Sunday, December 6, 2009

My 48 Hours in The Israel Defense Forces

Stepping off the airplane last Tuesday at Tel Aviv's Ben Gurion Airport I knew I was in for a memorable business trip. As I left the airplane I was greeted by a young female Israeli government official who seemed to recognize me by sight. This was to be my first indication of what was to become a very interesting few days in Israel.

Before I go into the details of my trip, I first need to give you some background which lead to my bizarre series of events. Although I was born in Haifa, a city in North Israel, I had left the country in 1982 at the age of 4, moving with my parents to Canada. Over the nearly 30 or so years since I left I have been lucky enough to travel all over world with generally little in the way of problems. Regardless of where I travel I've always use my Canadian passport, generally the Canadian passport provides me with a warm welcome regardless of the country I'm visiting. As an individual I've always identified myself both professionally and personally as a Canadian. When I speak, I like many other Canadians throw in the casual "eh" at the end of sentences, and Americans routinely make fun of my "outs" and "abouts". I'm told they sound funny. So for all practical purposes, I am Canadian.

But because of where I was born, in the back of my mind I knew I was technically an Israeli citizen but never gave it much thought. Being born in Israel to a Swiss mother and Canadian father gave me a unique gift. This unusual "gift" is that of having three citizenships. Two of which, Israel and Switzerland require military service. Since leaving Israel at the age of 4 I have never had the opportunity to go back, not so much as a conscience decision as much as I never really had any reason to visit -- albeit for business or otherwise. But unlike Israel I have been to Switzerland many times over years and even have an active Swiss passport (which I rarely use). During my many trips to Switzerland, I have never been asked about military duty, so I falsely assumed the same would be true in Israel. Making what transpired all the more surprising.

Back to my arrival in Israel, at first I thought "Wow, Avner and the folks from the Israeli Association of Grid Technologies (IGT) who had invited to speak at their annual summit really go all out. I hadn't even gone through passport control and I'm already being greeted with a warm welcome". Well it turns out the welcome wasn't as warm as I thought. Next thing I know I'm being escorted to a secret label-less backroom at the airport. At this point I was told to wait. So for about two hours I waited as occasionally attractive young Israeli women with large machine guns would come in saying something to me in Hebrew, which I don't speak. After awhile they realized I didn't speak Hebrew and said "What kind of Israeli doesn't speak Hebrew" To which I responded, "A Canadian" They then ask me a series of questions. (Who my parents were, where I was born etc. Which they already knew)

The next part caught me by surprise, remember this is supposed to be a short (72hour) trip to Israel. A young woman tells me that as an Israeli citizen I have two conditions before I can leave: First I can't leave the country without permission from the dept of Interior and must get an Israeli passport. When I asked how long she tells me several weeks. Then the best part, secondly I must report for my Israeli military service in a place called Tiberias not far from Jordan and Syria on western shore of the Sea of Galilee as soon as possible. When I said again that I was just visiting, the official indicated that I was now officially in the Israeli defense forces (IDF).

I was now on my own in a country where I didn't speak the language and certainly didn't identify myself with. I was on my own effectively drafted into one of the most well funded and active defense forces on the planet. To give you some background on the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), in 2008 Israel spent $16.2 billion on its armed forces, making it the country with the biggest ratio of defense spending to GDP as a percentage of the budget of all developed countries.($2,300 per person). Also all male citizens are required to serve three years in the IDF with exceptions made only on religious, physical or psychological grounds. Arguably the IDF is one of the most politically charged defense forces on the globe, not exactly how I envisioned spending my next three years.

It wasn't that I was afraid of being in the army, so much as the thought of potentially being away from my family in what most certainly felt like a strange foreign land. With an 11 month old baby at home and my wife and I expecting another I focused on how to get out of this most awkward predicament I suddenly found myself in. So now instead of focusing my attention on the business meetings and presentations I was supposed to have over the next few days I would have to focus on what felt like getting back my freedom. Luckly my new Israeli friends and business partners stepped up to help me out.

Some of the biggest help came from an Israeli business partner (who asked not to be named). When I eventually emerged that evening from the holding area in the Airport, he was there waiting for me and sprung into action. Within minutes he had called senior contacts within the Israeli Government, contacts that would eventually include the Deputy Prime Minster of Israel as well as various other high ranking officials. He then detailed a strategy that would have me visit both the Dept of the Interior as well as the biggest Army base in the country.

While my business partner was calling everyone he knew, the second day of my trip I attendeed the conference as much as I could. After all I was in Tel Aviv for the World Cloud Computing Summit and a CloudCamp Tel Aviv which ended up being both successes having great turn outs. Needless to say there is a tremendous amount of interest in cloud computing in Israel with several hosting companies announcing they would be offering cloud related products and services. But alas, this aspect of my trip was greatly overshadowed by my worries of being conscripted into the military as well as not being able to leave the country. Anyone who follows my twitter account could easily see I was somewhat stressed over the situation. But thanks to the huge outpouring of support from the Israeli's I met, my situation would soon be resolved with the greatest of efficiency. Literally dozens of people made phone calls and provided me with advice. It seemed that if you had a friend in the IDF, they would call on my behalf with at one point one senior military commander noting that that I must of been a very special person because he had received no less then 10 calls about me in the previous 24 hours.

All in all it took roughly 48 hours to get my situation fully resolved. First with the issuing of an Israel passport (which was given to me 45 minutes after it was requested, a new record I'm told) as well as a visit to the largest military base in the country called Camp Rabin named for Yitzhak Rabin. The base was one of the first IDF bases and has served as the IDF headquarters since Israel's founding in 1948. Think of it like the Pentagon in the U.S.

One of things that struck me at Camp Rabin (other then it reminded me of a good unconference name) was the age of the average enlistee, somewhere between 18-21 years old, unsurprisingly all of which were heavily armed. It felt like a summer camp with guns.

After a few hours of back and forth between the IDF HQ and my outpost in Tiberias I was given my release papers. The papers were in Hebrew, but luckily my local partner who seemed to have became both my chauffeur and translator was there to help. He told me that I had been discharged from the IDF for the reason of "Old Age" and that it also said that I was free to leave the country.

Yes, one crazy business trip.
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