Home on leave: An Israeli Shabbat scene

It is a scene that plays out countless times every day, particularly on Fridays, throughout Israel.

Soldiers dance with Torah scrolls during the celebrations of Simhat Torah in the Eshkol region in the Negev in September 2010. (photo credit: AMIR COHEN - REUTERS)
Soldiers dance with Torah scrolls during the celebrations of Simhat Torah in the Eshkol region in the Negev in September 2010.
(photo credit: AMIR COHEN - REUTERS)
It is a scene that plays out countless times every day, particularly on Fridays, throughout Israel. We witness it because we are in the Galilee, visiting the friends of friends of ours from our local shul in New England: The teenage boy in the trademark green IDF uniform arrives around 10:00 pm, home on weekend leave.
His mother gives him a big kiss, as mothers in Israel are wont to do, before bustling about to feed him his favorite home-cooked dish. Even the father – who of course also spent three years in the army (and served in Lebanon, at the beginning of that war) – also gives him a kiss on the cheeks along with his proud smile.
Although I’m not about to give a kiss to this teenager I never saw before, I too am proud of him – proud for his being in the IDF, for serving the State of Israel in uniform, and thereby taking on the risks one always does when donning a military uniform, particularly in a country periodically called to war. And I am grateful, as a Jew, that he is defending the Jewish state. Not just for his country Israel but, I feel as I look at him, for me personally, for my family, for the Jewish people at large.
Yet it will take some time to sort out all my emotions – about Israel, about Zionism, about sacrifice. Not because this boy is doing military service on behalf of the Jewish state that my own son will never do; not because his father fought for Israel when I was safely ensconced in graduate school; and not because for at least three years his mother will swing between anxiety (“he’s a soldier”) and relief (“he’s on leave”) in ways my wife never had to.
No, it will take time to process my feelings because, in this northern village next to Kibbutz Sasa, just a few miles south of the border with Lebanon, our hosts – like every other member of their community – are Arabs.
Amal, head of the Fares family, became known to our friend Benny Mer, formerly of Tel Aviv, when he was on standby at Boston Hospital for nearly one year, waiting for a liver transplant. During that year Benny – the unofficial social head of the Israeli community of the greater Rhode Island region –took on the logistical and social challenges associated with Amal’s prolonged stay away from home. When his wife Iptissam finally joined him (while having to leave their three young children with her parents back in their village of Hurfeish), Benny’s wife Barbara ratcheted up her own benevolent assistance.
(That both Barbara and Iptissam speak Hebrew helped enormously.) That Amal and Iptissam are not Jewish was completely beside the point for our Israeli friend and his “almost Israeli” wife, who volunteered as compassionate compatriots. That their sons are not Jewish is irrelevant both to the IDF that gladly welcomes their service and expertise and to the wider Druse community that has sanctioned military service for their sons ever since Israel’s founding. But it is an issue for me as I ponder: Who is, in fact, the greater Zionist – this American Jew who has no intention of making aliya, or the Israeli Druse whose sons, by serving in the IDF, can be in harm’s way at a moment’s notice.
Before leaving the Fares, Hurfeish and the Galilee for Kibbutz Shfayim near Tel Aviv and our flight home, we stopped in the nearby village of Peki’in, known for its centuries-old entente of Arab, Jewish and Druse cohabitation, an ancient synagogue, and a picturesque village square that was replicated on the 50 shekel note.
What most caught my eye as we were leaving was the memorial to the fallen soldiers of Peki’in who died in defense of Israel. Here are their names, transcribed from plaques written in Hebrew and Arabic: Abdullah Asad Kheer Jaad Swyeed Swyeed Ayman Mohamed Foodoul Wesam Ali Amer Afif Najib Kheer Ahmed Mohammmed Hisawi Talieh Talal Maddah Asaad Saleh Kheer As we continued our drive south toward the airport, and safety in America, I took a wrong turn off Highway 4 and came across an entire cemetery for fallen Israeli soldiers – this one, for Beduin Arab Israelis.
Does the ideological motivation or rationale for Arab citizens of Israel to enlist in the IDF really matter? Whatever their thoughts about the word “Zionism,” it is they who run the risks of defending the Jewish State of Israel, more than any AIPAC or J Street activists.
And so when I think of Amal and his sons in Hurfeish, or the fallen sons memorialized in Peki’in, or the Beduin soldiers entombed elsewhere in Israel, I can’t help thinking: who can claim to really be a Zionist? And who is the better one – Amal, the Arab Israeli Druse who sends his sons to the IDF, or me, the Jewish American, who defends Israel in heart and with pen?
The author is a professor of political science and the former Stotsky Professor of Jewish Historical and Cultural Studies at Northeastern University in Boston, and the author of Zion in the Desert: American Jews in Israel’s Reform Kibbutzim.