Friday, March 12, 2010

Missing Out on Guarding Hebron

My unit has spent two shabbatot on guard duty in Hebron in the last month. I have yet to join them, avoiding both weekends for two very different yet equally disingenuous incidents. While blurring the truth is nothing to be proud of, I would be less than honest if I failed to admit that standing guard in Hebron is something I do not mind missing. Guard duty, of course, is something most any soldier is happy to miss. It is the Hebron location, colored by my past visits to the town, that left me content with having painlessly avoided (for now, anyways!) returning to the town as a soldier in the IDF.

I first visited Hebron for shabbat when I was nineteen and spending the year learning Torah at a yeshiva in Israel. The weekend was Parshat Chayei Sarah, the shabbat every year when huge crowds of religious Jews visit to commemorate the weekly Torah portion's discussion of Abraham purchasing a burial plot in Hebron for his wife Sarah. Later I visited again, to appreciate a shabbat in the Jewish community minus the huge crowds and security of Chayei Sarah weekend.

I came away from both visits awed and yet deeply saddened. On the one hand it is deeply moving to pray by the Me'arat HaMachpela, the Cave of the Patriarchs [lit. Cave of the Double Tombs] where the forerunners of my faith are traditionally buried. I found everything about the thousand year old stone sanctuary that covers the underground burial caves fascinating. The art and cultural details of the sanctuary intrigued me just as much as the political divide that splits the space between Jewish and Muslim worshipers. The mystery of the caves, especially the locked metal grate in the Muslim prayer area that leads down to the caves themselves, awakens my inner Indiana Jones and rekindles pride in the thousand-plus year history of my people. Hebron, with all its ancient and modern ties to Jewish heritage, is a space I cannot imagine not playing a role in the Jewish state I visualize in this land.

And then there was, and remains, the deep sadness. On both visits to the ancient town, residents of the Jewish community brought me into their homes (in both Tel Rumeida and the Avraham Avinu neighborhood) and enlivened my shabbat with rich melodies and warm conversation. Beneath the shabbat civility, however, I encountered a grim hatred for their neighbors. It was a hate that suffused and contaminated the peaceful Shabbat atmosphere. It was a hate with cause, for the stones and bullets that have claimed the lives of Hebron residents have come from their neighbors. My sadness lies in part with the reality that those stones and bullets have not only moved in one direction (in recent years, Arab residents have in fact been the target for most of the stones and bullets fired in Hebron). My sadness grows and swells regardless of who is to blame, and what outrage predates the latest indignation. The grim reality is that otherwise good and sweet people are, by their decision to live in such a dangerous and fundamentalist space, creating an atmosphere--and raising families!--of toxic pride and vengeful hate. If the trade-off for retaining Hebron is losing our people and values to such hate and pride, then it simply is not worth it.

An army is no place to enforce political loyalties and so I would serve wherever I was asked, defending any settlement with the same commitment I would defend my parent's home in Jerusalem. Nevertheless when a double dose of disingenuouty prevents me from six hour guard duty shifts in benighted Hebron, I will readily accept my fate.

There were costs to my missing out on Hebron. I was held back from the second assignment as a punishment, the penalty keeping me on base for shabbat so I could stew on my failings while my peers were on the front lines. Missing the first assignment meant I failed to see how the guys in my platoon would react to being in a largely Arab setting for the first time. Leading up to the weekend deployment, many of the guys had noted that they had never crossed the 1967 border, never spent any time in any Arab areas outside Israel proper. Coming from a very different background I did not quite share this fear of the unknown. But I was deeply curious how boys raised far from the seething heart of Israel would react to this first encounter with the Other. Though I missed this first encounter, I have no doubt many more await in the months and years of service to come.

Testing Out of Basic

Basic training, and any course of any length in the IDF, concludes with comprehensive exams testing soldiers grasp of the material. Known as the Bochan 05 (basic training is certified as level 05, with more challenging training courses like special forces identified with higher numbers), the exam stamps a soldier as a trained infantry fighter, a locham in the IDF, with a basic level of combat fitness and a practical grasp of weapon systems, first aid, and how to respond to a NBC (Nuclear, Biological, Chemical) crisis.

