Josh Benjamin
Josh Benjamin

Crawling on the Pages of Jewish History

There’s a particular romance about being a combat soldier.

It’s in the reddish brownish boots; the children that look up to you in awe; the almost mythical reputation of the IDF’s daringness and bravery; the knowledge, that after everything your people have been through, you have their backs.

Although there are many reasons why lone soldiers voluntarily serve in the IDF, I believe it’s this idealised romance that motivates many of us to go to combat units: It is the ultimate expression of our love for the country.

But with any realistic love story, the honeymoon phase inevitably comes to an end. The sparkly light that concealed the blemishes, gradually disipates.

What we soon discover is the harsh, hard reality of combat service and of the country as a whole:

The Negev Desert of pioneering dreams becomes nightmarish. Enormous thorns cut through our skin as we crawl on them. Scorpions sneak into those once romantic, now unpolished, brown boots. We barely survive freezing nights, in which the only thing louder than the unrestrained downpour is the sound of clattering teeth.

We suffer through broken backs, strained muscles, homesickness, hunger, exhaustion and worst of all, rude Israelis – whose abruptness is exacerbated by all the conditions above.

Many of us knew this phase would come, yet we signed up anyway. Why?

Because of the bigger picture: The knowledge that even the brightest images have dark pixels.

In the book of Jewish history, we’re currently reading a completely far-fetched, gripping and inspirational chapter: The story of the modern State of Israel. Like the blind Jew who slides his fingertips over a piece of matzah, I often ask myself: “who wrote this nonsense?”

Three years after a third of their population is exterminated, a historically-persecuted people is led by secular leaders back to their religious ancestral homeland. There, they overcome unprecedented trauma and defeat five invading Arab armies Рwith hardly any weapons! As major existential wars threaten them on average once a decade, they revive their language and their Torah learning institutions, turn swamps and deserts into forests, and become a world leader in technology and medical innovation. From Treblinka to Tel Aviv. It all seems like a bit of a stretch.

Yet every event here, while part of a wildly unrealistic story, is a cold hard fact; every day is a “new page” that keeps us desperately intrigued by the greater plot – and makes many of us feel closer to the “Author.”

And we, as lone soldiers, for better or for worse, are on those pages. More accurately, we crawl on those pages. We get shouted at by aggresive commanders on them, get homesick on them, starve on them, are sleep deprived and physically exhausted on them and face danger on them.

Yet we are on them nonetheless, and it’s an overwhelmingly tremendous honour to be on them at all.

The romance, it turns out, doesn’t dissipate – instead, it is displaced by a connection far more real and intense.

Combat service as a lone soldier is thorny and rocky. But by crawling on open elbows, the land becomes part of our blood.


About the Author
Josh is the former Chairman of SAUJS (South African Union of Jewish Students) Cape Town; and former Board Member of the SAJBD (South African Jewish Board of Deputies) Cape Council; and Tikvah Fellow
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