Saturday, September 20, 2014

Why I'm Joining the IDF

In September, I'll be moving to Israel to realize my dream of serving in the Israel Defense Forces, which I will begin in December. Joining the IDF has been in the back of my mind since I first listened to my dad speak about the world's lone Jewish state over 10 years ago. The idea has reverberated in my head for a while, especially in the last 4 years when I spent a lot of time in Israel, but it was never more than a far-fetched dream, divorced from reality. 

But around a month before graduation, I really started to entertain the possibility of joining. The fact that it was now or never, that once I started my career, the IDF door would be shut forever, really forced me to confront this dream of mine and see how committed I was to achieving it. 10 years down the road, I didn't want to regret not having done my part for my people when I had the chance.

 Obviously there were a lot of negatives that initially, and for some time thereafter, kept me from making this move; sometimes I would wake up in the middle of the night and think that I had dreamt up my IDF aspirations, and that it wasn't really something I was considering. I would wake up and laugh at myself for even contemplating this, and I would tell myself to forget the entire idea, put on a shirt and tie, and begin my "real" life. But I never could. For some reason, I could not let this dream die. No matter how ridiculous I thought it was at times, I couldn't let the IDF go. The pull was always there. In my heart and in my soul. 

It took me two months to really come to peace with what joining would mean: I would be in another country for almost 2 years without any family or many close friends. I would be a soldier...enduring all of the grueling training, inevitable mental and emotional breakdowns, and physical exhaustion that comes with being in combat infantry. I would have to do all of this without the comfort of going home on weekends and being able to recooperate with my family and friends. I would be doing all of this while speaking a language I have only started committing to learn this week. I would be delaying "my real life" and I would be essentially postponing my dream of working with my dad, growing our business, and helping all of my friends achieve their financial dreams. 

 The risk of danger, real life threatening danger, was always there; as a suburban guy, lucky in health and circumstance, sometimes it was tough to really grasp what the idea of "life threatening war" with real enemies and real weapons would even feel like. The times that I grasped this truth, if only momentarily, stopped me in my tracks: the hair stood up on my back and my entire body grew wet with sweat. But my brothers and sisters in Israel all had to deal with this fear and make this sacrifice to protect our homeland....And so, so do I. I could not let this idea go...

From the time I was old enough to listen to my dad speak, I understood that as Israel goes, so goes the Jewish people. I came to understood that for two thousand years, the Jews were a kicked around, abused, and vulnerable people subjected to the violent whims of the world. With no state to call our own and no people willing to stand up for us or protect us, we endured pogroms, expulsion, mass murder, dhimmitude, and persecution in both Christiandom and the Muslim world. It all culminated in the Holocaust. The systematic murder of 6 million of our people. The world knowing and not doing a damn thing to stop the killing nor opening their gates to the refugees.  The devastation of European Jewry had reiterated a truth that Jews honest with themselves had always known: We can't count on anyone but ourselves. So long as we were dependent on ours for our survival, the Jewish people would remain demoralized and weak, and our very survival a permanent question.

Even more disheartening than any persecution we suffered from the hand of others, in my opinion, is the effect that 2,000 years of ghettoization had on the Jewish people's opinion of Ourselves. Some Jews internalized the hate of our oppressors; they began to rationalize Anti-Semitism and tried to modify their behavior or blame "other Jews" in the delusional hopes that it would put them beyond reproach. Exile and devastation had weakened and demoralized the Jew and his sense of self worth. The fact that Jew-hatred is irrational and nonsensical, that Jews were hated for being both too capitalist and too socialist, too assimilationist and too particularist, too cowardly and too aggressive, was difficult to confront. If Jew-hatred wasn't based on anything real that we did, but rather revealed the hate our detractors, how could we possibly end our persecution? We could not. We cannot. 

As the late Great Menachem Begin once remarked, "The seeds of Jewish destruction lie in passively enabling the enemy to humiliate us." 

My dad would not stand for that sort of passiveness. He would be proud of his Jewishness. He would not be shy about it, apologize for it, or grow detached from it. He is not religious; it has little to do with religion or God, it has everything to do with a bond among people. He would do all that he could to support and stand up for our people. "Jews watch out for other Jews, because nobody else will" I've heard on more than one occasion...

