Before joining the IAF (International Ambassadors Forum) mission to Israel, Zionism to me had always signified a beautiful dream – the dream of a people exiled, persecuted and massacred by the nations of the world returning to its homeland to build a future in safety and dignity.
What I did not expect to find was what actually confronted me: the fact that Israel’s movers and shakers, far from matching the caricature drawn by a cynical, jaded, and increasingly distrusted foreign press corps, are actually better than we are: more virtuous, more courageous, more spiritual, more forgiving, and more compassionate – not to mention kinder, friendlier, and humbler than the typical human being.
This became clear to us at every point in our journey and in every place we visited, whether it was Jewish Hebron and Rachel’s Tomb in Bethlehem, where Jews manage to worship G-d in the most challenging circumstances, or the Kotel, where we were greeted by strangers as long-lost friends. At the Chabad synagogue in Jerusalem, we had an audience with Rabbi Adin Stensaltz, Judaism’s greatest living scholar, who held us in thrall with his learning in a talk ranging from the scourge of anti-Zionism to the criteria for choosing a marriage partner.
Such was the pattern for the whole trip: some of our people’s best-known leaders and achievers treated us as their comrades and quietly showed us what makes Israel a light unto the nations.
How else would young Diaspora Jews have the opportunity to meet a former Defence Minister and IDF Chief of Staff (Moshe Ya’alon), a former head of Shin Beth (Yaakov Peri), the foreign media spokesman for the Prime Minister (David Keyes), and one of Israel’s bestselling authors (Yossi Klein Halevi)? Where else would there be chance to learn from authentic Jewish heroes such as an officer crippled while apprehending a wanted terrorist (Dror Dagan); the tank commander who destroyed Syria’s ground forces during the Yom Kippur War (Avigdor Kahalani); the air force general who may or may not have been responsible for bombing Syria’s nuclear facilities (Elyezer Shkedy); and the veteran of the Entebbe operation (Doron Almog) who went on to evacuate thousands of Ethiopian Jews from a country of dictatorship and famine to a welcoming home in the Land of Israel?
The men and women we encountered on the IAF mission to Israel were champions of the Jewish people in more ways than one. They were not just paragons of courage but also models of compassion. Again and again they detailed the risks they took to avoid harming enemy civilians – even when those civilians were being used as human shields or were actively aiding the terrorists. To fulfil their humanitarian ideals, these soldiers were and are willing to risk life and limb, and several of them bear the physical and psychological scars of this commitment.
Nor is their heroism confined to life in the military: they are builders and creators in civilian life as well. Doron Almog’s love for his autistic son Eran, who died at the age of 23, led him to establish Aleh Negev, Israel’s first facility for the care of severely disabled adults. Chaim Sukenik, a world authority in the field of nanotechnology, explained how, as President of the Jerusalem College of Technology, he is reaching out to Haredi and Ethiopian Jews, training and equipping these students to take part in Israel’s high-tech revolution.
In contrast to the doom and gloom that fills mainstream media coverage of the Jewish state, our speakers were optimistic about its future. Eran Lerman showed us how Israel’s diplomatic position is improving. Never have developing nations been so eager to benefit from what Israel has to offer. From desalination to desert irrigation to biotechnology to advanced computing, our homeland is setting an example that others strive to imitate. In war as in peace, the Jewish state is an inspiration to others: not only are more and more countries aware of facing the same threats, but military professionals abroad also admit in private (and sometimes in public) that no army is more respectful of innocent life than the IDF.
No brief report could do justice to all of the people and experiences that made our mission to Israel so memorable. Not to be neglected is one final point: the joy of spending time with fellow ambassadors, young Jews successful in their own right who are fired up with enthusiasm for Israel and for Zionism. Whatever else has been accomplished by Yosef Vogel, Mendy Vogel, and Vladimir Bermant in organising the IAF trip, they have also succeeded in creating a fraternity of warm and valued Jewish friends.