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by Patricia Berlyn


They were swifter than eagles,
They were braver than lions.

-- II Samuel 1:23

In biblical usage, gibor hayil is "a mighty man of valor" in battle. But the concept is not exclusively military. It is also used for a person who has earned the respect of his community for being reliable, responsible, and capable -- a concept found also in the ishat hayil [Woman of Valor] in Proverbs 31:10-31. This complex connotation is still apt today, when hayil (masculine) or hayalet (feminine) means one who serves in Tzahal, an acronym for Tzeva HaGanah L'Yisrael [IDF -- Israel Defense Forces].

These soldiers are conscripted at the age of 18, serve a fixed term of active duty, and may thereafter be called up for annual reserve duty or emergency service. The young Israelis in service, and the not-so-young Israelis in the reserves, form a true citizen-military, with only a small cadre of professional officers. They leave homes and family, education and work, to guard against, confront and repel the massive assaults of vastly larger enemy forces and the sneak tactics of terrorists. They know that weakness or failure or defeat would mean the annihilation of their country and the slaughter of their people. They do their job superbly, and with remarkably little bravado or swagger.

The foreign news media's bland notice of "Israeli soldier killed ..." means that one of them -- usually 18-22 years old -- has fallen at his or her post. To date, Tzahal's casualties come close to 22,000 slain and 80,000 wounded or disabled. In the War of Independence in 1947-48 the toll was close to 6,400 killed out of a total population of 600,000.

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Let us be strong and strengthen ourselves for the sake of our people ... -- I Chronicles 19:13

It used to be a standard ingredient of Judeophobia to call Jews feeble and cowardly, unable or unwilling to fight. Now that this charge is obsolete, it is replaced with a defamatory depiction of a hyper-militaristic Israel and the brutal Israeli soldier who kills Arab babies for fun.

From biblical days onward, the Children of Israel have held a cherished vision of a day when "nations shall not learn war any more". But in the meantime, they can and do fight when necessary. This begins with their Father Abraham, a peaceable man who raised a small force that pursued five marauding kings and rescued the captives they were leading away to slavery or death. Even in countries where Jews were excluded from citizenship and banned from the military, they fought when their only hope was to die with honor, from medieval times to the Warsaw Ghetto.

In nations where Jews are endowed with citizenship, they willingly bear their share of the national defense. In the United States, that began in 1776, with the death in battle of Francis Salvador, an officer in the South Carolina Militia.

A typical Tzahal soldier recalls his experience in "Thank You and Goodbye, IDF," by Rani Levy, Israel Unity, 9 July 2004:

"Dedicated to my 21,790 Brothers and Sisters who fell in Israel's Wars and Operations.

"Early morning of Monday November 1, 1982, we said goodbye to my mother. An hour later, my father and I stopped in front of the Tel-Hashomer IDF recruit center near Tel-Aviv. I was 18, and I was joining the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) that morning.

"In the Israeli common language, this is the nightmare of every parent. Pride, mixed with pain and worry, for a child leaving the house for the first time. With wet eyes, the tough Paratrooper Colonel whose been in all of Israel's wars - kissed me, wished me luck, and tucked into my pocket a little book of Psalms which I carry to this day.

"Next month, I will be returning the IDF card I received on that morning. Getting to be 40 in Israel, means not being wanted by the army anymore. It is not easy not to be a soldier anymore. It makes you feel old. It makes you feel less attached to Israel's best-kept secret, most unifying, most internationally adored creation - The IDF.

"Since that morning of November 1982, I had three and a half years of mandatory military service, and several reserve tours. The one I would like to share was the one before last, Operation Defensive Shield in April 2002.

"It was Saturday night, March 30, 2002. Just a little over 2 years ago. My wife and I returned home from a visit over at our friends' house, just before midnight. The phone rang. It was Lior, my deputy Company commander, from my reserve unit in the IDF.