The creation of Israel was nothing less and nothing more than the culmination of a 2,000-year-old dream to once again be a free people in our own land. Through sheer force of will, relentless spirit, and the desperation of necessity...the Jews reclaimed a mostly destitute land, revived a biblical language, and recreated their national culture. The Jews of modern day Israel walk the same land, practice the same faith, and speak the same language that our ancient ancestors did 3,000 years ago…The Jewish return to Zion, after millennia spent as homeless wanderers, is a phenomenon unparalleled in the annals of history. 

Zionism failed, however, in its attempt to quell Anti-Semitism: the idea that Israel's creation would finally normalize the Jewish people, and that Israel would exist as a “nation like any other” was flawed from the start. Christian Europe and the Muslim Middle East have treated the world’s lone Jewish state with much of the same ruthlessness with which their forbearers treated their individual Jews for millennia.

From the start, the creation of a Jewish state merely allowed Anti-Semites to masquerade their hatred in terms, after the horrors of the Holocaust, more palatable to the world, Anti-Zionism, Anti-Israel rhetoric.  As Rabbi Sacks recently wrote, throughout history there has always been a pretext to "justify" Jew hatred: in the Middle Ages Jews were hated "for" our religion, in the 18th-20th centuries we were hated "for" our race, and in recent decades we have become hated "for" our nation-state. 

Israel's early military successes, it's ability to with-stand the genocidal attacks of its neighbors, and the security measures enacted in order to keep the Jewish state alive further exasperated a world unaccustomed and uncomfortable with Jewish agency and Jewish resiliency. Jews existing as helpless victims to be pitied was fine; powerful Jews successfully defending themselves and being proud in their Jewishness was and is anemia to the world. 

While Anti-Zionists claim that their views are merely political, the truth tells a different tale: Classic Anti-Semetism. This newfound hatred of the Jewish state is patently anti-semetic as it denies the Jews the right to self-determination given to all other peoples, and, of the 193 countries in the world, it challenges only the Jewish state's "right to exist." The most horrible demonizations of the Jewish people throughout history (blood libels, the intentional murder of children, Jewish control of the media, rotting and destabilizing society, etc.) have now been seamlessly attached to the Jewish state, with hardly anyone grasping the irony.

The more things change, the more they stay the same...

And yet....

Zionism succeeded in its more reasonable, and ultimately, more important goal. 

Never again. Never again would Jews be persecuted with nowhere to go. No longer would be homeless. Never again could the world spill Jewish blood with impunity. No longer would a Jew feel inferior or weak because they were a Jew. We would hold our heads high. With the creation of Israel, the Jewish people's vitality, after 2,000 years in the diaspora, has been restored. With the establishment of the Jewish state, the Jewish people would never again go quietly to our graves. Never again "because he was a Jew." Those days are over.  Anti-Semitism would not be defeated, but rather than turn the other cheek or bow their heads, Jews would stand up straight, stare you in the eyes, and tell you to go f-ck yourself.  We will fight. We control our own destiny.

The men and women of the IDF have always been heroes of mine because they changed my perception of who we can be and how Jews can live; not as helpless victims but as hardened fighters and leaders. We have Modern Jewish Warriors like Moshe Dayan, Ariel Sharon, and Yoni Netanyahu, Great Jewish statesmen like Menachem Begin, Michael Oren (my two personal heroes, whose love and devotion to the Jewish people knew no bounds) and the great David Ben Gurion. The Jewish people have returned to the forefront of history and to the forefront of our own miraculous story; not as passive subjects, but as free actors shaping our own existence, strengthening our peoplehood, and restoring our destiny in our eternal Homeland. The defining image of Jewish life in the twentieth century would not be the dead bodies at Auschwitz, but the courageous men and women of the Israel Defense Forces guarding the gates of our homeland.

This is everything. 

When the world hit us, we would hit back. Harder. We would let the world know that we are no longer the wandering Jew in need of respite. We have a homeland. We have a state. We have an army. We will take care of our own.

