When UN officials and diplomats have trouble passing through IDF checkpoints in
the West Bank, they call Nira Lee.
When the Red Cross needs the army’s
support delivering humanitarian aid to Bethlehem, Hebron or other Palestinian
cities, it also solicits the Tempe, Arizona, native’s help.
And when she
gets the opportunity, Lee, who immigrated to Israel by herself last year and
enlisted in the IDF, joins her commander to meet with UN officials and
representatives from NGOs – planning an initiative to build more cisterns in
Bethlehem, analyzing UN speeches and reports, and building stronger ties between
the army and aid organizations.
Lee serves as a liaison between the army
and humanitarian groups in the West Bank. She never imagined that she would be
able to act as a mediator in the Middle East at such a young age back when she
was completing her bachelor’s degree in international relations at American
University in 2009.
“I am the diplomat with Ilan [her
There is nowhere else in the world I could do that,” she
said. “I’m a new Israeli and I can represent my country to the international
It never fails to excite me.”
Last week, Lee was
promoted to corporal at her base’s annual parent’s day celebration – a routine
event in which parents flood their children’s bases and see firsthand their life
in the army.
But the occasion was anything but ordinary for Lee, who has
no family in Israel.
Her father, Barton Lee, flew to Israel to take part
in the ceremony, and he proudly fastened Nira’s new insignia on her
“I never thought I would get to have my dad here; I always
thought I would do this alone,” she said, clasping her father’s hand while
sitting in the base’s auditorium.
For Barton Lee, visiting the base was a
chance to relate to, and better understand, his daughter’s everyday
“It’s the difference between black and white and
Old black and white films lack something; the experience
is fuller when you see it,” he said.
Nira Lee moved to Israel in May 2010
and soon enlisted.
But she knew she wanted to immigrate a few years
earlier, after spending time volunteering in Acre. There she saw “the hard side
of Israel that you don’t see on Taglit[- Birthright],” she recalled, referring
to a free 10-day trip to Israel for young adults from the Diaspora.
fell in love with the country, the society, and davka [specifically] the hard
things made me feel that I could find my place here,” she told The Jerusalem
But feeling settled here was difficult for Lee: She did not speak
Hebrew. She had no Israeli friends. And she had to forgo a prestigious
congressional internship and the opportunity to work in American
Determined to integrate into Israeli society nonetheless, Lee
ultimately chose a beguiling and unconventional tactic to learn Hebrew while
enrolled in ulpan at the University of Haifa, where she studied during her
junior year of college.
“I pretended I was Hungarian because no one
speaks Hungarian and I didn’t want people to speak English to me,” she
recounted, smiling – a proposition people presumably believed because of her
blond hair, fair complexion and the debate skills she developed as an acclaimed
high-school debater in the US.
Lee’s Hebrew has since improved, but her
mother tongue and international relations studies are crucial for her job
building ties with the various humanitarian groups that operate in the West
“I speak the diplomat’s language...
and diplomats are
sometimes more open with me because I have a common connection,” she
Lee plans to enroll in an officer’s course in September – a
decision her commanders on her base in Gush Etzion fully support. She knows that
it will psychologically and physically grueling, but says that she is pleased
with her decision to serve in the army.
“I make less than $250 a month,
but I don’t think I could be more proud... to defend Israel,” Lee said.
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