A Journey To Protect My People: Iran, Israel, USA

I journeyed with my parents to Israel from Iran in 1963, when the Shah was still in power, and relations between Tehran and Jerusalem were good.

My childhood was quintessentially Israeli, spent in the coastal city of Bat Yam. Hebrew was the language I spoke to my parents and to my siblings.

For me, Israel was my home and homeland, but for the older generation of Iranian Jews, those like my father, things were more complicated. He had been a self-employed carpenter in Iran. When he arrived in Israel, the work he found in Lod fell far short of his professional expectations.

For us children though, we never pondered our identities. Yes we were immigrants. But we were immigrants in a country of immigrants, surrounded by fellow Jews from all over the world. And our Judaism felt utterly natural, the common thread between most of those in our orbit.

Even those who were not Jewish, the Arab Israelis for example, were people with whom we had positive relations. They too were helping to build up the country, quite literally.

In 1979, Iran, the country of my parents upbringing, became deeply adversarial toward Israel following the Islamic Revolution. We were joined in Israel by many family members – aunts and uncles – who traveled to us across deserts, often on camels, in order to arrive as strangers in the land I called home. I called it home because my parents had made the right decision to move us there, even as others continued to enjoy a comfortable and prosperous life in Iran despite the ominous warning signs.

Almost overnight, after the revolution, a lifestyle of comfort disappeared for Iran’s Jews. And Israel opened its doors to them and gave them an opportunity to integrate into its society, a process that was fraught with challenge for the older members of the community, who struggled with many aspects of their new lives such as the new language and the culture. Above all though, they struggled and chafed at the requirement for their children to undertake mandatory military service in the IDF.

That aspect of life was the most disturbing reality for the new arrivals.

Not for me though, having arrived several years earlier. Military service was something I keenly anticipated. In 1980, I was drafted into the IDF’s Nahal Brigade and served in Kibbutz Ayelet Hashachar in the Upper Galilee. Together with local residents, we helped found a brand new kibbutz in the Golan Heights, called Meitsar, which today is one of the most prosperous in the area.  We built and defended that kibbutz with our own hands.

It is not lost on me that at precisely the time Iranian Jews were losing their sense of security and belonging in Iran, I, as an Israeli, was ensuring my sense of security so that Jews from throughout the world would forever have a place in which they belonged.

And yet my military service was filled with complexity. On one hand, it was the greatest adventure of my life, teaching me about the value of my country. On the other hand, toward the end of my service, the First Lebanon War broke out. Only the male members of my brigade were sent into combat in Lebanon. But I experienced the war through their stories when they returned, and the trauma that many of them experienced never fully left them.

I am still in touch with all of my friends from the army and today we still talk about that war. And that taught me that military service, which so often begins with great adventure, can so easily culminate in the sacrifices and loss of our soldiers. All of those I served with were so very young, so very brave, so very changed after the war – forever.

Additionally, at precisely the time my brigade served and fought for Israel, my entire family was leaving Israel – for the shores of the United States.

My father hadn’t managed to find his place in the Jewish state. He went first. The rest of the family soon followed.

A Move To The USA Brings A New Mission

In 1983, I left Israel, traveling first to Britain, then around Europe, and then to the United States where I settled with my partner four years later.

Life took over. I built a home in New York, raised my three children and allowed Israel to fade to the back of my mind, partly so that I could forget about the conflict.

Although I always traveled back to visit, I didn’t really engage in the day to day events of the country. Like my parents, I too became an immigrant, experiencing my own culture shock in America.

Suddenly, I lived among people of all backgrounds, religions, cultures and races. People spoke different languages, enjoyed different cuisines and clung to different identities, merging their origins with their Americanism.

That heightened my need to define for myself what it meant to be a Jewish-Israeli living in America.

That process of definition lasted for many years, and it became increasingly significant to me as I noted the rising tide of voices that delegitimized the state of Israel.

