“Have a biscuit,” I offered, pushing a plate of petit beurres toward him. “Sorry I don’t have anything better.”
He giggled. I took a sip of syrupy Turkish coffee and a bite out of one of the flat and fluted cookies, cardboard with a whiff of artificial vanilla. I picked up my pen, and waited. He made no move toward the plate of biscuits nor toward his own small and steaming glass. I adjusted my olive-green parka and ran my hand over my shoulder to make sure that my first lieutenant’s stripes were clearly visible. Like the sun straining to heat Neptune, a double-coiled space heater glowed forlornly. A naked bulb overhead cast barely enough light for me to make out the lettering on the form in front of me. Not much more managed to make its way through the grime-streaked small window at my back.
illustration by Pepe Fainberg
He rocked in the metal chair with the uneven legs that I’d grabbed from the deputy brigade commander’s office, his rifle on his lap, his arms at his sides, his back straight, one side of his shirt tucked firmly into his baggy fatigue pants and the other side nearly hanging out. Some fine and curly chest hair
Dani held his coffee glass up to the sky. The residue the Turkish coffee grounds left on the sides filtered the rays of the late March sun like a gossamer veil that brings to light precisely what it hides.
Nuriel, Dani, and I were on our bellies on the top of a desert hill come to life for a brief week or two after a late and south-wandering thundershower. We lay on velvet-red poppies with voluptuous black irises and brassy-yellow mustard flowers watching two formations of our platoon converge from the west and south on the slopes of the next hill over. That hill, guarded by evil-eyed cardboard cutouts of Syrian soldiers, was ours to conquer. Nuriel, Dani, and I were the fire team meant to keep the paper riflemen’s heads down with high-intensity machine gun and mortar fire until the two attack forces were positioned to make their final run toward the defensive positions. Nuriel’s arm, its spare dark down glistening, was draped over his MAG machine gun. Dani’s much thicker elbow rested on a pack full of assorted charges for his 60mm mortar. I was the team leader. The platoon had done a dry run of the maneuver an hour before and now the live fire version was beginning. But the formations were still far off and we awaited our lieutenant’s order to begin the barrage. So we had taken the opportunity to make a round of coffee on Nuriel’s camp stove.
illustration by Avi Katz
Nuriel, a baby-faced kid new to our unit, just six months past his three-years stint in the Givati Brigade, was explaining to us why he had felt compelled to tell Merav, to whom he had just gotten engaged, that he first fell in love with another woman on a flower-strewn hill like this one during his first furlough after basic training.
“My friend Mendy and I were hiking a trail on Mt. Meron in the Galilee,” he told us, “and we saw two spots of white on a boulder. We got closer and saw that it was two girls in linen shirts washing their faces in a spring that spurted out from the side of the mountain into a large pool.
The scene at your enlistment next Monday will not be as dramatic as your grandfather’s. He set off for infantry boot camp in the U.S. Army on February 19, 1944. His entire family—Ma, Pa, and sisters Jean, Bernice, and Laki—accompanied him to the train station at Cleveland’s Terminal Tower. Your great-grandmother and her daughters wailed and screamed. When the young recruit pointed out that other families, if teary-eyed, were sending their sons off with considerably more decorum, Ma retorted: “They’re not Jewish mothers!”
Nor will it be as lonely as my own enlistment. My parents, brother, and sister were on the other side of the world, and the kibbutz driver who dropped me and a few other guys off at the enlistment office in Tiberias on August 16, 1982, was hardly an adequate surrogate for family.
Your older brother insisted on going alone; farewells were bid at our apartment door. You’ve kindly agreed to allow your mother to take the number 4 bus with you to Ammunition Hill in East Jerusalem, where an army bus will be waiting. I’ll be on the other side of the world, on a trip to the U.S.
Your grandfather and I enlisted in the middle of wars. His sergeant greeted him and his fellow-trainees by shouting: “Gentlemen, in six months, half of you will be dead!” My sergeant was not so blunt. But, while Beirut was not as deadly as D-Day, I faced the prospect of being sent to a front in a foreign land.
No war rages now, but your mother and I are not much comforted by that. While it’s true for the moment, Israel faces vicious enemies on all fronts. And we know that the present semi-calm is precarious—invasions, incursions, and operations are regular occurrences and there’s a good chance that you’ll be involved in one or more during the three years of your mandatory service. Since you’ve chosen the Golani Brigade, you’re likely to be in the vanguard of whatever campaign the government decides on.
