Maj. Amotz Greenberg, one of the first IDF soldiers to fall during Operative Protective Edge, did not have to be in combat.
The married father of three — killed Saturday by Hamas gunmen who emerged from a tunnel and fired on his IDF jeep as it patrolled on the Israeli side of the border — was 45-years-old, which means that he was well past the age of mandatory reserve service in the Israel Defense Forces. Most Israeli men, after serving their required three years at the age of 18, are obligated by law to perform reserve duty until the age of 40, although some exceptions apply based on rank and individual unit. But many of them choose, as Greenberg did, to continue to voluntarily serve into their fifth decade.
“As long as I’m able to do my part in the army, then it’s a privilege to do so,” says M., a 43-year-old tank driver who is currently stationed on the Gaza border. “I’m still pretty good at it, despite my advanced age. I walk around and I see the young kids over here and they look at me like I just stepped out of a history book, but apparently I still have a positive contribution to make, and if I can then I’m happy to oblige.”
M. received what should have been his final call-up notice just after his 40th birthday. Because of his training – tank units are composed of carefully-assembled teams, where the driver, loader, gunner and commander work together in an ensemble of instinct – he was asked if he would be willing to come back for additional rounds of service. Because he both loves his tank crew and believes in the duty of serving one’s country, he says, he was happy to oblige.
The ramifications of that decision became very real for him two weeks ago, when his unit was among the first to receive call-up notices for Operation Protective Edge. While M.’s wife and three children in Rehovot have spent the past two weeks running into bomb shelters every time they hear a siren, he has been standing guard along the Gaza border, scouting for Hamas tunnels and remaining ready to react should additional bands of Hamas terrorists try to sneak into Israel.
“I explained it to my kids like this,” he says. “I said, ‘Do you like going to the bomb shelter?’ And of course they said no, so I said, ‘Well, Abba is going to try and make it stop.’ And they get that.”
Some soldiers could have been released from reserve duty altogether, but loyalty to brothers in uniform keeps them coming back.
E., 38, has a job in Israeli security which exempts him from extended military service, but he has always volunteered.
“The members of my unit have all been my friends since the age of 18. I cannot see them going to war without me,” he explains.
And there is another reason, one that boils down to pure, old-fashioned patriotism.
“This is the most important thing I can do,” he says. “There are not a lot of people in Israel these days willing to go to reserve duty so even though I serve in my everyday work, I don’t think it’s enough. I wanted to do more.”
E. has not yet been called up to join this round of fighting, but he is aware that as Operation Protective Edge drags into its third week and the IDF pushes deeper into Gaza, it’s a very real possibility. He is now a new father to a baby girl, something makes this war feel very, very different to him.
“I used to never even think about going to miluim,” he says, referring to reserve duty. “For years I didn’t even think twice about it. But now it’s not the same. If they send me inside Gaza, it definitely won’t feel the way it did two years ago.”
For A., a 38-year-old Israeli immigrant from Michigan with a 4-year-old, a 3-year-old and a seven-month-old, his children were part of his motivation to keep on serving.
“I wanted to make sure my kids, at least the older ones, saw me in a uniform. I wanted them to have those values,” he says.
A. is part of an artillery unit that was dismantled six months ago. Because of his age at the time, he was told that he could receive his final discharge papers and never serve again. But after talking to his wife, he asked instead to be reassigned to a new unit and continue performing reserve duty.
“One of the reasons I immigrated to Israel was ideological,” he says. “I wanted to serve and protect the state. It’s important to me. So as long as I can keep contributing, I will – it’s part of my values.”
It was also part of Greenberg’s values, so much so that at his funeral on Sunday, his wailing 10-year-old son referred to him as “superman,” and Finance Minister Yair Lapid added, “In his death he has commanded us to live. He wanted to protect his country and we will remember him for always.”
Y., a 38-year-old who was also given a exemption when his infantry unit was dismantled but chose to join a new unit, says that any Jew would have followed Greenberg’s lead.
“I’ll continue to serve as long as I can physically handle it, and even when that isn’t a possibility there are always ways to serve that aren’t in combat,” he says. “It’s a tremendous privilege. If you look at the history of the Jewish people, with all the anti-Semitism and pogroms and expulsions and eventually the Holocaust, what those Jews wouldn’t have done to have an army that protects them. And we have the amazing fortune of living in a time period when that army exists. So why, as a Jew, would you not want to serve?”