Wednesday, September 16, 2015

In Honor of the New Year: a Middle East 'Dream Speech' on Water

**עברית בהמשך**

In honor of the Jewish New Year (Rosh Hashanah), I'd like to share with you a mock speech I wrote for a seminar I took earlier this year, called Cultural Gaps in Negotiations.

The brief intro: as part of our seminar paper, we had to pick a topic of our choosing addressed to a population of our choosing and deliver a speech to said population in a language that would accepted to both Israelis and the intended recipients.  Our professor decided to take our 'speeches' and make a project out of it, and this website is what came of it all.  His goal, in essence, is to reach out to the Arab and Muslim worlds and show that there are serious partners in Israel to talk with.

I believe deeply that water can be used as a bridge in this region, so my choices already seemed predetermined for me: Water and the Palestinians.

My "dream speech" of sorts can be read HERE in English and HERE in Hebrew.

Next month I leave my room in Tel Aviv to go learn intensive Arabic for 5 months-- inshallah by the time I finish the program I will translate it into Arabic as well!  The real dream, of course, is to translate some of the concepts here into reality...

Below I provide basic quotes in English to get the reader in the mindset, and following is an introduction I wrote for my Hebrew audience.


“Resolution of issues related to fresh water that is shared by Israel and Palestine will not alone bring about peace between the two peoples.  State borders, Israeli settlements, Palestinian refugee, and the status of Jerusalem far outweigh water as divisive issues.  However, in the absence of a just resolution of water issues, no peace can be complete.  Further, in the absence of a sustainable use of water by both peoples, overall social and economic development will be threatened, and so too will stability and peace for the region” (Brooks and Trottier, 2012).

“We look forward to the day when a new forum will allow us to interact with our Israeli counterparts as respected partners and equals, working jointly to solve problems in the interests of all” (Palestinian Water Minister Shaddad Attili, speaking at World Water Week, August 2011).

“We suggest careful attention to the three-part aphorism ascribed to Rabbi Hillel, who lived at the start of the first millennium and was perhaps the greatest of the Jewish sages. He began by asking: “If I am not for myself, who will be?” This can be seen as support for the Israeli position. However, Hillel did not stop there; he went on to ask: “If I am only for myself, what am I?” This is an equal statement of support for the Palestinian position. And Hillel concludes with a third question: “If not now, when? [We urge the parties to deal with water immediately rather than wait for political solutions.]” (Brooks and Trottier, 2012). 

ועכשיו בעברית-- ההקדמה של האתר נמצא כאן, והנאום שלי בעברית הוא כאן. למטה תמצאו משכתבתי כחלק הסמינר

פעם ראשונה שהבנתי את המשמעות של מים בסכסוך הערבי-ישראלי היתה באביב 2009, כסטונדט בתוכנית הבינ-לאומית של אוניברסיטת בן גוריון.  הייתי בקורס שנקרא Hydropolitics of the Middle East, תחת ד"ר קלייב ליפשין, ושם קבלתי את הבסיס המושגי לגל של נושאים ורעיונות שמאז מעסיקים אותי יומם וליל.  בעיניי הצנועות והמוגבלות, אני רואה סכסוך שנדרש לצאת מהקופסה הקונבנציונלית בכדי לפתור אותו.  יש שני צדדים, שבעקבות מאה שנים של אלימות, הבטחות שבורות, ועוד אלימות, אינם סומכים אחד על השני—ובוודאי שאין אמון.  בחמש השנים האחרונות שמתי יותר לב לפרויקטים משותפים של מדינת ישראל ומדינות אחרות בעולם: ארצות הברית, סין, והודו, כדוגמאות.  החל מכנס מדריד ב1991 גם בין הישראלים לפלסטינים יש שיתוף פעולה ברמה הרשמית ורמות הפרטיות וארגונים חוץ ממשלתיים (NGO).  אלו פרויקטים שמייצגים התחלות טובות, אבל על הצד הישראלי לשים לב לציטוט הנ"ל של שר המים הפלסטיני, שאדד אטילי.  המילים שבהן הוא משתמש – שהוא רואה את הישראלים כ"שותפים מכובדים ושיוויוניים," שיום אחד יראו את הפלסטינים באותו אור, מסמנות לי מן מנורה שצריכה להידלק בראש הישראלי.  זאת אומרת, היחס בדיבורים צריך להשתנות כדי להראות ערכים שונים מאילה שמקרינים היום.
תוך שימוש במונחים שנלמדו בספרו של ד"ר עפר גרוסברד, חיפשתי דרך יצירתית להציג שילוב של בבל ומים כדי ליצור נקודת תחילה של אמון חדש בין עמינו.  בבל נותן לכל קורא כלים והנחיות אינטגרליים שמאפשרים לו לגשר לצד השני.  ומים, או יותר נכון- שיתוף פעולה על בסיס מים, הוא הדבר הקונקרטי שדרכו אפשר לצעוד על הגשרים.  רק כשאנשים יראו שיתוף פעולה שמצליח (עוד מים לכל אזרח, מים יותר נקיים, מפעלים חדשים ליד כפרים ועיירות...), יווצר מצב שבו העם הפלסטינאי יקבל את סמכות הרשות, ויהיה ואמון אמיתי בין שתי הממשלות.  לכן, למטה אני בונה מצב תיאורטי על מנת לתת לעצמי את הזדמנות חיי-- הזדמנות להיות מנהיג ישראלי שפונה אל מנהיגי ואנשי העם הפלסטיני כאחד במסווה של כנס מים בין לאומי.  השתמשתי ברעיוניות של בבל, מקורות שדנים על היסטוריה של בטחון המים ושיתוף הפעולה סביבו, הצעות לפרויקטים עתידיים, היסטוריה איסלאמית כללית, וכתבי קודש של היהדות והאסלאם (כדי למצוא טקסטים ומושגים מקבילים בשתי הדתות).  ככה יצא נאום שבשאיפה: א) מראה כבוד, הזדהות, וסמכותיות; ב) משתמש בטריקים קטנים אך משמעותיים כמו מטפורות, איזון דרך דוגמאות מקבילות לכל נושא, וכתבי קודש; וג) עדיין יכול להיות נאום שמעוכל בציבור הישראלי.  

