Outstanding soldier, caught between two cultures

Ethiopian, Bedouin, officer of distinction: Hadas Daniel’s exceptional journey

HADAS DANIEL: No identity crisis. (photo credit: NIR KEIDAR)
HADAS DANIEL: No identity crisis.
(photo credit: NIR KEIDAR)
In early September, IDF Capt. Hadas Daniel, 27, stood proudly between her mother Atala and her ‘other mother’ Ruti at the IDF Chief of Staff ceremony. As Daniel delivered a speech on behalf of all of this year’s outstanding soldiers, it was hard not to notice how excited and proud her two mothers were.
Not one of the soldiers who stood beside Hadas during this prestigious event could have imagined what she had experienced on her path to becoming an officer serving in an IDF classified counter-terrorism unit. As she received her medal of honor for exceptional service, only Atala and Ruti knew what the life of this young woman had looked like before she joined the army.
Both of them became tearful when thinking about the hardships Hadas had suffered along the way. If there were an honor for excelling in life despite setbacks, she certainly would have received that one as well.
Atala is Hadas’s biological mother. Soon after making aliyah from Ethiopia at the age of 17, Atala fell in love with a Bedouin man from Rahat, whom she’d met at a factory in southern Israel where they worked side by side. The pair married and had 11 children together. Ruti Nachum, Hadas’s adoptive mother, met the young woman when she was 16 and living in emergency housing in Nahariya.
Hadas was born and raised in Ofakim. She attended a national-religious school, kept Shabbat and didn’t speak a word of Arabic. Her father, who was married to two other women, had 18 children who lived with their mothers in Rahat. Hadas’s life was relatively stable until she turned 12, when her father’s oldest son, her half-brother who had enlisted in the IDF, was killed during a terrorist attack on a tunnel in Rafiah, Gaza. Her life then took a turn for the worse.
Atala went to live in Rahat with her children near her husband’s other wives.
“From the very first moment we arrived in the Bedouin town of Rahat, I knew there was no way I could live there,” Hadas recalls. “Even before I was told where I’d be sleeping that night, I’d decided I would do everything in my power to escape from this place, and that I had to convince my mother to leave with me. The only thing I knew for sure, at the young age of 12, was that this was not a good place for me.” While her mother and siblings adjusted relatively quickly to life in their new surroundings, Hadas did not. For one thing, she did not speak Arabic.
“I never could learn Arabic, and unfortunately to this day I still don’t speak Arabic. I guess it’s a leftover mental block from my childhood.”
Hadas started school at Kibbutz Shoval and immediately began planning her escape.
“It’s much easier for boys to get used to living in Bedouin culture,” Hadas explains. “For girls and women, on the other hand, it’s a whole different story. When I realized my mother was not willing to leave with me and that I’d have to go on my own, I decided I’d first finish high school before leaving. But I felt extremely vulnerable there, and at some point I realized that I was not going to survive if I didn’t get out soon.
“My sister Aviva, who’s two years older than me, found out that I was planning to escape and told me she wanted to join me, since she was scared they would try to marry her off soon. I knew this would also be my fate if I remained there until the end of high school. I knew they’d never let me out of the house to go get a job, and they surely wouldn’t let me join the IDF. I knew this was my last chance to escape before it was too late.
“In Bedouin society, girls and women are not allowed to walk around without a man to accompany them. My father’s family was extremely traditional, and for all intents and purposes, I lived like a prisoner there.”
Did you suffer from any violence?
“There was a great amount of violence there, though I personally never had to experience physical violence. But the atmosphere in general was incredibly scary and oppressive. It’s like I was living inside a bubble. I was just trying to survive from one moment to the next.
“It’s impossible to think about the future when you live in constant fear and in such an intense state of physical and emotional stress. The thought that I might have to stay there my entire life was unbearable. But to get up and leave takes a tremendous amount of psychological and emotional strength.” The summer before11th grade, when she was 16, Hadas realized the time to escape had come. The sisters decided to tell a younger brother about their plans, and the three of them made their way to the train station at 5 a.m. one morning. They took wall the money Aviva had managed to save. At the station, they said goodbye to their brother and got on the train. Their plan was to take the train as far as possible, so they disembarked in Nahariya.
“We started getting phone calls while we were still on the train,” Hadas recounts. “We didn’t answer. Aviva managed to find us an apartment to rent in Nahariya, but within a few days, our father’s family had managed to find out where we were living – I have no idea how. They arrived at our apartment, and the situation quickly turned violent.” Thankfully, neighbors who heard their mother sobbing called the police. Officers soon arrived with social workers, and Aviva and Hadas were sent to live with a foster family that had emergency housing available for endangered minors. From that moment on, Hadas did not see any of her family members for many years.
“I was afraid to contact my mother, since I had heard that from the moment we left home, the situation there had deteriorated terribly. I was sure that if they found us again, it would not end well. I was seriously afraid for my life.” Meanwhile, Hadas managed to finish her bagrut (matriculation exams) and work to pay her expenses. When she found out that her father had informed the IDF she would not be enlisting, Hadas knew it would not be easy to fulfill her dream of being a soldier. The opportunity to serve in the IDF was one of the reasons she needed so desperately to escape from Rahat.
Do you feel that members of the Bedouin community suffer from discrimination?
“I think in general, many Bedouin make great efforts to integrate into Israeli society, but this is very difficult due to their different religion and lack of Hebrew fluency. If a Bedouin boy or girl doesn’t have a parent pushing them to excel in school and have money to help them get ahead, it’s very difficult to integrate into Israeli society. Since I’m Jewish and grew up speaking Hebrew, and was familiar with Israeli societal norms, it was a lot easier for me. My half-siblings speak Hebrew, but it’s not their mother tongue and they’re Muslim. This makes it very difficult for them to break out of Bedouin culture.”