As a veteran and as someone who remembers the events of the six day war, the Yom Kippur War and the Lebanon war, I could never reconcile myself with the idea that those who did not face the day to day realities of life in Israel were somehow qualified to tell Israelis what to do, much less to lecture from the safety of distant lands.

I began to feel that Israel’s image was deteriorating in the U.S. The country faced increased condemnation from people who had no understanding of Israel’s core reason to exist.

Most alarmingly, I saw that elements within the Jewish community were joining the chorus of criticism.

These voices were not critiquing a specific decision of government. They were questioning Israel’s legitimacy as a state.

I had served during the Lebanon war, but I hadn’t fought. And so when the men returned from battle, I listened and sought to learn and sympathized and deferred to the fact that having not been there, I might never quite understand what these soldiers had undergone. But I could always support them, recognizing that they had faced a reality I had not faced. Why could the diaspora community not extend a similar deference to Israel, I wondered.

My call to action came when my children enrolled in American universities and began sharing their own struggles with me, recounting conversations they had overheard about how the country I had fought for ought to be destroyed.

At first, I tried to play down the seriousness of what I saw. Our existence in New York as Jews and Israeli ex-pats seemed to be a strong one, I thought. But with time, my concerns only grew. There was a problem and my need to identify an antidote only increased.

Taking Action

In 2007, during a visit to Israel, I learned about the work of Our Soldiers Speak, an organization that sent IDF reservists to lecture at U.S. campuses about the proud truth of our defenders and about the proud place of Israel among the nations.

I immediately recognized the need for that type of activity and the direct contribution that I could make by way of that organization.  And just as I had played the role we must all play in building up the state of Israel as a soldier, I determined to play my part in defending it as a civilian, through the work of Our Soldiers Speak.

I am proud to serve as the President of the organization and I am proud of the work that we do – because I am proud of Israel and the soldiers who protect it.

I have undertaken that work for close to ten years and though the toil never ends, I am certain that the battle is far from lost and can still be won on U.S. campuses; as long as we continue to adapt, to adjust and to triumph in the face of the ever changing threats to our legitimacy.

If we believe that a strong Jewish-Israeli-American existence in the US is worth having, we must actively defend it, and realize that it can only remain a strong existence if the state of Israel remains strong.

We must approach this campaign in the right way, in order to reach the desired audience. We must educate to the benefit of Israel, never allowing ourselves to become distracted by the slander that is launched toward us.

That is why we have resolved to educate on campus, in Congress and in Israel.

I will never tire of that work. I have no right to tire. For the country for which I fight today, is a country that has fought for me – always. And the country so criticized by so many of our own people, is the very same country that will protect them in times of need, or desperation. Such has been the case in the past.

As we see from the headlines of today, the threats to Jews around the world never fully disappear.

My battle for Israel is one into which I was born, and within which I have engaged. I have seen the sacrifices of those who fought for her and it is the cause for which I will give the best of myself each and every day, therefore.

This battle is one in which I seek allies, and I invite you to join me by way of our organization.

I have finally answered the question of my identity. Today, I focus  on giving back to Israel, creating a movement that will have a genuine effect upon our collective future, from generation to generation. Israel is mine and I am Israel’s and it is upon us to protect one another.

About the Author
Rozita Pnini is the Co-Founder and COO of The MirYam Institute ( She was born in Iran and moved to Israel with her parents and siblings as a young child. She served in the Nahal brigade of the IDF during the Lebanon War as part of her mandatory military service. Formerly the President of Our Soldiers Speak, Rozita regularly dispatched senior ranked, active officers of the IDF and the Israel National Police to brief elite graduate campuses throughout the english speaking world. She continues to convene Israel policy presentations for elected officials in the US and the United Kingdom. She is the proud mother of three daughters. Subscribe to her Hebrew Language podcast which features conversations with Israeli public figures via The MirYam Institute website. Follow her work at www.MirYamInstitute.Org .
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