Monday, February 28, 2011

The Kangaroo in the Doorway

Did you see what was in the doorway? Yes. Really? Did you see the kangaroo that was in the doorway? Yes. Really?! You saw the kangaroo in the doorway???

Everyone in my unit laughed at the end of this exchange between me and an urban combat instructor. I could not follow what he was saying in Hebrew, and so figured saying yes to his insistent questions was the safe bet. Not this time. Not to the kangaroo in the doorway!

Language will not be an issue, assured the senior officer in the entrance interview for my former unit. You'll see, your Hebrew will improve in no time.

How right and wrong that officer was. My Hebrew has of course improved dramatically in the army. I enlisted with ten years of poorly taught Jewish day school Hebrew, plus a few months of pre-draft anxious cramming. All that background left me with the basic grammar, lots of vocab, and absolutely zero confidence to speak the language. I only aced the IDF’s basic Hebrew exam in October 2009—and avoiding getting relegated to a month long army ulpan for new immigrants—because I flirted with the girl soldier administering the test, and had already memorized in advance the answers to her questions. And then came the army, three months of basic training, and boom, I was speaking and understanding at near native fluency.

Since basic, my Hebrew skills have improved less dramatically. The leveling effect reflects the fact that I have all but mastered the Hebrew the army can teach me. Army Hebrew, it turns out, is a dialect of the broader language, a modest pool of commands, curse words and monkey-see monkey-do type interactions. While my funny American accent still has not disappeared, I am nearly fluent in the limited lexicon of army Hebrew. Ask me to discuss the economy, or to describe the mixed emotions I have in nearing my twenty-sixth year as a soldier in the army of Israel, and my Hebrew quickly falters. Perhaps this is what the air force officer was intimating: No need to worry about my Hebrew, since the dumbed down tongue spoken by soldiers could be quickly mastered.

What the officer failed to appreciate is the language is about far more than communication. Command of a language brings a confidence I lacked during the critical early months of my service, when impressions were made that defined one's position in my former elite unit. Poor Hebrew, the inability to communicate clearly and quickly in high-pressure situations (and what situation in the army is not high-pressure?), robbed me of my ability to assert leadership skills that are part of who I am. Instead I passed through much of my early training as a shadow of my true self, insecure and frustrated at my own passivity.

Even as my poor Hebrew skills inhibited me from properly expressing myself, they earned me an undesired reputation as something of a class clown. The gibberish that escapes my mouth in my attempt to speak Hebrew, not to mention my unmistakable American accent, is an endless source of mirth to my peers. In my former unit, it was enough to shout achat esrei (eleven), to bring everyone to tears with the memory of the accented way I once pronounced the number during a countdown. My current unit has seized upon the phrase ze kimo (it is like), as the doorstop to endless laughs. While some guys make an effort to correct my endless grammar mistakes, everyone revels in the laughs at my expense. If I laugh as well, it is because I do not mind a few jokes at my own expense, plus I appreciate how all the fun and games makes me one of the more popular guys. Popularity is not the same thing as respect, however, and it is not hard to see how all the joking turns me into a soldier few of my peers take seriously or see as a potential leader.

Officers are better at controlling the urge to laugh at a new immigrant's poor Hebrew. But they are far more susceptible to deciding what kind of a soldier I am based on the skewed impression presented by my limited language skills. To say that my poor Hebrew played an outsize role in my first officer voting me off the island, and in my second officer deciding I would not attend course makim, may sound like a stretch. But when you consider how broadly language shapes human interaction, my poor Hebrew may have a far more critical impact on my army service than even I appreciate.

Sink or Swim

There is much I cannot write about the missions my team went out on this week. Three patrols and an arrest. All in the name of training. Hands on training. Sink or swim.

I cannot write about the mud. Despite the similarities to the mud that swamps us during lengthy navigation treks, this mud is suddenly something far more consequential. This mud is weighing and slowing us down, reducing us to zombie speed, during an actual mission. When guns are loaded and a flicked square of muck means that soldier no one trusted to begin with will likely lose it and drop a magazine on a shadowy nothing.

I cannot write about the tension in the air, the masks of fear that shield the teenage face. Our fears are only overshadowed by the audible fears of the men we come to arrest. We may as well set our gear and guns aside. The arrest comes down to two opposing fears, ours and theirs facing off above our shadows in the real battle that determines whether they will come quietly or force a far grimmer outcome.

