Saturday, August 21, 2010

Facebook Vigilance

It is not easy meeting girls as a soldier. So when gorgeous female strangers request to become my friend on Facebook, it is easy to say yes. Especially when the girls, whose profiles always depict a curvaceous babe, list their alma mater as Baltimore Hebrew University and other very Jewish academic institutions. Strange, I wonder to myself as I deny their request for online friendship, all those years as a student in Baltimore and I never knew how many cute girls were studying for an advanced degree in Jewish Studies down Park Heights Ave.

The most curious part about these girls, and the reason I deny their requests without a second thought, is the names of their listed Facebook friends. No Sara Raizels or Rochel Lay'as here. In fact, they never have any female friends. Instead their online buddies are a bunch of Beirut based guys named Mohammad or Ahmed, with the occasional Abu Jihad thrown in for good measure. Aka, Hezbollah techno-terrorists fishing for info. So much for online romance.

The lame attempts to access my personal information on Facebook disguise a real threat. Not that I have any information or images about the army on my online profile. The danger comes from the facts that way too many Israeli soldiers do place way too much personal information online in the public domain. Such thoughtless online activity has led to a series of minor catastrophes. In March, the IDF was forced to cancel a raid after a soldier wrote about the upcoming mission on his Facebook page. In July, the Israeli media had a field day when they discovered that alumni of a secret IDF base formed a Facebook group to trade pictures and stories. And this week, another media firestorm erupted when the papers caught wind of the pictures a former female soldier had posted to her Facebook depicting her standing next to blindfolded captive Palestinians. In a Abu Ghraib conscious climate, the humiliating images did little to help Israel's global image.

I was reminded of my own run-in with the Hizbollah geek squad in a comment from a member of Israel's own cyber unit. "Beyond national security, it is also a safety issue. Hizbullah operatives set up profiles pretending to be Israeli women and ask to be friends with soldiers or join soldiers’ groups on Facebook. Over time, through the status updates, Hizbullah learns a bit about the soldiers, where they live and are able to connect the dots. In theory, they could eventually kidnap that person."

This theory turned to tragedy with an Israeli teen named Ofir Rahum. In January 2001, Ofir traveled to Jerusalem to meet a young woman with whom he had conducted a relationship over the internet. The woman turned him over to Palestinian terrorists. Hours later the boy's bullet riddled body was discovered outside Ramallah. A tragedy that began with an innocent friend request from a young lady not unlike my Beirut babes.

The IDF is very aware of the dangers posed by Web 2.0 information sharing. My unit probably stresses the importance of operational security more than your average brigade. Yet the challenge remains difficult. In the words of the IDF cyber-warfare officer quoted above:

"It’s a significant problem for the IDF because soldiers have cellphones and any of them can take a photo or make a film and upload it to the internet. Soldiers themselves don’t really know what can cause harm. For example, a soldier might think that a simple photo of a room inside a base is harmless, but there is a poster on the wall with a map or operational details."

Some advice:

(a) Do not advertise your Israeli armyhood all over your online profile, if at all. Pictures in green, army related status updates, etc. Being proud does not have to mean being dumb.

(b) Be skeptical of anyone you do not know personally who takes too much interest - through email, cold calls, weekend run-ins - in your army doings. Even if the interested party is a seminary girl. Because not all dangers have a terrorist address.

(c) Confidence & Humility. As always.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Terrors End

What does a day in the life at Israel’s elite anti-terrorism course sound like?

Yo dawg, give me back my weed. Wazzat you sayin’? Now ya got me angry, and you don’t want to see me…BAM, BAM BAM.

Who would have thought that providing Israeli teens with handguns would unleash their inner American gangsta? Such was the case during the early goings of Course Lotar, the Israeli army’s anti-terrorism course. Lotar is designed to give a select number of elite units the basic skills to respond to terrorist attacks. So over the course of three weeks, I was reintroduced to my rifle, taught the basics of firing a pistol and drilled repeatedly on how to neutralize a hostage crisis.

