Thursday, February 05, 2009

Thoughts on an Israeli swearing-in ceremony

Here is a letter - in full - sent by a friend who attended an IDF swearing-in ceremony at the Western Wall Jerusalem while the conflict in Gaza was still taking place (and let's face it, despite the so-called ceasefire even the mini-conflict has not ended with many dozens of rockets STILL being launched from Gaza). Please read it all.

January 17, 2009

Dear Friends and Family,

This past Thursday evening I was witness to an event that deeply moved me, especially as it comes against the backdrop of the disturbing military operation on Gaza and the rocket attacks streaming into southern Israel. I attended the swearing-in ceremony of our very good friends' son into the paratroopers unit of the Israel Defense Forces. I think that this ceremony, held at the Western Wall, with all the complex emotions it elicited, simply epitomizes the struggles, the conflicts, and the inspirations that we live with every day in this war-torn but vibrant country.

My husband and I went to the ceremony to show our solidarity and support for our friends, a couple our age, who are the first of our social circle whose son is being conscripted into the military. In a bizarre way, you could even say we went to celebrate with them. We've known N. since birth and watched him grow up into a fine, patriotic, kind, and motivated young man who persistently prepared for this day, both physically and mentally, all through high school. He competed unremittingly to be accepted into an elite combat unit and is more than eager to dedicate all his skills and talents to successfully performing whatever assignments his military service might bring his way. Always smiling and friendly, N. is utterly serious about the difficult tasks ahead of our country and has no illusions about the risks he takes. Indeed, for him, this ceremony was anticipated as a celebration of all his hard work and of his altruism.

And now, at this week's ceremony, after two grueling months of boot camp, he stood at the Western Wall, symbol of our Jewish heritage and our thousands of years of connection with this land. Side by side with the other tens of new paratrooper recruits, only 18 years old, he solemnly swore to protect the citizens of this country from harm, to uphold our governing bodies' decisions without wavering, without question, and even to give his life if need be, in the defense of Israel and its people.

Yes, hand in hand with the vow to serve his country was the explicit vow to sacrifice his own life if necessary in the relentlessly enduring fight for Israel's independence and indeed for our very right to exist in this region. This was the promise uttered by each vital young man, as his family listened, as he entered the existential fight that Israel has been waging for 60 years and that, even as the words were spoken at the ceremony, was continuing to be fought intensely in the south of our country in Gaza. Against the quiet Jerusalem night sky, the brigadier general at the ceremony apologized for the absence of the colonel who heads the paratroopers' unit, thus bringing home to us how immediate and how troubling our country's fight – even now being played out in fiery bursts against another sky not so far away to the south. The colonel was currently on the battlefield himself, with his troops, out in the night.

I thought of all the boys in all the wars, each generation following the next, for six generations of new draftees joining the ranks of the IDF, all hoping for peace and security, yet all knowing that they might inevitably face deadly battles like those our soldiers might be seeing at the very moment of the ceremony. For this new group of recruits standing at attention before us, the current Gaza fighting will probably be over by the time they complete their intense training course over the next few months, but surely, knowing our region, another battle will rise up during their three years of mandatory service.

I looked at the sea of boyish faces in uniform, some of whom looked like they had not even begun yet to shave. Some seemed tense, exhausted after their training exercises of the day before, perhaps a bit in awe of the cheering crowds of friends and family around them. Others' poised expressions showed their deep pride at reaching this moment, and their steely determination to take their rightful place in the long line of Israeli heroes and heroines who literally defended their families and homes in the face of enemies bent on destroying them. They seemed keenly aware that they had just been passed on the time-honored role of protector of these very men, women, and children in the crowd.

The number of visitors standing on the Western Wall plaza was so large that we could only watch the ceremony on large video screens from afar, and we couldn't catch a glimpse of N. at all. As I looked around at the families of these young soldiers, straining their necks from stairwells and hillsides and wall tops all around the plaza to see their loved ones marching to the major's barked-out orders, a colorful display of bags and containers came into view at the parents' feet. Everywhere were painstakingly prepared care packages of home-cooked food, dry undergarments and socks, extra layers of clothing, chocolates and favorite snacks (in our friends' case: sushi and meat-filled kubeh) to give their beloved soldier at their highly-anticipated reunion after the ceremony.

As I scanned the parents' excited yet contemplative faces, I asked myself: How could these mothers and fathers just "relinquish their sons" without protest? As my friend said incredulously, "On the morning he enlisted, I thought it unbelievable that we and all these other parents were voluntarily bringing our sons to the army. We packed all his things, drove him to the base, said our tearful goodbyes, and left him there. If we lived in a different time and place, we would keep our son safe and hidden at home and barricade the door to prevent the army from coming to enlist him!" But this is the time and this is the place. 2009. Israel. And things have been the same for mothers and fathers saying farewell to sons for 60 years.

For even longer, in fact. As I looked around the plaza at the Wall, with the great Jerusalem stones in front of me, I thought of the ultimate story of father sacrificing son, of Abraham going to sacrifice Isaac in the bible. These days, the days of war, Israeli poets and philosophers are talking incessantly about the parallels between that story of sacrifice and the story of personal sacrifice being made daily by families living here. The brigadier general at the ceremony made mention of our country's deep appreciation of these bigger-than-life parents standing all around the plaza, whose values and mores planted the seeds for the development of such brave combat soldiers, especially in today's postmodern world of adolescent self-indulgence and materialism.