Sunday, May 17, 2015

American Foreign Policy Interests: the Hobbesian Side of my Zionism

A couple year back I caught a television documentary in Israel that told the story of a group of Israeli air force pilots ceremonially flying over Auschwitz.  One of the big subplots of the film was that the United States (as well as British) governments during World War II knew for years of the atrocities being committed against the Jews in Europe and did nothing to stop them.  The connector was that even though U.S. pilots flew literally several kilometers and sometimes even directly over concentration camps, the pilots never destroyed any of the camps or railways.  The Zionist takeaway of the film was simple and predictable: now, with a strong and powerful Israeli air force, the Jews would never have to wait for another country to come to its rescue again.  None of these were new story lines.  The documentary prominently featured interview segments with former Amherst College Professor David S. Wyman, author of the important book, The Abandonment of the Jews. Wyman, himself a Presbyterian, spoke of President Roosevelt's hesitance to enter the war, even though he knew of the horrors very early in the war, because he knew it would be electoral suicide.  None of his voters were interested in saving a homeless people, no less a homeless Jewish people.  Wyman then showed U.S. intelligence aerial maps with locations and coordinates for allied bombers to destroy.  Some of these locations were within five miles of camps, yet nothing was touched because it would have 'taken away valuable firepower from the war effort.'  I write about this now because it hits on a small aspect of my personal Zionism, one that does not often surface because thankfully it does not usually have to surface.  It is a side of my Zionism that is both 'political' and 'revisionist' -- that simultaneously justified my reasoning for serving in the military and keeps me suspicious of all foreign powers. 
             At my core, and though it scares me to write this, I do not have faith in a United States of
America that will not stop genocide unless it is in America’s foreign policy interest. The apathy if
not antipathy of the vast majority of 1930’s America toward Jews was one thing.  But it was the U.S.
government’s staunch maintenance of its isolationist policies that started to chip away at my faith in
American ideals several years ago. That President Roosevelt did nothing after Evian, that he did
nothing for several years in fact, always tore at my confidence. My grandpa Norman, may he rest in
peace, was a huge FDR fan.  My grandma and father both tell me that grandpa never spoke a harsh
word of 'one of the greatest presidents ever.'  I remember him telling me as a youngster of his
experiences as a liberator in the American army in 1944-45, that even while patriotically serving his
country, he was reminded of his ‘Jewishness’ (read: inferiority) by the antisemitic gunner who
shared the reconnaissance jeep with him.  I'm not sure if Grandpa ever realized that this sort of
domestic antisemitism was widespread enough to sway such a disastrous foreign policy, and I am not
sure how I would approach the topic with him were he still with us today, but for me it is devastating
to cogitate on the millions who were not saved because of voter interest and (lack of) foreign policy
 That the world did nothing during WWII and that Rwanda and Darfur happened in the past twenty years continually remind me that nothing much has changed. Just like it was not relevant for U.S. foreign policy to help a distressed people across an ocean until its home soil was physically attacked, so too is it not relevant enough for the U.S. today to take a strong stand against crimes against humanity unless its own interests are directly affected.  Hence, if Tutsis are slaughtered en masse by Hutus in Rwanda, it is deemed unfortunate, mandated that the (toothless) U.N. should be held responsible to protect unarmed civilians, and nothing is actually done. More recently, consider that the United States intervened in Libya during the Arab Spring, yet continues to do nothing in Syria, whose regime kills scores of people by the day.  Why?  Libya has one of the top ten largest oil reserves in the world and lacks allies; Syria will most likely soon be a net importer of oil and is hugely invested in by both Iran and Russia.  Or consider that the United States for the most part allows Saudi Arabia and Venezuela, the world’s second and fifth largest exporters of oil to the U.S., to get away with their repressive governments’ actions. But if, for example, those governments fell or underwent serious changes of attitude regarding their economic relationships with the U.S., one had better believe that the administration would demonstrate a serious interest in either propping up a new government/monarchy/dictatorship that would continue its oil exportation, or ensure via covert or overt force that U.S. access to oil would remain unhindered. This is not rocket science; it is the ugly side of hegemonic politics and foreign policy. Tragically, it almost never bodes well for the persecuted minorities who are always in the direst need of aid.