Before slipping off to Entebbe, however, I was fed a steady diet of terror. And I do mean fed. Alas, the food is only one of the many terrors that make up this top level course. Logistics on base are a terror. Nothing is located close to anything else so an inconvenient system of buses is necessary to move around. Facilities are a horror of their own. During one of the hottest summers in years, I had the good fortune to be on a base that has close to zero water taps or accessible bathrooms. A two hour “final drill”—which had me and my guys running around in the summer heat to pulsing heavy metal music, dry (no-ammunition) weapons in hand—almost came apart when no drinking water was available. Even activities that have no business being terrifying, like the army-wide Bar-Or fitness test, are dressed up as something special and renamed, honest to G-d, the ‘Bar-Or Terror!’ (Ya get the rhyme, right?)

The climax of gratuitous terror had to be when my guys were tasked with moving heavy boxes of ammunition. With sentries looking down from nearby towers, snarling dogs from the grounds of the IDF canine tracking unit (Oketz) and a barbed wire fence blocking any means of escape, onlookers would be forgiven for thinking that the two dozen soldiers laboring shirtless in the hot sun were cons. By the time our chain-gang had finished invoking 1960 era prisoner flicks (I was thinking Newman’s Cool Man Luke) even the threatening dogs had slipped off to the shade.

Ironically, the daily krav maga sessions were one of the few activities devoid of terror. Part of the credit goes to Baboon and the Salamandra, two animalistic drills that quickly became legends. Baboon is a life-sized punching toy whom everyone had to run to and slug when the instructor suddenly announced “Baboon!” The Salamandra is a devious punishment drill that has us do laps lying on our back, feet in the air with only our scrunched stomachs providing any momentum across the floor. Both drills involve smacking into each other more than anything else—getting caught between the Baboon and twenty frantic guys was a mistake only the most foolish did not quickly master.

The lack of krav maga dread really stems from the staff trying too hard to amp up the shock value. Granted only seven minutes to prepare for a surprise session, guys played up their distress until the rest of us were shaking with laughs. When an instructor showed us a truly vile video of Islamic terrorists cutting off someone’s head, the attempt to get in our heads lost its edge because the video was screened on a grainy cellphone screen. And when the three weeks ended with a brutal round of one-vs.-everyone kravot bouts...Okay, so that last bit was still pretty scary. Terror, it seems, has not yet been vanquished.

A twenty-five year old officer from an outside unit joined my team for the duration of Course Lotar. While he left an indelible impression with the guys (mostly by his attempt to use Arabic—Ahlan Wa'sahlan, Bahnu b’Shalom…—to talk down some baddies during a simulated hostage crisis), our thoughts were on the soldier who joined a neighboring squad for Lotar. This other soldier was dropped from my squad in May during the infamous va’adot. Now he was almost but not quite back with us. It could not have been easy to play soldier when the two dozen guys—and the commander that had sent him packing—were training alongside.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

American Eagle is Down!

The night began with a toast. Two dozen glasses were raised at the foot of Mount Carmel as each member of my squad was granted the name of a Haganah legend. My radio call-sign for all future navigation exercises would be Gandhi, the nom de guerre for the slain Israeli minister and former military icon Rehavam Ze'evi. The naming was our unit's way of commemorating the start of the solo-navigation exercises that my squad had begun earlier in the week. With more than twenty weeks of solo-navigating to go, our toast was a small testament to the importance the unit places on insuring its commandos know the lay of the land.

Toast complete, the real commemorative work began in earnest. While tonight's navigation exercises was to test my ability to navigate across the Carmel mountain range, I would first have to get to the planned start location atop the mountain. In a surprise announcement, my officer declared that per tradition everyone had less than two hours to get to the top. Footpaths of any kind were forbidden. One look at the thick undergrowth that blanketed the steep ascent gave me a good idea of what to expect. So much for lessons learned, I thought, as I tugged my fifty pound pack close and set off up the mountain.

Scaling the Carmel in less than two hours was epic. The real drama came hours later when calamities of every kind forced the supervising staff to finally suspend the all-night exercise. While the abrupt end of the final navigation of the week left everyone disappointed, my distress was nothing compared to what I felt five nights earlier at the tragic fall from grace of the American Eagle.

No one in my squad could match the enthusiasm I felt when our first week of solo navigation finally arrived. Despite an uneven performance in prior navigation exercises, my natural self-confidence and passion for the art of navigation left me convinced I had the potential to now excel. My conviction was rewarded early when I aced the obligatory oral walk-through everyone must pass before a navigation exercise. As the night-long navigation got underway, the sight of two dozen radio antennas bobbing off into the Galilee hillsides gave me a final surge of excitement. American Eagle is good to go, I radioed in, trying out my new call sign for the first time as I ascended into the darkness.