I cannot spare more than a few words on the strange strategic angle placed on this week. To wit: despite the tremendous amount of work units like my own do in the West Bank, carrying out patrols and arrests just like those we employed this week, our officers still tried to derive lessons from everything we did to Lebanon.

I will not write about the way we were thrust into a real arrest way before we are honestly prepared for anything like this. At least, I would like to think there is a level of greater training waiting in the wings before units like ours are marshaled out periodically on missions like these. Think? Pray is the more apt term.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Avi's Legacy to Campus

I was an old hand at Israel advocacy before ever stepping onto a college campus. In high school I attended AIPAC gatherings in Washington and organized student rallies outside the UN. During my gap years in Israel I got involved in several advocacy training seminars, attending one run by the Foreign Ministry and staffing another organized by a religious student organization. When college finally came, my freshman year was as much about pursuing Israel advocacy on one of the least politicized campuses in America as commencing my education into all things China.

So when Avi Schaefer’s twin brother told me the organization his family established to perpetuate his brother’s legacy was holding an inaugural activity entitled “Reimagining Israel on the North American Campus” I was not thrilled to attend an advocacy event. Been there, done that.

I was excited, however, to attend the event together with my parents. Not only did I want them to see the world of campus advocacy that had briefly been my own for several years, I wanted them to learn something of Avi’s story as an insight of sorts into their own soldier son.

Avi was a twenty-one year old student at Brown University whose life was cut short by a drunk driver a year ago this month. During his brief college career, Avi poured his passion for Israel into a host of activities—fundraisers for Israeli rescue efforts in Haiti, dialogue with Palestinian students, etc— that demonstrated advocacy and empathy are not at odds. He pursued his passion for Israel as a former volunteer Israeli combat soldier, having made aliyah and enlisted through the same Garin Tzabar program I am now a part of. It takes a young man with sincere humility and rare humanity to understand that his Israeli military background need not prevent him (and in fact is even a source of added credibility) from successfully reaching out to Palestinian students on campus.

Avi’s passion for Israel, a pride that combined empathy and deep humanity, is a legacy that his twin brother and family hope to perpetuate through the foundation they have established in his name. While the event in Jerusalem struck me as no different than the advocacy seminars I attended six years ago, there is a message in Avi’s legacy that can speak to the disaffected mass of American Jewish college students that have tuned out the Jewish state. A proud and humanistic message that knows and loves a liberal Israel and is not afraid to spread this call to young Jews across America.

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Bitter Pills & Lessons Learned

The final nail in my discarded wish to serve as an officer came this week when the list of candidates for the forthcoming NCO course (course makim) was released. I knew not to look for my name. I was not prepared, however, to see that I was the only one of the soldiers who joined Sayeret Tzanchanim in December not selected for the course. My Air Force pals who came over to Paratroopers and, unlike me, did not drop a draft class on the false promise that doing so was the only path to make it to Makim? On the list. The former naval commando who, like me, was shuffled down into the March draft class? Heading to Makim. And so only I remain in the cold, the twenty-five year old American fryer (sucker), played for a fool and sent down to March to twist in the wind.

A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush they say, a bit of conventional wisdom I have now learned through bitter experience. The takeaway, like the proverb says, is it is preferable to have a real advantage in hand than the possibility of a greater one, especially if that greater one is dependent on superiors. My experience over the last few months also taught me that the less time in maslul (training), the better. This is not to say that units with shorter training—like basic infantry—are preferable to more elite units with longer training. The lesson is simply that within a given unit, the Israeli soldier should always strive to finish training. Besides doing the real work of a soldier, post-training soldiers do not get bossed around and treated like underage cons by their superiors.

The other pill I am left chewing over is the random path that led me to my current unit. To wit: After leaving the air force, I decided to continue as a regular infantry soldier rather than sign an extra (third) year required for a special forces outfit. I chose the Paratroop brigade hoping to wind up alongside either of the two guys from my garin whom are serving in the Paratroops. Had I wanted to make it to a sayeret, I would have selected Golani over the Paratroopers, since two other garin buddies are serving in Sayeret Golani. When protekzia dropped me into Sayeret Tzanchanim (the special-forces for the Paratroops) without signing an extra year, I saw no reason to complain. Or to worry when the chance to go to an NCO course propelled me down a draft class, leaving me forever after in my current home, as a class of March 2010, Orev special-forces paratrooper.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Hot Wind Blowing this Way

The skyline of Jerusalem never fails to stir my imagination on the looping ascent into the capital city. This Friday I imagined a Jerusalem divided in all but name, two capital cities facing off along the twin states of Israel and Palestine. A Jerusalem whose ancient heart is governed by international trustees. The Snake Path no longer simply a side entrance into the Old City but the ascent into an international realm like no other.

