Sometimes words aren’t enough. Words don’t do justice to the experience of walking inside the gas chambers where over 1,000,000 of my people were systematically marched to their death. They don’t do justice to my experience of walking through the infamous Macht Frei Sign above Auschwitz and feeling my body tense up and shiver at the same time. Standing on the ground where the Jewish people were regarded as sub-human, where we were a defenseless people whose very existence depended on the mercy of others was too much to bear. My emotions at the time were too chaotic and I had a difficult time explaining to my parents just how relentless of an experience it was. That the Nazi people were able to coolly exterminate 6 million people, including 1 million children, and then eat supper with their wives and play with their children is unfathomable. These weren’t casualties of war or lives lost in the heat of the moment: This was a level-headed, calm decision of a national government to systematically exterminate a race of people as if they were cattle going towards slaughter.
People around the world like to treat the Holocaust as an isolated event; as if the world momentarily lost its mind, killed 6 million Jews, realized what it had done and then returned to its humane ways. In fact the exact opposite is true. While the Holocaust is unsurpassable in its horror, it was a culmination (not an aberration) of hundreds of years of Anti-Semitism and sporadic mass killing sprees against the Jewish people.
Both at the camps and upon my return to Eretz Israel, my mind kept reverting back to one idea that I couldn’t escape from. What if? What if there was a country then that defended the rights of our people against those that seek our annihilation? What if there was a Jewish army back then capable of fighting back against our oppressors? What if Jews in Nazi Europe knew, no matter how disastrous their situation, there was one nation that would never shut their gates to them? That taking the life of even one Jew meant risking a confrontation with the Jewish nation?
What if there was the state of Israel?
It’s two weeks later, and I’m standing with my family and the Friends of the IDF delegation and an entire brigade of Israeli paratroopers on Independence Day singing the national anthem, Hatikvah, in the city of David. I’m at an air force base in the Negev, watching an Israeli pilot salute our group as he soared off into the air in an F16 engraved with the Jewish star. Tears welled up in my eyes and my heart swelled with pride, as I thought about how far the Jewish people have come in 70 short years and how proud I felt watching this display of Jewish strength. Jews in the Diaspora hear the term “Never Again” often, and it is a phrase that holds deep meaning to us all. But these words carry a heavier weight after spending time with the young men and women of the Israeli Defense Forces who are the living embodiment of the mantra. Their service and dedication to keeping Israel secure and strong means that the Jewish people will never again be at the mercy of others. Because of them, Jews can feel protected and proud, knowing that we are no longer a persecuted minority vulnerable to the whims of the wider world. After 2,000 years, we have the Jewish state of Israel and we have many generations of young men and women to thank for making it all possible.
After a week with the FIDF, I stand a little taller as a Jew knowing even more intimately the character and strength of the Israeli army. The Friends of the IDF basic mission is as simple as their slogan: “Their job is to look after Israel, ours is to look after them.” They provide recreational facilities on IDF bases to improve the lives (and morale) of the soldiers, they provide educational scholarships for soldiers without means, they provide housing for lone soldiers, and they financially and emotionally support the IDF in every way possible. It is a tremendous group of people that I am proud to have shared the past week with.
Starting on Friday Night, Shabbat, we had a fantastic dinner with the Chief Cantor of the Israeli Defense Forces (to my knowledge the only Cantor in the world with jump wings), the IDF rabbinical assembly and an array of soldiers, many of whom I was able to speak with. Throughout the following 7 days, we traveled to different military bases, spending time with soldiers of all different rank, responsibility, nationality and life experiences. I shook hands with an older man who was one of the paratroopers that liberated the Old City in 1967, and I was able to introduce myself to a Tank commander that almost singlehandedly saved Israel on the Golan Heights during the Yom Kippur War. I met and spoke with a beautiful female soldier who joined the IDF from sunny California and I felt the fiery passion for Israel in her deeds and in her words. I heard speeches about Israel’s current security predicament from the upper echelons of the military and political communities, and I learned a graduate degree’s worth about the Middle East in a week.
I spent Independence Day in the presence of an Israeli intelligence unit that generously shared their day of celebration with our appreciative group. I danced with the soldiers as we waved our Israeli flags high into the sky while an IDF band played in the background. I mourned with the state of Israel at a cemetery where hundreds of teenaged Holocaust survivors fresh off the boat from Europe died defending the newly established state of Israel. I sang Hatikvah in solidarity with the soldiers of the IDF to honor the brave heroes that gave their lives to ensure the continued strength of the Jewish state. I was able to hear the life stories of dozens of soldiers throughout the week and I always came away in awe of their commitment to their country and their understanding of the great responsibility they bear. At the same time, these kids are my age, and despite everything they have to do, they like to have fun, joke around, and it was an incredible experience getting to listen to what their lives are like on a daily basis.