All was well as I neared the halfway point several hours later. Then disaster struck. The halfway marker, a jug of water with a glowing stick-light, was nowhere to be seen. Hours later I finally discovered the missing marker some fifty yards from where I had first realized I was in trouble. With little time left to collect the remaining points (confused? check this out), I slipped into navigation crisis mode. One thing led to another and a short time later I decided to take a shortcut through a dark slice of undergrowth in the hollow of a sharp valley.

Big mistake. Trapped in complete darkness, breaking through the rope like vines and their inch long thorns became an apocalyptic struggle. The vines and branches within the hollow tore me up in their vise-like grip. I crawled on all fours. I fell from trees. My reality became a sea of thorns reaching out from the darkness, refusing to let me go. My own private Fire Swamp, except with no Buttercup (or maybe I was the princess bride?!) at my side to stave off the nightmare.

Online image that gives a sense of where I was

Worse news greeted me on the other side of the undergrowth. Equipment was missing from my vest (the ripped cords that had secured the equipment to my vest testified to the violence of the vines), ten-foot high thorned bushes blocked any forward progress, and my radio could not work from this low vantage point. Needing desperately to radio in a status report, I was forced to turn back and make a second go through the dreaded hollow.

By the time I succeeded in raising my commander on the radio, my skin and gear were in a sorry state. My arms, hands and face were covered in angry red lines, criss-crossing every which way like Ishmael's cannibal friend. All of my missing gear was quickly recovered after a brief search in the early morning. One of the guys who swung by to help in the search sized up the ground I had covered and declared it was without a doubt the meanest looking undergrowth in northern Israel.

My commander wasted no time in ripping me apart over my decision to enter the undergrowth. What he could not understand, and what I could not find the words to explain, is why I did not immediately turn back after realizing the enormity of the challenge that breaking through the vines entailed. The gloom played a role in convincing me the hollow was not as bad as it was. Yet my own pride, a mix of stubbornness and curiosity, is really what drove me on. I felt fated to test myself against the darkness.

My commander's rebuke barely touched my own devastation. I was torn by the knowledge that I had bungled a navigation that had been in the palm of my hand. One slip up by the halfway point, a fateful decision to enter the undergrowth, and the golden chance of having a stellar week was forever lost.

My loss was put into concrete terms the next day. For the rest of the week, I would not be allowed to navigate alone. Keeping me company would be a guy from our squad whose slow return from injury prevented him from navigation by himself. Any chance at proving myself in solo-navigating would have to await the future.

Loving God in Green

Kippas are an all too common sight in my unit. The presence of so many religious soldiers even led a former commander of my unit to prepare the first report on what is in fact a phenomenon throughout the Israeli army. According to the report, published this week in the military journal Ma'arachot, the percentage of religious Israeli combat officers in the IDF has leaped from two to thirty percent over the last two decades. A similar story is evident in the dramatic increase in religious soldiers in most elite units. These trends reflect the ideological strength of religious Zionism in a post-modern society that has largely turned away from traditional Zionist values.

For all the attention such findings provoke (some pundits worry that the Israeli military is falling under the influence of the religious right), my own squad remains an antiquated bastion of proud secular Zionists. Perhaps this explains why we ended up spending a recent shabbat on a secular kibbutz.

The other religious guys (dosim, singular dose, is the common Israeli slang) and I were rightly concerned about what we would eat over shabbat. Our prayers were another matter. Recognizing that we lacked a minyan, the secular guys in the squad joined us for Friday night prayers. Together we sang the tunes of Kabbalat Shabbat facing the dark hillsides we would be navigating in subsequent nights. Never did the words of Psalm 92, "It is good to thank G, to sing share Your faith in the nights," seem so appropriate.

My commander inadvertently echoed another line from Psalm 92 ("a boor cannot know, nor a fool understand") in the words he shared with us following the prayers. Drawing on his past as a trainee in our unit, the boss recalled coming to terms with how little he knew of religious traditions. "As a secular Israeli, I was simply a boor. My own people's heritage a blank." By asking questions of the religious guys in his squad, my commander began to educate himself. Education brought appreciation, not conversion. Learn from each other, my commander concluded. Religious and secular. Native Sabras and immigrants from Ethiopia and America. We all have many questions to ask and answer.

