Arts, Culture & Media

Israeli Soldiers Refuse to Give Up Their Patchouli

There's been a mini controversy in the Israeli army this year.

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It's about a small medallion that soldiers in one paratrooper battalion wear around their necks. The army says the medallion is offensive to women, and has banned the soldiers from wearing it. In protest, the soldiers wreaked havoc on their base.

In a country where most are required to serve, this has become a national debate.

You may remember hippies in the 60s wearing necklaces with tiny vials of patchouli oil. It's amber colored and has a musky fragrance. And as the story goes, hippies would wear it to cover up the smell of smoking or drug use or not showering for a few days.

In the 202 Battalion of the Israeli paratroopers, patchouli vials are fabled to carry an entirely different liquid, as former paratrooper Eli Levy explained at the coffee shop where he works.

Now, a warning: this is a bit suggestive.

"The story tells that soldiers in the beginning would put perfume of their girlfriends, and afterwards they put something else. It's a special liquid," Levy said.

Levy acknowledged that some people might see the practice as disgusting or wrong, disrespectful of women.

But, he said, "I think of the thousand people who wear the patchouli, only a few do this 'by the book.' Some of them put alcohol. Some of them put nothing."

But no matter what is or isn't actually inside most of the patchouli vials, the army could no longer tolerate the symbolism of what it might be. They claim the custom is degrading to women and unbecoming of Israeli combat soldiers. This summer the army banned paratroopers in the 202 Battalion from wearing the pendants.

The soldiers' response to the patchouli ban wasn't pretty. An Israeli TV report showed tables and equipment that recruits had strewn around their base near the border with Lebanon. Then this month, eight soldiers were reportedly booted out of the unit because they refused to comply with the patchouli ban.

One soldier interviewed for the TV report — whose voice was garbled so it could not be identified — justified the protest.

When your soul hurts, he said, you can't function.

Levy, the former paratrooper, agrees. When he served from 2001-2004, he filled his patchouli vial necklace with his girlfriend's Armani perfume. Back then he didn't have a cellphone and would go weeks without contacting his girlfriend. So when he was on guard duty, or after he returned from a mission, the patchouli vial would comfort him.
"I took a good shower, went to sleep after 2-3 days without regular sleeping, open the vial, smell it, close it, go to sleep smiling."

Levy said soldiering is tough work, with long stretches of intense boredom or incredible fear — and often no trips home. Levy said the patchouli pendant was that one special thing that kept up soldiers' morale.

"If they serve almost for free their country, let them do what they want. So if it makes them happy, and if it's not that offending, because this is only a stories that men invented, okay, so let them do it," Levy added.

The patchouli tradition has persisted for about three decades. The last time the Israeli army reportedly tried to stop it was three years ago. Soldiers revolted. After that revolt, patchouli was back in, until it was banned again this summer.
After hearing news of the patchouli ban, troops in the Paratroopers Brigade's 202 Battalion trashed their base. Here's the story from Israeli Channel 2.

  • eli-levy1-e1355507121954.jpg

    Eli Levy, 29, wears a t-shirt from his army days, depicting his batallion's mascot: a winged patchouli vial. (Photo Credit: Daniel Estrin)

  • medal-e1355507533131.jpg

    The winged patchouli mascot appears on a plaque Battalion 202 paratroopers receive at the end of their military service. (Photo Credit: Daniel Estrin)