Welcome to Efratestan or how I almost ate a rattle snake

“Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar” [attributed] Sigmund Freud

Ok, I knew the picture of my son in green and black face paint and flak jacket crawling under strings to throw fake grenades at a target might not look so good. But I wasn’t quite ready for the deluge of reactions. On Yom HaAtzmaut, the IDF with the help of the indefatigable Yechiel Fishman and supported by the mayor and Matnas of Efrat hosted a “Chanyon Tzahal” or military camp. 14,000 people came to enjoy jumping castles, a petting zoo, rides, and of course military and safety equipment.   Gideon Levy in HaAretz went so far as to question my love for my children and suggested someone file “a complaint … to the National Council for the Child.” Levy’s was not the only voice questioning the wisdom of allowing children to climb on trucks and try on various helmets and other equipment. And obviously the comparison to terrorists was a popular refrain: “you see the settlers, even the supposedly tame ones in Efrat, are just like Hamas.”

Perhaps despite himself, Levy’s intuition corresponds to one found in rabbinic literature. In Mishna Shabbat, the sages debate the “Jewish” relationship with weapons. In discussing whether a man can wear a sword on Shabbat, the Mishna states, “a man should not go out [on Shabbat] with a sword, bow, shield, buckler, nor spear …Rabbi Eliezer says they are his adornments [and like all such clothing, permissible.] The sages disagreed saying, they are a disgrace, for as it says [in Isaiah] ‘they shall beat their swords into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks’.” (M. Shabbat 4:6) While Rabbi Eliezer sees weaponry as something possibly edifying, the others view them in a negative light.  Gideon Levy, like the sages, views military weaponry as problematic. Others view them, seemingly like Rabbi Eliezer, in a more positive way. To be honest, I understand the Sages’ reservations.

So where is the rattle snake?

I grew up in Northern Florida and was an active boy scout. I loved camping and especially the Scout jamborees.  For several years I attended one at Camp Blanding, a Florida National Guard camp. The most outdoors experience I had was probably when I was offered, but graciously declined, what we were told was boiled rattle snake by the famous reptile expert Ross Allen. We loved the adventure including seeing and experiencing military equipment, vehicles, and aircraft.  I grew up with swords, cap guns, and laser rifles. We played soldiers and knights, cowboys and ninjas, and to be honest never thought about harming anyone.  It was all just a part of childhood. We appreciated all that the army did for America, but never felt moved to attack anyone.

When my son, asked to go to the Chanyon Tzahal, I thought it would be a crowded yet fun way to spend the morning of Independence Day. And I wasn’t disappointed. While my son decided to climb on trucks and pretended to be everything from soldier, to fireman, to medic, my daughters chose to wait in line for the flying trapeze swings and jumping castles. Not once were enemies of the state mentioned, or anyone vilified, or military indoctrination and brainwashing apparent.

It is true that everyone present was keenly aware of the role the army needs to play in Israeli society. It is a reality, unfortunately, we can’t avoid; in fact, most of the adults present served and siblings of many of the younger kids are presently in uniform or serving the State in some other capacity.  And, indeed, we are thankful and proud of our soldiers who serve to protect our country and guarantee that pundits like Gideon Levy can write unhindered and without fear of foreign attack.

But that wasn’t the crux of the day. It was just plain fun like I had in my childhood at Camp Blanding.

Yet, the pundits in papers across the world screamed that we had come to train our children in the ways of war. They declared that we are no different than Islamic terrorists.   However, as one poster on Facebook commented, comparing the Efrat event to a Hamas training camp is like comparing a visit to the Intrepid Sea, Air, and Space museum in New York City or the RAF museum in London to an Al-Qaeda training camp in Yemen or Pakistan. It’s disingenuous at best.

Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar and, yes, a play park is just a play park. P1020035

About the Author
Rabbi Berman is the Associate Director at Yeshivat Eretz HaTzvi. In addition, he has held numerous posts in education from the high school level through adult education. He founded the Jewish Learning Initiative (JLI) at Brandeis University and served as rabbinic advisory to the Orthodox community there for several years. Previously, he was a RaM at Midreshet Lindenbaum where he also served as the Rav of the dormitory.