"A Code 8 has been issued for our unit, you need to report to the Dry Storage Base tomorrow morning. Prepare for several weeks, we are going to war. I put the phone down, and told my wife Alma the news. It did not come as a surprise. Israel was still under the shock of the Passover Massacre in the Netanya Park Hotel, which murdered 30 people in the middle of the Passover Meal, only 3 days earlier.

"Code 8 is the nightmare of any IDF reservist. It means you go to war. Not a tour, not a campaign, not a training of a week or two with good ol' Army buddies. It means combat. It means you may get killed. It means someone you know, will get killed. [...]

"I made several phone calls to my Army team members, those I had to call who would later be in my APC or Infantry Platoon. There was a heavy feeling in the air. I pulled down my Army duffle bag from the attic, and made sure all my army gear was in there. It was hard to sleep that night. My mind was running fast. What will it be like? ... Will my little son do this too when he will be 38 years old?

"Saying goodbye to my kids and to Alma the next morning was different than ever before. I have been doing this since the age of 18, but there was a feeling that this is different. This is so different. I have 3 children now. I have a pregnant wife. I am 38.

"[...] I arrived at the base in Southern Israel, shortly after noon. Within several hours, I was witnessing and engaged in one of the most powerful Military experiences I have ever gone through. I saw scenes that reminded me of American movies of War. Helicopters in the air. Military Police keeping the traffic flowing, thousands of cars of civilians, Israelis 22-40, like me, who had to leave everything they do, with a 12 hour notice by phone, and become soldiers in a matter of hours.

"I saw how a dead city of neatly covered armored vehicles, became a monster of thousands of living roaring machines, fully armed, fueled and manned, by experienced and fully motivated men. 37,000 men were recruited that day.

"At around 10 PM that Sunday, less than 24 hours after CODE 8 was issued, the execution order took place. A group of business men, teachers, scientists, plumbers, truck drivers, shop owners and university students, mostly married guys with kids at home, became a fully armed ready to go armored mechanized division.

"The Brig. Gen., the Commander of my Division, spoke clearly in front of the thousands of men. 'We are to engage the enemy inside their cities, where the terror is coming from. We will have casualties, we will pay a price.. But it's either they get us in our homes buses or cafes or we get them in their hideaways. When you ride in your APC or in your tank or in your Jeep tomorrow, and in the next few weeks, remember the Passover Meal in Netanya. Remember the Dolfinarium in Tel-Aviv. Remember Sbarro in Jerusalem, and all the buses.' Then he went on about the details of our mission, and briefed each Battalion separately. It ended at 4AM, Monday morning.

"People started writing letters to their loved ones. Others just sat and meditated. Others prayed. Some laughed and made jokes about the whole thing, to release the tension. We started moving at about 6 AM.

"Later on Monday, we entered into combat, and literally released the force we were replacing under fire. My Battalion was positioned in the Central Gaza front, near the city of Al Burej, about 5 miles South of the city of Gaza, only 40 minutes away from my home, if you drove leisurely.

"I spent 4 weeks in the Army during Operation Defensive Shield. Basically, all of April 2002. It was the toughest and most dangerous military activity I had engaged in since my mandatory three-year service, which I did when I was 18-21.

"My Battalion performed very well. The motivation and morale were very high, and all of us really teamed up to make this work. It was a powerful feeling of camaraderie, military discipline and professional militarism that I have ever seen. No one complained, no one asked to be dismissed, no one, all of a sudden, had any problems at home to whine about. There was that historic feeling; we are here for all the victims of terror.

"[... ] Thank God, my unit did not suffer any direct casualties from Palestinian gunfire. We were shot at about 20-25 different times during this 4 week operation, we took hits on our armored APCs twice from roadside bombs, and we prevented at least 10 different efforts we know of, attempted penetration into Israel to commit mass shootings and killing in the villages and kibbutzim which were a mile or two away from us, directly behind us.

