History has been made in the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) Paratroopers Brigade: 57 soldiers from the Ethiopian Jewish community are currently undergoing the prestigious training course for paratroopers.
"It used to be commonly assumed among Israeli youth that only those coming from the 'right' place and the 'right' background stood any chance of being enlisted in the Paratroopers Brigade," says Lt. Col. Guy Berger, commander of the Paratroopers Brigade training base. "A number of years ago we decided to try and take full advantage of the potential of Israeli society and locate the best there are for recruitment to the brigade. To that end, we joined forces with the [IDF Education Corps'] Mikve Alon base, through which all the new immigrants [enlisting in the IDF] pass, and where there is also a company of soldiers from the Ethiopian Jewish community. Three times a year, we run preliminary training and integration programs for the new immigrants at the base, and we can see a steady increase in the number of soldiers aspiring to enlist in the Paratroopers Brigade."
In the Paratroopers Brigade they pride themselves on the high number of soldiers, members of the Ethiopian Jewish community, who are undergoing basic recruit training. "On the bottom line, although it is considered an elite brigade, the Paratroopers Brigade, more than any other brigade in the army, represents at present all shades of Israeli society. We have the largest number of lone soldiers, new immigrants in general and new immigrants from Ethiopia, in particular — more so than any other infantry brigade in the IDF. And it should be noted that they are all enlisted into the brigade on their own merit rather than on the basis of affirmative action," Berger stresses.
Lior Ishata (aged 18 and a half) from Kiryat Haim, one of the new recruits, tells us: "When I turned 17, I decided that I wanted to enlist in the Paratroopers Brigade. I have a good friend who is serving in the brigade and he recommended it to me. I am now serving together with my younger brother. I have always known that it is considered a high quality unit. I knew that they were the liberators of [the Old City of] Jerusalem and the Western Wall and I heard the story of Giv'at HaTahmoshet [Ammunition Hill, a fortified military post in then-Jordanian controlled East Jerusalem, and the site of one of the fiercest battles of the Six-Day War in Jerusalem]. And considering everything that I knew and heard, I didn't think twice about it. Once we finished the preliminary training and integration course at the Mikve Alon base, we were asked who wanted to join the Paratroopers Brigade. I said right away that I wanted to enlist in the Paratroopers Brigade – that it was my only choice. I underwent the Paratroopers' basic recruit training and it was relatively easy. Before enlisting in the army, I used to play arena football, so I was in good shape. Most of the expeditions we had were not too tough, either, although I had to carry on my back a radio communication unit."
So what is difficult for you in the army?
"Getting up early in the morning and getting organized quickly, but you get used to it. And at all, having many other Ethiopian soldiers around in the brigade makes it easier for me. Their company makes me feel more confident. It could have been much more difficult otherwise. They are all people that I know; some of them were with me at the Mikve Alon base, and others I know way back from my hometown neighborhood. They are all people that I can sit down with and talk, and it makes it all much easier. With God's help, I hope I'll make it to the officers course and become a commander."
The 57 new recruits from the Ethiopian Jewish community began their basic recruit training more than a month and a half ago. Fourteen of them are of the same recruiting cycle and did their preliminary training together at the Mikve Alon base. After their first week in the Paratroopers' basic recruit training, they entered the training and integration program for the various elite units of the Paratroopers Brigade — Maglan, Duvdevan and the brigade's reconnaissance battalion. "They take special pride in the red beret [of the Paratroopers Brigade]. They feel that they are realizing the Israeli ethos and are thus becoming equal members of Israeli society. Right now, they are all in the midst of their basic training and so far, none of them have dropped out. They are all motivated by true Zionist idealism and willingness to contribute," Berger concludes.
The story of these soldiers, members of the Ethiopian Jewish community, makes Zvika Levy really happy. Levy, who is known throughout the communal settlements in Israel by his nickname "the father of the lone soldiers" and who is himself a veteran of the Paratroopers Brigade, says: "It's a great day for the Paratroopers Brigade. Some of these soldiers I have already met at the Mikve Alon base, and it was clear even then that they were going to join the Paratroopers Brigade. They wanted to show that they could make it to the elite units of the Israel Defense Forces. And it's really something to be proud about for them, all the more so since they are aware that it's the Red Beret soldiers who brought them to Israel [in the 1991 covert airlift of Ethiopian Jews to Israel, known as Operation Solomon]. I myself enlisted in the Paratroopers Brigade 44 years ago and at the time, the recruits to the brigade were all members of communal settlements or cooperative villages. Today it's the true and beautiful Land of Israel."