Your grandfather joined a non-Jewish army to fight against Hitler, in a war he believed in with all his heart and soul. He ate, for the first time in his life, pork chops, ham, and bacon, and guiltily enjoyed them. He didn’t bother putting on tefillin. He had to put up with anti-Semitic comrades and his sergeant’s regular Sunday morning order: “Men, you will now attend the church of your choice!”
I joined a Jewish army fighting a war about which I was skeptical at enlistment. Within a few weeks, as the facts of the decision to invade Beirut and of the Sabra and Shatila massacres hit the newspapers, I was convinced that the Begin government’s Lebanon adventure was wrong. But in the IDF the food was kosher and we religious guys were given 20 minutes each morning to put on tefillin and daven a super-fast shaharit. There were no anti-Semites, but some of the tough development-town kids who were the great majority in our platoon were pathological Ashkenazi-baiters.
Haim Watzman Once again I’ve been called on to review a book about an American who served in the Israeli army. This time it’s stand-up comedian Joel Chasnoff’s The 188th Crybaby Brigade, in The Jerusalem Report. (Four years ago I reviewed Jeffrey Goldberg’s Prisoners in The Washington Post.) The American-in-the-Israeli-Army book has become an annual … Read more
Why send a crack naval commando unit to quell a political demonstration? We don’t know all the facts yet, but on the face of it Israel has again overreacted and, in doing so, gotten itself into a situation much worse than it would have been in had it not responded to this pr gimmick at all.
The IDF’s Shayetet 13 is a legendary unit staffed with tough, sharp fighters. They undergo tough training and operate under the harshest of conditions. But they do not learn how to disperse demonstrations or engage in diplomacy. If the so-called Gaza rescue mission boats were carrying heavy arms and torpedoes, the commandos would have been the men for the job. But if the boats were carrying food, medicine, and several dozen deluded liberals, then the decision to send in the commandos is totally incomprehensible.
Israel has a right to protect its territorial waters. Not responding to the boats at all would have been problematic, and could have been seen as a precedent under which Israel gave up its right to supervise shipping to Gaza. And given that arms are shipped to the repressive Hamas regime by sea , Israel cannot allow free access to Gaza.
The dust rose so high to the sky that heaven and earth seemed to have reverted to a dull yellow primordial chaos. The engines of dirt-caked, drab army transports rumbled, the horns of master sergeants’ white vans honked. I stood, trying to be seen and heard, at the Fatma Gate in Metula, seeking a ride up to my base at Ana, in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley.
As of early summer 1983, the IDF had been bogged down in Lebanon for a year. Rational procedures and clear rules had been drafted for transporting soldiers to and from and through the Cedar Republic, but like so many army regulations, few knew them, and no one obeyed.
The way to get from Metula to Ana was to stand as close to the gate as the military police would allow and hold out an arm. An occasional driver would notice the lonely soldier through the smokescreen thrown up by the Holy Land’s parched soil, take pity, and stop long enough to ask where I needed to go. More often then not, they were going somewhere else. I needed to be back at base by 3 p.m.; driving straight up from Metula, the trip took at least three hours. It was already nearly an hour before noon, and I was getting desperate.
It’s a hot afternoon and I’m still feeling heavy from overeating on Shabbat. So should I go to my Sunday night masters swim group or stay home and watch Binyamin Netanyahu’s much-heralded policy address? Which will get my pulse up higher?
I think I’ll go for the swim. By all accounts, Netanyahu will surprise no one. He’ll try to square President Obama’s circle by declaring how important the Israel-U.S. relationship is, while at the same time refusing to accept America’s lead in setting Israel on course toward serious negotiations over an accommodation with the Palestinians and the Arab world.
Netanyahu will follow the lead of his mentor, Menachem Begin, in insisting that Israel’s settlements in the territories have no connection to negotiations with the Arabs. President Jimmy Carter thought he had gotten Begin’s consent to a settlement freeze until the ultimate fate of the West Bank and Gaza Strip was determined; Begin insisted that he’d agreed only to a three-month freeze. Netanyahu might offer a similar sop,
It’s an Avraham Halfi moment. Like an overstimulated actor, I’ve pushed my way to center stage. Slipping between mothers sitting in chairs, climbing over brothers and sisters on stools, I’ve gotten to the edge of the clear spot next to the screen on which we’ve just seen a film of our sons in action. Only then do I see that N’s father is there, ready to speak. I’m such an idiot. Sorry, I mumble, go ahead. No, it’s fine, N’s father says. Really, I didn’t . . . Don’t sweat it. He steps aside.
