Bird's-eye View: The best and the brightest

Perhaps the sharpest insights I have ever read on the Middle East were written by a young Robert F.Kennedy, who visited here during Israel’s formative years.

By DANNY GROSSMAN
March 22, 2012 22:50
Alexandra Wolkoff (left), Hannah Turner (center)

Birthright participants 311. (photo credit: Ofer Shimoni)

 
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'How do you feel about people your age who are not serving in the army?’ The question was not unusual. The circumstances were. For the past five years, an incredible group of students from Harvard Law School (HLS) leave the scholarly environs of Cambridge and spend ten days getting to know Israel and its people. Despite basic similarities, these annual visits are light-years away from tours that cater to other groups. Whereas Birthright aims to expose Jewish students to our rich heritage while interacting with Israeli soldiers and Jews from around the world, the HLS visit is a close encounter of another kind.

Sponsored by private donors and the America-Israel Friendship league, the HLS students (from both American and international backgrounds) are among the brightest youth of their generation.

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They come to learn, to confront and to challenge everything Israeli society shows them. Nobody here could ever sell them on any idea, position or policy. The concept is simple: each delegation brings men and women who will become – in the not too distant future – leading figures in their chosen fields (and not limited to the legal world, for a law degree is only a first step for many).

Therefore, now is the time to provide them an opportunity to make first-hand observations and judgments regarding our situation.

Perhaps the sharpest insights I have ever read on the Middle East were written by a young Robert F.Kennedy, who visited here during Israel’s formative years.

A highlight of these trips has been an annual encounter with IDF combat officers and pilots. This year’s visit took place, as Kassams rocketed down over half of Israel, at the Israel Air Force base, which launches 60-70 percent of IAF combat missions. However, despite the fever-pitched activity outside, the relaxed atmosphere inside the briefing room served as a platform to promote mutual understanding of the most potent force in nature: ideas.

In contrast to standard IDF tours, the HLS visits are crafted to include a forum of junior commanders who provide a glimpse into the world in which we operate, under the critical light of penetrating questions from Socratic minds that allow no statements to go unchallenged. The Israeli officers, who under different circumstances might easily be sharing seats with their guests in classrooms overlooking the Charles, provided graphic examples of the dilemmas they face in protecting their families and fellow countrymen from enemies who use our own regard for human life as a weapon against us.



This year’s session included dramatic video clips from a surreal chase scene, which began with a terrorist planting a roadside charge, and then quickly hiding in a nextdoor building. The “reality show” continued with IDF forces taking extreme measures to isolate the terrorist from civilians around him, at great risk to our own soldiers.

Rather than rely on air power – and despite the IAF’s pinpoint capability – the onscene commanders chose to engage the terrorist on nearly equal terms (rifle versus rifle), in order to minimize the chance of harming “uninvolved” Palestinians.

While the subject matter is compelling on its own merits, the most poignant aspect of the session for me was watching the rapport develop among the participants. This should not be taken for granted for, indeed, it is hard to comprehend how we work.

What other army would develop a precision-guided weapon with a tiny charge whose purpose is to “knock on the roof” of a building in which terrorists have hidden ammunition, thus forcing civilians to flee to safety and clear the way for the IDF to surgically destroy the terrorist cache inside? However, during the hourlong Q&A in which the students peppered the officers with sharp questions, an unspoken understanding grew among the participants.

“S.”, an attack helicopter pilot, reflected pure professionalism in describing the painstaking care he takes in hitting sensitive targets, such as a rocket launcher he showed hidden in a school yard. However, it was the beguiling, and almost matterof- fact way in which he outlined his decision-making process that helped others appreciate his mindset.

As stated above, the American visitors, who would later be meeting with a Supreme Court justice, were also interested in hearing how S. felt about other questions facing our society. They wanted to hear his views about issues like the Tal Law, and what he thought of fellow Israelis who chose not to serve, or found ways to avoid sharing the incredible burden he carries with such dedication. S. and the other panelists reflected an incredible maturity in discussing these and other issues. “G.,” a kippa-wearing deputy commander, displayed the highest form of religious behavior in his regard for the sanctity of life. His observance was best expressed in his genuine care for protecting his own people 24/7 while avoiding the killing of “the innocent along with the guilty,” as Abraham argued in his debate with God over the fate of Sodom.

“Yom Kippur?” he asked with a smile, but without a trace of remorse. “I haven’t been to shul – I’ve been working in the unit the last three out of four years… although of course I always fasted.”

It is interesting to note that G. was present at this year’s session as the result of the barrage of attacks from Gaza.

He was supposed to be enjoying a well-deserved few days in New York, among the delegation attending the annual Friends of the IDF dinner at the Waldorf-Astoria.

However, far from disappointment, G. reflected a deep appreciation of the opportunity he was given to share his experiences with the Harvard students. The session forced him and each of his colleagues to articulate clearly to a demanding audience every aspect of his intricately developed value system.

Ultimately, it is our adherence to “the rule of law” that most guarantees our future.

Perhaps it is our fate, as recorded in the decisions of former Supreme Court president Aharon Barak, to “fight terror with one hand tied behind our backs.” Yet in this difficult calling lies our strength. Last week’s exchange will certainly help both groups of exceptional people gain a better understanding of the challenges we will continue to face.

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