Cherry picking in a war zone

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We all have our experiences to contend with in pursuit of truth but the recognition of one’s own biases and limitations is always the first step toward a more objective perspective. As for me, my biased support of the Jewish State was conceived as a marine during the First Gulf War. I come from working class Philadelphia where jokes about “cheap” Jews are as common as Philly cheese-steaks, but even I was shocked when Saddam vowed to gas those “Filthy apes in Tel Aviv back to 1944.” Other than Holocaust lessons in history class, this was the first time I was ever exposed to such wanton anti-Semitism..

As one tobacco chewing Mississippi marine appropriately remarked, “Down south where I’m from, we might not marry a Jew or live next door to one but we’d never threaten to gas ’em right there on the TV. Them Arabs hate Jews more than Hitler and the KKK combined.”

The Patriot missile battery from my division was deployed to Israel to take out Saddam’s scuds. When they came back all smiles, they rubbed it in our dirty faces, going on and on about how good the food was and how friendly and beautiful the women were.

Since 1991, I have lived and worked in Israel, studied Judaism and married an Israeli (who was a frightened child in a bomb-shelter during the Gulf War). At this point in my life, I can’t help my Israeli connection — it’s just who I am, an important part of my personal identity.

Much like governments everywhere in the world, Israel’s is led by ambitious opportunists that make decisions based on personal gain, kowtow to “special” interests, and therefore impede societal progress on oh so many levels. I also realize that there are innocent victims across the globe that may have legitimate reasons for resorting to violence.

Yet as I stand here now at the perilous intersection of the three continents of Africa, Asia and Europe I really don’t give a “flying frog” why Arabs want to kill me and my family. They do and it’s transparent.

A female border-guard is brutally stabbed in the neck by a Palestinian woman. The Palestinian will spend the rest of her life in prison. Why? A Palestinian pretends that his car is broken down. A couple of good Samaritans stop to help him. The Palestinian kills one Jew and seriously wounds the other. Four innocent Israeli civilians are in critical condition at a roadway junction. Victims of a random Palestinian drive-by shooting. A group of Palestinians rush an Israeli vehicle stopped at a traffic light. They picked the wrong vehicle to hate-crime, car-jack. A decorated army colonel on his way home from work ends one attacker’s life with a quick squeeze of the trigger of his service revolver. Bam. Another life gone.

The UN reports that the Israeli Defense Forces committed war crimes in its recent campaign against the Islamic Hamas regime in Gaza. In order to show their support for the people of Gaza (and thus Hamas’ totalitarian stranglehold) a flotilla of Scandinavian liberals sets sail for the Strip from Crete on a humanitarian mission. They are peacefully intercepted by the Israeli Navy and deported. Another Western entertainer cancels a show in Tel Aviv citing that Israel is “apartheid.” From Gaza, Daesh (ISIS) sends three missiles crashing over into Israel and vows to take the Strip from Hamas before liberating Palestine from the “Zionist apes.” At the same time the group inflicts mass Egyptian casualties on the Sinai border, massacres dozens of European tourists in Tunisia, suicide bombs a crowded Shiite mosque in Kuwait and last but not least, beheads one innocent man in France and two other innocent “sorceresses” in Syria.

Fourteen days in country and my wife Orit and I are badly in need of a break. Problem is we’re here for her sister Kalanit’s wedding and have another two weeks to go before the glass is broken. After a few arguments and a whole lot of stuff that we aren’t used to dealing with back in Florida, we finally agree on a plan to break the tension. We pack the kids into my father-in law’s Korean compact and head up, up, up and away to the north of Israel.

Majestic mountains climb into crystal clear skies. Green, sweet green, littered with splotches of brown rock. The quickly descending air temperature contrasts the ascending elevation. A steady breeze whisks through the cracked window and soothes my pulsating head. The three cylinder engine screams in apparent pain but surprisingly keeps on going. The car has “chutzpah” as the locals say and I can’t help but think that the “little Korean engine that could” represents the State of Israel itself. Not much at first glance. Small in stature. Always in doubt but engineered to get the job done. Despite astronomical odds, over a period of five millennium, this indigenous band of Middle Eastern misfits has kept on going.

