religious soldiers 298.
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
When the cry from the other side is "Allah is greatest!" and "Death to the Jews!" it is hard to understand the objection to using faith while fighting for our lives in the face of terror.
When recently graduated high school teens are sent to defend their land, when "kids" who a few weeks earlier were playing soccer are sent to stare death in the face, why should anyone be blamed if these children need spiritual guidance?
I recall the deep rent in my soul - it accompanied me for a long time - after I discovered and "took care of" seven high-ranking terrorists deep in enemy territory, men responsible for the deaths of at least 100 Israeli civilians. No psychologist could help me, no parent could provide enough comfort. It didn't help me to hear that these were evil men; it didn't help to know that if I hadn't killed them, they'd have killed me.
I found my salvation in my faith, which taught me that killing - even terrorists - scratches the soul. That in itself showed that I was all right.
Those men who died by my hand killed children, women, husbands, fathers, elderly people, with no remorse. They lost part of their souls long ago - when they pressed the trigger for the first time and didn't feel a thing.
I learned this from my Torah.
I ONCE 'LOST IT,' though. I lost my self-control, and even my commanding officer was so struck by my actions that he was paralyzed for a few minutes. It happened during one of our searches for terrorists.
We knocked on a door to announce that we were going in to search the house for terrorists. A woman answered the door. Then, instead of retreating back into the house as required in Arab culture when a stranger is present, she stood her ground and yelled at us.
At this point, her husband, outraged at her "impure" behavior in front of their children, threw her to the floor, kicked her in the stomach, then started working on her face.
By the second blow to her head, with blood starting to flow, I lost it. I'm sorry, I don't know what international laws, Geneva conventions or UN decrees I pissed on at that moment, but I'd do the same again, and again. Anytime.
Instinctively I jumped forward, caught the man and threw him off his wife. I knew he would beat her, maybe even kill her, once we had left; so I took him outside and made him say he was sorry to his wife in front of the curious neighbors who were looking on. I then told him that I'd be back - if not next week, then the week after, to look in on her, and if anything had happened to her, I'd kill him.
A few weeks later I was back, and the woman thanked me.
That too, I learned from my religious upbringing.
(Some readers may respond that I missed the point: For was I not part of an "occupation army" terrorizing the Palestinian residents?
Dear readers: As long as bombs are exploding in shopping malls and rockets are falling on nursery schools, the IDF will respond.)
I RECALL TALKS in the barracks between me, a religious settler from over the Green Line, and nonreligious soldiers. We'd have deep conversations about religion, country, nationalism, etc. The ones I'd always argue with were those from North Tel Aviv - the yuppies. They saw me as a right-wing fanatic, though I consider myself politically in the center.
One day there was a suicide bomb in a Tel Aviv dance club. A few were killed, many were wounded. Two weeks later we found ourselves picking up one of those responsible for planning the bombing.
After this terrorist was cuffed and brought to the vehicle, it was my friend's turn to "lose it." So here I was, the "right-wing, fanatic settler," holding back my "left-wing, enlightened" friend, preventing him from kicking the s--- out of the terrorist responsible for injuring some of his friends.
FOR EACH ONE of our missions, we had very explicit orders defining what degree of danger we were going to be in, what type of man we were looking for - whether suicidal or an intelligent, honorable man, whom we were to treat with respect.
When entering suspicious houses, we were to call every person outside, asking them if everybody was out of the house. We'd repeat the questions again to confirm that no child or old or disabled person had been left behind. And then we'd ask again for the last time - this time with the threat that if any person was found in the building, he was probably hiding, had malicious intentions, and was in danger. Only after we'd made sure they understood all this, and again confirmed that no one was in the house, only then would we enter it.
Another standing order we were given was that if a known terrorist was spotted and he was surrounded by civilians or holding a child, he was to be left unharmed.
During the Lebanon war, we found ourselves beyond the IDF's supply lines. There we were, deep in an area controlled by Hizbullah, which had just abducted two of our soldiers for no reason other than to provoke us to war. We were hungry, thirsty and cold. We could have just taken anything we needed from the locals, but we paid for everything: water, flour, jackets.
In another instance, while hiding out in an abandoned house, waiting for nightfall, dirty from hiking through open fields, tired and hurting, we moved the rugs and sat on the floor so we wouldn't dirty the furniture. Every civilian was spoken to with suspicion, but with respect.
This is the moral conduct that I learned from my religious upbringing, and the conduct expected from IDF soldiers.
I THINK OF the conditions in which Israeli POWs have been returned. If they were still alive, they had been brutally tortured. When dead soldiers were returned, their bodies had been hideously mutilated.
Does anyone remember the West Bank town of Ramallah in October 2000? Two reservists accidentally entered Ramallah and were taken to the Palestinian police headquarters there. A mob charged in and tore the soldiers apart limb by limb, disemboweling them and proudly displaying their bloody hands. They showed that humaneness has no place on the other side of the battlefield.
These days, there are two battlefields. There is the obvious, physical war zone in which we, young conscripts and reservists (Jewish, Druse, Christian and Beduin), find ourselves fighting - not necessarily out of patriotism, but out of the desire to protect our lives and families.
It is very difficult to find the town or city that terrorism or rockets haven't reached. In the North, they come from Hizbullah. In the South, from Hamas. In the center - you name it.
On a recent Saturday night, some unknown terrorist group attempted but failed to blow up a shopping mall in Haifa. Even old Saddam managed to traumatize Israelis with his Scud missiles during the Gulf War; and now Iran's Ahmadinejad threatens to do the same.
The other battlefield is the media arena, the fight for public opinion. There, anything goes - even total distortion, libel and defamation of me and my brothers in IDF uniform.
I've seen the flags of my enemy. The Hamas banners are colored green with the Shahadah, the Muslim declaration of belief. The other Palestinian brigades are also full of religious motifs.
The physical battlefield is a place where one meets his Creator pretty often. There are those who lose their humanity there, and there are those who can generate humanity even on the battlefield.
If the rabbis were not strengthening soldiers spiritually, if they were not giving some meaning and direction to those teens who hold the power of death in their hands, I would be dismayed.
The writer served as a sergeant in an IDF special forces unit. He cannot be named due to security considerations.