"In the middle of Operation Defensive Shield, Israel's Independence Day celebration took place. No one was allowed to leave to celebrate with his or her families. We were spreading ourselves very thin in terms of manpower, and the tasks which my unit was ordered to perform made it impossible to have even three of us leave for home at the same time. Everybody was 'grounded'

"On that night when celebrations took place all over Israel, we got intelligence about a potential group of Hamas infiltrators who were planning to raid our own post, the actual barracks where our Company was stationed. An attack like that had taken place 3 months earlier, leaving 7 of the Company soldiers we replaced - dead. [...]

"The mission of that night was accomplished thank God... On April 25, 2002 Operation Defensive Shield ended. We had lost 40 men during this operation, mostly reservists. We had over 100 casualties.

"Since that experience, I often think of my fellow reserve unit team members. I often think of that detached from reality experience, of throwing your frantic schedule away, and going to the army for an unknown period of time, to fight for your home. Not a war across the globe, not a war of principals, but a war, a race, against the next bus bombing down the street.

"I wonder how many times can a Government issue Code 8? What is the energy that exists there, to give the order, and know without a doubt that everyone will not only show up, but come eager, motivated, determined, and not say a word - until it's all over...

"I almost feel like I want to thank the IDF, for allowing me to serve all those years... During my 1,450-1,500 or so days of being in IDF uniforms during the past 22 years, I have obeyed many orders, and had a chance to give a few here and there. I participated in various types of activities all over the Golan, Samaria, Judea and Gaza. I was in Lebanon and participated in too many funerals of fellow soldiers from my Battalion. I was never given a reason to doubt anything that I did, or any order I was given.

"As I leave the IDF, I feel very fortunate. I feel fortunate to have completed a front-line duty in one piece despite all the dangers. I feel satisfaction with my training, and have benefited from it as a valuable life experience.

"But, I also feel very thankful for the one order I was never given. When you are a soldier in Israel, there is one order you pray you will never be given. As I leave the IDF, I want to wish my colleagues who are still serving and those who will serve in years to come: May you be as fortunate as I was, and may you never ever be given that horrible order -- the order to break into the house of a fellow Israeli family, some of whom may be reserve soldiers just like you, look them in the eye, and then take from them everything they have got. Their home and their Integrity.

"But, if this terrible day will come for you, and if, G-d forbid, you will be given this terrible order, do what your heart tells you. Do what a good IDF soldier would do. Do it with no hesitation.

"Fall on your face, and cry for your country."

* * * * * * *

Be strong and courageous, fear not nor be terrified because of them ... -- Deuteronomy 31:6

The struggle for security for Israel has now been going on for more than a century, with alternating intervals of warfare and quasi-truce. It has always been a struggle against very high odds and it still is. It is merely a trick of current propaganda to present it as an Israeli Goliath dominant over pitiable West-of-the-Jordan Arabs ("Palestinians"). The assault on Israel is waged in one way or another by the entire Arab world of 22 states with 500,000,000 people, supported by most of the Muslim world of almost two billion people. Today, the odds are if anything greater than they were at the beginning of the war, with the United Nations and the European Union as non-combatant support personnel for the Arabs.

Through almost all the years of the Exile, there were Jews living in the Land of Israel, subjected to the regime of usually hostile foreign empires and their local corrupt overseers. From the 1870s onwards a flow of pioneers came to redeem and rebuild an abandoned ancestral homeland. From the start, they were targets for attacks of bandits and brigands, and later on of organized terrorist gangs.

They could expect no protection from the Ottoman Turks who were the occupying power until 1918, and very little from the British Mandatory Government that was the occupying power until 1948. So the Jewish pioneers organized their own defense, that began with a watchman patrolling the settlement and its fields. In 1909, the scattered settlements formed an association for their common security called HaShomer [The Watchman]. In 1920, HaShomer was expanded into HaGanah [The Defense). Both HaShomer and HaGanah were always under the direction of the elected civil bodies that managed the affairs of the Jewish community.

