out of ten men choose military service, one out of two women do the same – they can also opt for an alternative civilian service.

In many countries, including Finland, it is possible for women to volunteer for military service. However, the Israeli Defence Forces is the only army that the entire female population is conscripted for.

Levit was a 12-year-old girl from Helsinki when she made the decision to join the army in her father’s home country. She wanted to move back to Israel where she lived as a child.

“If you want to be Israeli, it’s a good idea to go to the army. When you’re applying for jobs, they ask you what you did in the army.”

Ruut Cohen, Levit’s school friend, made the same observation when she moved to Israel after spending her teenage years in Finland. Her father is also Israeli and her mother Finnish. Two out of three children in the family live in Israel.

“In Israel, everyone talks about the army and their experiences in it. If you haven’t gone to the army, you’re left out,” corporal Cohen says on the phone – she is currently at an army base in southern Israel.

“I always knew that I’d go to the army. The idea was always there.”

History in the making

The Second World War changed the Middle East. The genocide of six million Jews by Nazi Germany was an event that brought sympathy for the Jewish people all over the world. Hundreds of thousands of Jews sought refuge in the Holy Land. When Israel declared itself independent in 1948, there was little resistance, though it was known that this would mean that the Palestinians would be left without a country.

During the decades that followed, Israel was fighting on many fronts. Israeli territory was defended, and new territory was occupied and settled through establishing settlements. The UN attempted to solve the situation with resolutions which Israel then violated. In addition to the Jewish question, there was now a Palestinian issue. People have been trying to resolve this issue for the past 65 years.

Only Egypt and Jordan out of the neighbouring Arab countries have agreed to sign a peace treaty with Israel. There is not even a border between Lebanon and Israel, but a so-called ‘Blue Line’, overseen by the UN.

In 1948, when Israel became independent, The Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) were set up. Half a century later, Levit and Cohen from Finland volunteered for the IDF.

Their Finnish friends have had trouble understanding their decision.

“They haven’t said that much. But it was quite a shock for them, though,” Levit says. “Two years!”

They have had to explain that the Israeli Army is different from the Finnish one, especially for women. “My workmates in Finland asked me why I wanted to go and kill Palestinian children. I told them it wasn’t like that. That you had to do your research and learn more about it.”

“There are misunderstandings on both sides,” Levit says, referring to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. “Both sides would like to live in peace, but it’s hard. You just have to keep talking. Nothing will be solved otherwise.”

She also talks about the charity work that the army does. She was part of a group of Israeli soldiers helping Palestinian families – by the Sea of Galilee.

Training a shock

The military service began with a three-week conscript training. For Levit, the training was a shock.

“Suddenly I’m given this gun that I’m responsible for. If I lose it, I go to prison. There was a lot of basic training, a lot of running around. It was winter and really cold. It wasn’t fun running in the rain carrying a five-kilo gun.”

The base was just outside of the Palestinian territory of Gaza. In those weeks, dozens of rockets were fired from Gaza to Israel. Some landed close by, but one became used to it. Levit would run into the bomb shelter with the others and would wait there until it was safe to come out.

After she had finished her basic training, she was trained to become a teacher for other volunteers. She compares her work to that of a travel guide: she would teach the foreign newcomers Zionism and health education and she would travel around the country with them. Many of the newcomers were from Ethiopia or Russia. They were taught that in the Israeli Army you only speak Hebrew.

In the end, it was all very different from what she originally had in mind. The Israeli Army takes care of its foreign volunteers as if they were motherless children. They might live on a kibbutz or in town, were assigned a host family that they could go and have meals with and were given an allowance to cover rent and a higher daily allowance than Israeli conscripts. If there were errands to run, one could take a personal day.

“It was difficult sometimes and I missed my family. I would wonder why I was here in the first place. Whether it made any sense that I had come.”

Foreign volunteers are given two month-long breaks during their two years of service. During the break, it is possible to go back home. When Levit came to visit her parents and her three little brothers for her first break, she noticed that everything was the same in Finland, but she had changed.

Now she has moved into a new flat in Herzliya, is working and planning to continue studying. She is unlikely to return to Finland.

Women and equal opportunities

Women make up a third of the Israeli Army. There are female soldiers in the land army, the navy and the air force, and they are allowed to seek almost all of the same roles as men.

At least in theory, the Israeli Defence Forces are the most equalitarian army in the world. A ruling by the Supreme Court allows women to serve in combat roles, but only three per cent of the female soldiers have wanted to do this.

If a woman serves in a combat role, she must complete three years of military service, like the men, and continue in the reserves until she is 38 years old – even if she becomes a mother. The conditions are the same as they are for men.

Female soldiers have risen through the ranks. Half of all lieutenants are women; 13 per cent of lieutenant colonels and higher-ranking officers are women. In 2011, the first female officer was made general. During the 2006 Lebanon War, the first female soldier was killed in action.

In their song Tel Aviv, Tel Aviv, the band Ultra Bra sing of an Israeli airwoman who leaves a Finnish man in the dark night: Sabrani lausui: “Isänmaa kutsuu” / Ja heilautti kättään hyvästiksi / Israelin valtio / Tarkkaan valvoo kaikkea omaansa. (‘Sabrani spoke: “My country is calling” / And waved goodbye / The State of Israel / Is vigilant of its possessions’)

The army has used photographs of pretty girls in uniform to promote its image. There are lots of these photographs on online pin up websites. These soldiers are a far cry from the faceless IDF that news articles speak of, that plant bombs in Gaza and level Palestinian olive tree groves to make room for new settlements.

Levit got out of the army recently and started working. Cohen finishes up at the end of March 2014. As corporal, she is responsible for training new conscripts, both male and female, and for teaching them how to handle weaponry.

“I’m constantly taking care of my soldiers. Sometimes I only get three hours of sleep and two toilet breaks a day. It’s tough,” Cohen says.

She has spent a week in the desert without showering. She has met people she believes she will be friends with for life.

Cohen is not sure whether she will return to Finland. Her parents hope that she will. First she is going to get a job in Israel, earn some money and travel to South America.

Photographer Adriana Dobrin is studying at Pekka Halosen akatemia in Tuusula. Her final project is about women in the Israeli Army.

Anu Nousiainen – HS
Minna Helminen – HT