I appreciate my commander's words. Yet the prayers we occasionally share only tap the surface of what it means to be religious in the IDF. For all the religious guys in my unit, the mainstream culture remains very secular. Religious observance is respected yet often must battle for time and attention amid military pressure. So while a few minutes can always be found every morning to don tefillin, the morning ritual comes at the expense of regular activities.

Loving God in green also means that observant soldiers have extra restraints during down-time. Shabbat in the IDF is uniformly the day off; training is absent and guys are given twenty-five hours to do as they wish. In my unit, where the frenetic work week includes bans on cellphone usage, Shabbat is the time to take a breather, to meet with family and friends during Saturday afternoon visiting hours and to call up a buddy on the phone. Visits and calls, of course, that dosim like myself cannot share.

Of course, Shabbat provides the faithful few with its own delight. We welcome the seventh day with prayers and songs that remind us of the sacred covenant that directs our lives. Shabbat, in short, provides us with a spiritual faith that our secular peers cannot fully appreciate. The challenge, as ever, is to ensure that faith grows ever stronger come what may.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Communal Memory on the Ninth of Av

Mourning for the destruction of past Jewish commonwealths, a fresh-faced Israeli citizen wrote in this space only a year ago, is ever more complex once one has tied oneself to the modern Jewish state. As my first Fast of Tisha B'Av (literally, the ninth of the Jewish month of Av) in uniform approached, I expected another level of poignancy. After all, Israeli soldiers are sworn to defend the country, to do whatever is necessary to ensure that the calamities commemorated on the Ninth of Av, like the annihilation of Bar Kochba's forces at Betar or the destruction of the first and second Temple, are never repeated. For Israeli soldiers the necessity, if not the message, of the fast day should be clear.

Ignorance prevents most non-religious Israeli soldiers from appreciating the significance of Tisha B'Av. And so it was most unfortunate when my commander frustrated my attempt to share some of the day's meaning with my secular peers. I had no intention of explaining why we refrain from greeting friends and swearing off food, water and comfortable shoes for twenty-five hours. My only interest was in reminding the non-religious guys that the communal tragedies of our shared past are not the exclusive memory of the religious community.

Events like Tisha B'Av highlight a glaring flaw in how the Israeli army (and Israeli society at large) relates to Jewish heritage. Despite highlighting the importance of Jewish heritage in its charter, the IDF in practice takes a hands-off approach. Tisha B'Av passes without a murmur; religious soldiers are given the day off to fast and reflect while their secular peers run off with no inkling of the communal import of the day. Only on Zionist holidays, like Memorial or Independence Day, does the army bring everyone together to reflect. Jewish history, apparently, was born the day the British left Palestine in 1948.

One may argue that the army and state are correct in keeping Jewish heritage at a distance. After all, Israel is an avowedly pluralistic democracy. Even if few Israeli Arabs serve in the army, the military force still must represent the ethos of the country as a whole. What business does the military have in inscribing Jewish memory into the hearts and minds of its soldiers?

At issue is the basic question of what place Judaism should play in the modern state of Israel. I can only answer this question for myself. The Israel I believe in, the army whose colors I wear with pride on my few weekends off, was not created in 1948 merely to be a pluralistic democracy with an open door policy to Jewish immigration. Israel was created to be a modern state inspired by Jewish heritage. A state for all its citizens and yet a country unapologetically orientated toward the cultural mores of a Jewish majority.

Modern Zionism, for all its heroes and dramas, cannot be the sole source of ideology for the army of the Jewish state. Even with Hanna Senesh and Uri Ilan, Yoni Netaynahu and Ilan Ramon, we must also look to our more distant past for guidance and inspiration. Public events like Tisha B'Av, whatever private customs one chooses to attach to the day, are crucial in ensuring that our national memory remains available to all communities in modern Israel.

Legacy of the Grenade

Grenades are easily a soldier's scariest weapon. One slip and the big bang is going off in your hands. Worse yet is when the little bombers are tucked in my vest and the command comes through to roll and juke across rough terrain. Even when the grenades in question are only practice grenades (instead of exploding they make a loud popping noise), the slim safety clip does little to inspire much confidence.