I am not saying that I moved to Israel because I believe that the goldineh medineh of our great grandparents' generation has not been good enough to the Jewish people or won’t be in the future; that would simply be a foolish claim to make.  On a personal level, the United States of America has granted my family four generations of upward mobility through hard work and access to education and jobs, and remains an incredible beacon of hope and democracy in a big, bad world.  And nationally, the ties between Israel and the United States are undeniably strong, variegated, and not going anywhere anytime soon.  What I can say is that there is a Hobbesian side to my Zionism, that though it is a small one, it is an important one that keeps my dominantly humanistic side in check.  No matter how strong the ties between the States and Israel are, those ties end at foreign policy interests and domestic polling trends.  President Obama understands very well that his voters are set against another foreign war (look no further than August 2013-- when he could not even shore up domestic support for a limited attack on Assad's regime), and seemed more than willing to make any deal with Iran this Spring, just to prove he could do diplomacy.     
 Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote in his 1967 book Israel: an Echo of Eternity: “Auschwitz is in our veins. It abides in the throbbing of our hearts. It burns in our imagination. It trembles in our conscience. We, the generation that witnessed the holocaust, should stand by calmly while rulers proclaim their intention to bring about a new holocaust?”  The context is simple: in the weeks preceding the Six Day War of June 1967, Egypt amassed troops along Israeli borders, warned of an incumbent war all over its media outlets, closed the Straits of Tehran, and coordinated plans with Syria (eventually dragging Jordan in as well).  While troop movements could theoretically be justified during peacetime, the closing of the straits was itself casus belli.  This, coupled with Egyptian refusal to negotiate or even meet with Israeli officials, signaled that a fresh war of extermination against the 19 year old state was imminent. With the memory of WWII still searing the Jewish collective memory, the preemptive defensive war fought by Israel was thus justified by Heschel, a known left wing political activist and civil rights leader (alongside his scholarly accolades).  Heschel continued, ‘Never again shall we wait for the world to come our savior and support us in the face of evil.’  Today, this could sound quite bellicose for the average individual, almost too eager to justify war.   But the opposite was true then…And so today, without any mass destruction seared into our generation's minds, what makes us withhold from preemptively striking an Iranian regime who denies the holocaust and publicly wishes to erase Israel off the map?  Would Heschel let it get to the feverish pitch level of May 1967 before morally accepting a strike?  It is true that today there are sanctions, and viruses, and now maybe even negotiations.  And that every option must be quite literally exhausted before resulting to force.  And I, like everyone else, hope that some combination will work.  But what history has taught me is that if the hegemony doesn't have a personal stake, it won't help you out.  At the end of the day, then, as a Jew I know that Israel will have my back when no one else does.  That those fighter jets will fly proudly overhead and defend me, because it will always be in Israel's interests to protect me. 

Monday, May 4, 2015

Thoughts on the Ethiopian Israeli Protests // מחשבות על מחאות האתיופים ישראליים

עברית קודם//English to Follow

אתמול, יצאתי מהשוק.  הייתי בריצה בטיילת כששמעתי את המסוקים בשמיים.  כמה דקות לאחר מכן התחלתי גם לראות אותם.  אחרי המתיחות ומקלחת ואפילו אחרי שהכנתי לעצמי ארוחת ערב, ראיתי שחבר שלי כתב בוואטסאפ הקבוצתי שרימוני הלם פוצצו ממש לידו בכיכר רבין -- שיש הפגנה מטורפת שם.  "??" עניתי, ממש ככה, בשוק. ואז לקחתי צעד  אחורה, נשמתי עמוק, עליתי על נעליים סגורות, ודווחתי לשותף שאני מצטרף להפגנה.

