By rights I shouldn’t want to be here, I shouldn’t have moved from London to Tel Aviv via Jerusalem, I should have been happy in the UK. I should have followed the path mapped out for me at birth, gotten a job, a house, a car, a family and lived a happy, middle class life in London.
My first experience of Israel was coming here for my 16th Summer. Zionism got me immediately. It made everything else entirely irrelevant. I read books about Israel, I learned about the history of the Jews, the history of Zionism and the Israel Defence Force (IDF). I took great pride in the actions of the IDF. As a diaspora Jew I felt that the IDF military gave Jews all over the world a degree of self respect that had been lacking for 2,000 years. By its mere existence Israel shattered the myth about weak Jews unable to stand up for themselves. More importantly they ensured that us Jews wouldn’t be victims again.
When I came here in the Summer of 1996, I toured around for a month, I was inspired by the oath made by the Jews of Masada not to be taken alive by the Romans. I was told the story just after watching the sunrise, which in turn I saw after climbing up the snake path to the fortress originally built by King Herod. I went to the Golan Heights and saw the battlefield from the Yom Kippur War known as the Valley of Tears, where a handful of Israeli tanks led by Avigdor Kahalani fought the Syrian army to a standstill. Kahalani was outnumbered and fighting Soviet tanks of superior quality to his own. The fighters there didn’t back down, they didn’t give up. They stood and fought knowing they were Israel’s last line of defense and they won. It was a miraculous victory to me then and still is.
It seemed that it didn’t matter whether we were talking about ancient times or modern, my people were always under attack; losing spectacularly or winning valiantly. This is Israel. The place where after 2,000 years of taking whatever punches the world wished to rain down upon us the Jews finally stood up. We put our backs to the sea and said from now on we fight back!
This is the Israel I fell in love with, this is the Israel I met as a kid. It was painfully clear that, even for a Jew growing up in London, Israel’s fights were my fights. So far as I was concerned when Israelis put on their uniforms and went to war they fought against people who hated me for the mere fact that I was a Jew. So far as I was concerned every time the IDF fired a bullet they were defending me.
That’s why I wanted to be in the toughest unit of the IDF that would have me. I felt I owed these heroes, they fought for me and I wanted to pay it forward. The two years I spent doing that changed my life. In many ways I still live the experience over and over again each day. There are some things from those days that spring straight to mind while I write. The first is a man living in the settlement of Ofra. There was a week or so that my unit was based there, no matter what time it was when we got back from operations he would open his little pizzeria with a woodchip oven and cook for us. He gave us his mobile phone number and we would call him at 4 in the morning and he would come down and open the place up for us. Always smiling as he did so.
I remember the parents of every one of my teammates bringing extra food for me when they came to visit their sons on base. They knew I was here without my family and every one of them adopted me. When I was allowed out on weekends I had more invitations for dinner than I could possibly have accepted. I remember my friend Sahar turning up one day at boot camp with an extra bag filled with clothes that he had brought for me because he knew I didn’t have the time or the money to buy any for myself.
I remember arrested terrorist after arrested terrorist being taken away in the same armored car that the soldiers who had just picked him up traveled in. Despite the fact that these were terrorists of the worst kind, never, not once, was a hair on their heads touched. Even when it was a suicide bomber, even when it was a terrorist who had kept enough explosives under his bed to blow up half the country.
I remember the vision of the Israel that I had fallen in love with disappear completely only to be replaced by a different vision. That of a real country, a country I hadn’t met during my trips to Masada and the Valley of Tears. A country I loved no less, but a country now exposed, warts and all to my eyes. I remember a new sense of determination being born in me that Israelis would be free from a constant life and death struggle, from security concerns, from the fear that this special country, this tiny piece of earth that exists so that the Jews can finally call a place home, will be safe and flourish forever more.