The most common question that I was asked by friends and family while I was in Israel this past summer wasn’t about the Dead Sea, Masada, or the Kotel. It wasn’t about shawarma, falafel or hummus. The most common question was always a variation of the same thing. The question was about safety, and whether or not I was afraid. I wasn’t surprised by this question, I’d seen the news and how Israel is portrayed in the western media, and obviously the people that were asking the question had as well. This well meaning type of question revealed a lot to me about the perceptions that people on the outside have of day to day life in Israel. Much to their surprise, my response was always a variation of this answer:
“I feel safer here than I do walking around in Philadelphia.”
Their follow-up questions were often along these lines:
“But isn’t Israel constantly targeted by knife attacks, shootings and rocket strikes? How can you feel safe in that kind of environment?”
For the first few days of my Israel experience, I wasn’t sure why I felt that way, and didn’t know how to answer them. A few days into my birthright trip though, I had an experience that opened my eyes to exactly why I had never felt safer than did while I was in Israel.
The first ten days that I was in Israel, it was on a Taglit-Birthright trip through Mayanot (They did an incredible job, and I highly recommend them as a tour provider). One of the most important and memorable things about the trip is that we had a group of Israelis with us for the first five days. Some of them were soldiers, some were students, but all of them were wonderful people. One of them, whom I won’t name due to his IDF status, also showed me what Israeli courage looked like. For the purpose of this story, I will just call him “A”.
On our last day in Jerusalem, we went to the Kotel (Western Wall). We’d gone on Friday night for Shabbat, but this return trip was a chance to take pictures, pray, and further experience the holiness of the wall on a more personal level. The birthright group split off into smaller groups so that we could all connect in our own way with the experience.
Several of us, including “A”, put on tefillin, and went to pray at the wall. When we had finished, we stepped back to observe everyone else and marvel at what we were seeing. During this time, I and another friend on the trip noticed that there was an unattended backpack in the middle of the plaza. We’d learned that in Israel, even more than in America, this was very suspicious. We pointed the bag out to “A” and asked him about it. What he did next was one of the most surprising and courageous things I’ve ever personally witnessed.
“A” immediately motioned for the rest of us to back away from the bag and cleared a fifteen foot area around it. Once we were all out of the way, he slowly began to approach the mysterious bag. He crouched down, and very gently began to feel the backpack, in order to try and determine the contents. I was holding my breath, because while I knew the likelihood of it being a bomb was extremely small, it was a tense moment. “A” slowly and carefully opened the bag, peered inside, then looked at us with a big grin on his face. The bag was full of prayer books. We laughed, and went back to basking in the magnificence of the Western Wall.
“A” was technically off-duty, at least as much as an IDF soldier can be, yet rather than alert one of the soldiers or police nearby, he took it upon himself to investigate. He didn’t hesitate even for a second, and showed seemingly no regard for his own safety. I am convinced to this day that had there been a bomb in that bag, “A” would have thrown himself on it rather than risk the people around him.
The minute I saw him open up that backpack, I knew exactly why I felt safer in Israel than I did at home. The IDF is made up of thousands upon thousands of Israeli’s who were raised in the same culture that “A” was. Almost every Israeli serves or has served in the IDF, and there were Israelis all around me. There I was, a Jew, surrounded by Jewish Israeli soldiers, all of whom were capable of the same type of selfless courage that “A” was. Where on Earth could a Jew possibly feel safer?
Israeli history is full of this type of courage, and it’s important to remember that Israelis aren’t fearless people. They are people who do what is necessary in spite of their fears and that is true courage. There are many brave and inspiring people all over the world, but Israelis are special. There was something about Israelis that made me feel safe as a Jew, not just as a person. When I saw “A” willingly put himself at risk, I was seeing the reflection of thousands of years of Jewish heroism.
I left Israel and came back to America just as the most recent wave of Arab violence began to escalate, and I see new stories about Jews being attacked and killed every day. Hamas doesn’t want tourists coming to Israel. They know that anyone who actually sees the country with their own eyes will be able to see right through their narrative of lies and disinformation. Every time a Jew chooses not to go to Israel for fear of Arab terror, they give Hamas and radical Islam another little victory. The land of Israel is directly connected to the soul of every Jewish person, and it inspires the people who live there to perform incredible feats of bravery and heroism on a daily basis. Go to Israel, take your children and encourage others to do the same. Don’t fall for the Hamas narrative. Israel is the birthright of every Jew, and no matter how many attacks the Arabs attempt, it is still the safest place in history to be Jewish.