When 19-year-old American-born Michaela Levit died in Israel by her own hand this month, she became another lone soldier in the Israel Defense Forces to die by suicide this year. The death of Levit, who made aliyah in 2017, has raised more questions about how the IDF treats its lone soldiers — most of them young men and women who moved to Israel motivated by idealism and Zionism but who lack a family support system in the country.
There are an estimated 6,000 lone soldiers serving in the IDF, representing about four percent of active duty soldiers. Yet according to Why They Fell, a campaign to raise awareness on the issue, “the past year [lone soldiers] have accounted for 30% of all suicides.”
Critics contend that the IDF does not do enough to support its highly motivated but vulnerable lone soldiers. According to the Jerusalem Post: “Last year, a report by the state comptroller found that the IDF was not addressing the needs of lone soldiers adequately enough. While the report acknowledged that the IDF and the Defense Ministry have already begun to correct some of the failings raised in the report, the criticism raised several shortcomings relating to the treatment of lone soldiers during their service.”
The army says there is no “worrying trend” in lone soldier suicides. In fact, according to Noya Govrin, the head of Nefesh B’Nefesh’s Lone Soldiers Program, the military has taken “major steps to improve how it treats lone soldiers,” including the creation of “a department dealing with lone soldiers, a call center with multilingual staff, and improved salary, benefits and outside support.”
But critics say that’s not enough. Some complain that the whole lone soldier situation creates more problems than it’s worth. Others cite the machismo-infused military environment as particularly unsympathetic to the needs of young, vulnerable foreign conscripts, who haven’t yet blended into Israeli society, but who are called upon to match up with those who have lived in the culture since birth and who have much needed familial support.
Our community applauds young Jews who make aliyah and join the army. We consider them selfless heroes who are willing to make the ultimate sacrifice for the Zionist dream. While that respect and appreciation is deserved, we need to remember that lone soldiers are largely young people, buoyed by idealism, thrust into the military world of a foreign country, who have not had the time to acculturate, establish networks or healthy skepticism before entering a highly structured and intense institution where they lose their individuality.
We mourn every Israeli soldier lost. But there is a special, inconsolable pain for the loss by suicide of a lonely lone soldier. They deserve better.