חברים, אם מישהו באמת חושב שאין גזענות בארץ אז לא יודע באיזה מדינה אתם גרים אבל בא לי להצטרף ולגור שם
אתכם.  ואם לא גזענות בוטה, אז לפחות עיוורון מכוון.  איך עוד אפשר להסביר שבהליכה של 8 דקות מדירתי להפגנה, ראיתי מסעדות, פאבים, ובתי קפה מלאים עם אנשים מחייכים כמו שכלום לא קורה חמש מאות מטר ממם (עיוורון מכוון). ואיך אפשר להסביר את התמונות המגעילות שראיתי בקבוצות וואטסאפ שלי -- אלו שמראים פקקים בווייז של דמויות שחורות, או עיתונאי לבן בטלוויזיה הולך ומדבר על ההפגנה עם השיר "גיינגטסטז פרדייס" ברקע, כי ברור שכל המפגינים הם מפיונרים (גזענות בוטה).  אני מעודד את כולנו לצאת מהעדינות ולתמוך באחים ואחיות שלנו בלי קשר לצבע או עדה. ו

כשהגעתי לכיכר יצרתי קשר עם חברי והוא עדכן אותי במה הוא חווה עד אז.  שנינו המשכנו ביחד במשך השעתיים קרובות וראינו דברים ממש יפים, קשים, עצובים, ומתסכלים.  הרגשתי המון כאב כשראיתי את חלק מהעם שלי סובל כל כך בכעס עמוק, והרגשתי מבודד כשראיתי אנשים עומדים וצועקים בכעס אך בשלום ומקבלים מים ורימוני הלם בחזרה. ראיתי גם אנשים מתווכחים עם עצמם על מה הצורה הטובה ביותר להראות למדינה את תיסכולם, וכל פעם שמישהו התחיל לשיר "כל העולם כולו גשר צר מאד, והיעקר לא לפחד כלל" או לשיר את התקווה בצורה ספונטנית, נמרצתי מחדש. הסכסוך הזאת לא  כמו המחאה בארצות הברית; הוא יהודי בדם ובנפש ונלחם מכאב פטריוטי שנמאס לו מלחיות עם החלק הסרטני בחברתינו. ו

אם אני בהתחלה ממש תוסכלתי על מה שראיתי, ידידי הזכיר לי שזאת לא פעם ראשונה בהיסטוריה שדור שני של עולים יצאו לרחובות כדי להפגין נגד מצבם הקיים.  ויש מצב רב שהוא צודק.  שמה שקרה אמש היה ביצוע של עדה שמפגינה בדיוק כמו עדות המזרחיות בשנות ה70.  לצערי הרב, אנחנו לא גרים במדינה שבקלות מקבלת עולים חדשים עם אור כזה או אחר וזה חלק מתהליך ההתבגרות (ואינטגרציה) גם של העלייה האתיופית (שכבר לא רואה את ארץ הזהב והקדוש בעיניים תמימות) ושל המדינה הנוכחית שלצערינו עוד צריכה להתמודד עם גזענות עמוקה בתוך החברה' היהודית (בלי אפילו להגיד מילה כאן על המגזר הערבי).  ם

כאדם יהודי רוחני, נשבר לי הלב לראות שנאה בין יהודים ולכן בשנייה שהבנתי את רמת הכאב וכעס הצטרפתי להפגנה אמש (וכן, קבלתי רסס של רימון הלם בחזה וכן כאב וכן דמם. הכל על אף שעמדתי במקום בשלום; עוד לא ידוע לי מה אני והמפגינים מסביבי עשינו לא נכון או למה ירו הלם עלינו, אבל נעזוב את זה כעת. אציין כאן שאני הבנתי שהיו אירועים אלימים במקומות אחרים--אני בחיים לא אצדיק אלימות נגד המשטרה ומאמין שכל פתרון בא עם שיתוף פעולה עם כולם. פשוט לא ראיתי את זה במאה אחוז אתמול).  ועד שיש אהבה בין כל האחים והאחיות שלי, אמשיך שוב ושוב לצעוד ולהפגין בעתיד. בסופו של דבר, אם אנחנו לא מצליחים להיות מואחדים מבפנים, איך אפשר לתקן מבחוץ? ו 

Yesterday, I left my state of shock.  I was running on the boardwalk when I heard the choppers in the sky.  A few minutes later I began seeing them.  After stretching, showering, and even after making myself a post-run dinner, I saw that my buddy sent a message on one of my whatsapp groups that stun grenades had moments earlier exploded right near him in Rabin Square -- that there was an intense protest going on there. "??" was my answer, just like that, in shock.  And then I took a step back, breathed deeply, put on closed toed shoes, and told my roommate I was going to join the protest.

