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The Transformation of Duty: From the IDF to Protest to Civil Service (Ahim LaNeshek - Brothers and Sisters in Arms)

05/11/2024 12:26:20 PM

May11

Rabbi Shoshanah

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Ronen Koehler meets with our group of rabbis at the Brothers and Sisters in Arms Civilian Headquarters near Tel Aviv.

On May 7 we visited with Ronen Koehler of Brothers and Sisters in Arms in G'lilot.[1] Ronen shared with us the germination of his organization. Like many Israelis, Koehler served in the IDF. Koehler has dedicated forty years of service to the Navy, seventeen of which were on active duty. He is a business leader in the areas of organizational development and IT and is embedded in the "startup nation" identity of contemporary Israel. He and many others drew attention to themselves on the world stage as the reservists who refused to serve under a government that threatened a judicial overhaul. They were part of the large and vocal protest movement that was gaining ground in the months before Oct. 7.

After Oct. 7, their work shifted.

In response to the war, Brothers and Sisters in Arms began providing agricultural support. Many farmers were deployed in the IDF, and many foreign national farm workers left the country. Ahim LaNeshek (Brothers and Sisters in Arms’ Hebrew name) also assisted with the thousands of evacuations of Israelis from towns near Gaza and near the northern border with Lebanon.

They began to dub their effort, “K’var Ba’im,” meaning, “Here We Come.”

Brothers and Sisters in Arms deployed their organizational efforts to come and get people out of dangerous areas. There were no government or IDF efforts to do so. In the first ten days of their operation, they rescued 10,000 people from places like S’derot.

Koehler told our group that the residents had been abandoned in the towns near Gaza. The IDF did not come. The residents sat wondering if Hamas would come, and Koehler’s organization filled the breach. Oct. 7 was a Saturday, and by Sunday, Oct. 8, Brothers and Sisters in Arms put up a civilian headquarters for donations to take south to the Gaza envelope communities and to families who were living in faraway towns as evacuees. It was in these headquarters that we met with Koehler. Ahim LaNeshek created a civilian "war room" to meet the wartime needs of the nation. The IDF was not equipped to massively support the civilian population. In fact, the army never even arrived at Kibbutz Nir Oz. When its residents were evacuated to Eilat (where they still are), the army never came there either. It became clear early on that those in need should call upon Ahim LaNeshek.

Through this and other facilities, the group executed a huge logistical operation to manage donations and distribution of supplies.

Volunteers also stepped up to feed soldiers, using donated restaurant facilities. The group fed 30,000 meals to soldiers in the immediate aftermath of Oct. 7. The group also became involved in pet rescue management. 

Prior to the war, the efforts of Ahim LaNeshek were focused on protest and getting media attention, and overnight, they changed their efforts to serve the needs of their fellow citizens.

So, out of a movement of protest that mobilized to defend democracy, Ahim LaNeshek became a giant, effective civil service organization. Countless Israelis have been personally involved in their efforts.

And as the group thinks about the future of Israeli society . . . as they think about charting a course for preserving democracy, they have created and mobilized a platform of organizational and civil management so effective it will likely serve as a basis for their bid to replace the current government.

Israeli Culture: Where Has It Been? Where Is It Going?

 Koehler shared that for many years the Israeli government has been starving its public services through politicization.

We are all so proud to tout Israel as a start-up nation, but, Koehler opined, the private sector forgot the importance of the public sector. As a result, the services of the government's public sector have atrophied. In the breach left by Oct. 7, many Israeli donors (of the private sector) showed up with funding for these community needs. Israel was not just looking to the Diaspora for funding, but was stepping up itself as Israelis began to pivot their sense of civic duty. According to Koehler, Israelis have begun to understand that being a citizen in a democracy has to be more than paying taxes. Citizens have to be involved if they do not want to cede the important social questions to politicians.

Israel is beginning to understand that involvement sometimes means protesting. Sometimes it means volunteering. Sometimes it means philanthropy. The  prevailing ethos used to be "I did my army service, now I am going to make money." But, this is changing.

Ahim LaNeshek is creating a database of people who share their values and who want to be involved in a democratic process and the growing civil society.
And their message and efforts are becoming a ubiquitous part of Israeli life.

Beyond the Emergency

About four weeks into the war, the emergencies had been covered, and the organizational leaders could see that a longer-term effort was needed. This was when volunteer Avi Noam started over 120 kindergartens. This was when Ahim LaNeshek began to create youth activities and teen support programs.

 Two months ago, Koehler's team realized that it was time to get ready for the future.

How can Brothers and Sisters in Arms create a sustainable civilian support organization for situations that are not necessarily emergencies?

They have begun to develop a more formal organization, hire staff, and clarify their areas of focus:

  • community and education
  • democratic, Jewish, humanistic social change 

In a previous post, I mentioned that Maoz Inon and Nadav Tamir talked about how this moment of crisis is an opportunity. It was hard not to hear in Koehler's remarks both the enormity of the task and compelling possibility for a better Israeli future.

​Epilogue: Our Diaspora Role

For many years, since my childhood, the message I heard from Israelis and Israel was at times dismissive, and at times contemptuous of Diaspora Jewry. For one thing, a prevailing assumption in Israeli culture was that truly there could be no real safety as Jews and no “real” Jewish life outside of “the Land.” We don’t live there. We don’t know what it is like. Our points of view—our “say”—had no real weight or value in Israel.

Again and again, speaker after speaker, on this trip and in other recent conversations with Israeli colleagues, Israelis are saying something different:  We are not asking for Diaspora support. We are asking for Diaspora partnership. One way this plays out is in the desire on the part of many peace and democracy activists that we use our voices that decidedly are not “of the Land,” to push forward a moral intervention. We do not let our loved ones drive drunk. We may not let our loved ones choose a path of destruction. Koehler and others want our voice and our influence (especially on OUR government) to help us all recenter our moral core; to build a homeland of justice and democracy.

[1] They Refused to Serve. Now They’re Supporting Israel’s War Effort. - The New York Times (nytimes.com)

אחים ואחיות לנשק - למען הדמוקרטיה (ahimlaneshek.org)

Sat, May 18 2024 10 Iyyar 5784