A Lone Soldier No More

Like every war, the current conflict between Israel and Hamas has a broad narrative that varies according to who is telling the story. But it is also true that this war, like every war, is made up of countless stories of individual soldiers and civilians whose lives have been directly impacted.

Of the many stories that have already come out of Operation Protective Edge, the one that has touched me the most deeply, for a variety of reasons, is that of Sean Carmeli, the Israeli soldier killed in battle whose funeral made news around the world.

Sean Carmeli was an "oleh," or immigrant, to Israel from America who left his family behind in America. When he enlisted in the Israeli Army from Texas, he became what is known in Israel as a "hayyal boded," a "lone soldier." A lone soldier is one who, when given leave for a weekend or a day, has no family to go home to. Israel's army, and the country as a whole, has a special place in its collective heart for "hayyalim bodedim," the weary fighters who, instead of returning to the warm embrace of those who love them, often go back to an empty flat and have to fend for themselves, both physically and spiritually. There are special programs here in America to "adopt" them, and Israelis will often go out of their way to invite them for a Shabbat meal, or even help them with their laundry.

When he volunteered for the Israeli Army, Sean Carmeli specifically requested to be placed in a combat unit. As in every army, there are plenty of desk jobs, as well as others that will keep you far from the field of battle. But that was not what Sean wanted, and he was granted his wish. He became a member of the Golani Brigade, generally considered to be Israel's toughest infantry unit.

In the early days of Operation Protective Edge in Gaza, the Golani Brigade suffered the loss of thirteen of its fighters in one day. Sean was among the dead, having been killed in an ambush by Hamas gunmen.

When his family members in America learned of his death, they were concerned that, because he was a "lone soldier," there would be few people to attend his funeral. The members of his unit were all in Gaza, and there was no family living locally. But Sean had been an avid fan of the Maccabee Haifa soccer club, and that's where the story takes on almost surreal dimensions.

A member of the Maccabee Haifa fan club learned of Sean's death, and took Sean's cause to the world of social media. In a message that he posted, he requested that fans of the soccer club attend the funeral. The message went viral, and it was circulated to countless Facebook pages and Twitter accounts. The result was that not only did the entire Maccabee Haifa soccer club and many of its fans attend the funeral, but almost twenty thousand other people did as well. Twenty thousand people! The young man who been been a lone soldier during his life was surrounded by people at his death.

A true story such as this one shouldn't "need any Rashi;" that is to say, the mere factual details of what transpired speak to the best of community and comfort at a time of unspeakable loss. But these are, sadly, extraordinary times for Israel, not in a good way, and an extraordinary act of not-so-random kindness deserves just a bit of further consideration.

Since the beginning of Operation Defensive Edge, not a day has passed without Israel being accused of war crimes, most horribly the indiscriminate killing of civilians. The clear implication of these accusations was that individual lives meant nothing to Israel's military. It was, and is still, accused of bombing schools, shelling mosques and civilian shelters. As I write, the United Nations is preparing a formal investigation into these allegations.

Those who know Israel well, especially those among us who have friends and relatives that fight in the IDF, know, both intuitively and factually, that Israel's army takes great care to minimize civilian casualties, even if that means increasing the risks that its own soldiers have to face. That the nations of the world, with painfully few exceptions, take Hamas allegations at face value and assume them to be true is both infuriating and profoundly depressing.

But note well … a country that doesn't care about individual lives does not, on barely a day's notice, produce close to twenty-thousand people to attend the funeral of an unknown lone soldier. That funeral was representative of the true Israel, at its best, respecting the values that inform both its military and its society as a whole. Don't be embarrassed to defend Israel. Be proud of her, and of her soldiers. They both deserve, and need, the support.

Rabbi Gerald C. Skolnik is the spiritual leader of the Forest Hills Jewish Center in Queens.

About the Author
Rabbi Gerald C. Skolnik is the Rabbi Emeritus of the Forest Hills Jewish Center in Queens.