Friends, if someone actually thinks that there isn't racism in this country, then I don't know what state you're living in but I'd love to join and live there with you.  And if not blatant racism, then at least deliberate blindness.  How else can one explain that during an 8 minute walk from my apartment to the protest I saw restaurants, pubs, and coffee houses filled with smiling people as if nothing was happening a mere 500 meters away (deliberate blindness).  And how else might one explain the disgusting pictures I saw being spread on whatsapp groups -- the ones that showed a screenshot of the traffic application Waze with a high congestion of black emojis where the protest was taking place earlier that day, or the short clip of the white journalist covering the streets surrounded by black protesters, with the Coolio song "Gangsta's Paradise" blaring in the background, as if to depict the protestors as mere thugs (blatant racism).  Either way, it is time to stop ignoring.  I encourage all of us to leave our squeamishness behind and go out in support of our brothers and sisters, regardless of color or ethnicity.

When I arrived at the square I reached my friend and he updated me re what he had experienced thus far.  The two of us continued together for the following two hours and we witnessed really beautiful, difficult, sad, and frustrating things.  I felt immense pain as I saw a part of my nation suffer from such deep anger, and felt uttter isolation when seeing people stand peacefully whilst voicing said anger only to be greeted by water hoses and stun grenades in response.  I also saw many people arguing over the best way to show the nation their frustation; and every time someone spontaneously began singing the classic Rav Nachman song "The whole world is a narrow bridge; the main thing is to not fear at all," or the national anthem, I was once again reinvigorated.  The conflict here is not like the one now ripping through the United States; rather it is a Jewish one both in blood and soul, one that is being fought with a patriotic pain that is sick of living with the cancerous elements of our society.  

If I was at the beginning very frustrated with the general fracas that I was seeing, my friend reminded me that this is not the first time in history that a second generation immigrant population has taken to the streets in order to protest their current societal status.  And there is a good chance he is correct.  That what happened last night was the act or enactment of a tribe protesting just like the multifaceted Mizrahi denominations did in the 1970's.  To my great dismay, we do not live in a country that easily accepts immigrant communities of "other" colors and this pattern seems to be part of a greater process of maturation (and integration) both of the Ethiopian Immigrant Story (that for a long time now no longer sees Israel the Gold and Holy through naive eyes), as well as a country that at present writing still must cope and struggle with a deep racism within Jewish society.  (All this without even mentioning a word about the Arab sector.)

As a spiritual, Jewish human being, my heart breaks when I see hatred amongst Jews, which is why the minute I digested the level of pain and anger I joined the protests last night. (And yes, I was hit directly at close range by a piece of a stun grenade in the chest, and it did hurt and I did bleed.  Simply for standing, peacefully, in place. It remains unclear to me what I or the protestors around me did wrong and why multiple stun grenades were fired upon us, but I will leave that for now. I'll stress here that there were violent altercations in other places-- the last thing I want to do is justify violence against the police and I believe that any solution comes with trust and cooperation between everybody. I simply didn't see that 100% last night.)  Until there is love between all of my brothers and sisters, I will continue again and again to march and protest.  After all, if we cannot unify from within, how will we ever fix what is around us?

Friday, July 5, 2013

A Story I Can Tell!

Hey Crew,

One day, I'll be able to tell you all sorts of things about my stint on active duty on the Syrian border that I simply am not allowed to talk about for intel/security purposes at my current juncture.  Thus, my tweets are generally quite general, my instagram pics are toned down, and my stories that I can write about on this blog are limited.  [Catch me alone in a room without phones/recording devices, then hey maybe I'll tell ya a thing or two. But probably not. Wait until I'm outta the army.]

So, when I do have the chance to tell a story, as short or trivial as it may be to the interested reader, I have to jump on the opportunity to tell it! Here it is:

[IMPORTANT: There is vulgar language here.  It is intentional, with words not edited out in order to portray how crude the language of the army truly is.  EVERYONE curses way too much in the military, something I have to consciously switch off when I shed my uniform for short glimpses of civilian leave.]