“Thank God Syria invaded back in ’67,” says my wife Orit pointing just a few kilometers to the right. “It’s so ironic that today these mountains are the only things really protecting us from all that madness over there.”

These days, the Golan Heights are Israel’s buffer from Al Qaeda, ISIS, Hezbollah, the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, Assad “the Butcher’s” Army and a multitude of competing clans and families. To the international community, we’re headed up to the unrecognized Jewish frontier, “Occupied Syria,” a patch of mountainous country that in Brussels’ opinion should have been handed over to Iran and the Assad dictatorship decades ago. To us secular Jews, Golan is the rational result of some of the 21st century’s greatest military masterminds. Nearly fifty years ago, all of the major Arab armies of the world including Syria attacked and in less than six days, the Israeli Defense Forces pushed them way back over preexisting international borders. To paraphrase General Moshe Dayan, “We needed breathing room and weren’t ever gonna let that happen again.”

I read the news and literature, see the documentaries, surf the internet and even hear the bottom bass of artillery all the way down the mountain but this is my first time directly experiencing the Syrian civil war.

From this side the barbed wire, large English language warning signs “DANGER MINES!” Technologically advanced monitors, buzzing military aircraft and drones and the heavily manned border offer reassurances, but once my glance drifts to the other side all modern reassurances are out the window. The small Syrian border town is empty. Typical, three-story, 5,000 square foot, concrete block Arab family homes (complete with accompanying, residential dump sites), sit sterile, eerily silent and pocked with bullet holes of varying circumference. Nothing else stands, not a school, store, factory or even mosque. Small brush fires burn here there and everywhere. Who set them and why is a mystery. Having taken a crash course on how to survive from their Jackal cousins, previously domesticated dogs snap at each other’s hind legs while running in frenzied packs.

I hear machine gun fire for the first time. Bumpppppbumppbumppp… and fight the audible instinct to, “Take cover! Get down!”

Then suddenly… the whissssshtttt… of a small, shoulder-fired rocket, followed by appropriate KAPLUNK.

A whistle comes from somewhere and something and I swear it’s in the same key as the whistle intro to Guns and Roses, “Patience.” Black tar smoke falls down from the sky. Downed helicopter maybe? Undecipherable, Arabic screams echo through the valley from an incalculable distance.

Ak47 fire set to auto. Chgggchgggchgggg..

A rusted, 70s era Russian jeep roars down a burned out road. The passengers abandon ship and roll away down an embankment. The jeep will change ownership without proper transfer of documentation.
Skinny cows look at fat cows over on the Israel side and smash their wet noses against the chain-linked fence in envy. Antsy Israeli soldiers watch the bovines with a combination of sympathy and hamburger hunger, but have orders not to transfer anything, even starving livestock, over the border.

“I wish I had binoculars. I could watch this all day,” I think, but war, especially this one, is not entertainment for bored couch potatoes. People are dying over there. Butchered. Men, women, senior citizens and children who all deserve better. Beheaded, burnt alive, poison gassed, raped and shot where they stand, for nothing. Corpses defiled by young warriors that have been warped by jihad for far too many of their formative years. Lives burnt and splattered and cut and forgotten. Hundreds of thousands of them.

I catch a whiff of a typical Middle Eastern cocktail that includes sickness, body odor, sulfur, barbecuing meat, cheap perfume, blood, death and of course, goat feces.

“All this right here no more than a few kilometers away from my wife and children? What am I doing here?” I feel irresponsible and defiantly free all at once. Cherry picking in a war zone.

Instantaneous headache. Panic. Guilt. Justification: “I’m here. They are there. I was born free. They weren’t. Nothing I can do about it. It’s fate, luck, genetics, the universe or whatever you wish to call it.”

“How could the safe, cozy- comfy world so far away ever get this?” I shake my head in tired frustration. “They can’t.”

So I write about my experiences in the Middle East, launching words and feelings into the air like crude Katusha rockets, hoping to strike a rational chord. This is a war of words and narratives as much as it is bombs and bullets.

