Student serves in Israeli army before starting at USC


Most freshmen enter USC straight out of high school with limited life experiences. Twenty-two-year-old screenwriting major Ilan Benjamin, however, is starting his freshman year at USC after spending 2 1/2 years in the Israeli army — and wrote a book about the experience.

Call of duty · Freshman Ilan Benjamin traveled through the Middle East during the 2 1/2 years he spent as an Israeli soldier. – Photo courtesy of Ilan Benjamin

Benjamin grew up in Oakland, Calif. His father is Israeli, and Benjamin’s family visited Israel many times throughout Benjamin’s childhood. On one such visit, they gave a soldier a ride.

The experience had a profound impact on Benjamin.

“To me, [this soldier] was the epitome of everything cool and important and meaningful,” Benjamin said. “At eight years old, I knew this was someone I wanted to emulate.”

When Benjamin took another trip to Israel at age 16, he was sure he wanted to serve in the army.

“Israel is surrounded by enemies. … It’s a miracle Israel exists,” he said.

Benjamin’s parents did not take his wish to serve seriously until he refused to fill out college applications, and instead chose to enlist in the army.

“I needed time to experience real life,” Benjamin said. “I wanted something to write about.”

During his years in Israel, Benjamin found inspiration for his writing. When asked to describe his experience, he said his time in the army was “every adjective you could imagine.”

“We got through the hard stuff with laughter,” Benjamin said. “I had a lot of fun, but it could be scary and intense.”

The Israeli soldiers were guarding the country against an enemy who “wanted to drive every Jew into the sea.”

Most of his worst experiences occurred when he was stationed at Har Dov, a disputed territory also known as Shebaa Farms.

Located in the mountains, Har Dov stood far from civilization.

“You could go a little crazy,” Benjamin said.

Har Dov is perhaps the hardest place to guard in Israel, because the enemy was extremely close.

“It was scary to see them, but scarier when the fog came in and we couldn’t see,” Benjamin said.

Not all the places Benjamin was stationed, though, were so trying. While serving on the Gaza Strip, Benjamin interacted with the people he was protecting. Observing children studying in bomb shelters made the experience “feel meaningful.”

“Everyone lives in constant fear of bombardment,” Benjamin said.

Benjamin wrote throughout his experience. All of his stories were written in the moment, based on his urges and the trials of the people he met.

“My stories were a way of venting. … Writing was like therapy,” Benjamin said. “Fiction guarded me. There’s a difference between saying, ‘He did this’ and saying, ‘I did this.’”

Benjamin never intended for the tales to become a book, but after his service, he noticed they all connected.

He could not, however, find a publisher willing to sell his short stories. Benjamin was told  nonfiction sells much better. Benjamin, however, preferred fictional stories.

“Nonfiction is like a glorified diary. … It wouldn’t have captured the experience as well,” he said.

Benjamin started a campaign on Kickstarter to pay for professional editing, layout and distribution costs. The campaign has already surpassed its $3,000 goal.

“I’m grateful to everybody and everything,” Benjamin said. “My supporters mean the world to me.”

Thanks to help from family, friends and strangers, Benjamin’s book Masa: The Stories of a Lone Soldier will be available on Amazon in December.

For now, Benjamin has thrown himself into life at USC.

“Being accepted into the screenwriting program was a dream come true,” Benjamin said.

Already involved in several film-related projects, Benjamin cannot wait to “write like crazy” in the future. Ultimately, he wants to make a documentary using some of the footage he shot in Israel.

“Since I finished serving, my life has been amazing. I appreciate everything,” Benjamin said.

While being a 22-year-old freshman means he sometimes must deal with immaturity and “dumb questions” about Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, Benjamin said he loves living in New/North Residential College.

“I try to treat everyone as an equal and surround myself with more mature people,” Benjamin said, “But that’s not to say I can’t be immature too.”

Though he said he is enjoying his time at USC, Benjamin does miss aspects of Israel: the food, the people and even the army.

He also misses the “blunt” nature of the Israeli people.

“There is no political correctness in Israel,” Benjamin said. “It rubbed off on me; I’m a straightforward guy.”

Both cultures will always be a part of his identity: “Here, I feel Israeli. There, I feel American. America and Israel are two flawed but beautiful countries. Both are worth defending and being proud of.”

18 replies
  1. Nicole
    Nicole says:

    Thank you for covering this human interest story. I found it very interesting and would like to welcome Ilan to the Trojan family. Your background and experiences are a great addition to our diverse community at USC.

  2. Dan
    Dan says:

    Can’t the Daily Trojan find someone who served in the US Armed Forces and do a story on them? I served in the USMC then went to college on the GI Bill.

