From Tempe, Arizona to IDF checkpoints

US immigrant-turned soldier serves as liaison between the army and NGOs.

Nira Lee 311 (photo credit: Alon Shastel/COGAT)
Nira Lee 311
(photo credit: Alon Shastel/COGAT)
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 commander]...
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 community.
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 uniform.
“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 experiences.
“It’s the difference between black and white and Technicolor...
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.
“I 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 Post.
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 politics.
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 Bank.
“I speak the diplomat’s language...
and diplomats are sometimes more open with me because I have a common connection,” she said.
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.