I have come to love Israel not just for what it represents as an idea but for what it stands for in reality. A liberal, pluralistic democracy, Israel is the only country in the Middle East that safeguards the equal rights of women, minorities, and people of all religions, races, and sexual orientations. Israeli Arabs, a minority, have a greater quality of life and more civil and political rights (equal to those of Israeli Jews) than Arabs in any Arab country on Earth. Using any possible metric (medicinal, technological, humanitarian, moral) Israel has done more to advance mankind than almost every country on Earth. All of this has been done despite living amid the reality of constant warfare and unrelenting terrorism from neighbors whose central goal remains the destruction of the Jewish state.  No other country on Earth has to defend their very right to exist on a daily basis and no other country would have achieved as much, morally or technologically, in similar circumstances.

After making Israeli friends over the past 4 years and spending over 6 months there during that span, I have come to appreciate the state of Israel even more completely and intimately. I love Israel and all of her quirks. The lively atmosphere and the passion for life that Israelis exude never cease to amaze me. I love that despite all of the bickering, infighting and passionate debate, Israelis always seem to know how to come together as one when it matters most. The intensity of the affection I’ve felt from the people of Israel while there is matched only now by the gratitude I feel in getting to be a part of it all.

I am a part of Israel. I feel a personal responsibility to do my part in defending and protecting the Jewish people. Getting to defend my people and getting to follow in the footsteps of heroes like Menachem Begin, Moshe Dayan, and Yoni Netanyahu is almost beyond words. While not normally sentimental, pictures and experiences related to Israel and the Jewish people cut to the core of my being: I've cried with joy at the sight of an M16 with a Jewish star, and I tear up every time I watch something about the horrors of the Holocaust. My soul yearns for me to do my part to ensure that the Jewish people will never again have to return to the hopelessness of the past. I know that the men and women of the IDF are not just protecting their families and their country; they are defending my right to be a Jew, my right to be free and practice my faith in any way that I choose.

They are my brothers and sisters, and they are defending my family. I would like to return the favor. 

My joining the IDF does nothing to diminish my love for the United States, which is my first home, and the greatest country on Earth. I am proud to be American, and I am lucky to have grown up in an American culture that teaches its children that freedom is worth fighting for, that hard work breeds opportunity, and that we are meant to be the best version of ourselves that we can be. 

 It is an essential part of the American dream that individuals, armed with "will power, determination and moral courage" (Reagan) are capable of achieving great things and of inspiring others to do the same. I believe in that dream. Fighting and sacrificing for my people's right to life, security, and dignity, stems from my American sensibilities and my belief and pride in America itself. 

American exceptionalism to me is not a campaign slogan, it is a fact of history: American values have guided the world for a century, and we have created opportunities and the hopeful promise of a better life for billions of people around the globe. America is not perfect- it is after all a human creation- but in an imperfect world, it is mankind's greatest experiment and our best hope for the future.

Joining the IDF and not the US military is also a matter of need; Israel is surrounded by 250 million people that openly yearn for its annihilation, and it has lived amidst this perpetual siege against its very right to exist for 66 years.  Fortunately America faces no such immediate threat to its homeland, its existence, or its way of life, and I can, without guilt, leave to defend my second home, and know that I am defending America's values as well.

Jews are called the “Canary in the Coal Mine” because Jew-hatred is often the first sign of the moral decay and deprivation that will eventually consume the society at large. Israel, as the world’s lone Jewish state, and as the “Jew” in the family of nations, exists in much the same way. Because of its Jewish nature and its proximity to evil, Israel is the West's first-line of defense against the ravages of Militant Islam. Hamas. Al-Qaeda. ISIS. Boko Haram. Islamic Jihad. Hezbollah. These terror groups all share an unabashed hatred for modernity, freedom, and the democratic values that have come to define the western world. While their first targets may vary, their ultimate goal of a global caliphate, imposed Sharia law, and the destruction of the West remains the same. Quite simply, they are determined to destroy our way of life. When they chant "Death to Israel", "Death to America" is always the chorus. 