My imagination was stirred by a revealing piece by Bernard Avishai in the New York Times Magazine. Based on the proposals that former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas exchanged in the winter of 2008, Avishai maps out how little stands in the way of a viable peace deal. The settlement town of Ariel, the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem and the exact number of Arab refugees to repatriate to Israel are the only logistical issues that prevented a peace deal in late 2008.

Jerusalem was only the start of my mind games. Imagine how different my service would be if that deal had come to pass. Transforming written terms into on the ground reality, redrawing borders that my paratrooper predecessors had expanded over forty years ago, would be my main work as a soldier. Jewish settlers rather than Palestinian militants would likely be the central threat I faced in carrying out my duties.

Instead I am serving in an era of calm. Too calm, if you ask me. With fireworks erupting across the Near East, the respite in Israel increasingly looks like the lull before the storm. Palestinians cannot help but be inspired by the power their peers are taking into their own hands with mass rallies and popular violence in Egypt, Jordan, the Gulf states, Libya and no doubt Syria soon as well. If nothing happens earlier, the spark could very well come by early fall with Palestinian elections and a plan to unilaterally declare independence. Abbas suggests as much in Avishai’s write-up. “If nothing happens (by the fall), I will take a very, very painful decision,” Abbas said. “Until now I am committed to peace. But not forever.”


National pride is part of the reason that mass protests emerged in Egypt rather than Syria. Having visited and observed both countries, I can attest that nationalism is far more alive in Syria—thanks to defensive national attitude towards Lebanese politics and the West at large—than in the streets of Cairo.

Or at least it was. One consequence of the people’s revolt in Egypt is that the populist regime that emerges will rely far more on waving the flag than its predecessor. Firing up nationalist fervor is a rock solid way of shoring up regime support. The problem for Israel is that nothing plays so well for fiery nationalism like scapegoating and militaristic jingoism. Thirty years of frosty peace with Mubarak have done nothing to distract Egyptians, and the newly resurgent Muslim Brotherhood, from viewing Israel as the inveterate enemy. As liberals cheer the democratic impulse in the Arab Revolts, they would be wise to recall the angry nationalism that underlies the popular rage.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Training Nutcrackers

It was a week of standing in lines, moving arms and legs on command like a row of pigeonholed marionettes. Some lines were for LoZ (lohama ze'irah, close combat) training, drills designed to teach how to fight in the close urban settings that define most modern warfare. Other lines were for Krav Maga, daily sessions devoted to leaving us with some idea how to restrain and arrest suspects. A final line was somewhat anticlimactic, relearning how to swing a gun like a soldier on parade for a ceremony held at week’s end for the arrival of a new senior officer.

All three drills came down to the same idea, standing in rows and mastering how to position the body on command, arms, legs, and rifle in the correct position. Each exercise had some instructor frothing at the mouth as he lambasted our lame attempts to get the position right. I staved off boredom at times by imagining what would happen if the instructors, dress or particular drills were suddenly switched up, so one second we would be rehearsing our parade drills in Krav Maga attire and the next we would be wearing proper dress uniforms while letting loose a stream of bullets in an intensive bit of Loz training.

The best memory from the week came when all the lines were thrown asunder. The final Krav Maga session set us up into two opposing groups of seven soldiers each. In full protective gear—hockey masks, punching gloves, and the unwieldy foam girdles we slap on our chests and backs—the two groups were sent at each other. Theoretically one group was supposed to be soldiers trying to arrest a particular member of the opposing group, playing adversaries whose job was to resist arrest by any means possible. The reality was a volcanic explosion of violence. The inability to recognize your fellow group members through the protective gear meant that within seconds everyone was swinging and grabbing at everyone else. One can only hope there was little practical military technique to be learned. As far as I am concerned, the drill was designed to entertain our commanders and teach us how to succeed in a drunken brawl.

Friends' Legacies from a Friday Off

Fridays are for leaving the army behind. When the start of weekend leave has that first day of summer vacation magic, freedom so unfathomably splendid that most soldiers respond by fleeing for the safe confines of their beds.

