From Hollywood to dodging Hizbullah: Screenwriter answers the call to help IDF

Celebrated Hollywood screenwriter Dan Gordon answers the call to help IDF.

dan gordon 224.88 (photo credit: Courtesy)
dan gordon 224.88
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Even someone as talented as celebrated Hollywood screenwriter Dan Gordon couldn't have conjured up a scenario like this: a 59-year-old American who had served in the IDF 30 years earlier shows up in Israel during the opening salvos of the Second Lebanon War and demands to join the IDF Spokesman's Unit. Within a day, he's in uniform and escorting the likes of CNN's Anderson Cooper around the northern battlefield. However, the story is not one of Gordon's film credits like The Hurricane with Denzel Washington,Murder in the First with Kevin Bacon, Wyatt Earp with Kevin Costner, or The Assignment with Sir Ben Kingsley. This story stars Gordon himself, the 59-year-old American who joined the IDF and served in Lebanon in 2006. But stories need a beginning, and Gordon's life-long connection to Israel begins in 1963, as he told The Jerusalem Post this week from Los Angeles, "That's the year I first came to Israel from California as a 16-year-old, and lived on Kibbutz Ginagar near Afula. I returned to the US for college [where he graduated from UCLA as a film and television major] and worked for a while, and then came back to live in Israel in 1972," said Gordon. He joined the IDF in 1973, was in basic training during the Yom Kippur War and finished his service in 1975. Within five years, he had married, fathered two children and moved back to Los Angeles. "I was a screenwriter, and I just couldn't make a living in Israel. I was working at three jobs, and it wasn't working out," he recalls. It did, however, work out in Los Angeles, where the now-divorced Gordon's career flourished. By the early 1990s, he had written the screenplays for some top Hollywood films and play adaptions. He also wrote novels and co-founded the Zaki Gordon Institute for Independent Filmmaking in Arizona, named for his eldest son, Zaki, who died at 22 in a traffic accident in 1998. But Israel was never far from his heart; he always made it a point to come back and visit at least once a year. In 2002, during Operation Defensive Shield, he decided to volunteer for the IDF. "I was in my mid-50s and not an ideal candidate for service, but came over because I felt that as a writer, I could get certain things published in the US that would give an alternative view to all that 'Jenin massacre' nonsense," he said, adding that he has in the past blogged for conservative outlets like The American Thinker and the Huffington Post. Through a combination of "bullying and bullshitting," Gordon worked his way into an IDF Spokesman's Unit. When the war in Lebanon broke out in the summer of 2006, Gordon was in Israel by the third day. "All the people I knew from the IDF had retired, and I didn't have any contacts left," Gordon said. But then some good old Hollywood serendipity took hold. "I had asked my assistant in LA to book me a modest hotel in Haifa. I figured if I couldn't hook up with the IDF, I could still put on a pair of work gloves and volunteer, do whatever I could to help. "So there I was in the Nof Hotel, 59 years old, and calling everyone I could to find contacts to get into the IDF. I finally got in touch with someone who said, 'I don't know what to tell you, but we have a communications center set up in the basement of the Nof Hotel, go there and talk to them." Gordon walked the two floors down to the basement, went up to the officer and charge and said, "Hi, my name is Dan Gordon, I helped out in the IDF Spokesman's Office before and I'm here to help now." And before he knew it, he was in uniform. Gordon became an integral part of the unit, with tasks including taking journalists around and embedding them up with combat units, appearing on TV and radio as an IDF representative, and helping to formulate the message being disseminated by the army during the war. He recalled one close call, albeit an embarrassing one. "One Katyusha landed very close to me, but it wasn't very heroic. I was on my way to pick up Anderson Cooper to embed him with an engineering unit that was going to blow up a bunker in south Lebanon. "On the way to Kiryat Shmona, I had to stop to relieve myself. The one good thing about the North then, is that the roads were empty, so you didn't have to worry about where to go. So there I was, watering a tree and I heard the whistle of the Katyusha and saw it land and explode 10 meters from the tree. The shrapnel hit the tree instead of me. What an unheroic way to die that would have been," he said. While there was criticism during and after the war that the IDF was ill-equipped to handle the massive media presence that arrived in Israel, Gordon refused to cast any blame. "I wouldn't want to comment on whether the IDF Spokesman was equipped to handle all the media that came during the war. Any lessons we learned were submitted through the proper channels," he said like a loyal soldier. "But I will say that the unit I was with were the best people I've ever worked with in any sphere. The esprit de corps was tremendous. One guy runs the City of David site, another is a renowned professor of French literature, another runs a huge Internet company. My roommate was [historical author] Michael Oren! The quality of the manpower and the brainpower was staggering." Gordon did admit though, that he thinks the whole notion of hasbara needs a major rethinking. "There has to be much better coordination between the Prime Minister's Office, the Foreign Ministry and the IDF, the three voices Israel has in a crisis. There are a number of ways to improve that, and I think it's being done," he said. Gordon didn't tell many of his friends and colleagues in Los Angeles about his sudden entry into military life, which resulted in some astonished reactions when they found out. "They thought I was out of my mind," Gordon laughed. "There was one day when I was out with a unit massing at the border and bringing a reporter to the commander. Some Katyushas started falling and we all had to run for shelter. At that moment, my cell phone started ringing. It was my agent from LA. "'What the hell is all that noise in the background?' he asked." "'Katyushas', I answered." "'Who?'" 'No, what?' I corrected him." People in the US thought I was odd, but I was at the point in my life where I no longer had small children or immediate responsibilities to stop me from going," he said. Gordon is still an active screenwriter and playwright, with his stage adaption of Terms Of Endearment appearing last year in London's West End starring Dallas's Linda Gray. That play, as well as his adaption of Rain Man, will both be staged in Israel later this year at Beit Leissin and at Habimah, he said. But he's ready to drop it all, if and when Israel gets involved in another major offensive, adding: "There's still a place in the IDF for altekakers like me."