What Would You Do If There Was A Military Draft?
For young Israeli pro Ely Cassirer, facing three year's mandatory military conscription, it was all too much to handle.
“In Israel,” an old Zionist once said. “In order to be a realist, you must believe in miracles.”
As one of Tel Aviv’s most promising surfers, young Israeli Ely Cassirer wanted to believe in miracles, too: that somehow, someway, he could avoid the three years of required military conscription all non-Arab Israeli boys must complete.
“When I was young, even until I was probably, like 15, I wanted to join the army,” Cassirer told me. “Everyone does their service, and they come back with these crazy stories. Your father. Your uncles. My brother and sister. They were all in the army. When you’re growing up, you picture yourself in the army, because you’re Israeli. It’s who you are.”
While required military service might seem akin to slavery to even the most freedom-loving, flag-waving, armchair American patriots, mandatory military conscription has been part of Israel’s cultural fabric since the Jewish state’s creation in 1947. It is a matter of great pride, a rite of passage, for all Israeli’s to have served their country.
“You wait for it when you’re young, and it seems like this abstract thing, but then it gets real when you’re 16,” Ely says. “You get a letter sent to your house “inviting” you for a day of exams. Physical, mental, they do an IQ test, everything. They give you a score. 97 is the highest, and that’s what I got. Which meant, pretty much, that I was going to Gaza.
Ely was given an enlistment date and as it approached, the reality began to sink in.
“Man, I saw Ely in France, just before his start date, like the end of last year, and he was just tripping,” Spain’s Gony Zubizaretta told me on a late spring morning in Portugal, as we drove through Lisbon, on our way to the Caparica Pro. “I mean… imagine: You’re seventeen years old, you’re starting to travel, you’re meeting all these other kids your age from all over the world, surfing all those beautiful waves, competing internationally as a surfer from Israel. And you have to go serve in the army. Until you’re 21! Anyhow, I don’t know what happened, but he showed up yesterday to the [Caparica Pro], out of the blue. I guess he’d had a nervous breakdown or something, and they discharged him. You’ll have to talk with him. I’m sure it’s a crazy story.”
Handsome, worldly, and talented, Ely Cassirer is a dream Israeli ambassador for surfing; but it would take a full colapse for him to have the opportunity to make avoid a nightmare and make his dream a reality.
That night, I met Ely in Ericeira. His hair shaved tight, salt flaking off his rich olive skin, just back from a surf, I told him I wanted to hear his story, whenever he was ready. And after a few months recovering from the traumatic experience, Cassirer and I caught up over the phone, as he was enjoying his first trip home to Tel Aviv since being discharged.
Stab: This is your first time back in Israel? How long’s it been?
Ely: First time, yeah. I haven’t been back in four months. When I saw you in Portugal I had been out for literally two days.
You looked absolutely shook when we met. But yeah, so, before we talk about this, I just want to make sure you aren’t going to be snatched off the street and thrown in a military prison or something when this comes out.
No, no. It’s fine.
Ok. I mean, did you ask anyone? I mean, fuck, if you…
No, no, no. It’s fine, I promise. I'm not fit for the military, that's not going to change.
Ok, so when we met in Portugal, you were like, just getting out?
Yeah. I was still kinda in shock, I think.
So you knew for a while you were getting the call up. When did you really start feeling like it was just too much to handle?
Well, I think it really started to sink in—what was happening, like the true reality of not surfing for three years, of maybe being in battle—at 16. I was having the best year, surfing really well in contests here in Israel, starting to travel. There are maybe two guys that have done the QS from Israel. One of them is Omer Bar, who was always been like my mentor. I met him when I was like 13, and he was like 20. He was doing the Primes, actually. Making heats, and doing really well. He’d come back to Tel Aviv and would tell me about what his life was like on tour. When I was like 14, I went on a trip with him to Sri Lanka, then France during the Quiksilver Pro. It was so crazy to see all these guys, and their lifestyle.
You were on a surf trip when you got your call up, right?
Yeah, my first letter came, and I actually didn’t go to the exam, because I was on a surf trip to the Maldives. So they sent me another letter, with a warning. They’ll come and get you after the third warning. And so I went, and I got the highest rating you can receive. So I was in. And I immediately just started freaking out, which I didn’t expect. But it just all hit me. I have friends that served in the war—in Gaza, or Lebanon—who have seen just the most awful things you could imagine. And I was just coming back from this incredible surf trip, thinking about spending the next three years in the army.
Stylish and modern, Ely's been taking cracks at QS events all over Europe; but there's nowhere he's shined brighter than on his home turf in Tel Aviv.