  3. vince
    vince says:

    Funny how out of all the foreign nationals entering USC, the DT decides to run story on an Israeli Soldier’s perspective–even odder that the subject, Private Benjamin, feels the need to apologize to the author, Ms. Wanless, as though this idea was fed to her and not of her own volition and thus she unknowingly has been victimized, by writing a story she was lead to believe would be, I suppose, instructional. Perhaps it is Srgt. Benjamin who has been victimized by his handlers.

    All hail Hillel–obviously this story was set-up through and by them. The DT should be smarter than being part of the Hillel Propoganda machine.

    Oh, John, try living in Palestine to get some perspective. But, the Israelis wont let you in, just like they wont let them out, a true ghetto.

    Long live aparteid, Israeli style!

    • John
      John says:

      Lol. Way to miss the point, Vince. He just wrote a whole blog post about how we should listen to both sides and you respond by continuing to belittle Israel. Nice.

  4. nancy
    nancy says:

    No body comes begging to the US for money like the Israelis, and nobody coerces our Congressmen better/worse than does AIPAC. It’s really disgraceful, but nothing is more disgraceful than the way Israel treats the Palestinians, and that is a fact you supporters apparently cannot live with.

    Do your own dirty work with your own money. Stop acting like you are respresenting anyones interests other than your own. You are not the beacon of freedom in the middle east. Your policies are a big part of the problem and not the solution.

    I believe there are more Israeli spies in US jails than there are Russian/Chinese combined.

    With friends like Israel who needs enemies?

    Really, you all need to grow up and get the stars out of your eyes.

    • John
      John says:

      You are truly despicable, Nancy. You have neither perspective nor internal logic. Why don’t you spend a few months living in Israel/Palestine before you open your fat mouth and pretend you know the whole story. Such a disgrace.

  5. david
    david says:

    Holly cow Batman, who paid for this article, AIPAC?

    Come on Daily Trojan, you should be above this obvious pandering.

    d

  6. max
    max says:

    GlM,

    Your party-line denial is offensive. The world is well aware that Israel is at the top of Amnesty International’s list of human rights abusers–fact. If you think Israeli arabs have the same rights as Jews in Israel , you must be from Mars. For every Israeli that dies, 40 Palestinians die–fact. Israel did indeed steal and continues to steal whatever they want with little or no repercussions. If you think Israel is a democracy then you don’t know what a democracy is. Just because you wear uniforms and fly US jets does not make you the non-terrorists, If you think Israelis are closer to God than are Palestinians, then you are a racist.

    Ignorance is excusible, bias is just plain wrong and you are biased at worst and ignorant at best. Either way, your denial of the other side of the arguement is nausiating.

    • DJ
      DJ says:

      You are a fool. Your “facts” are fiction. Where does the article say ANYTHING about Israelis being “closer to God than Palestinians”? There is NO argument being made Max. This is a human interest story about a former soldier who is now a student.

    • Daniel
      Daniel says:

      If you want to cite facts, how about some sources to back them up?
      And (a small pre-emptive strike here) sources that are traditionally unbiased.

      If you have faith in your claims, you will produce this evidence. Good luck

    • GLM
      GLM says:

      Wow Anne and Chris! You have produced one of the most ignorant, baseless, and biased liberal statements I have ever heard. Let alone from an readers of the Daily Trojan.
      Every freedom-loving US citizen should be proud of Ilan as he is heading to fight for the only western- thinking, democratic, and technologically advanced societies in the Middle East, let alone the world. He protects the freedom of millions of people threatened by terrorist, suicide bombings every day and makes sure that Iran is too scared shitless to threaten non-Muslim nations with nuclear war.
      To speak of “abuse of Palestinian rights,” or to say “Of course they have enemies. Israel has stolen everything they have,” shows such a lack of being informed or to have any knowledge whatsoever about the Middle East conflict, and is an embarrassment to such a great article and a top-tier school as USC.
      Israel was the first government to create a nation and democratic autonomous state in the region, and initially offered the current “Palestinians” to live under their fare rule. Israeli Arabs have all the same rights as citizens as Jews and every other non-Jewish minority in the country. It is only those who chose in 1948 to side with the invading Arab nations who wanted to drive the Jews and Israel into the sea and those who currently and constantly try to violently undermine civilian safety and order that have been barred from becoming Israeli citizens.
      It is a tough situation to understand for whoever has no connection to Israel or the Jewish people. Exposure to left-wing media outlets such as college newspapers, CNN, and the New York Times, leaves a one-sided view of the situation in and around Israel who blame them for all the violence.
      Learn the history, development, and the progress that is taking place in the State of Israel. Compare it to what is going on in Gaza and the West Bank. See what is happening in Syria; what has happened in Libya, Tunia, and Egypt.
      Think twice before denigrating Israel. Focus on the real problems: Growing terrorist groups and nations in the Middle East.
      Learn to appreciate good things: Ilan Benjamin, Israel, America, Freedom, Democracy, Capitalism, Philanthropy.

      Ilan Benjamin. You ROCK! Make us all proud with the next big Hollywood Blockbuster!

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