When I looked in the mirror yesterday morning I felt a twinge. Not just the fading looks; also the fact that the day before I evicted Jews from their homes in the Holy Land for the purpose of handing the land over to sworn enemies of the Jewish People and the West. I was not there to do it in person, but I am an active member of the Israeli Army and as such must accept responsibility for the actions of that body.
Although my father’s family has been in this country since the 1890s and my late mother’s family since the 1930s, I did reside in Israel experimentally for a few years in the early eighties and again in the early nineties. Once I joined that Army, I am considered to be on active duty until age 55; if I were to move back, I would serve a month a year in the Reserves.
Until this week the Gaza disengagement was a subject for political debate, but the view I held then no longer matters. Today I have my orders. More than that: when the body is lacerated, the right side and the left side share the pain equally.
Ben Hecht, in his autobiography A Child of the Century, describes the first meeting he had with Peter Bergson and Hillel Merlin, the two men who came from Israel in 1941 to convince him to write materials on behalf of the Irgun. There was no thought yet of making an open revolt against the British. Instead they were trying to generate international political pressure to force Britain into allowing the Jews to form an army to fight alongside them in World War II.
They explained to Hecht that Jews were amazing fighters and that the unit of Jews which the British threw at the Turks in World War I as cannon fodder stopped the Turkish advance dead in its tracks. In fact, they said, the British hurriedly disbanded it afterwards, because they did not want the Jews to get any ideas about taking over Palestine. Hecht was stunned. He had known none of this history.
His familiarity was with Jews in their exilic mode, creative and wry and happy-go-lucky but fatalistic. The idea of Jewish warriors was either ancient history, if one was disposed to believe the Bible, or rank fantasy. But he was buoyed by the spirit of courage they projected and he set out after them into the wilderness, eventually becoming a significant factor in building American support for Israel.
As the years have gone by, the surprise has dissipated. Americans understand now, as our Founding Fathers did when they laid the cornerstone of our nation, that the historic role of the Jew and the modern role of the American have a sizable zone of overlap. There is a commitment to work for the betterment of humanity, to give human beings the dignity of the inalienable freedom that was bestowed by Nature’s Creator, and to try as much as possible to give each person an equal opportunity in life.
Yet this very peace-loving attitude has the capacity to give a person that degree of confidence in the right and the good that builds him into a great warrior — but only when absolutely necessary to defend freedom. There may be some other strong armies in the world but the consistent power and courage of the American and Israeli Armies have become the exemplar in the world of modern warfare.
It is very sad to see the heroic, historic State of Israel take a step backwards and relinquish land won in a defensive war. Jews spent 1,900 years praying for a return to their land, the last century of which included a gargantuan effort of rebuilding, and the act of peeling off a piece feels like an awful setback. The fact that individuals and families spent three decades developing Gaza and revealing its potential makes the sacrifice much more poignant.
Tragic vignettes stood out. Beautiful children with tears rolling down their cheeks. Soldiers and settlers hugging each other. A protester being carried off with a plaintive wail. You can see the hurt in their eyes; they are not angry at the soldiers but at History taking this awful turn. It was not supposed to be this way. In their voice we cannot fail to hear the echo of the Shunamite woman bringing her lifeless child back to the prophet, grabbing his legs and imploring: “Did I ask for a son from you, my master? Didn’t I say ‘just don’t disappoint me’?” (Kings II 4:28)
My fellow soldiers should be very proud. Theirs was an awful duty. They performed it with a gentleness and dignity that is not generally associated with the military uniform — unless it is American or Israeli.