Saturday, December 26, 2009

Legacy of the Lamed Hey

In January 2005 I hiked through the hills of Hebron, following in the footsteps of the legendary thirty-five Haganah volunteers who were killed while attempting to resupply the Gush Etzion kibbutzim in the early stages of the 1948 War of Independence. Little did I know as I participated in the annual memorial hike that five years later I would again be following in their footsteps, volunteering in defense of the people of Israel. My connection to the Lamed Hey [literally "35" in Hebrew numerals] proved invaluable this week when my officer asked me to share their story with my fellow soldiers.

Most Israelis know the basic story of the Lamed Hey. How they set off on foot from Jerusalem to resupply the besieged communities of Gush Etzion. How their journey by night was fraught with danger, with enemy Arab villages lurking around every bend in the hills. And most famously of all, how the Jewish fighters encountered an elderly Arab shepherd, in some accounts two Arab women, and after deciding to spare his life, the shepherd roused the nearby villages and in the pitched battle that followed, the thirty-five fought to the very last man.

Rather than simply tell over the well known story, I sought to communicate why the Lamed Hey are so worth remembering. In doing so I was guided by two comments, one by Israel's founding father David Ben Gurion and another by a brother of one of the Lamed Hey. Following the death of the Lamed Hey in 1948, Ben Gurion commented "these men should not be remembered with stone monuments but in the true and ongoing will to be as much like them as possible." Sixty years later, the brother declared at a memorial event "it is hard to find signs any more of the kind of spirit those fighters had."

In looking for the spirit of the Lamed Hey, I found four guidelines. Tohar neshek, purity of arms, is undoubtedly the first of the four. Regardless of whether or not the Lamed Hey ever spared the life of an Arab shepherd (the entire episode is layered in myth), that is the story--and the value--Israeli schoolchildren learn and that the IDF has championed for over sixty years. Fighting to the very end, whether on a desperate battle in the hills of Gush Etzion or in any of the challenges soldiers face during their service, is the second lesson of the Lamed Hey. Arab accounts of the battle describe the Lamed Hey as fighting to the very last, stones in their hands long after using up the last of their ammunition. Another overlooked legacy of the Lamed Hey is that they did not allow diverse religious or political loyalties to besmirch their commitment to their people. Gush Etzion, then as now, was largely a religious community. The Lamed Hey were mostly left-wing and secular. Yet when the community was in danger, the Lamed Hey marched to their rescue. So too, and perhaps for me the most compelling legacy of the fallen fighters, is that the Lamed Hey consciously set aside their academic and professional lives to aid their brethren in distress. Not a man amongst the Lamed Hey was a professional soldier. Each had an alternative career. Most were students at the Hebrew University. Many, like the brilliant young botanist Tuvya Kushnir, had already achieved prominence in their chosen professions. And yet, once again, when their fellow Jews were in danger, when their community demanded their sacrifice, the Lamed Hey did not hesitate to volunteer.

Telling over the lessons of the Lamed Hey was easily my favorite moment yet of basic training. As difficult as it was to convey the full meaning of my remarks in Hebrew, I knew my fellow soldiers caught the gist of my message. The experience reminded me of what Alex Singer wrote, about questioning during basic training whether he should have gone into the education corp in light of his ability and desire to communicate certain values to his peers. Like Alex, I come to the same conclusion that the best place to educate is ultimately from within the ranks of the most demanding combat units.

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