A couple nights ago I finished an 8 hour border patrol shift, took off my gear, and started to strip so I could shower and unwind for the night only to hear that the reinforcements who help out with the static guard duty at my unit's post had not yet shown up.  Now, we're so undermanned that their playing hooky means my boys and I have to take their place til they show.  "OK," we're told, "it's only until 11.  The Golanchikim [Golani boys] are on their way." Well, 11:30 passes, midnight rolls through, still no reinforcements.  Let me stress here that after a long day, and really a long two weeks, of hard work, minimal sleep, and even fewer opportunities to sleep without boots, there is sort of a created expectation that the night before we get off for a weekend leave we will do less, not more.  So when the opposite is true -- when we are told we have to cover for people from a totally different unit to do things we don't even normally do (a la statics), the guys ain't gonna be too pleased.

We end up pulling 1-2's (1 our on, two hours off) the entire night until the bastards finally roll in at 6am (coincidentally the same exact time when we're supposed to depart for the weekend).  Everyone is peeved and exhausted.  And I am borderline furious -- I literally have no patience for this type of shit, especially at the end of a hard earned 11.  So 6am comes around and I am manning one of the booths overlooking the border.  I am alternately cussing out these aholes for ruining my night of sleep, shivering because although it's July it's still cold at night, and admiring the sun as it rises over the Syrian Golan when some smug little guy comes to switch me.  Where from? "Palsar Golani."  I'd been swearing out Golani all night and now that I knew it was Palsar it just fanned the flames. Bunch of simultaneously high brow and uncouth brush your shoulders off Golani Sayarim.  Well, some seven minutes later I'm changed and ready to go and my buddy Bar tell me that the soldier who switched his post knows who I am and wants me to come say hello.  After putting one and one together I realized that it must be Nir, my good friend from my garin, and his team that denied us our beauty hours.  I walk down to him giving him the finger the whole way over, supplement it with a punch to his biceps (not a chance he felt it, bro's a lot bigger than I am), and finally for the first time since the previous evening break into a wide grin and bear hug him.

How could I stay angry after seeing a 'homeboy' after some two months, on the sneakily dangerous Syrian border, switching me out so I could go home for the weekend.  Definitely a shitty night, definitely a worthwhile ending.

Really, just went to remind me how nearsighted anyone (in this case yours truly) can act when thinking about him or herself.  Instead of going home from a brigade wide celebratory event, Nir and his guys had traveled half the country in the middle of the night just to get to the border region, slept 2-3 hours, and then showed up at dawn so people they ostensibly don't know could go home.  At the end of the day, no matter what the army is mentally and physically exhausting.  And if you're lucky your boy might just show up when you least expect it, pat you on the back and give you a break.

Wishing everyone a quiet and restful weekend to all from, yep, home.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Since We Last Spoke

Almost a year has passed since I wrote a blog post about when the going gets tough.  I thought this was super important to put in writing because it was my way of letting people know that the army is both incredibly physically and mentally challenging.  It was my real answer, if you will, to the question I was and still am most often asked: "So, how is the army?  Do you love it there??"  I wrote it at a particularly challenging point in my service -- when my body was physically broken from training and my mind was elsewhere, in the United States at my family's Passover seder.  Since then, a lot has changed (for one thing I finished my year and three month basic-->advanced-->specialized training period!).  So while the answer then, as now, is an unequivocal "no, I do not love the army," I have grown and changed in ways I could not really imagine before enlisting.  However, when I have anywhere from 30 seconds to 5 minutes to even in some situations a whole night or weekend to chat with friends/family/acquaintances, I rarely even attempt to give an honest or insightful response to what I do believe to be genuinely interested questions surrounding my life as a soldier.  I would much rather just bask in being close to old friends and close family and enjoy precious face time, soaking up smiles and others' stories instead of volunteering my own.  For better or worse, in instances of personal relationships I've always been a better listener than communicator -- just ask my ex'es about that.  But, sitting in my basement room back in Natick at the halfway point of my two and a half year service, allow me to elaborate on some personal experiences and transformations, and ideally even shed some insights along the way.

