Twenty years without Ari - what have I learned? - opinion

Ari fell in battle on September 30, 2002, in an exchange of fire with Islamic Jihad in the Casbah of Nablus, while shielding a wounded comrade, who remains paralyzed until today.

 ARI WEISS (L) fell in battle on Sept. 30, 2002. (photo credit: Courtesy Weiss family)
ARI WEISS (L) fell in battle on Sept. 30, 2002.
(photo credit: Courtesy Weiss family)

It’s always the old to lead us to the wars, 

It’s always the young to fall; 

Now look at all we’ve won with the saber and the gun; 

Tell me, is it worth it all?

(Phil Ochs song, “I Ain’t Marching Anymore,” 1965)

 HUNDREDS ATTEND the funeral of Staff Sgt. Ido Baruch, murdered in a shooting attack near Shavei Shomron, at the Gedera military cemetery, Oct. 12.  (credit: FLASH90) HUNDREDS ATTEND the funeral of Staff Sgt. Ido Baruch, murdered in a shooting attack near Shavei Shomron, at the Gedera military cemetery, Oct. 12. (credit: FLASH90)

This week, our family commemorates the 20th yahrzeit of our beloved eldest son, Ari Yehoshua, may God avenge his death. 

Ari was a member of an elite anti-terror unit in the Nahal brigade and was trained as his squad’s sharpshooter and explosives expert. During the 26 months of his IDF service, Ari and his courageous fellow soldiers took part in numerous life-threatening (and life-saving!) missions. 

He entered the army at the very beginning of the terrible days of what came to be known as the Second Intifada, when the ill-conceived, disastrous Oslo “peace” accords morphed into daily acts of Palestinian terror and violence. Ari fell in battle on September 30, 2002, in an exchange of fire with Islamic Jihad in the Casbah of Nablus, while shielding a wounded comrade, who remains paralyzed until today.

My relationship with war

My relationship with war has been conflicted, to say the least. My father was a decorated sergeant (the same rank as Ari) in the Army-Air Force during World War II, serving as a reconnaissance photographer in the Pacific theater, including more than three years in the Philippines. 

Dad saw a lot of action against the Japanese – who could be every bit as brutal as the Nazis – but he rarely talked about it. He used to say, “Those who know, don’t say; those who say, don’t know.” 

Many times I came into his room late at night to wake him after hearing him scream from a nightmare he was having about the war. Dad was a patriot of America till the day he died; his staunch credo was “My country, right or wrong.”

But I grew up in the ’60s, the age of rebellion. I was caught up as a teenager in the anti-Vietnam war movement, and I went on my share of protest marches, often holding up signs like “Anything War Can Do, Peace Can Do Better.” In yeshiva, our sainted Rabbi Herzl Kaplan of blessed memory also felt that this war was a tragic waste of human life, and he even gave us time off from our Talmud studies to participate in the marches. 

The rabbi, of course, was right; America would flee Vietnam with its tail between its legs, and Henry Kissinger’s misnamed Paris “peace plan” would, like the Oslo fiasco, disintegrate into oblivion and lead to hundreds of thousands of more Vietnamese deaths.

BUT WHATEVER ambivalence I had about war and its necessity evaporated the moment we made aliyah. There is no war more just than the one we here in Israel have been engaged in, on and off – mostly on – for the last 100 years. This is a war of self-defense, of survival, where we are fighting for our homes and our families against a cruel, barbaric enemy that refuses to make peace and will settle for no less than the destruction of Israel. 

So, while it was with understandable anxiety and trepidation, it was also with great pride and full compliance that we sent our son off to war to fulfill his national responsibility. Like my dad, Ari fought heroically and he, too, rarely – if ever - discussed the dangerous missions he performed.

Has this tragic experience of Ari’s death taught me any lasting lessons? What, if anything, have I learned over the course of these past two decades? 

I had to learn, first and foremost, that Ari is gone and will not come back (in this world). Now, you may think this sounds bizarre, but it is not. For a bereaved family, the first step in losing a child is facing – and accepting – the reality of that loss. 

It is not an easy admission; it is filled with both debilitating trauma and pervasive guilt, the twin “after-shocks” that follow the death itself. I must admit, for a time I fantasized that Ari was on a secret Mossad mission and that his death had been faked so that he could “disappear” for a while so as to complete his task, and then return to us. It was only when I emotionally internalized that he was truly gone that I could begin to heal.

I learned that Ari was neither the first nor, sadly, the last beautiful child to be murdered in Israel. I tremble as I write these words; funeral services are being held today for Ido Baruch, killed in a drive-by shooting while on guard near the settlement of Shavei Shomron. Ido was 21, the same age as Ari when he died; Ido served in an elite Sayeret unit as did Ari, whose body was also brought to Shavei Shomron after the shooting. 

When we came on aliyah 30 years ago, we wondered whether Ari, then 12, would have to defend the nation with his life. Now we worry for our grandchildren. If he who saves a single life saves the world, as the Talmud says; then when a single life is lost, an entire world dies with it.

I LEARNED that the army is not only the great equalizer in this country, but it can also be a “second family” for anyone wounded or killed. From the moment Ari fell, the army has wrapped its proverbial arms around us and never stopped hugging. The amount of attention and respect we have received is beyond description. 

The IDF may have a well-deserved image as an iron-willed fighting force, but it has a gigantic heart as well. It epitomizes the quintessential Israeli: Rottweiler on the outside, puppy-dog on the inside. The holy soldiers of the IDF are the soul of this country; these “angels in green” are the pride of the entire Jewish people.

Yet I also learned, to my dismay, that the government can be all-too soft on terrorism. Yes, the politicians talk a good game, but many either don’t accept terror as an existential threat, or they refuse to do what is necessary to eradicate it. Even those leaders who go around proclaiming themselves bastions of security and defense rarely deliver on their bravado. 

I cheered when the Knesset passed a bill against the Palestinians’ “Pay-for Slay” disbursements, only to learn that monies diverted are only temporarily frozen, being held in escrow when or if the Palestinians change their policy. 

In the interim, hundreds of millions of dollars are quietly being “loaned” to the Palestinians, making up for those funds that are withheld. Additional massive millions in cash – “protection” money, in the ugliest sense – were given by the Netanyahu government to Hamas, even as they targeted our soldiers and civilians alike. This is “tough on terrorism”?!

Most of all, I learned that there is an abundant amount of love – abiding love – in this amazing homeland of ours. Yes, sometimes it begins as pity for a family that suffered a devastating loss. But then it reveals itself as true, selfless love, an unending camaraderie that continually reminds us that we are never alone. 

We see it in the eyes of our neighbors and friends when our gazes meet, we feel it in their embrace on Ari’s yahrzeit or Remembrance Day, and we hear it in their voice when they recite the prayer for the soldiers each Shabbat in the synagogue. Along with our stubborn, sincere belief in God, that love is the secret ingredient that gives us, and so many others, the strength to go on and to do something worthwhile with our lives.

We thank you, and we are sure that Ari, in his place in heaven, thanks you, too. 

The writer is director of the Jewish Outreach Center of Ra’anana. [email protected]