Soldiers of the book

Unhooked from phones, troops in Gaza turn to reading to pass time

An unscientific list of some of the most requested tomes by active duty forces stationed on the front lines

Tal Schneider is a Political Correspondent at The Times of Israel

Illustrative: An Israeli soldier reads a book in a military jeep on November 30, 2009. (Nati Shohat/Flash90/File)
Illustrative: An Israeli soldier reads a book in a military jeep on November 30, 2009. (Nati Shohat/Flash90/File)

War is hell. It can also apparently be kind of boring, at least for active-duty troops holding already-conquered positions and seeing little action.

Stripped of the mobile devices they have been tethered to for years, combat soldiers, aged 18–22, are turning to an unlikely medium to pass the time: books. The kind you hold in your hand and need a bookmark to keep your place in.

While it is typical for enlisted soldiers to go without their accustomed screen time, even new recruits usually have an hour with their phones before lights out during basic training.

Since October 7, however, those entering Gaza have been ordered to leave their phones behind. WhatsApp, TikTok, messages to parents and friends, Brawl Stars, news updates, sports — all is verboten.

To cope, the soldiers have gone back to basics. Purchases of battery-operated radios are surging. Cards are all the rage. And troops are devouring books — and asking to be sent more.

In one instance, a company’s soldiers sent their parents a list of books to procure, only to have the shipment intercepted by another company. The parents were then requested to repurchase the same books.

Drawing from information shared in various parent WhatsApp groups of soldiers in Gaza and from conversations with parents, The Times of Israel has compiled a list of some of the books most requested by active duty troops in Gaza and those serving in various roles just outside the Strip.

Israeli forces operate in Gaza City’s Tuffah neighborhood, January 21, 2024. (Emanuel Fabian/Times of Israel)

The list, heavy on tales of war, heroism, and coping with hardship, indicates that the young troops are less interested in escapist fantasies than in understanding their place in history and how to process what they are going through.

In no particular order:

  • “From Zero to One Hundred – The Story of a Special Forces Rescue Team” by Guy M., a former combat medic in Unit 669 (Air Force tactical rescue unit). The book narrates stories of rescue under fire and clandestine operations beyond the border. It also covers the rescue of teenagers during a flash flood in the Judean Desert.
  • “Heavens That Have No Shore” by Yifat Erlich. The biography recounts the story of Sgt. Benaya Sarel, who was killed fighting in Gaza in 2014 three weeks before his wedding. Sarel served as the commander of the Givati Reconnaissance Company and was killed in battle on the outskirts of Rafah alongside First Lieutenant Hadar Goldin and Sgt. Liel Gidoni.
Maj. Benaya Sarel, 26, was killed during Operation Protective Edge. (Israel Defense Forces)
  • “World Cup Wishes” by Eshkol Nevo. The novel follows four young guys from Haifa just out of the military who decide to write down their hopes for the next four years. The story tracks how their friendships change, along with the world around them, as they navigate the pressures of life.
  • “When Heroes Fly” by Amir Gutfreund. This book traces the lives of five childhood friends from Haifa, starting from the heady days just after the 1967 Six Day War up to the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in 1995. Gutfreund’s novel unfolds against the backdrop of major historical events. In 2018, a TV series based partly on the book became a hit, and it was recently adapted into the series “Echo 3” for Apple TV+.
A poster for Israeli drama series ‘When Heroes Fly.’ (Keshet)
  • “Eichmann in My Hands” by Zvi Malchin (English version by Malchin and Harry Stein). Peter Zvi Malkin, a Mossad agent and artist from New York, tells the story of the capture of Nazi Adolf Eichmann by a team of Israeli agents.
  • “Adjusting Sights” by Rabbi Haim Sabato. The book focuses on a religious veteran of the Yom Kippur War and his struggle to understand his friend’s death in combat.
  • “12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos” by Jordan Peterson. A self-help book by the controversial conservative psychologist and commentator, “12 Rules” aims to provide practical advice based on ethical principles, emphasizing personal responsibility while searching for meaning.
Canadian author and psychologist Jordan Peterson shakes hands after his lecture in Jerusalem, October 6, 2022. (Lazar Berman/The Times of Israel)
  • “What I Wish I Knew When I Was 20: A Crash Course on Making Your Place in the World” by Tina Seelig. Another self-help book.
  • Stephen King. The master of horror’s complete oeuvre is apparently high on soldiers’ lists. Anything by Stephen King, just make it King, said one soldier.
  • “The Silent Patient” by Alex Michaelides. A bestselling psychological mystery about an artist who shoots her husband and then goes mute.
  • “The Other Woman” by Daniel Silva. The 18th book following fictional Israeli spy Gabriel Allon finds him in another web of dangerous skullduggery, this time involving a Russian secret agent infiltrating Britain’s MI6.
  • “Mistborn” by Brandon Sanderson. A trilogy of dystopian fantasies.
  • “Mesilat Yesharim” (“The Path of the Upright”) by Rabbi Moshe Hayyim ‎Luzzatto. The influential 1740 work by the Italian Jewish philosopher instructs readers on living an ethical Jewish life. A pocket edition was released for soldiers. Also good for stopping shrapnel, according to one tweet.
  • Books by Rabbi Lior Engelman, who wrote about religious coping following the 2005 evacuation of settlements in Gaza.
  • “The Sages” by Rabbi Binyamin Lau, a trio of texts placing the figures of early rabbinic Judaism in religious and historical context, thus bringing the world of the Mishnah and Talmud alive.
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