Way back in early April last year, I was doing some rudimentary guard duty on my advanced training base and had some spare moments to process what I had been going through to that point in my service.  While in basic training we for the most part just ran around and learned lots of simple rules over and over again (i.e. safety lessons on how to use a gun, how to walk in formation, how to wake up and get fully dressed exactly the same way as 22 other guys in under 3 minutes, full days devoted to ethics and morality in the IDF, and so on), advanced training introduces us to actual tactics we theoretically are going to use down the line.  It programatically starts from the individual's tactics while charging up a hill and slowly but surely works up its way up to how to act in the open field as a full company.  Compounded with the increasingly difficult work outs, advanced training's true aim is to build the soldier up so as to be battle ready.  Indeed, during that random little guard post stint, I started to realize that if basic training was meant to break the individual down and separate him or her from the mentality of the free-spirited civilian, advanced training meant to mold him or her into a fighter.  It was this last word, fighter, that struck a chord with me that April afternoon, and I had to write it down so I'd remember it.  I had always labelled myself as a Lover, Not a Fighter.  It fit my mellow and playful personality and I often used the phrase to calm a heated situation down.  I never even threw a punch before my Krav Maga lessons began in the army, and I definitely have never started fights, only stopped them.  Hence, this was the first time I identified a transformation that I was just beginning to go through-- from Lover, Not a Fighter to Lover and a Fighter.

Returning to that question I get asked so often, "nu, do you love it there??," I don't think any sane person can actually love (or even like) running around with a weapon acquiring skills that might one day have lethal effects on other humans.  No one I know in the military actually wants to fight or kill.  Views like these, or really any sort of jingoistic vision, is antithetical to the purpose of the IDF and completely misses the point of serving.  Ben Gurion used to lament that he had to send his young boys and girls to compulsory military service instead of national service (which in his time was truly nation-building service).  What a shame to year after year waste such a mass of natural resources and talent (and budget!) to help build an army instead of a teachers corps or parks force or really any multitude of things.  Yes, he lamented this fact, but Ben Gurion also had an acute understanding that the country desperately needed protection, that Israel needed to be prepared to ward off attempts at her destruction at all times.  So while ideologically he might have wanted to send his youthful resources elsewhere, in practice Ben Gurion needed men and women on the ground at constant ready.

This thinking resonates with me greatly.  Personally, I can brainstorm twenty ways for the world's young, Jewish men and women to give back to Israel, the country that will always be there for them. The Lover in me says that on purely ideological grounds, I think every Jewish youth should do a year of service in Israel under a government sponsored program, be it through a military, national, or civic service.  [I also actually favor mandatory service of some sort for every Israeli civilian--Jewish, Muslim, Christian, or other, as well, but that's for another conversation.]  And in my utopian world, every Jewish youth worldwide would in fact find the appropriate program for him or her and give back to Israel for a year, working to make Israel a better place for all its inhabitants while learning the language and landscape.  This would allow for a much more vibrant, deep, and knowledgeable conversation on issues in Israel from within and abroad and would allow every individual to form his or her own opinions on Israel based on real, tangible experiences.  Give me 40 years and who knows, maybe I'll have made some progress on this particular vision.  But ok, I digress.  Ben Gurion's ideological sacrifice resonates with me today because the Fighter in me agrees with his (and every leader that has followed since's) pragmatic understanding that the country is to this day under serious security threats from almost every border and therefore needs to be ready to go to battle.

Thus, I am more than willing to sacrifice my time and energy in military service because if there is something that this training has provided me with, it is the notion that I am prepared, both mentally and physically, to fight should the need arise.  Let me be clear: I do not want to fight, I would much rather love.  I would much rather shed blood, sweat, and tears building a better Israel by broadening religious pluralism, engendering cooperation between Israelis and Palestinians through shared water resource management, developing periphery areas in the Negev by settling land disputes between Bedouins, municipalities, and military installations, reforming the education system top down starting with higher salaries for teachers in order to encourage the country's best to want to teach, and so on and so on.  But I am also a realist.  I live in a tough neighborhood and know that I cannot simply forsake protecting my country and worry only about the things I love (and for that matter am immensely frustrated by) here in Israel.  Therefore I must at the same time be both a Lover and a Fighter.  Be willfully optimistic about the ability to change and improve life in this nearly 66 year old baby of a country while also being determined and proud to protect her.

This is not something I could have completely comprehended before moving here and enlisting.  It is not something that came easily--a year and three months of grueling, exhausting training is indeed a palpable testament to the time it took me for this transformation to take root my being.  It is a part of me now, a heavy burden of responsibility that, as the fighter in me takes the fore for the next 15 months while the lover sits patiently in back, I am aware of and must shoulder with diligence and care.  What is new for me, however, is something that I do believe most Israelis inherently understand.  It is, after all, a dual responsibility that Israelis have been carrying with them since before the State was even born.  On the one hand, then, I think this transformation is a positive one and indicates just another step into my 'becoming an Israeli.'  On the other hand, I hope that with this new found sense of self awareness, I can absorb it quickly enough to serve admirably through the end.  While I am confident in my abilities to do what I have to do should the situation arise, I can still ask that we pray, even if naively, that sane heads prevail so that nation shall not lift up sword against nation.  Because let's be real here, who wants to experience war anymore?