One’s take on the Israeli/Arab conflict is a matter of background, experience, culture and where one finds their information but if one wishes to really consider “reality” one cannot remain within the comfortable confines of their relative circumstances. Even to the people in the region, the circumstances are difficult, unpredictable, painful and never, ever black and white. Those privileged few that have never lived, struggled, feared, fought or experienced personal loss in an extremely volatile and oppressive environment like the Middle East aren’t equipped to determine what is and isn’t essential to maintain life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

The assertion that Israel is ethically culpable for using appropriate military force to insure its own self-defense in one of the most notoriously inhumane regions on the Planet Earth is by definition “absurd”– irrational, immature, ludicrous, nonsensical and lacking common sense. The fundamental absurdity of anti-Israel bias is what naturally arouses Jewish suspicions of age-old anti-Semitism. How else could rational, educated people come to the conclusion that Hamas, Islamic Jihad, Hezbollah, the PLO and now Daesh, are the good guys in the neighborhood?

My son gregariously giggles at a bouncing, show-off Billy-goat hoping for a fruit or veggie hand-out. My daughter, mousy, whines about being cold and my sheep-herder wife barks, “Let’s go! What are you looking at? Come on!” I disengage from the Syrian “bellagon” (“mess” in Hebrew) feeling as if I’ve lost an opportunity for a valuable life lesson.

We pay the smiling farmer’s son (an Israeli Arab Druze) and head out into the cherry orchard. The trees closest to the entrance are picked clean but we move further and further into the heart of the orchard and find trees of sweet delight waiting for our grubby little paws to violate. The plump burgundy ones go right into the mouth. Perfectly sweet and fresh, not at all like the jarred Maraschino cherries people put on ice-cream sundaes back home.

As the kids spasmodically throw handfuls of inedible, stem-less preemies into the basket, we remind them, over and over again with tenured professor-like certainty, “Keep the stem on so they stay fresh. Only the dark-red ones. The little, bright-red ones are sour.”

The process repeats. Time for practical application.

“Come here kids. Come! Taste this.” I feed them sour cherries.

“Ah dad, these cherries taste yucky!” exclaims my hyper-maturing five year old daughter.

“We told you so,” says mom.

No matter how many times we try to get our point across, no matter what method is applied, the kids keep on picking sour cherries and I am left with no other choice but to toss the preemies over my shoulder when the kids aren’t looking.

And then it hits me…

The kids represent those sheltered, goodhearted souls that expect Israel to eat sour cherries. I represent Israel. It doesn’t matter what I tell the kids, they aren’t listening, so I do what any responsible parent would do and make sure my kids are healthy and safe.

We drive back down the mountain to the kibbutz and sit down to eat our cherries by the cool river. To our amusement, a shaggy kibbutz dog with a larger than life personality playfully dunks his head underwater for fish. Kibbutz dogs are community property, running about to and fro as they wish, without worry of dog-catcher or canine hating, shotgun carrying neighbor. Kibbutzim at heart are socialist and even the dogs benefit from the communal structure.

My daughter pops the first cherry into her mouth and proudly states, “Mmmm. See, Mommy and Daddy, the cherries I picked are sooooo sweet.”

Later that night we find out that a mad mob of Druze ambushed an Israeli humanitarian ambulance carrying wounded Free Syrian soldiers over the border for treatment. They pulled the Syrians out of the vehicle and lynched them to death with boots, fists, crowbars, hammers, two-by-fours, sticks and wrenches right there on the same pastoral road that we took to pick cherries. The Druze claimed that the act was justified retaliation for the Free Syrian Army’s actions against family members on the other side of the border.

I thank the heavens above that the lynching wasn’t earlier in the day. “What if the kids saw that?” I think but there’s no time for “What if’s” around here. It’s back to the real business at hand. The “take home” of my cherry picking story. The one and only objective truth of the Middle East.

Survival

About the Author
Mark Menachem Blacknell is an award winning film-maker ("Woke Up Alive" in Israel, 2010), internationally acclaimed singer/songwriter, US Marine Veteran and former public policy expert for the administration of Governor Edward Rendell.
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