I recall a conversation I had in 1998 with a student at the law school I attended in New York City. During the summer recess he, a fellow Jew, had paid his first visit to Israel. It was apparent that the trip had awakened a dormant part of his soul, infusing him with that indefinable, transcendent sort of spiritual pride present in some (hopefully many) secular Jews. I, having first developed a love of Israel as a secular, agnostic Jew, can relate to this non-faith based Jewish pride – something I have discovered some religious Jews cannot truly understand or sometimes even accept as a legitimate possibility.
During our conversation, my fellow student mentioned he had visited a settlement, and his experience there left him unsure that evacuating the territories was the right thing to do. Particularly, he saw the human side of the residents of Jewish communities situated on the other side of the Green Line, and the world they have labored to create there.
Upon hearing his expression of doubt regarding the correctness of removing Jews from the West Bank and Gaza (just doubt, a realization that things are not black and white), I, a fervent supporter of Israel who inherited your typical East Coast Jewish liberal values, was aghast.
Immediately, a person whom I had viewed as good-natured (a mentch) was now perceived by me in a negative light.
Of course, I “knew” then that Israel must evacuate the settlements. I “knew” that the settlers were a blight on the character of Israel. These things were clear. I also still had not outgrown that juvenile perception of a direct connection between one’s political views and one’s good or bad character (depending on the political view held).
In 2005, at the age of 34, I made aliya to Israel. By then I had grown up some. For example, I no longer thought that the only good Republican was a dead Republican.
Nevertheless, it was still blindingly clear to me that the settlements were a stain on the state of Israel. This view was never well reasoned or thought-out in my mind. I was a New York liberal Jew and such views were fed to me like mother’s milk.
During my first summer in Israel after making aliya, the expulsion of the Jewish communities of Gaza took place, and I reveled in the televised images. Not once did I feel a morsel of sympathy for the families affected. I detested the national religious youths blocking major traffic arteries as a show of protest and welcomed their imprisonment. I took pride in the patience and humanity with which our military evicted our country’s most troublesome citizens.
Then a miracle of sorts happened. In 2006, at the tender age of 36, I succeeded in getting myself recruited as an honestto- goodness combat soldier into the Golani Brigade’s 51st Battalion, where I served for two years.
Furthermore, the platoon I was assigned to during basic and advanced training was constituted of half secular soldiers and half national religious yeshiva students who were part of the Hesder program.
The Hesder program allows for armyage youths to blend Torah study with a shortened period of military service. This was the first time in the history of the Golani Brigade that a mixed platoon was created. Usually the religious soldiers serve in their own separate units. Until that time, I had never personally met a settler, and the closest I had ever come to visiting the West Bank was the Old City of Jerusalem.
I was now face-to-face with perhaps the most universally vilified people on the face of the earth. This truly blessed happenstance opened up the gates of truth and allowed in the welcome breeze of enlightenment to flow through my mind and soul.
These youths, most of whom participated in the protests against the expulsion of Jews from Gaza, and some of whom had personally taken part in the well-televised last stand on the roof of a synagogue in Kfar Darom, were now my friends. Their portrayal by the world media (including our own Israeli press), which pollutes the minds of the masses, was cleansed from my own mind, and simply put, truth was let in.
They were not radical trouble-makers, but rather mature, thoughtful and filled with an idealism which is unfortunately missing from many in our younger generations.
These national religious soldiers, most of whom lived or attended yeshiva in the West Bank, provided me with the best example I have witnessed to date of how a religious Jew should conduct oneself.
While living in the United States, I perceived a focus on the ritual practice of Judaism, without an equal emphasis on simple, down to earth, ethical behavior (derech eretz
). Yet these religious soldiers were clearly educated to be considerate of others, sacrifice their own narrow self-interest for the benefit of the group, to endeavor to do what is right. Their behavior was a big kiddush Hashem
It is today my opinion that the so-called settlers constitute some of the very best our country has to offer. They do not burden our country, they uplift it. Without addressing at the moment the political and security questions regarding the giving up of land for peace or security, or where I personally stand on these issues, I wish to put in a good word for these fellow Jews.
They are an admirable and worthy people, who by and large educate their children to love our country and all Jews. Take it from me, an intimate eye-witness, who has experienced the corrupting influence of the media and was lucky enough to be set free.
Our people may never agree or unite politically, but let us recognize the humanity of the other. The vilification and hatred of our fellow Jew is one of the true dangers facing our nation, as it was in days of old.The writer has a law degree from Cardozo School of Law and served as a combat soldier in Golani.