I literally can’t even imagine. But you’d sort of sealed your fate already, no? I mean, you got a perfect score.
Yeah, immediately, I started playing up my knee problems. I went to a chiropractor to have a record of something wrong. Then I took it to the army, the same place as the exam, and I acted like I couldn’t walk really well, like I was suffering—couldn’t walk or run or anything.
Like, full Big Wednesday faking it?
Kind of. Honestly, it was really lame. They looked at me like, “Fuck off.” I think they see that shit all the time. They know when you’re bluffing.
They called your bluff! Just like an army guy calling you on your bullshit?
Yeah, it was really stupid. I was so bad at acting. And that just made me panic more.
So then I filed for a mental exemption and started talking to everyone I could that knew anything about the army. I knew a lot of people who had served and they told me the best way to get out, if you don’t have a physical problem, was for something mental, cause I couldn’t fake a good physical problem for shit. But I was just starting to unravel. Just losing it.
So did you have to like request a meeting with a psychiatrist or something?
I started meeting with an army psychiatrist. I came pretty prepared, super ready. But I honestly just felt really off, just depressed, at one point I went in to see the psychiatrist, just like losing it, just melting down. And she just really calmly said, "We have information that you’re competing in surf contests."
She busted you!
Full on. So, my date was in March. And by then I had just sort of given up. It felt like there was nothing I could do. The day before my enlistment date, I went and said goodbye to all my friends, we went out and I felt like, That’s it, I’m going to the army. I'll probably die. That was how I felt. I was defeated. That morning, my sister shaved my head—they’ll shave it for you, if you don’t—and my parents dropped me off at the recruiting base. They called my name over this really loud speaker and I got on the bus.
How far away was the military base from your house in Tel Aviv?
Like literally five minutes from there. It’s so dramatic [laughs]. My mom was falling apart, and I kept saying, Mom! It’s five minutes from here!
But in those five minutes, I knew. They put you in a line with thirty other kids, and you get your uniform, blood test, card, making you a soldier. And for a second I thought, “That’s it, I’m a soldier.” I don’t know anyone who had gone that far and gotten out. But all of a sudden it just hit me, and I knew that I would do whatever it took to get out. It was so sudden, the realization, just, “I can’t do this.”
So we talked about this in Portugal, but your nervous breakdown or whatever—it honestly sounded pretty, um, real. Like, I know you don't want to go around telling people you had a nervous breakdown, but...
Yeah, I’ve thought about that a lot. Like, what the real difference is. I don't know how to explain it. I just knew, right then, that I was done, I was losing it, just freaking. I wasn’t cooperating with anything. There were like 20 guys on the bus, this big army guy screaming at everyone when we got to the base, and everyone just walks in one line to get the fuck out of there. And I couldn’t get up. I just sat there. Everyone is off the bus, and he gets back on and sees me there, just sitting on the back of the bus, and he just lost it: “What the fuck are you doing! Are you crazy?! Are you stupid?!”
And I didn’t say anything. I was just shaking.
Boosting near his home in Tel Aviv.
God, that must have felt surreal, sitting there.
That was the moment I felt like I was not myself anymore. I was breathing heavy. Honestly, it’s kind of hard to remember, but I was just banging on the windows to the place, screaming, I want to see a doctor! Two volunteers came running and asked if I wanted something to relax me, or if I wanted to talk to someone, and I guess I was just screaming. Not even words. Just screaming noises. I couldn’t breathe. I told them: I don’t have air. I need air. And that felt real.
The two volunteers took me to the doctor. They carried me. I was just limp, almost fainting. They walked me through everyone. And I knew like 10 guys from school, or from the city—we were the same age, we grew up together—and they were looking at me like, What the fuck is going on?
So were you restrained or, like, sedated?
No, they took me to the doctor, and a guy came and measured my heart rate, my blood pressure, tried to talk me into trying breathing differently, asked me if I wanted something to calm me down. But I was just going crazy. I think I ripped the curtains down. I was mad, mad, mad. I couldn’t talk, nothing. I just wanted to see the psychiatrist.
The hardest thing on the first day, everyone told me later, is to get to a psychiatrist. They want to make you a soldier and take you to your base. That’s the only thing they care about. And I just wanted to get to a place where I was in a room with a guy that who could sign a piece of paper that could get me out of the army.
So, how did you eventually end up going to the psych ward?