During lunch at one of the bases, a soldier asked my family why we were so passionate about the IDF and why we, American Jews, were getting so choked up watching the power of the Israeli Army come to life in the form of an F16 fly over. It was a fair question; all Israelis have to serve and thus the army truly is representative of the Israeli people as a whole. They have spent their entire lives surrounded by the ideals of Zionism and the reality of Jewish strength, and as such, it could sometimes lose its aura. My dad responded perfectly: Italian-Americans visit Italy, Irish-Americans want to spend time in Ireland, and so on and so forth. No Jew dreams of returning to the shtetls of Poland or Russia. No Jew looks towards Europe longing in his heart to return to the places where our great-grandparents ran from. Our 2,000-year history outside of Israel (except for the US, as I explain below) is one marked with persecution, degradation, and genocide. For the Jewish people, Israel is our homeland; Israel is the land of our forefathers and the land where the Jewish people last strived as a nation. To support the people that defend the Jewish state and embody the strength of the Jewish people is an honor and a privilege.
American Jews have it great, as (eventually) do all immigrant groups that embrace the ideals and opportunities that make the USA the greatest country in the world. In fact, American Jews face less Anti-Semitism and persecution than any other Jewish group at any time in our 2,000 Diaspora and I believe that America will always be a safe place for the Jewish people. (Unfortunately, I also think this sense of calm and belonging has lead to the failings of many American Jews who don’t appreciate how vital Israel is for the continuation of our people). But I also firmly believe that without the state of Israel it would only be a matter of time, before Jews somewhere in the world are persecuted and “Never Again” continues as it has for millennia. Without the state of Israel to ensure the safety of the Jewish people, and to exist as a safe haven for Jews around the world, Anti-Semitism would rear its ugly head in some corner of the world, (somewhere else besides the Arab world where Jew hatred is already a pervasive and violent part of society) and we would once again be under siege.
But my affinity for Israel and the IDF is not one based merely on survival or existence but on pride and strength. Seeing the horrific images of Jews bowing their heads during the Nazi regime, and reading about the Jews living as third class citizens in the Arab world for hundreds of years has always infuriated me. Our collective history in the Diaspora ate at me. Over the past 2,000 years, through no fault of their own, Jews had become a people dependent on others for their survival, and this conveyed to the world, unfairly, that the Jews are a weak and vulnerable people.
Seeing a young man wearing an Israeli military uniform singing the national anthem in the same language that Jews 2,000 years ago spoke, makes my entire being swell up with uncontrollable pride. It makes me proud of my people for the way we have changed the course of our history and the nature of our existence. Seeing the Jewish people with a country to build and an army to defend itself with, is a crowning achievement, especially in light of our recent history that includes pogroms, dhimmitude, the inquisitions, and the Holocaust. The pioneering and relentless spirit of the Zionists to rebuild a Jewish homeland, and the continuing service of the Israeli people to protect it, have allowed Jews around the world to be proud and to feel secure in their place in the world.
Israel has not just survived; it has thrived. Israel is the only liberal democracy in its region, and the only country in the Middle East where you can freely practice any religion you want, and actively oppose government policies (and people do) without fear of retribution. 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 in the world. Despite its own struggles, Israel is always one of the first countries to help others in times of crises, as evidenced by Israel’s first rate response team in Haiti, the Phillipines, and even in hostile neighboring countries’ such as Syria. Israel boasts more technological, scientific and medicinal prowess than any country on Earth besides the US, in terms of start-ups, scientific papers and patents. Israel is the world’s largest immigrant absorbing country (per population), and is at the world’s forefront for gender equality (Golda Meir was the world’s first female prime minister and women in Israel have the highest rate of entrepreneurship in the world). Israel has more NASDAQ listed companies than every country in the world besides the USA and Canada, has the highest rate of university degrees in the world, and has contributed more medicinal and technological innovations than just about every country on Earth (the list is actually astounding). Israel has done all of this while having to dedicate a higher percentage of its GDP to defend itself than any country on Earth. Even more daunting, Israel has to send its entire 18-21 population to protect themselves against an implacable enemy that wishes openly for its destruction. Still, Israel thrives. For all of this as well, I am proud to support the Israeli people.
Every time we finished speaking with a soldier that I met on this 7 day FIDF trip, my dad would say some variation of “Thank You for everything you do for Israel and the Jewish people.” This very sentiment is why my family grew teary at seeing the F16’s sail through the sky, and at seeing Jewish men and women celebrating Shabbat with an Army uniform on their body and a sense of purpose in their eyes. This very sentiment is why Friends of the IDF exists, and why I will be a fervent and passionate supporter of FIDF, the IDF, and the Jewish state of Israel for the rest of my life.