By Patrick McCarron
Drew Teitlebaum, a sophomore at Washington and Lee University, has always seen himself strapping on a military uniform. But when he does that after graduation, it won’t be for the United States; it will be for Israel.
The Israel Defense Forces is composed of Jews from around the world. Nearly six thousand foreigners are enlisted in the Israeli army, including many Americans. Like other foreign fighters for the Israeli army, Teitlebaum feels he would be doing more by defending Israel than his native America.
“I feel a very strong connection to Israel, and I feel like I’d be doing more good there,” Teitlebuam said. “I could join the U.S. Army here and I could do paperwork for three years or five years or eight years and be done with my time and not really have done much.
“In Israel I know I’m going to be going somewhere that actively has to fight for its survival at all times. The U.S. acts more as a world police. Israel has to do everything it can to defend itself,”
Until this week, Teitlebaum was a member of Virginia Military Institute’s branch of the Army Reserve Officers’ Training Corps. On Thursday, he had to inform his major of his decision to quit. ROTC members who complete their sophomore year of training are required to enlist in the U.S. military. But Teitlebaum takes comfort knowing that one day he’ll return to his home country with no regrets.
“It wasn’t an easy decision for me. And what makes the decision more comforting and justified to me is I know I’ll come back and be a good taxpaying citizen in the United States. I’ll do my civic duty, I’ll volunteer in my community, and I’ll be 100 percent American when I return,” Teitlebaum said.
The decision to fight for a foreign nation’s military is a hard decision alone. But Teitlebaum’s intended career path as a politician could be hindered because of it. It’s a chance he’s willing to take.
“I have absolutely no doubt people are going to misconstrue it,” Teitlebaum said. “But really, when that time comes it will all be about trying to explain the situation and educating people. While I think it might preclude me from winning an election on any level, which is unfortunate because it’s something I’d really love to do one day, it’s something I’m willing to do.”
For Teitlebaum, his urgency to join the Israeli army is heightened by the fact his aunt, uncle, and five cousins live in Israel. “My family is just endangered living where they live,” Teitlebaum said.
And the danger he mentioned is legitimate. Israel is surrounded by Arab Republics that vow to destroy it. Lebanon, Syria, Egypt, and Jordan all have unstable governments. Groups such as the Lebanon-based Hezbollah and the Gaza-based Hamas are located close to the border and are a constant military threat.
“At first I felt like ‘Am I being a traitor to my country for agreeing to give my life for a different one?’ And I feel like I’m not. I feel like just because I have this opportunity, and almost a self-imposed obligation to myself, to my religion, and to this little country that is the beacon of hope for democracy in a region of governments that are just dysfunctional,” Teitlebaum said.
Israel has just over six thousand soldiers from all over the world. The program he is entering places foreign volunteers side-by-side with Israeli citizens on the battlefield.
Teitlebaum does not think America will suffer from people choosing to fight for Israel.
“I think we’ll have no problem defending ourselves,” he said. “We have tons of able-bodied young men and women from every corner of society, every part of the United States willing to serve for every branch,” Teitlebaum said.
He is not the only local student whose allegiance lies with the Israeli military. While on a Birthright trip—a free heritage trip to Israel provided to young Jews—W&L law student Jacob Goldstein saw something he didn’t expect at an Israeli fort.
“A few of the guys were from America and I was pretty surprised by that. Prior to that point, I didn’t even know that it was possible for Americans to join the IDF,” Goldstein said.
Goldstein joined the Israeli army after graduating from the University of South Carolina in 2008. Although Goldstein had considered joining the U.S. Marines after college, his Birthright trip made him change his mind. But Goldstein’s religion was not the biggest reason for his decision to fight for Israel.
“Being Jewish definitely factored into my decision, but more from a sense of cultural identity than from religious obligation,” Goldstein said. “I decided to join the army because I thought Israel was a country that could use my help.”
Goldstein’s time with the Israeli military included parachuting and urban combat, and he spent much of his time in Gaza and the West Bank. Today, Goldstein is happy with his decision.
“It was a life-changing experience, and I don’t regret going,” he said. “I found that most people aren’t critical of my decision, although I have a friend in the U.S. Navy Seals who thought that it made more sense for me to join the American military. It’s a fair assessment to say that he didn’t understand my motivation for going at first, but he ended up coming around later,” Goldstein said.
But Goldstein and Teitlebaum said they are still very American. While Teitlebaum’s decision is based on defending his religion and his family, he said he will always be an American.
“As a Jew, I have a very strong connection to Israel, and I always have. Saying that, though, I am an American. The United States will always be my home.”