Sunday, April 29, 2012

Springtime Struggles

I don't like to do this, and don't do it often, but for the sake of giving an honest and full picture of my experiences as an immigrant soldier, I've decided to devote this post to what is mostly a vent. To say that everything is fine and dandy all the time would just be lying, so here's a bit on when the goings get tough.

April was not an easy month.  While it is usually a month that signifies at least two nights of full out family bonding in the form of Liben Passover Seders, I will remember April 2012 for a while as a month of many personal trials, tribulations, and failures -- with some really cool things sprinkled in on the side.  This pesach was such a difficult one for me because it was smack in the middle of my advanced training stage.  The weather went from pretty rainy/dreadful to beautiful overnight, but then again overnight from beautiful to super hot.  Hot weather, tougher assignments and drills, increasingly difficult workouts and runs all took their tolls on my body.  While I spent 4 months of basic training working off 5 years of beer and library induced physical rust and building myself basically from scratch, advanced training has not been particularly kind.  So although I am in much much better shape than when I enlisted just over 5 (!) months ago, the ratcheting up of things hit me quick and hard.  Notable examples include me still not having passed the obstacle course test in the required time of 9:30, me sweating more than all other 119 guys in my section and dealing with those bodily ramifications (needing to drink insane amounts of water, eat more salts, bring more spare clothes than everyone else, and apply gold bond literally everywhere), adjusting to walking/running/drilling with a heavy travel pack on my back in addition to my vest, and a combination of all of these factors gelling at once and causing my  body to completely break down during a trek so that I actually had to pull out after 12k (out of 40).  This last one really got me down because until that point treks had been a strong point of mine and instead of getting pumped up about what I've been doing and spending time with my family in Elwin, I was straight out failing one physical challenge after another.

I completely understand that one doesn't necessarily just succeed in a new environment so radically different than anything ever experienced before, and that is why I gave myself the adjustment period of 4 months of what I would call the very humbling era known as basic training.  But I did not account for such physical obstacles.  In other words, the physical pains were starting to affect my otherwise positive aura and prevent me from developing the other aspects of my military training/experience (leadership, language, professionalism etc.).  This was incredibly tough for me because I set high standards for myself in general, and especially for things that entail life altering decisions.  It is how I have led my life since the beginning of college, it is how I got myself into an elite unit in the Israeli army, and to not succeed with flying colors after 5 months of working myself into the system gets downright frustrating.

The physical affecting the mental is the lead in to what was Pesach 2012.  I think it was the first time that I really really missed the States.  It was totally the double whammy of not being in Natick with my siblings and parents and niece and nephews and then actually seeing my best friend since pre school and his family for a tease of a few days that did it.  To be struggling at your job, to not be with your family at an event when it has been a yearly highlight and fixture since childhood, to see a best friend come and go with the snap of a finger -- well hey man when those things all coalesce it can really depress you for a minute or two.  And it definitely brought me down.

But let's get real here, this post isn't really only a vent.  That's not who I am, and hopefully my readers (all three of them) know well that I am much more of a Peggy than a Debby.  So a couple of weeks ago when it was 7am, we had been awake for 2 hours and were walking several K with those huge packs that break your back without having eaten anything for breakfast, I was swearing off everyone and everything I could think of in my head.  It was literally just one of those mornings where I could find nothing good to think of.  And then we arrived at the main bivouac, ate a quick can of tuna, and sprinted onto helicopters.  Yep, we flew in a chopper, and I went from near tears to huge smiles.  There's always a light at the end of the tunnel, always something cool or important or meaningful, or maybe even just a tiny thing to you can take away and learn.  I have since made up the 40k trek (ok fine it was 39 but who's counting) and seen my big brother Micah -- here on a visit with his day schoolers; both things which improved my spirits invariably, especially seeing Micah.  I have a brutal month coming up, but it doesn't really matter.  My body will continue to go through insane cycles of blood, sweat, pain, and tears through the rest of my service, and it is really up to me to handle it in the best way I can: with a positive attitude and a determined will to succeed.  Nobody said it was gonna be easy, right?

Now, if only I could pass this damn obstacle course....

Saturday, January 14, 2012


Shabbat Shalom, readers! Just a quick reminder that if you're interested in keeping smaller/little tabs on me, the best way to do so is to follow me on twitter. Simply go to and search JonahLiben and there you will find plenty of little tidbits from the past year and a half. I usually will only have enough phone time to send out one or two tweets a week, but it's better than waiting for a spare weekend when I'm actually with a computer and able to type... That's all! With love