On 4th of July this year, instead of spending it as we usually do by celebrating the birthday of the United States at the American Embassy, we attended the year-end parents’ night with our eldest son, Guy, at Yeshivat Ma’ale Gilboa. During the afternoon prayer services in the study hall of the yeshiva, I was very impressed to hear the Rabbi who led the prayer ask us to join him in a prayer for peace for our Egyptian neighbors, who are in the process of changing their ruling regime. I whispered to Guy, who was praying next to me, that I am very pleased he is studying at a yeshiva where such a prayer is possible.
At the festive meal that ended the evening, we sat next to “Hanoch” (a pseudonym). In his early 20s, Hanoch is a Jerusalemite who is serving in an elite unit in the IDF. He was on a study break at the yeshiva before starting Officers Training. Amidst the chicken and the potatoes a conversation developed between us about Judaism, the army, Arabs and Jews, peace and the paradox of war. Hanoch told us that particular Rabbi had been adding this prayer to services for a few days now.
At the end of our intriguing conversation, I asked Hanoch to send me his personal story in writing. This is what Hanoch sent me, written in the first person:
From the start of high school I was worried that I was fighting this battle alone.
“He’s not a prophet, he’s just another Arab.” A classmate began singing a song associated with supporters of the Beitar soccer club.
“You’re just an Arab-lover! Leftist! Death to Arabs!”
“It’s nothing to do with leftists,” I said, “it’s to do with our morality as human beings, as Jews.”
It’s true that our enemies are Arabs, but does that mean Jews have to be bigots?!, I thought to myself. Disgust filled my body. And anyway, whoever commanded us to hate the enemy?
Around that time I started participating in a dialog program with Palestinians (despite the fact that most of them in the program had Israeli citizenship, they were very far from defining themselves as Israeli). That was when I was in Grade 10. In my innocence, I thought that I would get some support from my Arab-Jewish dialog group. I was very quickly proven wrong.
“We’re never going to be friends!” declared Sondos.
“Because in another few years you’re going into the army,” she answered, “and you’re going to kill my family in Gaza, so how exactly do you expect us to be friends?”
My high school teacher, an educator and intellectual, a Zionist from the States who moved to Israel in his youth, told us of a formative experience he had during his army service on the Golan. One night they identified a cell of five terrorists in the distance. The IDF soldiers who were lying in ambush opened fire. Most of the terrorists were killed. There was an atmosphere of celebration. That was understandable; the soldiers had managed to carry out their task and destroy the enemy that was threatening their lives and the lives of Israeli civilians. Plus the fact that just a short time earlier there had been an incident in which a soldier from their unit had been killed in an encounter with terrorists.
The next morning they went out to survey the area and check the bodies. My teacher told us that when he saw the faces of the terrorists who had been killed, he saw they were just teenagers. Their bodies were riddled with machine gun bullets. He described to us his personal feeling of mourning for the lives of the Palestinian youth who had wasted them on war. There is a Jewish scriptural source that discusses the matter of fallen enemies: “If your enemy falls, do not exult; If he trips, let your heart not rejoice” (Proverbs 24:17). In other words, don’t celebrate when your enemy fails or is destroyed. On the face of it, that is a puzzling verse, but the story of my teacher made its meaning clear.
A few years later I found myself a combat soldier, at the staging area where we were readying to enter Gaza as part of Operation Pillar of Defense. The atmosphere was tense. Around me hundreds of soldiers were waiting for the command to go in. It is hard to explain to a civilian who hasn’t been through it, the motivation of a combat soldier to go into battle. When the command to go in was given, soldiers around me began jumping and singing. There was an overwhelming feeling of excitement. I looked on from the side and remembered my teacher. I closed my eyes and thought about the huge responsibility on my shoulders. Awe took hold of me. I thought of Sondos the Gazan and of her bitter accusations against me in Grade 10. I reminded myself that I don’t have to hate the enemy, but just to do what I need to do, soberly and not lightly. I didn’t celebrate and my heart was not joyful. But the truth is that for me I knew on that day that I was worthy of being a fighter, the one with a weapon in my hands, no less and perhaps even more than all the soldiers jumping around and singing and hugging their comrades.
