Sitting in a circle surrounded by 50 other Israeli soldiers, Efrat Marom, experienced the mental abuse of the Israeli army for refusing to serve. All she wanted was her athletic title.
In the U.S, Americans bleed pride in sports -- it’s part of the culture, especially when it comes to college sports such as March Madness and college football, which bring in big bucks to the NCAA and universities. But in Israel, some say that sports and athletes are unappreciated compared to the U.S. In Israel, school and sports don’t go together.
By law, all citizens are required to serve in the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) once they turn 18. Exemptions to the service are rare, but can be granted after intensive evaluations. For athletes, only certain “outstanding athletes” are completely exempted from each sport every year. Athletes who wish to receive partial exemption such as being able to practice while serving, must be approved by the IDF. But refusal of an athletic title means the soldier is off to combat – the fate that Marom had to face.
Marom had applied for partial athletic exemption before turning 18. However, according to her, the IDF lost her papers and denied the exemption. Without her athletic title, she was sent to a base far from home.
While serving in the desert, Marom was assigned serious responsibilities such as monitoring a security camera aimed at the border for eight hours ensuring no one was coming into Israel from outside countries.
But her coach and her family kept insisting that Marom refuse her military service because she deserved to be recognized as an athlete. However, in refusing, she was sentenced to prison for four days.
Refusers are sentenced to prison, in hopes they’ll change their minds about denying commitment to their civic duty.
Marom, an Israeli swimmer at Saint Peter’s University, recalls officials would yell and curse at each soldier telling them they were an embarrassment to the country.
But the abuse wasn’t just mental.
Imprisoned in the desert, prisoners were forced to perform unnecessary tasks like running from wall to wall in the middle of the summer, trying to break their spirits and force them to serve in the army. And many did just that.
By the end of the four days, only seven people remained. Marom was one of them.
“I don’t know how I did it,” said Marom.
According to her, those were the worst four days of her life.
“They treated me like I murdered someone,” said Marom. “It was awful.”
But Marom hadn’t murdered anyone and she hadn’t refused to go to the army for an invalid reason. In fact, she refused because she wanted to fight for her dreams -- continue swimming and eventually attend college in the U.S.
The hopes of a brighter future, is what pushed her to survive prison and go to trial for her athletic title. According to Marom, she was “risking it all” for her career, but in the end, it was worth it. She finally had her title and could finish her two years in the IDF.
Israeli athletes who wish to accomplish more with their sport after high school must attend college overseas. But they must complete their civic duty of serving in the IDF before that. This means Israeli athletes enter college much older than the average freshman and some would say they’re more mature than their American classmates.
In order for Israeli athletes to enroll as student athletes in the U.S, they must be deemed eligible by the NCAA and receive an amateurism certification that recognizes them in their sport. But before this recognition comes the recognition as an athlete by the IDF, which allows them to train while fulfilling their civic duty.
Receiving this recognition comes with a couple of privileges. The athletes can’t serve more than 30 miles away from home and can’t do more than six hours a day of service.
They are allowed flexible hours for training and absences throughout their service for professional competitions. But approval to leave the country for competitions was a hassle in itself.
Bar Botzer, a tennis player at Wake Forest University in North Carolina, had difficulties traveling abroad for tournaments while as a soldier.
“I had a tough time traveling,” said Botzer through a phone call interview. “I couldn’t go into certain countries that I wanted to go to like Turkey to play tournaments. Israeli soldiers are not allowed to go to Turkey.”
But traveling wasn’t the only struggle for the athletes; their entire military service was a mental and physical grind.
The daily routine
Although allowed to train and serve at the same time, the athletes have to complete a mandatory bootcamp training during the first few months. Bootcamps involve lots of fast-paced routines, limited hours of sleep and abiding to commands given from superiors sometimes only three months older than them.
Botzer struggled with taking demands and asking for permission for everything he did since it was something he wasn’t used to.
“From playing tennis, being so independent and traveling around the world to, can I go to the bathroom please or can I do this and do that? It’s a big change,” explained Botzer.
But after bootcamp, the struggles came in experiencing long exhausting days filled with commuting, training and military duties.
For Igal Oren, former SPU swimmer and current assistant coach for the university's swimming team, those estimated three years were hectic and tough, but “fun.”
Almost every morning, Oren would have swimming practice from around 5:30 a.m. to 7:30 a.m. then he’d go home to eat and change into his military uniform before commuting 40 minutes to his base. After working at the base for a couple of hours, Oren would usually head to a second practice, then he’d go off to work as a waiter until 2 a.m. Most nights he’d only get about three hours of sleep and repeated the same routine the next day.
“I mean you’re young enough you don’t feel it,” said Oren when explaining the psychical labor he endured almost eight years ago. “But it was tough for me personally.”
But serving for their country and training in their sport was all worth it for these athletes even for Marom who was sentenced to prison for “refusing” to serve.
It’s a cultural thing
Looking back at her experience in the IDF, Marom wouldn’t change anything.
“I think I did everything the right way,” expressed Marom. “I’m glad I refused. I’m glad I went to the military… I'm more mature because of what we've been through and what we've seen.”
She also explained that some of those who “cheat” their way out of serving in the military by faking mental issues, for example, usually regret their decisions later on. In 2013, four percent of those not eligible to serve were exempted because of mental reasons.
Israelis can usually notice who did and didn’t serve in the military. Not serving for their country is viewed as disrespectful, especially since they believe they need a strong military in order to survive and protect themselves.
But serving in the military is more than just a pride thing, it’s a cultural thing.
Serving in the military teaches its citizens how to be independent, survive under difficult conditions and how to be disciplined.
“I always joke that an 18 year old American is like a 13 year old Israeli in terms of how they view the world -- like maturity,” said Botzer.
He believes serving in the military and learning those skills is what makes many Israelis very successful, especially when it comes to being a student athlete.
Coming to the states
However, approval to attend a college in the U.S as a student athlete doesn’t guarantee four years of eligibility.
Sophomore David Dolgitzer is redshirting this year as he was only allowed three years of competitive swimming at SPU per NCAA.
After the military, Dolgitzer stayed in Israel for a year training, but not competing professionally. However, the NCAA decided to count that year as an eligible year of collegiate competing. He was only granted three years of eligibility.
“It kind of sucks not to compete, but I go with it,” said Dolgitzer who still trains with the team this season, but can’t competitively swim until his junior year.
While redshirting, Dolgitzer is using that extra time to focus more on his studies. He explained that serving in the military for almost three years has allowed him to mature more than the average college student. He believes being an older freshman gives him an advantage.
“I think it changed me as a person,” said Dolgitzer. “If I would go to a university at 18 maybe I wouldn’t have been that serious because now I know more of what I want and I know how to do it.”
Botzer also acknowledges the advantage as he entered Wake Forest as a freshman at the age of 24. Having his priorities right has prevented him from being swallowed into the “bubble” that Wake Forest is, according to Botzer. He has been able to focus on his studies in Finance, a degree he is very determined to accomplish.
“This degree is going to last me until the day I die,” said Botzer. “Having the right set of priorities and just being more mature and making the right decision for sure helps me in terms of performance [and life].”