There I was in the back of a dusty old jeep. Sweat covered my forehead as the Middle Eastern heat filled the small metal vehicle. A defunct air-conditioner blew out warm air and dust and made it difficult to breathe. I could taste the desert sand in my mouth. Beside me sat a man in his early twenties. His hand clutched a fully-loaded M-16. He spoke in fluent Arabic to the slightly older man who seemed every so often to interject pearls of wisdom during the younger man’s speech. The driver too, spoke intermittently, and apparently had a good sense of humor. I sat quiet.
As the three Arab men spoke to one another, I took stock of where I was. I looked out the barred window and saw the all-too-familiar fence fitted with computer-coordinated pressure sensors. We were somewhere on the long semi-paved road that runs parallel to the borders of Israel and Gaza.
I am a reservist IDF soldier and at the time had been stationed in the nearby base outside the southern kibbutz, Kissufim. My unit’s job was to patrol the long stretch of fence and remain vigilant for any infiltration into Israel.
The situation I was in could have been a nightmare. Picture the scene: A young American oleh in the back of an old jeep with three armed Arabs. I could have been a kidnapped soldier, the State’s most menacing military fear. But I was not in danger; that is, in no more danger than the other three soldiers riding in the jeep with me.
There I was, a soldier on the border between Israel and Gaza in an old jeep filled with IDF soldiers and the most common language among us was Arabic.
Beside me sat Jamaal*, a reservist sergeant who, when he is not soldiering, has a carwash business in his small village in the Galilee. He never shuts up about how proud he is of himself. He is also a hell of soldier and an only moderately messy roommate.
In the passenger seat sat Hussain, a tracker in the IDF. His expertise is his uncanny ability to see footprints in the sand barrier that separates the road on which we were patrolling from the border fence. His dark eyes stare from within the moving vehicle at the sand below. His mind is noting every detail of its rocky surface. I personally witnessed him discover tracks that led to two men who had successfully breached the fence and had entered Israel.
Beside him sat Mohammad, the driver. He is a Muslim and as this was the month of Ramadan – an Islamic holy month of fasting and introspection – he was neither eating nor drinking. While the rest of us guzzled water to survive the desert heat and smoked cigarettes to pass the many hours of patrol duty, he abstained. When I asked how he felt about ISIS, his face became stern, “They are not Muslims,” he said his lip slightly quivering, “they are animals.”
In these times of fear it is tempting to allow ourselves the comfort of painting with a broad brush over mass numbers of our fellow humans. Nuance is difficult; it is mentally exhausting. Nuance requires contemplation and remains suspicious of conviction. We humans, highly evolved though we may be, still like putting things in very big boxes.
This however, is the challenge of terrorism: While being unafraid to condemn those who seek to harm civilians, we must not fall prey to the cowardice and pettiness of racism and bigotry. This is not an easy task to accomplish. Many of us would rather condemn entire peoples than think. We would rather hate than discern. It may be dangerous to open one’s mind — but it is far more dangerous to leave it closed. Every form of racism is rooted in fear; and it is as deplorable as it is irrational.
In dark times such as these, when the Middle East seems to boil over with hatred and fear, I think back to my patrol of the Israel/Gaza border with three armed Arabs, three fine soldiers.
*All names have been changed.