The irony doesn't escape me. Why on earth should a boy getting his first rifle from his commanding officer be greeted by balloons from his family and cheering from the crowd? What kind of a society cheers for a tool of violence? I'll tell you what kind: A society with a long and agonizing history of victimization and persecution that is now cheering at its own inner strength, celebrating its own survival despite the odds, celebrating the freedom to defend itself instead of depending on others. Up until this last war in Gaza, I could add that we are also a society with sufficient confidence in our own moral standards that we are not afraid to use those tools of violence against those who wish us dead, while taking scrupulous care to avoid injury of innocent civilians, though I now find it harder to make that claim. Yet what heartened me was that, with each rifle, each soldier was bestowed a bible. The commanding officer inserted the bible under the soldier's button-down army shirt, against the soldier's heart, and then the officer pressed that bible firmly into the left side of that soldier's chest, in a wordless gesture that seemed to say "Keep this near your heart, for our heritage and our togetherness as a Jewish people are what give us the strength to fight." Only after receiving the bible did the soldiers get their weapons.

In an ironic twist that so much typifies our lives here in Israel, behind the soldiers' ceremony on the plaza, directly near the Wall, stood a cluster of ultra-orthodox men dressed all in black, bowing fervently in prayer, oblivious of the ceremony. I thought about the bravery of these new young recruits, with their bibles against their hearts, and the fact that those Jews standing only a few paces away never served their fellow citizens in the military. The garb worn by these ultra-orthodox men clearly revealed that they had all filed for exemption from military duty on religious grounds, and yet the young draftees on the adjacent plaza would be protecting them too. I was filled with rage when one of these "haredi" men started to disparage the paratrooper ceremony with catcalls. How could he denigrate this almost righteous ritual, where parents are willing to sacrifice what is dearest to them for the greater good? He was soon pulled away by police and escorted off the premises.

My gaze wavered from the moving IDF ceremony to the Al-Aqsa mosque, which is clearly visible behind and to one side of the Wall. For me, that evening, the mosque stood against the darkened sky as a lucid reminder of our Arab neighbors, our Arab enemies, and the Sisyphean task of trying to establish a peaceful existence in this overwhelmingly Arab part of the world. Whatever ending emerges from the current war will not solve the deep-rooted problems in Gaza, or between us and our Arab neighbors, or for Jews around the world who are now facing an outburst of anti-Semitic acts. I am now experiencing my fourth war since making aliya (not to mention two intifadas). Although this Gaza war is the first time that I remember Arab regimes such as Egypt supporting Israel and condemning the terrorists attacking us, Hamas, Hezbollah, and their sponsor, Iran, are unwavering in their resolve to eradicate us from the face of the earth. There just seems to be no reasoning with them, or negotiating with them. Yet here they are, on our borders, just as that mosque stands behind the Wall.

The mosque against the skyline also reminded me of our military's bombings of such Moslem places of worship in Gaza. I know we did so only because these mosques were serving Hamas as ammunition depots, but, nevertheless, to paraphrase Golda Meir, I will never forgive Hamas for making us go against our own ethical standards and destroy their houses of prayer. Like the majority of Israelis, I feel the current military operation in Gaza was unavoidable. I can hardly believe that I am writing such hard words, such militant words, about the fact that military action is inevitable. But I know that any nation anywhere in the world who suffers incessant rocket attacks on its citizens would respond. For eight years southern Israel saw thousands of rocket and mortar attacks on civilian targets like schools, houses, malls, and community centers, including thousands launched after we evacuated the Gaza Strip entirely in 2005. Unlike Hamas, Israel takes significant steps to avoid civilian casualties and never aims intentionally to harm innocent people, whereas that is Hamas's express purpose. But nevertheless we did much harm, with horrific human consequences, and I cannot accept that bloodshed is the only answer. The power of our armed forces requires extraordinary strength, wisdom, and responsibility from our leaders, and I found myself praying silently at the Western Wall that night, for our country to be generously imbued with such virtues as it faces the upcoming frustrations, obstacles, and depressing reality of our region. I felt weighed down with thoughts about our country's present military actions and with my desire to act as an ambassador for Israel and to explain our viewpoint on current events to everyone I know abroad. But as I watched the paratroopers and their commanding officers at the Wall, with the mosque looming overhead, the complexity of our geopolitical mire just seemed too overwhelming to know where to begin.

I could have found this evening to be so devastatingly sorrowful, at the thought of the dangers lurking ahead of these soldiers and the hopelessness of our quest for peace. The evening could have been especially upsetting as I envisioned myself standing at a similar ceremony for all of our friends' older children in the next few years, and then for our eldest son in a little more than three years. Yet, surprisingly for me, I came away from the experience feeling not only troubled but also renewed and strengthened. Despite my profound concern about the future, the fortitude, resilience, and solidarity of this crowd – with its internally weeping but externally beaming parents – moved me deeply and again forged for me that same visceral connection with the Jewish people and with Israel that originally led me to come live in this country.

When it came time to sing the national anthem, Hatikva, I was so choked by tears that I could not emit a voice. As the anthem mentioned "Mizrach" – the West – I observed that it was referring to the ancient holy temple whose western wall was before me. And, as the crowd intoned "2000-year-old hope," I thought between my tears how our entire people was grasping at that hope, desperately wanting to believe that peace is now nearer, that no more sons will be lost, and that we could finally live a free and meaningful life as Jews anywhere in the world and especially here in our homeland.

I send out a wish for peace.

Love, Dee

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

'Mizrach' means 'east'.