Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Perspectives on Shalit

An attempt to show my outlook leading up to and immediately following the Gilad Shalit deal...

Rewind 10plus days ago: news sources from around the world report that Gilad Shalit will be released from the terrorist group Hamas' underground cell in Gaza.  The deal, mediated through Germany and Egypt, would include a swap of 1,027 prisoners for one Israeli soldier.  For the next several days, all Israeli media outlets (radio, tv, newspapers, internet) discussed was the impending deal (I too got caught up in it, sending out several tweets on the matter).  And soon the world media was covering it, too.  Here in Israel, it did not surprise me that the possibility of a deal actually going through demanded non-stop national attention.  For my first two months here, to the t, every official event of any sort that I went to -- no matter whether it was at the two massive social justice protest rallies I went to in Jerusalem and Nahariya, a Garin Tzabar ceremony, or my Garin's Declaration (where we 'declared' our permanent presence to the rest of the moshav/village with skits and movies), every event devoted time to bring up the hope and need to have Gilad Shalit return home as soon as possible. 

Although there was a vast majority of Israeli opinion in favor of the swap, there was also a minority who outright rejected any deal of this sort.  Hence, a significant part of the Israeli media coverage went towards families and friends of loved ones who were murdered in terrorist attacks, admittedly emotional and upset that the perpetrators of multiple heinous crimes would now be freed.  I empathized and thought of it this way, if convicted murderers serving several life sentences are all of a sudden let free, wouldn't you be upset?  How is that justice being served?  Especially if one of these people was directly related in killing your kin or good friend?  I would.  Especially after the list of the 1,027 names was released and their bios and crimes became available via a quick google search, this minority seemed to be making an incredibly powerful point: why release such a large number of people, especially when hundreds -- yes, literally hundreds, were directly involved with murdering innocents?  Needless to say, the names of some of the to-be-freed prisoners and the crimes they committed were also being flashed all over Israeli media in the days leading up to the deal.  I couldn't help but then scoff at the Al Jazeera Op-Ed that asserted that Israel was releasing "1,027 faceless Palestinians" and yet the whole world only cared about the one Israeli.  ההפך, the opposite!  When names like Ahlam Tamimi kept appearing, with her cold blooded testimonials and interviews explaining her acts of terror (and there are many other names out there with equally brutal story lines), it was painfully clear to each and every Israeli that this was not a "fair" trade in terms of actions done to merit imprisonment in the first place.  Every Israeli knows that not every prisoner on that list is an actual murder.  But to imply that because the world cannot name all 1,027 prisoners in one breath, Israelis and the world at large do not care who these people are is ludicrous.  We are acutely aware, and it is scary.  

[Re the Al Jazeera post, for a more balanced and much more biting piece that makes the Al Jazeera point, in a more (honest-and-thus) effective manner, check out this Op-Ed written by Syrian journalist Dr. Faisal al Qasim, writing in Doha, for the Gulf News.]

So, in the final days before the swap, there was considerable anxiety in Israel.  Would the deal actually go through?  Will Gilad Shalit, everyone's soldier, actually make it home?  Will we regret this decision in the months/years to come, if a) the freed prisoners commit more acts of terror or b) the release of the prisoners encourages more attempted kidnappings?  No matter what the particular political outlook on the issue, everyone in the country truly waited with baited breath...

Here are two articles that eloquently represent many of my feelings I had while justifying the exchange in my head.  The first is a Jewish legal approach to the issue, by Rabbi David Ellenson.  The second is an honest (and critical) piece from the increasingly hardened realist, Danny Gordis.  Ellenson hits the Jewish aspects right on, and Gordis is especially appropriate for me as incoming soldier of the IDF.  If you haven't read them yet, do it!