Many men of the Jewish settlements enlisted and served in the British military in both World War I and World War II, but that did not temper the British determination not to protect the Jews or allow the Jews to protect themselves. The exceptional Colonel Richard Meinhertzhagen and General Orde Wingate -- known as HaYedid [The Friend] -- were banished from Palestine because of their unseemly affinity for the Jews and their cause.

When Israel declared its independence in May 1948, the hitherto "illegal" HaGanah became its de facto defense force, and was officially transformed into Tzahal [IDF}, subsuming land, air and sea forces.

* * * * * * *

When Saul became the first King of Israel (circa 1032 BCE), the Philistines held a monopoly on forges that could produce weapons, and they made sure that the Israelites should have neither spears nor swords. It was a policy that has not yet gone out of fashion.

1] Great Britain in the last stages of the Mandate strove to whittle down the Jewish capacity for defense, while providing weapons to the Arabs. It also provided British officers and a British commander for Trans-Jordan's Arab Legion. Thus it went into its war of extermination against Israel led by General Sir John Bagot Glubb; the Glubb Pasha who in his memoirs recalled fondly how he gazed at the bodies of dead Jews brought down by his "angels".

Even after Israel gave citizenship to the Jewish refugees the British held incarcerated in camps in Cyprus they were not allowed to leave for their own country -- lest these survivors of the Holocaust tilt the balance of manpower against the six Arab states. Nevertheless, some of them, weakened by years of starvation, slavery and torment, without any military experience or training, managed to reach their Promised Land in time to defend it and to die for it.

2] The United States, though it gave instant recognition to the State of Israel, also imposed an embargo on weapons.

3] When Egypt, Jordan and Syria launched the Six-Day War in 1967, Israel had already purchased and paid for French Mirage jets for its air force. They were Israel's property, but France refused to deliver them.

4] When Egypt and Syria launched the Yom Kippur War in 1973, some of Israel's tanks were in Great Britain for servicing and repair. They were unquestionably Israel's property, but Britain refused to return them -- while it continued to send military helicopters to Egypt.

* * * * * * *

Tzahal is noted for the speed and effectiveness of its rescue and humanitarian missions. So much so, that nations struck by a sudden disaster, whether inflicted by nature or by man, call to Israel for help and Israel always sends the help at once. That does not inhibit the beneficiary states from adding their own voices to the international hate-Israel howl, perhaps confident that after the next disaster Israel will rush to their succor anyway.

* * * * * * *

The men and women of Tzahal and all those who love them cannot depend on organs of their own government and society to stand firmly with those who are risking their own lives to protect them.

Sometimes this is a matter or bad judgment:

1] The smug Supreme Court of Israel gives rulings that hinder the demolition of structures used by snipers and other terrorists. These rulings sometimes cost the lives of soldiers.

2] In October 2000 a PLO-mob attacked the site known as Joseph's Tomb, officially recognized as a Holy Place. Among the defenders of the Tomb was 22-year-old Corporal Madhat Yusuf (whose own name is the Arabic form of Joseph), an Israeli Druze serving in the quasi-military Border Police. Corporal Yusuf was wounded by a gunshot.

Prime Minister Ehud Barak made the disgraceful decision to appeal to the PLO to allow the wounded man to be evacuated, instead of forcing the way for an ambulance to reach him. Corporal Yussuf bled to death at his post. Joseph's Tomb was then abandoned to the mob, that promptly demolished it and tried to set a mosque in its place.

3] In 2002, Tzahal was sent to clean out the UN-sponsored terrorist base in Jenin. In an order meant not for maximum effectiveness but for minimum enemy casualties, the men were required to deal with the terrorists one room at a time. This order caused the unnecessary death of 23 young soldiers. The sacrifice was rewarded by UN officials and foreign journalists concocting and disseminating the entirely fictional Brutal Israeli Massacre of Innocent Arabs in Jenin.

4] The International Solidarity Movement (ISM) is a PLO-sponsored organization that recruits young people in Western democracies to aid and abet terrorism. As reported by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs: "ISM members take an active part in illegal and violent actions against IDF soldiers. At times, their activity in Judea, Samaria and the Gaza Strip is under the auspices of Palestinian terrorist organizations."

