Yaakov Selavan

Captain Underpants in the Gaza War: An underlying message for Tisha B’Av

What gives you strength to spend the night in a Gaza neighborhood days after your friend was killed in the same situation?
Israeli soldiers seen on top of a truck at their termporary set up military camp near the Israeli border with Gaza on July 24, 2014. (Yaakov Naumi/Flash90)
Israeli soldiers seen on top of a truck at their termporary set up military camp near the Israeli border with Gaza on July 24, 2014. (Yaakov Naumi/Flash90)

How a pair of underwear that was received under fire responds to Tisha B’Av negaters

In the past few days, my Facebook feed has been divided between those who want to cancel or revise Tisha B’Av due to its irrelevance to our flourishing State of Israel, and those calling upon business owners to open their shops in the name of freedom and liberal values (against the law in Israel today).

Last year, I shared my thoughts on Jewish unity learned during the 2014 Gaza Campaign (Operation Tzuk Eitan – Protective Edge), which took place exactly four years ago. This year, I’d like to put the spotlight on another fundamental lesson I learned.

My first “memory” actually begins in October 1973, in the Syrian surprise attack on the Golan Heights as part of the Yom Kippur War. Facing this were the fighters of my unit, the 188th Armored Brigade — the anvil upon which Syrian attacks were shattered during the first hours of the fighting. Despite the huge number of casualties, including the Brigade’s command chain, the young fighters in the field succeeded in delaying and wearing down the Syrians, until the arrival of the reserve units.

The battlefield of the 21st century is quite different than those days, but if there was one night that perhaps gave us a glimpse of what the old wars were like, it was Saturday night, July 20, 2014. In one night of battle, 13 soldiers of the famed Golani Brigade were killed. As we were rushing to join the battlefield in order to help Golani, rumors began circulating about the identities of the fallen. Unfortunately, one of the rumors was true (it was posted in a WhatsApp group, of course), and my friend, Captain Zvika Kaplan OBM, was killed.

The next morning, my battalion entered the fray in Gaza as I was positioned at battalion headquarters, near the fence. Mere hours after we entered, the bitter news struck again — Captain Dima (Dimitri) Levitas, a fellow tankist and a tank company commander, was killed by sniper fire. I remember my friends’ faces that day. Our personal confidence was completely shattered.

Hearing a combat soldier share his battle experiences usually includes glorifying the numbers of terrorists killed, the success of a complicated mission, or a heroic act. I’d like to share the less-spoken side of battle. Fear.

What empowers you to spend a full night in a Gaza neighborhood with your head out of the turret, just days after your friend was killed in the same exact situation?

What gives you the strength to overcome fear and pressure, while rushing to save the lives of your colleagues under fire?

If I can sum it up in one word – memory.

The ability to look back, to understand that what I am experiencing now is what generations of fighters have experienced before me. If the Yom Kippur Warriors, if the Maccabees, if my fallen friends were able to overcome their fears and fulfill their mission — I must also be capable. Memory has its power. When you know what you are part of, and what was here before you, you can connect to the chain of generations and gain strength from it.

Our personal and collective memories are a significant tool in our ability to move forward. As my friend Zvika would say, “Reliving past stories builds future leaders.”

Last year, I shared on this platform the amazing vibe and feeling of Jewish unity (Ben & Jerry’s on Tisha B’Av), which led to a hug, including thousands of packages coming to the front-line daily.

Capt. Selavan with the famous Ben & Jerry’s, Eve of Tisha B’Av, 2014 (Rom Ben-Eliyahu)

Out of the thousands of packages, there was one that I will never forget. In fact, I keep it in my office and travel with it on a daily basis.

After two weeks in much active combat, without a shower or a change of underwear, I found myself desperately searching for something that would give me a good sense of hygiene, when a soldier drew my attention to a newly arrived box of donations. I will never forget the moment of opening the box and finding the bag with underwear. What can be so special about a pair of underwear that can cause such excitement to a combat captain?

It wasn’t about the underwear (gray, 100% cotton, Delta – in case you were wondering) — it was the small sticker on the bag that blew my morale high into the sky.

July 2014 — Operation Protective Edge
To the fighters of the 188th,
A loving hug from the Brigade fighters in the Yom Kippur War 1973

The glorious underwear bag

There is a reason why I began with my 1973 Yom Kippur War memories. A person who is connected to his roots, knows what he represents, and understands that he is another link in the continuity of generations — knows how to appreciate this gift and draws from it tremendous reinforcement.

I saw in this bag a message from past fighters: “We know what you are going through — now it’s your turn! We’re counting on you to do the right thing, just as we did for you years ago.” Moreover, I felt part of something big, something that went on for years, and now I am an integral part of an exclusive club — the legendary family of the 188th Brigade fighters.

From Underpants to Upper Thoughts

Tisha B’Av is a national memorial day. It is a milestone in our history as a nation, and even today, it has tremendous value. Anyone who chooses to belittle the day from the liberal-secular perspective should not be surprised when, in a few years, his descendants are similarly scornful on Yom HaShoah — Holocaust Day. With the diminishing survivors living among us, Auschwitz will look more ancient and irrelevant than the Western Wall. Memory is not selective; it is a continuum running through the chain of generations. Those who choose to ignore the essence of the day because Jerusalem stands in its glory as the capital of Israel (overlooking its many flaws) — are missing the point of this day. Tisha B’Av comes once a year as a warning sign, a painful memory of loss of sovereignty and destruction, caused by baseless-hatred, division, and conflict.

On Tisha B’Av 2014, we were one — our enemies united us in a common fate. Do we really need to wait for the next war to feel united again?

A commander of mine once told me that every person is the sum of all of their experiences — every nation is also a sum of its experiences. Memory has its value and power. We must remember, cherish the lessons, and make sure they are implemented. “Reliving past stories builds future leaders” (Capt. Zvika Kaplan 6.5.1986- 20.07.2014)

Dedicated in loving memory of my admired grandfather and role model, Benjamin Hirsch (1932-2018), a Holocaust survivor and symbol of Jewish memory and continuity.

About the Author
Major (Res.) Yaakov Selavan is a strategic affairs expert and IDF motivational speaker for soldiers and draftees. He is a social activist invloved in several NGOs. A Golan resident and an IDF Tactical Command College alumnus, Major (Res.) Selavan is a popular speaker in Israel and abroad and a leading Golan international spokesperson. Through Slingshot Israel, he draws upon military experiences to instill values and encourage social action.
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