Eisenbud's Odyssey: Israelis and war

If any people in history are entitled to outspoken saber-rattling and chest-thumping when they are repeatedly threatened and war appears imminent, it is Israelis. However, they do no such thing.

An IDF soldier stands guard during a tour made by Israeli parliament members in the Jordan Valley [File] (photo credit: REUTERS)
An IDF soldier stands guard during a tour made by Israeli parliament members in the Jordan Valley [File]
(photo credit: REUTERS)
One of the most striking observations I’ve regularly had since moving to this country over two years ago is the judicious – if not entirely absent – rhetoric among Israelis regarding the ongoing threat of war, or violence of any kind. This phenomenon is all the more remarkable when one considers the epic barbarity perpetrated against them by terrorists for over 60 years, in places where children play and families gather.
As an American raised on GI Joe cartoons, countless block-buster movies glorifying war and violence, and a former president (with no combat experience) who played dress-up as a real soldier after launching a questionable war and said things like “Bring it on!” and “Mission accomplished!” (in a multimillion-dollar photo-op, paid for with taxpayer dollars), the Israeli mind-set initially seemed counterintuitive to me.
After all, if any group in history is entitled to outspoken saber-rattling and chest-thumping when they are threatened and war appears imminent, it is Israelis. What other segment of the world’s population has been so chronically endangered and attacked in the face of such inconceivable odds, yet has triumphed at every turn – in biblical proportions, no less?
Certainly, I thought, Israelis deserved bragging rights, and therefore must speak about how they will decimate their enemies far more than Americans ever did. Who could blame them?
I couldn’t have been more wrong.
WITH THE exception of extremists and misguided teens who have yet to enter the army, Israelis generally talk about and embrace war and violence in their free time as much as Americans discuss the appeal of cricket, or polo, in theirs. And the notion of Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, a former elite commando, pulling off a stunt similar to Bush’s hubris-infused spectacle on the USS Abraham Lincoln in 2004 is utterly unthinkable around here.
This is because Netanyahu – whose legendarily heroic brother, Yoni, was killed in a military raid to free hostages in Uganda in 1976 – knows that war is not to be remotely celebrated or glamorized. That caution, efficiency and humility are the true cornerstones of survival in the face of a crisis, not pronouncements over a megaphone of “shock and awe.”
He is far from alone.
Indeed, Israelis – the vast majority of whom serve in the IDF – are acutely aware of the enormity of the threats surrounding them day in and day out, but consider bragging about their military prowess, or embellishing violence in any way, idiotic and a waste of time and energy.
Of course it’s one thing to talk tough when you’re 6,000 miles away from the belly of the beast, and another thing entirely when you’re the accessible bull’s eye within it, for nations that compare your existence to sewer rats.
To be sure, in the latter scenario, the picture begins to markedly change, on a number of levels.
THE OTHER night I had beers with several of my young Israeli friends, all of whom are in their late 20s, served honorably in the IDF, and are now on active reserve duty. Apart from some initial gallows humor about the prospect of “Armageddon” to break the ice, it was business as usual for us.
We spent hours debating the greatness of our favorite rock bands, movies, the women we hope to date, our jobs, and (good-naturedly) made fun of each other until everyone in the group was thoroughly embarrassed at least once, or a few times.
In short, we focused on everything except the ugliness of war – even if it was an ungodly hideous, loud, neon, fire-engine-red elephant sitting on a bar stool next to us, trying desperately to get our attention.
Of course it would have been easy for us to train our thoughts on the elephant – on Iran and the existential threat it poses against our country, our families and our friends – but doing so would have been the equivalent of allowing the local bully to make our lives miserable, even when he was out of sight.
Of letting his toxic machinations get into our heads, and therefore letting him “win.”
All of these friends know unequivocally that this fight will be settled at some point in time, probably sooner than later, but that talking about our collective anger until then – unless absolutely necessary – was a waste of breath because it would only lower us to our enemies’ hateful level.
So, instead of marinating in the incandescent, laser-like odium aimed at us, which would have been easy, we did something far more difficult – something Israelis do better than perhaps any other group in the world: compartmentalized the hate and lived in the moment by laughing and celebrating the good things surrounding us.
Yes, it’s miraculous that sabras made a desert bloom, but perhaps even more majestic is their ability to live life to the fullest, even within the belly of the beast.
Still, don’t let the levity fool you: When the time comes, I know that as each of them are called back to duty, they will be as serious as the cancer they are fighting, and give their lives if necessary to eliminate it.
I HAVE had the good fortune to meet and befriend many warriors from this country, of all ages and stripes – from octogenarians who fought in 1948’s War of Independence, to 20-somethings who served in 2008’s Operation Cast Lead – and their common denominator is that none of them talk about their experiences, unless prompted.
This, I have come to believe, is a psychological survival technique used to allay the pain of what they have seen, or done, from taking over their mind entirely. My guess is that the vast majority of American soldiers who served in combat in Afghanistan (or any other war) feel the same way.
Furthermore, having lived on a kibbutz in the Negev for six months as a New York City transplant, where nearby military exercises – including powerful explosions, sonic booms from fighter jets above my head and chronic machine-gun fire – regularly woke me from deep sleep in the middle of the night, I can tell you there is nothing remotely cool or glamorous about it.
It’s terrifying.
Indeed, I often jumped out of my bed in a state of uninhibited panic, and can only vaguely begin to comprehend how difficult it must be for soldiers to function in normal life after having such profoundly mind-numbing violence directed at them for real.
THAT SAID, you may wonder if I’m afraid about a war with Iran. I am.
However, I’m not afraid for myself, or about losing.
To be sure, I’m confident Israel’s soldiers will do what they always do: Win.
Rather, I’m worried for the thousands of teenagers – some of whom look like they’re barely out of puberty – who will be forever changed by the experience.
I have seen countless young soldiers over the past two years in their army fatigues and combat boots, with hardened looks and an M-16 strapped to their shoulders. However, I will never get used to it because they shouldn’t be carrying killing machines and thinking about the gravity of their mortality and the consequences of taking a life.
They should be thinking about having fun, when and how they’re going to ask out the girl of their dreams, what they’ll major in in college, or which rock concert to go to next. My God, when I was their age, my biggest concern was failing a trig final that I didn’t study for.
This should be their reality, too.
I would gladly trade places with any one of these soldiers, because unlike them, in my 39 years I have experienced life in ways that they couldn’t possibly have, and they still have so much living to do.
If the world was just, they would be spared the brutality of war, and men who have been around much longer would take their place.
But, even though I don’t like it, I have come to accept that this is the way it must be when you live in the belly of the beast.
And yet, despite all the ugliness and opprobrium surrounding Israelis, with few exceptions, they continue to value and celebrate life more than any other group I have ever known. Indeed, they have created a tiny swath of uncompromised beauty from sand and ashes.
From hate itself.
SO, AS I watch these brave young men and women prepare for what appears to be an imminent confrontation against a hate-filled, insatiable enemy obsessed with our annihilation, I am humbled by their strength, courage and grace.
Mostly, this is so because they don’t speak of it.
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