By Jeffrey Barken/JNS.org
Israel’s tumultuous summer and fall tested the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) on many fronts, as a 50-day conflict with Hamas was followed by increased Palestinian terrorism in Jerusalem and elsewhere. Yet despite the strain of war, Maj. Gen. (Res.) Meir Klifi-Amir (Klifi), the recently appointed national executive director of the Friends of the Israel Defense Forces (FIDF) not-for-profit organization, maintains that IDF morale is high.
“The IDF has the best morale that you can have in any army all over the world because our soldiers understand that [Israel] is the only country we (Jews) have to protect,” Klifi tells JNS.org in his first interview since assuming the FIDF position three months ago.
But how does that morale stay high? FIDF does its part by contributing to the army’s enduring spirit, raising funds from a vast network of international donors to support programming that enhances soldiers’ wellbeing.
“For the soldiers,” Klifi tells JNS.org, “it’s not about what’s in the box, or package. It’s about who sends that package. They were in the worst circumstances, under very strong pressure. … Knowing they get support from people all over the world who understand [the IDF’s mission] is very important for their morale.”
Taking the top job at FIDF marks a new chapter in the general’s career, as he transitions to a civilian role after serving in the military for 33 years. His shift in priorities is illustrated by FIDF’s slogan—“Their job is to look after Israel. Ours is to look after them.” Now he must care for individual soldiers, without a political or recruiting agenda.
Established in 1981 by a group of Holocaust survivors, FIDF runs educational, social, spiritual, cultural, and recreational programs for active-duty soldiers, veterans, and bereaved families of fallen soldiers. FIDF also provides assistance to Israel’s “lone soldiers”—IDF members whose parents do not live in Israel.
Recently published FIDF literature describes the aid the organization provided to soldiers in the wake of last summer’s Operation Protective Edge. Collectively labeled the “Day-After Programs,” the initiatives included sponsored flights for 1,800 lone soldiers who wished to visit their families and friends abroad.
Then there are FIDF’s ongoing programs for soldiers’ wellbeing. Through the Spirit R&R Program, FIDF provides 68 weeks of rest and recreation to combat-weary units. The Wounded Soldiers Program provides comprehensive medical care including prosthetic limbs and other rehabilitation services to more 800 soldiers in need. The LEGACY Program for families of fallen soldiers offers financial and social support to more than 5,000 widows and 10,000 orphans. Klifi singled out the FIDF IMPACT! Scholarship Program—which provides academic scholarships to combat soldiers who have completed their mandatory military service but cannot afford the cost of higher education—as “probably the best investment the Jewish people can invest in Israel.”
“I think that nothing better signifies the deeply rooted connection between the Jewish people, the State of Israel, and the brave soldiers who serve to protect it [than the IMPACT! program],” Klifi says. “We are committed to providing these soldiers with wellbeing and educational services in an effort to ease the burden they carry.”
Highlighting what is at stake, the former general recalls taking colleagues to a vantage point at one of Israel’s precarious borders with a hostile enemy.
“Israel’s brave soldiers, who are prepared to pay the ultimate price, ensure the existence of the IDF,” Klifi says. “Without the IDF, Israel itself cannot exist.”
But as Klifi sees it, while the IDF fights for the survival of Jewish identity and the Jewish state, it also serves as the vanguard of an alliance of democratic nations whose freedom is threatened by formidable foes.
“The pictures I cannot forget from the last war are from the funerals of Sgt. Sean Carmeli zichrono livracha (may his memory be blessed) and Sgt. Max Steinberg zichrono livracha,” Klifi says, referring to the American lone soldiers from Texas and California, respectively, who were killed during Operation Protective Edge. “Twenty-five thousand people attended Sean Carmeli’s funeral. I said, ‘Maybe he is a lone soldier, but in Israel he is not alone.’”
FIDF Chief Executive Officer Alan E. Scholnick, who like Klifi was recently appointed by the organization, says that supporting the IDF provides a “guaranteed return on investment.” Formerly a successful businessman in the private sector, Scholnick calls IDF soldiers “an insurance policy, a human bond,” guaranteeing the security of general investment in Israeli businesses.
“If we (FIDF) can help people during their service and reward them afterward with an education, this is a great investment for all parties—a triple win,” Scholnick tells JNS.org, conveying his belief that the creativity and entrepreneurship demonstrated by IDF veterans will continue unabated.
Beyond this marriage of business and philanthropy, FIDF helps ensure the continuity of Jewish heritage, identity, and free expression. “We are duty-bound to remember the Shoah,” Scholnick says. “I don’t think it was a surprise that the FIDF was founded by people who had no Jewish army to protect them. We have to keep that memory alive. Otherwise, we would be remiss.”
Against the backdrop of viewing the Holocaust as a reminder to the international community that nations must unite to combat current and future genocide, FIDF—founded by Holocaust survivors—has made its cause universal. Scholnick takes pride in the fact that the FIDF attracts donors from various faiths and backgrounds.
“We have such diversity among our base,” he says. “You can walk into one of our events thinking you’ll know everyone and be surprised to see religious people [and] people who aren’t even Jewish.”
Both Klifi and Scholnick emphasize that FIDF’s work is apolitical. What the organization does promote, however, is a connection with Israel for its Jewish and non-Jewish supporters alike. By aiding Israeli soldiers, FIDF bolsters “Jewish continuity, nation-building, and shared responsibility for Jews in Israel,” says Scholnick. This display of solidarity, he says, should be regarded as a “badge of honor.”
CAP: Israel Defense Forces (FIDF) National Executive Director Maj. Gen. (Res.) Meir Klifi-Amir (in center) with IDF soldiers at the recent FIDF Pennsylvania and Southern New Jersey Chapter Gala in Philadelphia. Credit: Master Studio Photography.Moshe.