So then they came with an ambulance. They took me to a room at the hospital for, like, “unusual guys.” Just a bunch of crazy guys in one room. I looked in and thought, Holy shit. I looked some of them in the eyes and they were legitimately mad. I was so scared, because I really thought they were going to put me in a sanitarium. I had no idea what was going to happen. I didn’t have a plan, you know? My plan was honestly made during those two minutes on the bus.
A guy would come in to check in, see if everyone is still crazy, no one’s bluffing. And I would just look at these other guys around me, and they looked crazier than me. I thought, I have to be the craziest one. I was in my chair, just squirming, banging on stuff.
Then I had the idea to go to the bathroom, and not come out of the bathroom.
Because they would have to come and deal with you again?
I mean, a crazy guy going alone to the bathroom is sketchy. I sat in the bathroom for a half-hour, until they noticed I was gone. And then, boom, seven guys come into the bathroom, and I wasn’t letting them in, so they busted the door down, and are looking at me, just going, “Are you OK!?.”
And I just said, “I don’t remember, I don’t remember, I don’t remember…”
But that got you in front of a psychiatrist?
Yeah, so they took me out and walked me to the psychiatrist, and he looked at me, I’m just freaking out, having trouble breathing, and said, “I don’t know what to do with him. Take him out of here.” The psychiatrists are really tough. If you’re uncooperative, they won’t do anything.
Wait, he wouldn’t see you because you were going crazy? Isn’t that sort of their job?
Kind of. Basically, he said, “I need to talk with this guy to understand what’s wrong with him.” And I wasn’t talking, so they couldn’t understand what was wrong.
Man, so this is all just one massive day of this, the whole thing—getting shipped off, the bus ride, this whole ordeal—it was all one really long day.
At that point, I’d been going through this for like eight hours. And it’s way harder than you probably think, feeling like that for that long. I was absolutely exhausted. I was so over it. So I was back in the other room with everyone, and I just wanted to go and talk to him. I came down, like it was a really bad panic attack. So I started apologizing for what had happened, to this one soldier that was with me from the first moment when they dragged me off the bus. If there’s something wrong, they assign you a soldier to look after you. And I felt so bad, but I didn’t say, “Hey, I’m sorry, I’m OK”— because I’d taken away like seven hours of his life— I just said, “I don’t know what happened. I don’t know what happened.”
So they got me in the psychiatrist’s office a few hours later, and they eventually sent me home. I wasn’t out yet, officially, but I was going home at least. Which was honestly incredible. No one gets sent home their first day. It had been 12 hours, and my parents were so surprised when I showed back up.
What did you say to everyone?
I sort of kept it to myself. I think they knew. I was tripping. The army made me wait five more days before I had to go back to finalize everything. Everyone was already at Boot Camp, and I was home.
I went back in the same clothes. My lucky clothes. I went straight to the psychiatrist appointment, where they made me wait for five or six more hours.
Then I talked to the doctor for like an hour, and I was really honest. He’d seen my medical report, and I couldn’t hide the fact that I was a surfer, because they’d already used it against me. So I talked about surfing. I talked about how hard it was, growing up in Israel surfing, how since the day I started, it was the only thing I imagined myself doing. I honestly couldn’t imagine myself not surfing. It would break my heart. I guess I wasn’t really talking to him straight—it sounded, um, blurry. Like someone that shouldn’t be in the military.
He heard you out and took sympathy? That’s incredible. And just like that, you were out?
No, no, no. They made me go through another seven hours of dealing with paperwork and going to different buildings getting things authorized [laughs]. But yeah, then I was out.
It was probably the most relieving feeling I ever had. When I turned 16, planning my future like all the kids I’d met surfing all over the world, my future was just blocked. I had thought about the army literally every day for two years, and all that anxiety and fear just came pouring out.
Was that like right before we met in Portugal? You looked so ragged and tired, but just so relieved.
Yeah, that was that week! I had just gotten out, and I was sitting in Tel Aviv with my parents and saw that Caparica was about to start, and I just said, I have to go! I just spent two months in Portugal, then two months in France, surfing in 5 QS comps this year, just all the European 1000s.
So, you’re a free man. I’m sure it feels good to be home, but what’s next. What are you going to do with this new lease on life?
I want to keep traveling, surfing as many comps as I can get in. I want to spend this year getting better, just training. I want to move to California. But right now, I’m just so happy to be back home. Tel Aviv is such an amazing place, and I’m just happy to be alive and free and surfing.
A local star in the Israeli surf scene (which, believe us, has its, um, benefits, when it comes to dusty-eyed desert beauties), Cassirer can now enjoy the freedoms most every other QS surfer takes for granted.