Despite my belief that serving in the IDF and everything involved with that does not contradict my values, entering the military world was not easy, especially after a year of studying at the yeshiva. Torah study nourishes the soul. In the world of study, you can say anything. You can interpret and discuss fine points. You can open up your mind and let its creativity burst forth. More than that, serious and fruitful study takes place when disagreements arise between students, contradictions and doubts on all sides. When you study Torah, you have to open up the dam of critical thinking. Nevertheless, there is still the Halacha (Jewish law). A clear world of rules and conditions. At the end of the day you, as a religious person, are living in a world of obligation.
In my army service I continued studying Torah inside myself. I continued with the critical thinking and I raised doubts. But all this was within myself, in my metaphorical (mental) world of Torah. The world of Halacha remained in place (carrying out orders without hesitation). I carried out all my orders. I never felt even for a moment that I had the right not to do what is required of me. More than that, my doubts did not make me any less Zionist. On the contrary. I was aware of the problems and of the different narratives. I understood the less attractive side of Israel and of the army (we must not deny it exists, but instead aspire to improve it). My Zionism was strong, deep-rooted, and based on reason. So why do people believe that in order to believe something clearly, you mustn’t talk about the complexities that lead to it? Fear of complexity and the attraction to The One Truth, clear and simple, leads to ignorance and fixations and hate and bigotry.
I was born into the Jewish People. A separate people in a world of globalization and erasing of identities. To constitute 0.2 % of the population of the world is just the tip of the iceberg of the challenges and the complexities of being Jewish. I was born to an Orthodox family, but like most religious Zionists, I grew up in the secular world. One of the big conflicts that I experienced was when I went into the army. In the army I train to fight enemies, but my enemies are also my friends: Alina from Egypt, Yousouf from Wadi Joz, Sirin from Beit Safafa. I care about them. They are my friends but at the same time I am also their enemy. The irony is that I am training to fight the enemy and yet I care about the welfare of the individuals who supposedly constitute the enemy. I would even go so far as to say I love them.
…and so the Rabbi at the yeshiva stopped in the middle of prayers. Just before we started the passage, “Guardian of the people Israel, guard the remnant of Israel, and do not let Israel perish, those who declare, Shma Yisrael” the Rabbi turned to us. The Beit Midrash quieted its familiar hum.
“I’m very concerned about the Egyptian issue,” the Rabbi started. “I don’t know what the best solution is, either for us or for the Egyptians themselves, but I would like us to dedicate the rest of our service to the prayer that the demonstrations of our neighbors the Egyptians will lead to good results, and in that way also will influence the situation in Israel for good.” My face broke out in a wide smile. I’m not alone. The special prayer of the Rabbi gave me real strength ahead of my return to army service and entry into the Officers Training Course.
On Monday, July 1st Alina, my good friend from Egypt with whom I have been in contact since before I went into the army, came back from the celebrations in Tahrir Square in Cairo. The army announced formally that Morsi was no longer President. The Egyptian crowds burst out in rejoicing. Alina, a student, took an additional, private, sigh of relief. Ever since the Muslim Brotherhood came to power, the Christian community had suffered greatly at their hands. Alina didn’t suffer only because she was a liberal female student, but also because she’s a member of Egypt’s Christian minority.
When Alina got home that night in Cairo, she saw the message that I had sent her in the morning, in which I described the special prayer that I had experienced at my yeshiva. Alina immediately contacted me back, tears welling from her eyes. “You filled my heart with warmth and my eyes with tears,” she told me emotionally. I smiled. “Many Israelis are praying for us?” she asked. I carried on smiling.
Sagi Melamed lives with his family in the community of Hoshaya in the Galilee. He serves as Vice President of External Affairs at the Max Stern Yezreel Valley College, and as Chief Instructor (4th Dan) of the Hoshaya Karate Club. Sagi received his Masters degree from Harvard University in Middle Eastern Studies with a specialty in Conflict Resolution. His book “Son of My Land” will be published in English in mid-2013. He can be contacted at: email@example.com.