In April 2003, Tom Hurndall, an ISM member from England, joined a mob in Gaza that was attacking an IDF position. In the ensuing clash, Hurndall deliberately placed himself in the line of fire, and was struck by a bullet. He was removed to a hospital in London, where ten months later he died of pneumonia.

An investigation by Tzahal determined that the bullet was fired by a 20-year-old officer from Israel's Beduin Arab community. It was also determined that he had not done anything improper or unlawful while acting in the line of duty, and was in no way to blame for Hurndall thrusting himself into the crossfire.

Nevertheless, under fierce pressure from Great Britain, this young officer is now on trial for homicide, facing a sentence of life in prison because of another man's recklessness.

Sometimes this is a matter of calculated intent:

1] Yesh Gavul [There Is A Limit] is an organization whose purpose and program is to induce Israeli soldiers to desert or at least refuse to carry out their duties, and to persuade high school graduating classes to evade military or national service. They accost soldiers in bus stations and other public places, harassing them with their harangues, and at the same time trying to bribe them into dereliction of duty.

This organization is supported by two tax-exempt American charities, The New Israel Fund and the Shefia Fund.

2] Machshom [Checkpoint] Watch is a coven of far-leftist Israeli women who hold their rites at the checkpoints where Tzahal soldiers look out for would-be jihad-bombers The humanitarian agenda is to "facilitate" passage through the checkpoints by abusing the watchmen, distracting them from their duties, and threatening them with trials for violations of human rights.

3] News media, at home and abroad, like to inflate the numbers and significance of soldiers and ex-soldiers who put their names to a defeatist manifesto. (Many of those who vow they will not serve passed maximum military age decades ago.) The authors of the reports would like to believe and make others believe that these are the true heroes, in contrast to the brutes.

The insignificance of these performances is explained in this excerpt from the report "Pride and Dissent in the Israeli Military," by Brigadier-General Gershon HaCohen, Jerusalem Issue Brief, Institute for Contemporary Affairs in Jerusalem, 29 April 29, 2004. "In my own experience as commander of the IDFs 'Gaash' Formation, which includes combat units such as the Golani Brigade, I have never met with even one incidence of refusal to obey orders or lack of motivation. The main problem is sometimes exactly the opposite my troops suffer from over-motivation. [...]

"In my experience, the only problematic soldiers are those with socioeconomic problems, not ideological ones. We help those soldiers who cannot afford to serve in a combat unit because of economic difficulties to do so.

"Out of hundreds of thousands of reserve soldiers, less than 500 were declared to have refused service. Only twelve pilots declared they would disobey orders and only one of those has taken part in combat operations in the last ten years. The percentage of those who ideologically refuse to obey orders is so low that many commanders have no such soldiers in their units. [...]"

* * * * * * *

Four young soldiers, the kind that European cartoonists draw as slavering monsters, were manning a security checkpoint at the edge of the Gaza Strip when an Arab woman sought passage through. In respect for her modesty, they sent for a female soldier to perform the mandatory search for weapons or explosives.

When this woman complained of a physical disability, they allowed her to enter the post where she could wait sitting down. There, she detonated her bomb belt, and killed all four of them along with herself. She was sent on this mission to expiate adultery, as agreed by her husband and her paramour.

On another day in Gaza, a young soldier was shot dead by a sniper while he was helping an old Arab woman to carry her groceries. A second soldier who ran to his aid was also killed.

Patricia Berlyn is a native of New York City, who now resides in Israel. She has a degree in history from Columbia University (Barnard College). She is a writer and editor, mostly on the history and culture of ancient Israel. She writes a monthly column - "A Time To Speak" - about Israeli history and current affairs. You can read her essays on Subscribe by writing

This is Vol. IV: 7 (No. 43), July 2004 - Tammuz-Av 5764. Complimentary subscriptions are available by request to All the messages to date are on A Time To Speak's website:


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