The IDF plans to cut its ‘green’ female soldier-teachers. Who will help expose future generations of youngsters to Israel’s landscape?
By Roy (Chicky) Arad | May 18, 2014

Without the move drawing much attention, one of the social-environmental groups in the Israel Defense Forces, which for years was its pride, is about to be closed. The “green” female soldier-teachers, who have been taking schoolchildren on hikes all over the country since the 1950s, will disappear from the desert paths.

The decision, which was made with the intention of using the teachers for other tasks in the IDF, will be a harsh blow to the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel and field schools all over the country, which relied on the female soldiers as tour guides.

Avshalom Cohen, the head of the Sde Boker field school, sounded panicky: “This decision is a death blow to the field schools. Another educational jewel from Ben-Gurion’s legacy is getting lost. I wrote a manifesto on the subject and thought of organizing a demonstration, but what can I do, I’m not a media person.”

The Defense Ministry planned the cancellation already in 2011, but then-chairman of the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee Shaul Mofaz fought hard to prevent it. The Defense Ministry also plans to eliminate soldier-teachers in other fields. Cohen says that pressuring the government ministries didn’t help, the Education Ministry blamed the Defense Ministry and vice versa. The chief of staff didn’t respond. It’s a sad story.

The soldier-teachers are women who are half soldiers and half teachers, funded by the Education Ministry. They also dress half and half: khaki pants with civilian shirts. The number of such soldiers is not large enough to cause their transfer to other jobs to change the balance of power in the Middle East: Every year about 70 are conscripted. Since 1999 there has already been a decline of 74 percent in their number.

In Sde Boker there are seven such women. “The field school won’t survive without them,” says Cohen. “Today if a school going on a trip asks for counselors, I can give it whatever it wants. Soon every work day will cost money and we’ll become another commercial tour company.”

Yaakov Shaharabani, in charge of education and community in the SPNI, is afraid that after the elimination of the green soldier-teachers, other soldier-teachers will also be affected. “The Defense Ministry is making a big mistake. Every soldier-teacher touches thousands of children each year, and the cutback will also undermine willingness to serve in the IDF. Maybe there should be a reduction in female soldiers who become civilian secretaries in the Defense Ministry, but that’s different from cutting back on soldier-teachers in [the development town of] Shlomi. It will be a real problem in our learning centers in Shlomi, Lod and Kiryat Shmona. I may have to close them.”

Prof. Tali Tal of the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology was a green soldier-teacher in the 1980s, and today is involved in scientific and environmental education. In 2011 she initiated a manifesto of 100 women on the academic faculty, all of whom had served as soldier-teachers.

Closing the track will lead to a situation in which far fewer young people will know anything beyond the four walls.

“There has always been a value to going outdoors and a connection to the landscape of the country in Hebrew education. We’re giving up something that our forefathers saw as something unique,” she says.

Most of those interviewed for this article saw canceling the track as a matter of values, which goes beyond the closing of an ordinary unit. “Ben-Gurion established the unit in 1951 in order to educate toward love of the land, and the cancellation is a blow to the value of the army of the people,” says Cohen.

The move is part of a trend in the IDF to turn it from the army of the people to a professional army, abandoning the educational and social pretensions. It’s symbolic that the new place where the army is now expanding greatly and finding manpower and huge budgets is for protecting the natural gas platforms owned by Israeli and foreign businessmen, which are outside territorial waters.

Ilil Amir-Kasif, who served as a soldier-teacher in the 1990s, recalls the excitement of touring with young people who had immigrated from the former Soviet Union. “We started with a discussion and each one explained how they didn’t like to hike here, how ugly the country is, how boring the desert, and who needs this. After four days of walking in the desert they all came to tell me how amazing it is here and how they have a different feeling about Israel.

“I admit that I don’t know the numbers, but I doubt whether the IDF is lacking female soldiers. The question is also what closing the tracks will do to the SPNI. The annual class trips are of value significant to the question of whether they will be guided by soldier-teachers or by private companies that are interested in the bottom line. This will weaken the SPNI and transfer most of the class trips to private companies.”

I ask Shaharabani of the SPNI whether he can understand the logic of closing a unit that is not really military, at a time of reductions in manpower. “The IDF explains that there’s a shortage of manpower in cybernetics and intelligence. But the soldier-teachers in [the development town of] Ma’alot are no less important than cybernetics.”

Those who are worried about the cutback hope to be saved by MK Ze’ev Elkin (Likud), who was recently appointed co-chairman of the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee. His daughter was a green soldier-teacher in Shlomi. “Because of my daughter I’m familiar with the track first-hand, it’s a shame to lose it,” he says. “We have to reduce the use of regular soldiers for social services, but we have to use our judgment. There are a lot of things that can be cut first. I assume that when the subject comes up in the committee it will receive massive support, like last time.”

The IDF said that “in light of the expected abridgement of compulsory army service and a decline in the number of those serving in the IDF, there has to be a convergence in the number of soldiers serving in units inside and outside the army. The IDF recommended reducing the number of soldier-teachers, and the decision regarding using them as tour guides is in the hands of the Education Ministry.”

The Education Ministry said that “Unfortunately, the IDF informed us of a cut of 30 percent in the number of soldier-teachers. The ministry is forced to use the soldiers in accordance with the following ranking of needs: special education, help to students in the periphery and children at risk. The ministry also attributes importance to environmental education and will be happy to use the soldier-teachers for that purpose if there are enough girls available.”