We’re in the backyard of S’s house, a green corner deep in one of the commuter suburbs that has sprung up between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv over the last two decades. “We” are the families of the dozen young men in my son’s commando squad, who a week before finished their year and then some of intensive training. In collusion with us, their commander, O, brought them to S’s house, where they discovered their mothers and fathers and sibs waiting. Meat was on the grill, salads abundant. The setup was worthy of a wedding, because H’s parents, who have a company that stages events, brought a truckfull of sleekly-designed tables, chairs, stools, and even four couches to lounge on, not to mention lights, gas heating elements, a screen, a projector, and flowers.
The newly-certified commandos don’t look particularly warlike. They’re dressed in shorts and teeshirts despite the winter chill. Grins on their faces, but beyond that no sign of surprise or emotion. They are the survivors of a grueling selection process that whittled their numbers down from a group twice the current size; one of the main criteria for selection seems to have been the ability to project an air of insouciance. We parents are beside ourselves, want the boys to be surprised and ecstatic. We know nothing about what they do in the army—can’t we know something about what goes on inside them? Apparently that, too, is classified.
One of our regular readers, Alon, comments (ungermanely) on my previous post:
i would like to know is how do you feel on the day that the testimonies of soldiers on the killing of civilians and vandalism in gaza — after saying in your “Bad War, Good Soldiers” post that you were “happy to hear” a soldier telling you that “we had to show them we’re not suckers and beat the hell out of them”, and that soldiers should forget their scruples and just “do the job?”
I’m writing an op-ed for the Forward this week about these recent soldier testimonies, and I’m giving a talk on Tuesday at the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies on Tuesday on the moral responsibilities of the individual soldier (sorry, the talk is not open to the public). Since the subject is a serious one, I intend to take the necessary time to research and think through the issues before commenting on these revelations in detail.
However, here are a few pointers for readers interested in the subject—food for thought until my substantive post:
1. Anyone who has Israel’s interests at heart should be outraged at the thought of IDF soldiers shooting women, children, and old people.
What was most surprising about the conference on Battle Ethics in the Cast Lead Operation held on Sunday by the Ethics Center at Mishkenot Sha’ananim in Jerusalem was how much agreement there was among speakers with ostensibly different points of view. Everyone from noted liberal Mordechai Kremnitzer to the IDF’s favorite ethicist Asa Kasher dissented from the simplistic extremes and sought to balance the conflicting demands of defense and respect for human life.
As Daniel Statman noted at the beginning of the conference, there’s no need for a discussion of Israel’s battlefield ethics if one’s position is either that either fighting in general or Israel’s fighting in particular is absolutely and utterly criminal. Or if you think that in war Israel can do whatever it pleases, without any constraints, in order to win.
That these two extreme positions play a prominent role both in Israel’s internal debate and in the international polemic about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has not, thankfully, deterred the philosophers, journalists, and legal scholars who spoke at the conference from thinking through the issues.
I would really like to punch Ismail Hanieh, the Hamas prime minister of the Gaza Strip, in the face. I would derive great pleasure from seeing every Hamas facility in Gaza reduced to rubble and every fanatical Islamic Jew-hater there blown to smithereens.
I just want to put that on the record for the readers of this left-wing accommodationist blog. Because, as always, some readers who disagree with me seem to think I’m a wimp. That rankles. I mean, I have nothing against wimps. Wimps can be fine people to know, especially if they are standing in front of you in a long line at the bank or have just picked the juiciest, finest-looking apple out of the pile at the supermarket. They’re so deferential, so anxious to please.
But that’s not me. In my guts, I’m as eager to bomb Gaza into the stone age as your average kindergarten bully is to push little Yoram off the sliding board. No cease fires for Yoram. Not even for a minute.
Haim Watzman I’ve got war refugees in my home today. I mean my daughter’s fellow second-year students from the animation program at Sapir College, located right next to Sderot. The campus is under fire and has shut its gates, so these budding cartoonists are unable to work on their projects or attend their classes. The … Read more