America and Israel, as the leading nations against this threat, and in their shared loved of life, liberty, and the dignity of the individual must stand together in the face of such evil. I believe wholeheartedly in this unity among friends, and in the special relationship that has survived (and will survive) every crisis, argument, and leadership turnover. A stronger Israel means a stronger America and therefore a stronger free world.
The Gaza conflict has strengthened my certainty in the importance of what I will be doing. The media's coverage of this conflict is the failed litmus test in the world's inability to treat the Jewish state fairly, equally, and humanely. 

As I look around the world and I see how the world responds to Israel's defending its citizens against Hamas, I am reminded, yet again, what it means that Israel is a Jewish state. It means that Israel is not allowed to respond to an onslaught of rockets that threaten over 3 million of its citizens in the same way that other states would. It means that despite facing a genocidal terrorist organization that hides behind its civilians and urges them to die to score propaganda points, Israel is blamed for casualties. It means that despite having a better civilian casualty rate than any other country (US, GB, France) that has  fought an urban conflict, and being the only one whose genocidal enemy stands poised at it’s borders, only Israeli military actions are individually scrutinized and demonized by the international community. It means that only Israeli military actions are held up against that impossible magnifying glass of absolute perfection.

It means that despite transferring hundreds of tons of food and medicinal supplies to the enemy's civilians and providing hospital care for injured Palestinians, Israel is accused of indiscriminate murder. It means that throwing pamphlets, making phone calls, and warning enemy civilians of attacks to come, which no other army on Earth does, and which puts its own soldiers at risk, is not enough. It means that Hamas can stockpiles rockets in SCHOOLS and MOSQUES, launch rockets from HOSPITALS and HOUSES, create bomb shelters ONLY for Hamas terrorists, and physically prevents Gazans from heeding IDF calls to flea to safety. It means that, to the outside world, Israel cannot win. 

There is no moral equivalence here; there are not two sides to this story. Being impartial, fair, and honest means supporting Israel against a terrorist organization that calls for her annihilation and that uses its own people as human shields. Being impartial means equating Hamas with Al-Qaeda and understanding that it is better for all- Jews and Arabs alike - for them to be eliminated.  This conflict is a matter of right and wrong; victim and aggressor; cause and effect. Hamas wants as many dead Israelis and Palestinians as possible. Israel wants to defend herself from rocket attacks with as few casualties on all sides as possible and go home. Israel unilaterally left Gaza 9 years ago, giving control to the Palestinians, hoping for peace. They got rockets instead, and so reluctantly had to return to confront the terror. It is that simple.   

The death of civilians in Gaza is obviously tragic, and one only needs to be human to feel empathetic about it. Unfortunately, this state of affairs  is unavoidable so long as Hamas is allowed to commit double war crimes and act with impunity. The inability of the world to see such obvious truths, while not surprising, is endlessly disappointing.  

The fervor of the Jew-hatred of "Anti-Israel" protesters around the world is both revealing and bone-chilling.Violent displays of Jew hatred are taking over major cities around the world in ways unseen since the Holocaust. Jewish stores are destroyed, synagogues are burned and attacked, and Jewish civilians walking the streets fear for their lives. This harassment is not new, of course, for the Jews of modern day Europe, but the Gaza conflict has given even more pretext to violent European Islamists and their enablers. Violent "protestors" feel comfortable in major European and American cities chanting  "Kill the Jews," and "Back To The Gas Chambers." Blood libels against Jews and genocidal pleas calling for the eradication of the Jewish people and the Jewish state are a staple at Pro-Palestinian rallies all over the world. Radical Imams use their pulpit to spew hateful and genocidal rhetoric against the Jews and Israeli books and Jewish shops are boycotted, if not burned, by their masses. It seems that to wear a yarmulke is to invite an attack. Recently, Jews have started fleeing Europe in numbers unseen since the Holocaust. 

Once could be mistaken for thinking we have returned to 1938.

 Except now…

We have a Jewish state. We have a Jewish army. We have a Homeland that Jews all around the world know is here for them. We will not be quieted and we not be broken.

I am proud to be a Jew. I am proud to be an American. I am proud that I will soon be a soldier in the Israel Defense Forces. I am proud that I get the privilege to defend my people's right to life, freedom, and dignity.