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When I was 13 years old, a young American Jewish girl in a middle-class neighborhood, Israeli soldiers were about as close to gods as men could be. Israel was a nation that stood proud, that represented strength and commitment, beauty and compassion. No one believed me when I told them that I would live in Israel, but I believed, I dreamed, I knew.
When I was 16, on my first trip to Israel, everything I had dreamed of was suddenly confirmed. Israel was a land like no other. The people, the places, the smells, the sun. I was overwhelmed with a sense of home-coming, a connection, a commitment. Undoubtedly, part of the fascination centered on the frequent site of armed soldiers in uniform patrolling the country.
They were strong and handsome, proud Jews to a young girl who had never before been taught the inherent beauty in our religion and history. With their broken English and their musical Hebrew, the soldiers were everything I wanted to be... they were Israelis. What would later be deemed obnoxious behavior to someone in their thirties or forties seemed so innocent and even romantic to a 16-year-old desperately searching for a way to be part of Israel's future.
As I grew older, the soldiers seemed fixed in time, even growing younger. Once they were men, strong and noble, tireless knights who defended against unrelenting enemies. Over the years, as I married and brought children into the world, I realized that the image of the soldiers had changed. The older I got, the younger they seemed. They are, for the most part more boys than men; more images of what Israel will be in the future than what it is today. They are, or were, so young, just starting out in life, but still noble in their dedication; still brave knights who dedicated years of their lives to our country.
Through my twenties and into my thirties, Israel remained a dream, a goal. University and marriage and soon there were children. I had a daughter and two sons when aliyah became a reality, and part of the decision to move to Israel meant coming to terms with the boys serving in the army. I wasn't the silly young girl of sixteen anymore, but a mother with the responsibility to do what was right for her family and sons.
At 33, I moved to Israel amid the questions and concerns of family members. One in particular stood out and has been in my mind ever since. "What will you feel when the army comes and takes your son to be a soldier?" my mother-in-law asked me. I remember looking at the little, blue-eyed, 5-year-old playing with his older sister and trying to imagine him at age 18, tall and strong and dressed in a uniform. I couldn't see it. But I could see him running with a group of boys chattering away in Hebrew and playing in the Israeli sun.
With more courage than I realized I had at the time, I answered my mother-in-law with the truth. "I'll be happy and scared, proud and nervous. It will be good for him. I'll worry. I'll pray. I won't breathe for 3 years, but I'll be glad he's serving his country and doing what he should do."
We came to Israel and we instilled in our children a love of Israel, a dedication to this land, a willingness to serve. The two sons born in America are volunteers for Magen David Adom, regularly spending hours each month helping car accident victims, the sick and injured. My oldest son is now 18 years old, tall and strong, unbelievably handsome with his striking blue eyes that were a genetic long shot. He hopes to be a paramedic in the army one day soon and today, as he studies to prepare to join, it isn't hard to imagine him in a uniform.
A third son was born in Israel more than 10 years ago, fulfilling my dream of giving birth to a sabra. He has no memories of another land and Hebrew is the language of his mind and heart. As Purim arrives in Israel each year, we revisit the choices for costumes and for more years than not, I have dressed my youngest son as a policeman or a soldier. My littlest man, rushing to grow up.
This year, the choice was harder. Like much of Israel, I have watched police and soldiers doing things I never thought to see them do. Used by the government, those who should have defended us from all harm, caused harm instead and became political pawns.
The first time, in Gush Katif, the soldiers cried with the people, suffered with them, and were part of a great tragedy orchestrated and ordered by a government keen on diverting attention from its own corruption and dictatorial ways. Charged with the task, the soldiers still took the time to listen as the people of Gush Katif poured out their frustration, their pain, and their anger and in many cases, when the pain became too much for them, soldiers were seen crying out their own frustration at being given a job that should not have been for them.
There was no glee in the evacuation, no happiness on the part of the soldiers. They inflicted trauma, and were traumatized. They caused pain, and hurt themselves in the process. Six months and counting, and the errors of disengagement become more obvious with each rocket that reaches Ashkelon. Six months and many of the refugees are still homeless, jobless, without compensation, and lost.
If that had been the end, I might have let my son dress as a policeman or soldier for Purim. I hold the government and the weak and disastrous policies of the Sharon/Olmert government responsible for Gush Katif, more so than the army and police.
But Gush Katif wasn't the end; it was the beginning. Hebron and Amona. I watched Israeli soldiers and police beating Israeli teenagers, shoving them to the ground, smashing into homes without any thought to those inside. Anger was in their actions and perhaps even hatred. This time the army bought the government line, that these were the evil settlers Yitzhak Rabin had warned them about, the dreaded Orange people Sharon has promised to annihilate.
In Hebron, soldiers raised loaded guns at Israeli teenagers, thirteen-year-old girls. Would they have pulled the trigger? The adult in me knows they would not, but the young girls ran in panic honestly believing that the soldiers may actually pull the trigger. They believed, and for that, soldiers and police in Israel should be ashamed.
How could those who were the ultimate defenders of the Jews, the brave boys who stood between us and the next pogrom, become those who inflict pain? How is it possible for Jewish soldiers to beat Jewish children, to look at them with anger and hatred and to forget that these are the very ones they swore to protect? To beat them from horses without caring about the harm they inflict?
As they stormed towards the demonstrators in Amona, the police did not see the faces of Jewish children, the fear, the tears, the pain and worse, the disillusionment. They behaved as mindless soldiers, Cossacks charging onward into battle. Of course, the battle was meaningless, as it was in Gush Katif. No peace will come from the destruction of these nine houses; no rockets will be stopped. No negotiations will begin, no greater good.
While kassem rockets are fired at Israel, cars stoned, buses firebombed, and our people stabbed in Petach Tikvah, Gush Etzion and Maaleh Adumim, our forces had nothing better to do than go destroy nine homes and physically assault more than 200 civilians. After Amona, the sight of a soldier or a policeman often becomes a sickening reminder of security forces that have been unleashed against their own people, thus betraying the very reason for their existence. The IDF's journey from being the proud and much loved sons of our nation, to acting as political mercenaries was painfully displayed in Amona. When security forces turn against their own people and use force against teenagers, they cease to be the protectors of the people, the defenders, the noble knights.
Years ago, I promised the State of Israel that my sons would serve and defend. Almost in anticipation of that moment, I proudly encouraged them to dress up on Purim in costumes that hinted at the men they would one day become. Some years it was a soldier, other times it was a policeman. Each time, I proudly photographed the moment, and thought about the time when the costume would be a uniform; the boy would be a man.
This year, I let my young son choose his costume without any interference. He chose, as boys are wont to do, to dress as a vampire. He is happy to wear the silly fingernails and cape and have his face painted. That was the easy test but a larger one looms on the horizon. What will I do when my oldest son comes home in the real uniform? And what will I feel next year when my youngest son must again make a choice? The answers to those questions rests largely on the decisions we Israelis make on March 28.
Once, they were the handsome and strong knights of our land. Today, they are pawns used to beat Israeli children till blood runs from open wounds. Defending knights or political pawns. Ultimately, the decision for whom to vote will be a simple one. On March 28, I voted for the party most likely to bring back the knights of Zion.
This article was submitted March 13, 2006; two weeks before the
Paula R. Stern is a technical writer, founder and documentation manager of WritePoint Ltd and part of the Techshoret Jerusalem Technical Writers Group. Contact her at email@example.com or go to her website http://www.paulasays.com/
This article was submitted March 13, 2006; two weeks before the election.
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