Passing, rather than receiving a glossy grade, is what counts. This comes as a relief to yours truly because few of the past month's courses have left a deep imprint in my memory. I mostly know what to do when it comes to the hands-on material. But all the Hebrew teaching has left my mind a tad waterlogged so that the minutiae of responding to a nerve attack or operating an old-school military radio set is lost on me. And don't get me started on the tragicomic written test: Save for the queries on Israeli military history, I mostly guessed my way through the multiple choice questions. My test grades, in short, are nothing to write home about.

While my grades on the Bochan 05 were not very pretty, I passed the collection of written and hands-on tests with flying colors. The same could not be said about the Bochan Maslul, the IDF obstacle course that I had yet to complete in the required time when the week began. Twice in the last few weeks my unit had made a go at the course. Both times I was stopped cold by a six foot wall, failing to vault over the stolid barrier as is necessary (as previously noted here). Having failed to crack the required passing time of 10:30 minutes, I knew I had to solve my issues with the wall post-haste.

My commanders were kind enough to supply me with the antidote to my troubles with the wall. Twice over the last week they took me aside and, for over an hour each time, had me practice vaulting over the wall. They fed me advice, shared all the mental tricks they could, and kept me going till I was past collapse, my body like a ragged doll after running and jumping into (few of my practice jumps were successful) the wall dozens of times. The last practice ended without me clearing the wall without help, leaving the question unanswered whether I could tackle the monster the next time I went at the course.

Answered or not, I returned to the course site this week. Helmet secure, gun in place, vest as tight as possible, I told myself the third time would be--had to be--the charm. The course consists of three loops, with the middle section passing through parallel and monkey bars, a rope climb, balance beam, ditches, crawls and more. The very first obstacle is, of course, the wall. And so when I flew over the barrier, clearing the cement bugbear with a good meter to spare, the course was mine. A few stumbles later and I finished in a time of 8:40, only an average time for my unit (three guys in my platoon posted times under 7:30) yet a time that easily passes the requirement.

And so now I am a locham, a fighter, warrior even depending on your choice of translation. My officer told us months ago, on our first week of basic, that training for my unit would only start once we were lohamim (see here). And so now it all begins...

Purim in Green

I went as a soldier for Purim. A popular costume in my neighborhood, considering I spent the holiday on base. Though to be fair, dressing in civilian clothes, and observing Purim on the "outside," would have been far preferable. While the IDF goes to great lengths to respect religious traditions--and while shabbat in the army is rarely a disappointment--holidays in green leave much to be desired. Minor holidays like Purim and Hannukah, lacking any of the restrictions of shabbat or the major holidays (like Pessah or Rosh Hashana), are regular days on base. In other words, the army does not set aside time for a Purim spiel or hamantash baking party. So it is up to religious soldiers to retain the day's spirituality while covering the necessary rituals.

For Purim this means listening to the Megillah, eating a festive meal, charity, and giving another two food items (mish'loah manot). My charity obligation was easy to satisfy en route to base. The Megillah reading was satisfied by rabbis from Habad whom, with the permission of the IDF, had set up a ritual reading station for soldiers at the main transit station in Beersheva. Lunch on base served as both my festive meal and source for mish'loach manot. Following the instructions of an army rabbi, I fulfilled my food giving requirement by giving another guy the plate of food I received at lunch. The halachic logic going that once I receive the food is placed on my plate it becomes my property and hence when I give it to someone else I am truly giving him something of mine rather than simply passing him food owned by the army.

The rest of the day took place nary the sound of a groger or the sight of any costumed Queen Esthers. The one exception came mid-afternoon when a caravan of Habad fellows appeared out of nowhere on my base. As my guys raced in and out of our tent on some aimless task from our commander, the Habad fellows did as well. The difference was they were running through the base placing bags of chocolate and 'Call 1-800-Habad for spiritual help' cards on the beds of every soldier. While I won't be calling the number anytime soon, this year's Purim left me craving some of the holiday's spirituality that I recall from yesteryear.