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Op-eds

The backlash from an earnest column about conscription

  • Howard Feldman 2018
The time between submitting a column and it being published, is for me an anxious period. Because I pride myself on writing with authenticity, it often means that there is a good chance that someone will be offended by what I have written. In most cases I have made peace with that prior to submitting, but sometimes I am taken by surprise by a reaction that I didn’t see coming.
by HOWARD FELDMAN | Jul 12, 2018

Last week, I wrote an article for The Times of Israel about the Haredis’ resistance to serving in the Israel Defence Forces. I began with a brief history of conscription in South Africa and how many people were uncomfortable about being part of the army. I gave examples as to how some managed to have themselves classified as being of poor health, and some (like me) managed to get a deferment for academic reasons.

The purpose was to show how vastly different the situation in South Africa is to Israel and to encourage the Haredi community to rather focus on concerns about serving in the army, rather than offering a blanket refusal.

I didn’t anticipate the angry reaction to the article. Not from the Haredi world, but rather, from South African men who had apparently served in the South African Defence Force (SADF) with immense pride. I was called names that nearly made me blush and words like “weasel” tripped off pens with an ease that shocked me.

Was I really a disgrace for having found a way to avoid the South African army? And was I guilty of denigrating the past of those who had served in it?

How had I missed this? To me, it seemed clear that although there were many who served because of conscription, there were also those who not only muddled through but who also used the time to gain experience and to even excel in service.

But that didn’t mean that they would have chosen to support an army who had the role of suppressing fellow South Africans. I was simply giving them the benefit of the doubt, something they apparently didn’t want from me. I had assumed that people served because they were forced into it. The SADF was notoriously difficult to evade, and serving didn’t mean in any way that one supported an apartheid government.

Which makes it all the more perplexing.

Could I have been wrong in this regard? Was it possible that there were Jews who, like other white South African men, were not unhappy about subscription? Or was it simply that the army had become part of their identity and narrative to the extent that separating it and seeing it as anything other than an achievement might be too painful?

I again choose to give the benefit of the doubt and suggest that it was not the ideological support of the SADF at that time that instilled the sense of pride, but rather, the achievement of having not only survived the two-year conscription, but in some cases having actually thrived in what was an Afrikaans-dominated environment which viewed Jews with suspicion. Any other explanation is too troubling to contemplate.

Men love army stories. We all do. Far be it from me to change the narrative of what might have been the most interesting chapter in anyone’s history. That said, the language with which we visit and speak of the past is important.

It is one thing to be proud of one’s own accomplishments during conscription, but quite another to be proud of serving an army that was the strong arm of a racist regime.

The reaction to my article has highlighted yet another uncomfortable conversation that South Africans need to have. White males were forced into national service. They had very few options in this regard. How this has impacted on them today, how it has impacted on their families and on the country, is something that we should probably be chatting about.

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