After graduating from Columbia last year, Adam May, CC ’11, headed to Israel to volunteer in the Israel Defense Forces. On his blog, he chronicled his journey through basic training and assignment into Dover Tzahal, the Army’s media division. Now, he works as a military journalist, writing articles about the IDF for an international audience.
Bwog: Are you an Israeli citizen?
I am, actually, because if you’re the son of a first-generation emigrant, then you have citizenship. My mom’s Israeli. I would go almost every year to Israel to visit family, my grandparents, aunts and uncles.
My dad’s family is like 4th or 5th generation American Jews. So the way my dad met my mom is he went to medical school in Israel. He was there for four years, they met and fell in love, got married, dragged her back to America kicking and screaming.
Do you consider yourself Israeli or an American?
That’s a good question. I don’t know. I think dual-citizenship is pretty right, because I’m very much both. I come to Israel and I don’t quite fit in there. I’m still an American.
Did you go to public school?
Actually, I went to religious yeshiva, which I hated very much. For the start of high school, I moved to public school. It was a great change. The town [Livingston, NJ] was like 40% Jewish, one of the densest Jewish populations anywhere. My mom has a lot of Israeli friends who live in the area, and there are a lot of Israeli expats who live in the same area, and a lot of their kids end up going into the Army.
Has anyone from Columbia ever joined the IDF?
I actually know a bunch of veterans. GS has a bunch of Israeli Army veterans. And there’s another kid from Columbia who also went to Israel after Columbia. So I don’t think I’m the first, but it definitely isn’t a common thing that people do.
Why didn’t you decide to go into the IDF for a few years after high school and then go to GS?
To be honest, I didn’t really know that much about GS at the time. When I deferred [my Columbia College acceptance], they offered it to me and I didn’t know what it was. I just knew it wasn’t Columbia College. My parents really thought it was a good idea for me to get an education first. After a lot of discussions with them—it was a big decision, probably the biggest decision I’d ever made up until that point.
I think in the end, now that I’m there now, it was a good one. Because while I’m having difficulty adjusting to dealing with 18-year old kids while I’m in the Army, I think it would have been harder if I was in a college setting, where it’s less rigid, it’s more actually having to integrate yourself into a social setting.
How long is your tour of duty?
[If you're an Israeli citizen,] there’s a three-year commitment for men and two-year for women, unless you do certain jobs. My tour is only 14 months because I volunteered. I enlisted in October, so I’ll be done at the end of this year.
What are your plans then? Are you going to stay in Israel?
The thing is, it’s much easier for me to get a job in Israel than it is here, so I’m going to try to come to New York…but then if I fail miserably—which is certainly an option—I might go back to Israel. Nothing against Israel, but I spent too long in New York to not want to come back.
What was basic training like?
I learned how to shoot, I learned how to do first-aid, [and] I even learned a little Krav Maga. I loved shooting; I was very good at that.
I still have to take out a gun every once in a while if I travel somewhere. If I’m on guard duty, I’ll usually take out a gun from the headquarters, but I don’t have a gun on me all the time, which is nice. It’s a pain in the ass to carry a gun around. It’s a 3-kilogram necklace; it’s awful.
Since service in the IDF is mandatory after high school, most soldiers are around our age. What’s that like?
That’s probably the most amazing thing about the Israeli Army. I went to basic training, which is like this camp in the middle of the woods where no one’s over 20, except for maybe the base commander, who’s 26 or 27. They basically put a bunch of adolescent kids in the woods, gave them guns, and out came an army. It’s kind of incredible to see them basically take a bunch of immature 18-year-olds who just spent the last six months after high school sitting on their moms’ couches and train them to follow orders.
My cousin serves as the head of a war room. She’s 20 years old, and she’s an officer. It’s kind of amazing the level of responsibility they give to these kids. A 20-year-old is running the war room in Ramallah, where Molotov cocktails are thrown every day and she gets woken up in the middle of the night every night to go and deal with this stuff. She would be about a sophomore at Columbia.
[These young soldiers] are doing amazing things and I think it’s kind of a shame, because a lot of the time they get blamed for everything. It’s not their fault. The army is a tool of the government; any ire against the government policies should stay directed at the government and not the army. And that’s why I do what I do.
You’re a journalist for the Israeli Army. What do you write about?
My focus is definitely more on feature pieces and personal stories and things that put a human face to the IDF. The Israeli reporters are actually following the breaking news of the army and giving it as they go. They’ll break stories all the time to the big newspapers in Israel, whereas what I write almost never gets picked up by the big newspapers in Israel because they don’t care about what I’m writing about. It’s not for them.
I love writing about these experiences that make life so different in Israel. Because I write for the English website, I’m not writing for the Israeli audience, so I’ll write about very different things. For me, I can write about these things because these are things I don’t think an American audience understands about life here.
What got you interested in journalism?
I always liked journalism, but I’d never done something like this, where it’s hard journalism. I’ve always done like food reviews, style writing, whatever bullshit. I wanted to try it. It sounded very interesting.
I was going to go to a combat unit for a very long time. I was dead-set on it. Then I learned that I’m serving for 14 months and 10 months of my service is going to be training. I’ll do four months of actual service on a border or somewhere and then I’ll be done. It just didn’t feel like I was making much of an impact.
How has the Core helped you?
It’s kind of been like this very strange experience where I’ve had all these theoretical discussions about philosophy and democracy and what it means to be part of a nation and things like that. When I came, I had this grandiose idea that, “I’m going to apply all of these things that I learned to the situation.” Basically, it was a bit of a shock that the situation on the ground is entirely different.
I think the one thing that has really helped is that being at Columbia taught me to…really make sure that I’m taking the time to get all sides of the story, and then critically analyze and be able to think and draw my own conclusions and not get too swept up in what anybody says.
There are skills I’ve learned from Columbia that I think have helped me, but as far as the theory and the politics, none of it really carries over. Once you hit the ground, everything changes.
While you were at Columbia, what was your extent of involvement in issues surrounding Israel/Palestine?
I tried to get involved with people here. My views were always a little more in the middle. Obviously, I’m very supportive of Israel, otherwise I wouldn’t go. I was fairly in favor of Israel on most issues, but it’s a very complicated issue. Going there, if anything, has made my opinions less exact, less concrete. You see the situation and it’s crappy on both sides; there’s nothing good about it.
What do you think Columbia students should know about Israel?
Israelis want peace. They want it just as badly as anybody else. Israel is not just the settlers that you see on television. The settlers are just a tiny minority of a country that has a vast level of opinion. The Leftists here—the people who are like, “I support Israel, but I’m fairly left-wing about it and I’m anti-occupation”—don’t hold a candle to the Leftists in Israel.
Disclaimer: The above represents Adam May’s personal views and opinions, not the views or opinions of the Israel Defense Forces.
Image via It’s For Real Adam