But at the end of the day, I think Rabbi Avi Weiss, writing in HuffPo, gets at the crux of it for me.  Though I quote below, the full article is short and well worth the read.  Rabbi Weiss writes:
"Ecclesiastes writes: 'everything has its season ... a time to weep and a time to laugh ... a time to wail and a time to dance ... a time to rent garments and a time to mend.' Ecclesiastes seems to be saying that there are distinct times for each of these emotions.
Yehuda Amichai, the great Israeli poet, understands it differently. He writes: 'Ecclesiastes was wrong about that ... A person needs to love and hate at the same moment. To laugh and cry with the same eyes ...To make love in war and war in love.'
Jewish law marks this phenomenon when it asks that at the height of our greatest joy, at a wedding itself, that we break a glass to remember the shattered Temples, the shattered human temples, that need fixing. [...]
Today, the heart wins out. But this is not a moment of euphoria. It is that moment under the chuppah (wedding canopy) when we celebrate joy and happiness only to firmly plant our foot on the glass and breaking it remembering the souls and the families whose lives are forever shattered."

Incredibly happy to see Gilad back in Israel; impossible to be happy enough to rejoice wildly in the streets.  Beautiful metaphor from Weiss...  

The Shalit saga has touched Jews around the world in different ways for over 5 years.  And now, after an anxiety filled, emotional roller coaster of a couple weeks, the prisoner exchange has happened.  Gilad is home, and it is time to let him sleep, let him be, and let him live with dignity and quiet as a free man once more.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Theology and Sand Dune Sprints: a Yom Sayarot Postscript

Notes and thoughts on יום סיירות/Yom Sayarot...

First of all, for those who don't know what Yom Sayarot is, here is a great post from another blogger who did it last year. I definitely suggest you read it to get an idea of the hellish day of testing I went through 13 days ago to see if I was fit for elite army units.  There are other blogs out there with similar explanations of the day, but I think the first one provides the most realistic picture based on where I stood going in (compared to these other guys who were clearly in much much better shape than I).  So choose one, read it, and then continue below...

I can definitely say that it was incredibly hard. And physical. And a really good barometer of where I stood after nearly two months in Israel.  People there had been training for 6, 8, 10, 14 months, and I went in after a month and a half of honest exercise.  My goal was to never give up and finish the day (not a given at all, some 90-100 kids out of 290 dropped out over the course of the day+).  The first 15 minutes of the sprints on the sand dunes were mentally some of the toughest minutes of my life.  It was 5:15 am, kids were throwing up left and right, others panting and saying screw it and throwing in the towel, I was being pushed to the ground and tripped up in the fracas for first place, and all I wanted to do was join those who had given up.  But I started out by saying, "I will not be the first one to drop out."  And as my body began to warm up, I reminded myself why I was there.  To test myself, to prove myself, to succeed in my goals, and to see how far I could push.  I decided that regardless of how I was placing compared to the rest of my group, I would not give up.   -- And over 3 hours later, I finished! 

Of my group (we started with 18 and ended with 16; by all counts a strong group), I consistently came in somewhere between 7-10th in every exercise/sprint.  In other words, this told me that I was coming along fine in my own personal 'Jonah needs to be getting in shape for the army' regiment, but also told me that though I finished the day, there was a clear line between the top kids in my group and me.  All that said, I finished the day, maintained a positive attitude throughout (and perhaps more importantly was able to convey my positivity to the vets who tested us), and I think proved that I was a worthy person to have in a group.  I say this last part because at the end, every one of the 16 kids in my group ranked each other and I am assuming that they saw something in me.  Again, I say this because although I never came in the top 5 in any of the exercises of the whole morning, I still got an invite to an elite unit tryout!  As ID numbers were called off for the top two groups (Matkal aka Delta Force and Shayetet aka Navy Seals), my number wasn't called.  Buuuut my number was called for Chovlim, or a unit that trains people to become Sea Captains.  Along with about 25 other guys, we went off to a tent where we were explained the next step, i.e. a day of mental testing in Tel Aviv where officers would determine whether we would be appropriate for Chovlim, Tzolelot (submarines), or nothing at all.   