So when I threw a practice grenade at a friend during a dry (non-live fire) night drill, I was immediately devastated. How could I have misinterpreted the instructions not to use the weapon? Why didn't common sense override my conviction that I had been given the grenade to use in this very drill? And why, of all the people I could have targeted, did it have to be one of my best friends on my squad?

My commander did not appear as devastated when I dutifully informed him of my mega-fadicha (faux pas, f-up, etc). But speaking to him only deepened my disappointment in myself, especially knowing that I had only further undermined my commander's already very poor opinion of yours truly. Instead of putting in a week's work that could alter his perception, I had gone ahead and made things worse. Any chance to salvage something from the week disappeared when the boss ordered me back to base. I spent the rest of the week playing with tape and string while my squad warred in the Galilee hillsides. Epic frustration, press play.

Three days alone on base was just the start of the time my commander would give me to reflect on my errant toss. Rituk, the boss explained at the end of the week, means a soldier is confined (the literal meaning of the term) to base for 28 days. That is, while everyone else goes home on the occasional weekend off, a soldier suffering the consequences of a nasty rituk sticks it out on base alone. I was handed 35 days as punishment. Sort of a super rituk, rituk a la mode.

Having already closed the past home-shabbat for a prior fadicha (the saturday night business), my summer out of uniform now disappeared before my eyes. All for a quiet pop I would take back for all the fireworks in the world.

Armed & Dangerous?

What would you do if someone committed a robbery right before your eyes? How would carrying a gun alter your course of action? What responsibility, if any, do citizens have in maintaining law and order? And is there any difference if the citizen is also a soldier?

These questions were all I was left with after a sorry little incident came my way on Friday night. My friends and I were nearing the entrance to Liberty Bell Park (Gan HaPa'amon) when the sound of smashed glass turned our attention to a nearby parking lot. A young Arab had thrown a heavy stone against a car window and then fled. Moments later he returned. With a drugged look in his eyes the perp leaned into the car and dashed off with the car-radio.

As endemic as car theft is in Jerusalem, this is the first time I had ever witnessed one in person. My friends and I were hardly the only witnesses to the brash act of public larceny. Some two dozen Israeli Arabs were in view, with a hundred plus more hanging out in the park. One of the Arab families off in the park had just had their radio stolen and their car window smashed apart. Yet no one raised a finger as the thief scampered away into the night.

Part of the disinterest in reining in the crime may be the dissatisfaction some of the local Arabs have with the police. When one of my friends asked a nearby popcorn vendor to ring up the cops, he requested that my friend speak to the dispatcher. "They will listen to you," the old Arab vendor explained. "But if the police hear an Arab voice calling in about a crime like this, they will not take much interest."

I was not troubled by the failure of others to act as much as by my own. There I was, a soldier with seven months of combat training, and I did not so much as raise my voice as a crime was committed before my eyes! I could not help but wonder what if any difference it would have made if my gun had been with me rather than locked up safely at home (soldiers are encouraged to lock their guns up as soon as possible on weekends at home). With an assault rifle in my hands, would I have been emboldened to intercede? Or would the presence of the gun have simply been enough to dissuade the thief from such a brazen crime?

Israeli combat soldiers do not take their guns home with them on the weekends in order to discourage acts of crime. The idea is to look really coo... that is, to demonstrate responsibility and for self-defense. IDF code prohibits soldiers on weekend-leave from using their weapons for any reason save when life is in danger. Even if an armed soldier is held up by a mugger at gunpoint, the rules instruct the soldier not to use his weapon (though I have been told that in practice if the soldier uses his weapon on the armed robber he would not get in trouble.)

The policy makes sense. Consider that Israeli combat soldiers have the maturity of eighteen year olds the world over and the policy seems even more reasonable. And yet I cannot forget that a few months ago, only a few miles removed from the scene of last weekend's carjacking, I swore an oath over my gun "to devote all my strength, and even sacrifice my life, to the defense of my country and the freedom of Israel." More to the point, I swore a host of silent oaths when I became a citizen a year ago. Oaths about what sort of country I wanted to help create in Israel, a process that would not begin or end the day I enlisted in the country's military.

I was dismayed though hardly surprised by the casual racism my carjacking story evinced from a few of the guys in my unit. A young man I know to otherwise be quite sensitive told me the entire incident hardly concerned him since it was simply a case of Arabs preying on each other. When there are such raw differences of opinion on the minimum requirements of law and order then you know it is going to be a long slog towards any rational discourse.