To honor Israel’s disabled population as part of Israel’s nationwide events marking the 2020 International Day for Persons with Disabilities, the IDF’s Givati Brigade set out on a heartwarming ‘beret journey’ honoring special soldiers and volunteers who participate in its world-acclaimed military inclusion program.
Israel may take pride in the fact that it’s making significant progress in the way it treats its disabled citizens. A recent survey
found that the general attitude of Israelis towards people with disabilities is improving, despite and perhaps because of the coronavirus pandemic.
And the Israeli military is no exception. In fact, it’s renowned as one of the only armies in the world which incorporates young people with special needs into its ranks.
The inclusion of disabled people into the IDF is done primarily through an IDF program called Special in Uniform
(SIU,) a remarkable organization that integrates young people with autism and various physical and mental disabilities into the IDF, and subsequently into Israeli society, by helping its graduates adapt to the workforce and Israeli society in meaningful ways.
On Thursday, in a special event marking the International Day for Persons with Disabilities in the IDF, dozens of soldiers from the elite Givati Brigade hiked alongside their SIU comrades in an unforgettable masa kumta (beret journey,) a ceremonial journey privates take during their basic training, at the end of which they are granted their colored beret, marking the army corps they belong to.
Setting out from the Tzur Hanegev Military Base in southern Israel, the group embarked on their journey after a rousing round of applause for the participants. As they marched, they cheered for the Givati brigade, hiking the entire way to the Home Front Command Base where they were greeted by Defense Minister Benny Gantz, Welfare Minister Itzik Shmuli, and commander of the Home Front Command
Maj.-Gen. Uri Gordin.
Gantz, Shmuli and Gordin met with soldiers from SIU and heard about the various roles and positions they hold, as well as their dreams for the future. The soldiers also shared their role in combating the coronavirus pandemic as part of their positions in the IDF’s Home Front Command.
“I want to thank you,” Gantz told the soldiers. “A modern society should make sure that no-one is left behind, no matter the challenge they face.” Gantz thanked Shmuli for the work the Welfare Ministry has done in order to help integrate people with disabilities into Israeli society.
“People with disabilities are first and foremost equals who have impressive capabilities and aspirations … It’s our decision whether we choose to focus on one’s disability or capability,” Shmuli said. “Integrating people with disabilities into the IDF doesn’t only contribute to their quality of life and sense of accomplishment, it’s a contribution to our country and society,” he added.
Defense Minister Benny Gantz, Welfare Minister Itzik Shmuli, and commander of the Home Front Command Maj.-Gen. Uri Gordin meet with people with disabilities who volunteer in the IDF, December 4, 2020. (Credit: Elad Malka)
Roy Asher, a young man with autism who volunteers for Special in Uniform shared his feelings about this special day. “Marching alongside the famous Givat soldiers is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity made all the more special because they relate to us as equals. I feel like their equal too. Here, dressed in my uniform and serving the IDF, I’ve come to feel that my autism is behind me. I overcame it the day when I was inducted into the army.”
Participating in today’s march honoring soldiers with disabilities, Lt. Colonel Tal Ophir shared that “I’m privy to the enormous willpower manifested by [SIU soldiers] that motivates them to get up every morning and do their part to defend our nation and homeland. Often, regular soldiers will gripe about waking up early or field training. But when we have this group of hardworking kids among us, and we watch them toil, struggle and succeed, we say, ‘Wow! Look what we have to learn from these people. They are so inspiring!’.”
Welfare Minister Itzik Shmuli, and commander of the Home Front Command Maj.-Gen. Uri Gordin meet with people with disabilities who volunteer in the IDF, December 4, 2020. (Credit: Elad Malka)
Military service is a rite of passage of sorts for Israeli high school graduates, as well as the gateway to a successful career and future. While young adults with disabilities were traditionally excluded from conscription, much has changed since the founding of Special in Uniform.
Since 2014, over 650 young disabled people have completed their service thanks to SIU on 35 different bases. The program was established by Lend A Hand to A Special Child in cooperation with JNF-USA. The program was founded to give everyone a right to fulfil their potential and be accepted into society, regardless of any disability.
Eli Mandelbaum contributed to this report.