Chovlim is a 7 year commitment that I wasn't so fancy about, but I was thrilled to get an invite and I decided to at least go to the day of testing and see what happened from there.  Well, it turns out, Chovilim was not the right place for me.  I was at that base for literally a full day (8am to 5pm) of waiting around, testing, waiting, and more testing, only for them to tell me -- and the other 4 new immigrants from Garin Tzabar as well as a Druze guy, that we weren't going to get anything after all.  The common thread with the 6 of us is that Hebrew is not any of our native tongues.  Indeed, all the testing was in Hebrew (some 450-500 questions, with Hebrew instructions, much of it timed), and it was really hard.  If we had done them in English or Arabic, respectively, it probably would have been a different story.  The point is the Chovlim course is super long and, along with being physically challenging (think 4 months of throwing up every night in the middle of the night in the ocean), also includes heavy and intensive learning loads, in highly technical and advanced Hebrew.  I guess it made us an easy out.  Oh well.  As I've been saying all along, I will be happy and highly motivated in whichever unit I end up in, and it's only a matter of time until I am placed in the correct spot.

But forget about all of that, because the most interesting part of my Yom Sayarot experience revolved around a friend I made during tryout.  I had just completed the first test of the tryout, a 2k free for all of a run, and was sitting some nearly 300 hungry young men waiting to eat.  Naturally I started up a convo with the guy sitting next to me.  His name was Saker and he was from the village of Yarka, near Akko.  I said oh nice I'm from Moshav Regba, I'm new in the country but that's also near Akko so we must live close to each other.  Indeed, Yarka is a Druze village around 20 minutes away from me.  Saker is young (then again, most everybody there is across the board somewhere between 1-5 years younger than I am), graduated high school in May, works for his father's independent construction group and is trying to decide whether he should serve in a combat unit in the army or do something called Ahtoodahee, where the army pays for your university degree and then you use it in the army.   Think ROTC but you don't go combat afterwards.  I had a buddy in Haifa from my gap year who was studying law, and is serving as a lawyer for the army now.  Another friend from my grade in high school, Reuven Kawesch, studied engineering (I think) at the Technion and is either finishing now or is already using his degree in the army.  Saker said he was leaning toward Ahtoodahee but since he got the Yom Sayarot invite he thought he'd try it out.  [Notice, in all of this, that Saker was deciding where to serve in the army, not whether he should serve or not.  Indeed, a fact that is rarely stressed is that there is a significant number of Israeli Arabs (Christians and Druze) and Israeli Muslim Arabs (primarily Bedouins) who proudly serve in all sectors of Israel's military, including the most elite and prestigious of the units.] 

Anyway, within minutes I was cutting through to the interesting stuff, i.e. the highly secretive nature of the Druze religion.  I asked Saker if he was religious, to which he promptly replied no.  If he was religious he would be wearing the garb of religious folk and his life would be spent in a much different manner -- religious Druze for the most part don't serve in the army (Haredi comparison, anyone?).  If the Druze religion was a 12th century offshoot of Islam, does that mean he was forbidden to drink alcohol as per Islam, or was he allowed?  With a wry smile, he said he shouldn't, but since he wasn't religious..well..
I interrupted and said, "Perfect!  After all of this, no matter what happens tomorrow, we should drink in Akko."  Whiskey shots were agreed upon.  Saker then asked me if I was religious, to which I gave my reply (for all those from Temple Israel of Natick, sorry you already know my answer) רוחני, spiritual.  We talked for several minutes about faith in God, theology and religion in general, and how that translates for us each in a day to day basis.  What I loved about this conversation was that in the middle of a cutthroat competition for elite Israeli army units, I was talking to a man of a different faith about God.  You can take me out of JTS, but you can't take the JTS out of me.  And honestly, anyone who knows anything about the Israeli army knows that it is a melting pot for all socio economic strata of Israeli Jews.  I learned that it can also easily be a melting pot for different religions, too, something that should not be taken lightly or for granted.    Our chat was interrupted as we were called for dinner, and I didn't see Saker at all for the duration of Yom Sayarot.

I did, however, see him again.  At the very end of the testing, as I kind of described above, the people who finished the day successfully were split up into four groups, one for Matkal, one for Shayetet, one for Chovlim, and one for people who finished the day but didn't get an invite.  Lo and behold, Saker also received an invite for Chovlim.  And as you  might have guessed by now, he was the Druze from the day of testing in Tel Aviv who, along with us 5 Garin Tzabar kids, completed the testing but did not get an invite to the actual 4 day tryout.  Pretty wild that we ended up in such similar tracks this far, I'm interested to see where he ends up!  And of course those whiskey shots still await us...