The Israel Defense Forces are known for both their excellent fighting capabilities, and their innovations in warfare. Few outside Israel, however, know that the Israeli army serves as a great equalizer, bringing all sorts of people together and serving as an opportunity to build a career or a different life.
Many years ago I, a Western Journalism correspondent, visited the IDF headquarters in the Jerusalem area. The army base is located in the northern Jerusalem neighborhood of Neve Ya’acov just a few kilometers from the Palestinian city of Ramallah.
As I toured the base, I noticed a mentally disabled soldier who was working on a computer in an office he shared with other “regular” soldiers. The guy told me enthusiastically how much he liked to be in the army and showed me a part of his work while his fellow soldiers gave him compliments.
It was my first encounter with the phenomenon of the “disabled” IDF soldiers and at the time, there were only very few people with special needs serving in the Israeli army.
A few years later, I was invited to dinner by a friend who lives in Efrat, a city close to Bethlehem. It was Passover, and my friend hosted his mother and her adopted mentally disabled son Ro’i to celebrate the festival together.
Ro’i had just joined the IDF and served in a special unit for “disabled” soldiers. He relayed how he enjoyed being in the army and how he felt he did important work by serving his country. His mother told me that Ro’i had realized a dream when he joined the army. He had always wanted to be like regular kids and thought for a long time that he would not be able to serve as a soldier.
His stepbrother later said to me Ro’i’s self-confidence had grown significantly since he had joined the army and that his overall wellbeing had improved ever since he enlisted as a soldier.
In 2014, Israeli Defense Minister Moshe ‘Boogie’ Ya’alon was filmed when he visited one of the units for ‘soldiers with special needs’ as the IDF now calls them. He said that the project was a “worthy cause” in terms of national security education and social welfare.
Rabbi Mendi Belinitzki, who is involved in the project, said the program has positive effects on the soldiers that reach far beyond the army service. He said that the project led to better integration in society, into the community and the workforce.
The soldiers of the special units get basic training where they learn about the values of the IDF like maintaining human dignity and the biblical commandment of ‘love your neighbor as yourself.’ The basic training ends with a hike along the ‘Svil Israel’ a track that leads from the north to the south of Israel and concludes with a ceremony during which the soldiers receive their berets.
To get an idea of the program watch below:
The Ro’im Rachok (Look Into The Distance) program of the IDF provides special training for Israeli autistic youths who want to serve in the army.
“The program seizes on the participants’ perceptive capabilities and their knack for precision or repetition and places them in the military’s most elite and sensitive intelligence units, where they pour over satellite imagery or serve in quality assurance roles, verifying that the software the military develops is flawless. The program is expanding to address people with skills other than heightened perception, training soldiers for roles in combat support as well,” according to Ynet.
The soldiers with special needs that participate in the “Ro’im Rachok” program get the assistance of an occupational therapist and a psychologist. These professionals also advise their commanders and their fellow soldiers in the units.
One of the autistic soldiers in the program told Ynet that the project gives him a real chance in life and a chance for on-the-job education.
“It’s revolutionary. It proves that even though others say we cannot, we can,” the soldier told Ynet while shielding his classified work from the eyes of his interviewers.