Sleep was not on my agenda last Friday. Two friends were waiting for me up north, two kibbutzim hosting events to remember two remarkable young men. Kibbutz Maoz Hayim was the setting for the fifth annual ritza nivut (“navigation run,” a map-in-hand, timed scavenger hunt) in honor of Yotam Gilboa, a friend killed in the line of duty in the summer of 2006. A few miles west, on Kibbutz Ein Harod Ichud, a hike and picnic honored the legacy of Avi Schaefer, killed a year ago by a drunk driver near the campus of Brown University.

Yotam and I first met when we explored Israel as participants in the 2002 Nesiya summer program. Avi and I never met. Yet I feel a kinship for a young man whose passion for Israel led him to volunteer in the IDF, live on a kibbutz through the Garin Tzabar program, and champion the Jewish state at Brown – while befriending Palestinians – insisting that advocacy and empathy are not contradictions.

My admiration for both Yotam and Avi comes from their refusal to allow progressive personal sentiments dissuade them from a commitment to communal responsibility, namely service in the Israeli army. Both recognized that regardless of what they wished for the future of the state of Israel, past and present responsibilities required them to serve as soldiers. Yotam taught me this lesson one evening when we were seventeen year olds lounging around a campfire in the Galilee. To my surprise, the salt of the earth kibbutznik confessed that Israel did not have all the answers he was searching for in life. He wanted to travel the world and learn from other cultures. His future, he felt, lay elsewhere. But he had no doubts about his present. “I owe it to my community, my parents, my friends,” Yotam explained, “so in a year’s time, I will enlist.” Left unsaid was what he owed to himself. Unsaid, though not beyond appreciating from the challenging and dangerous path Yotam followed in the army until his tragic death.

In his single year as a college student, Avi was widely lauded for his efforts to promote dialogue between supporters and opponents of Israel. He was unashamed about his military service, despite the abuse a former Israeli soldier would presumably receive in advocating for Israel on a liberal college campus. Avi understood, and wisely communicated to his peers, that his experience as an Israeli soldier was not antithetical but rather fundamental to his efforts at peaceful reconciliation. Through word and deed, Avi succeeded in demonstrating how his past and current activities were all the struggles of a “soldier for peace.”

Yotam and Avi are bound up in the life I now lead. One inspired me to enlist, the other reminds me that the consequence of my service can be a strength and not a crutch in the paths I follow after the army. And so it was fitting that the two events were held on the same day. A predawn bus from base allowed me to run around Yotam’s childhood home for several hours, joining hundreds who had come to honor a young man’s life or simply test their navigation skills in a friendly competition. When the event came to a close, I hitched a ride across the Gilboa mountains and arrived at the kibbutz Avi called home as a participant in Garin Tzabar. The crowd was smaller, largely composed of the member’s of Avi’s garin and a few Israeli friends. I came as a stranger and left as a friend. Not the sort of friend who shares stories and laughs yet the kind whose admiration and shared passion lead him indebted to the other's memory even during times apart.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Arab Protests: Watching from the Wings

A close friend is reporting live from Cairo this weekend. She traveled to Egypt by way of the Sinai, riding the bus route from Jerusalem I once tried myself. As she covers the most fascinating development the Arab world has seen in ages, I count the days left to my brief vacation from the army. The time off allows me to follow the ever changing events that are enveloping Israel's neighbors: Egypt, Jordan and other Arab regimes faltering in the face of mass protests, Lebanon falling under the sway of Israel's inveterate foe Hezbollah, and the moderate Palestinian leadership rocked by the release of confidential diplomatic discussions with Israel.

With so much going on in the Middle East, I have a hard time accepting how distant I am from ongoing events. Part of the reason I relocated to Israel from Washington was a desire to switch from observer to participant. Here I could play a role rather than describe the action from the sidelines. The army would thrust me into the middle of events, forcing me to come to grips with a conflict from within. No more would I scan the internet from afar and wonder how places and persons I once knew are redefining reality.

Ahmad and the Mogamma have not been part of my world for two years now. In January 2009 I said goodbye to a Cairo whose streets were still raging with daily protests against Israel's attack on Gaza. The logistics of leaving were so simple: a Thursday night bus from downtown Cairo dropped me off at the Taba/Eilat border crossing with ample time to spend shabbat in Jerusalem.

The memories of Egypt's capital have been harder to leave behind. Were it not for my military status, I thought every time I rode a bus during this week's break, I would be back in Cairo right now. Reconnecting with young Egyptians who are finally voicing the dreams they shared with me two short years ago.