Many people who are caught between two cultures choose to relocate overseas to places where their ethnicity and religion play less of a role. Did you consider that?
“I’m not saying this never occurred to me, but my desire to serve in the IDF was so strong that it easily overrode these thoughts. I’m not sure I would have been able to stay if I hadn’t joined the IDF.”
ACCEPTING HER IDF medal of honor for exceptional service. (Photos: IDF Spokesman)ACCEPTING HER IDF medal of honor for exceptional service. (Photos: IDF Spokesman)
At the age of 20, after intense efforts, Hadas succeeded in enlisting in the IDF. Her first position was as a sergeant in the Operations Division.
“My job kept me extremely busy, and I worked around the clock in the war room and on endless urgent tasks,” she recalls. In addition, Hadas also had a part-time job to help pay her rent and other expenses. Not long into her service, Hadas was able to fulfill her lifelong dream of becoming an IDF officer. But because her status in the army was “different,” she had to put up a long and hard fight to be cleared to participate in the training course.
“The army does not have a great system for dealing with unique cases, and so I really had to prove myself before they were convinced I was fit to become an officer. But then, after I began the course, I began feeling like maybe I’d made a mistake. I was incredibly lonely and felt so burdened by the financial responsibility to pay my rent on time, with no one to help me in times of difficulty. I began second-guessing myself, thinking maybe I didn’t have what it takes to become an officer after all.”
Was the army aware of your uncommon past?
“Only my immediate commanders. The other soldiers I served with were curious about me since my skin is a different color, and would ask me questions about myself all the time. When I was young, kids would taunt me by asking, ‘Are you an Arab?’ But in the army it’s different. I feel very close to the men and women I serve with, and I don’t have any problem sharing my personal story with them.” After completing the IDF Officer Training Course, Hadas went back to serving in the Operations Division.
“I couldn’t picture serving in a non-operations position,” Hadas explains. “My entire career thus far has been in operations in a variety of exciting and challenging positions. I’ve been responsible for the ongoing safety of soldiers and for planning operations. I’ve spent quite a lot of time in the field scouring areas in preparation for military activity in the Jordan Valley and on the Golan Heights.”
What does being in charge of operations mean?
“It means I’m available 24/7, and always completely ready for action. I’m based in the Kiryah military headquarters in Tel Aviv, from which all IDF operations are controlled – even those that are not reported in the media. I’m always learning the newest intel and the intensity in which we have to make decisions is incredibly high. I’m pretty much involved with these decisions until I go to sleep every night and I get right back into it the moment I wake up. It takes up 100% of my time.
“I love my work and it is such an honor for me to be able to function in this role. I love the intensity of the job, the high demands, being in constant contact with the war room and interacting with my fellow soldiers.”
‘I’M AVAILABLE 24/7, and always completely ready for action.’ (Pictured: IDF soliders in the Bekaa Valley; llustrative; Flash90)‘I’M AVAILABLE 24/7, and always completely ready for action.’ (Pictured: IDF soliders in the Bekaa Valley; llustrative; Flash90)
In her speech at the ceremony to honor outstanding IDF officers, Hadas spoke about her wonderful feelings of belonging throughout her service.
“My entire life, up to and including this moment, people have constantly been asking me if I’m experiencing an identity crisis,” Hadas said. “The answer is no, but I also never really felt like I belonged anywhere either. The army has enabled me to start over, learn a new language, make new friends and wear a new uniform. Everyone here has to obey the same rules. It’s been great being in a framework where I don’t have to constantly be explaining myself all the time.”
Why did it make you uncomfortable when I commented that you are breaking through barriers?
“Because I’ve never really felt like I’m doing anything revolutionary. I never felt any connection to a specific group – not even the Ethiopian community. I guess because we lived far away from my mother’s family; we never really did anything with other Ethiopian families. I also never felt part of the Bedouin community either, so I don’t really feel like I’m making a breakthrough for that community either.
I wish I felt like I belonged to one or both of these communities, or to some other group, because that would certainly help me develop a sense of identity, but I’m also happy I can adapt myself and choose any community I want to be a part of.” It’s been almost nine years since Hadas escaped from Rahat and she no longer lives in fear. And neither do her family members. Shortly after she enlisted, she found out that her mother and brothers had escaped from Rahat with the help of the Lehava and Yad L’achim organizations in a semi-military operation.
“I understood they had been experiencing intense distress after we left, and it became clear to everyone that the situation there had changed greatly after we left,” Hadas explains. Hadas was able to reconnect with her mother and siblings soon after. She has never reconnected with her father or his family.
“I hope they are continuing with their lives and not concerning themselves with people who don’t want to live there.”
Sometimes, when she’s on her way to meetings in the South or to her partner’s home in Kfar Aza, she passes the factory where her parents met. And sometimes she looks out onto the Rahat cemetery where her brother, the fellow soldier who died in a terror attack, is buried.
“I never went to visit his grave,” she admits. “I think about going there sometimes. But I haven’t yet.”
Do you think it’s easier nowadays for girls who are in situations similar to yours when you were young?
“Perhaps. If I’d had access to the Internet and social media, I would have realized I wasn’t the only person living under extremely dire conditions and I wouldn’t have felt as alone. Today, there are many resources available for people who need help.” What are your plans for the future?
Do you intend to continue serving in the IDF?
“Absolutely. I love my work. I love the action – I think maybe I’m even a little addicted to it. My partner reminds me every once in a while that I need to create a little distance. But in the end I feel like I’m protecting the homefront, even if that sounds a little corny.
“Sometimes I’m just so amazed by the incredible things we’re accomplishing in the army. It’s a shame we’re not allowed to tell anyone about them.” 
Translated by Hannah Hochner.