Ten years ago, as a journalist covering the Israeli-Palestinian clashes on the West Bank, I found myself on patrol with an Israeli Airborne squad in the ancient town of Hebron. As we moved down a narrow alleyway littered with stones and a few shell casings from a previous clash, one of the young paratroopers turned to me.
“So, were you in the American Army?” he asked.
“Well, not exactly,” I responded. “I was in the U.S. Marine Corps.”
With that, the soldier’s eyes widened. He then uttered something in Hebrew to the other members of the squad. A few turned to look at me. One of them – chest out, jaw forward – boasted, “We are tough like the U.S. Marines! Don’t you think?”
I smiled. “Yes, of course.”
Those young paratroopers were proud. In fact, as proud as any members of any elite military unit I had ever served with or encountered. What bolstered that pride was a committed-to-death blending of nationalism, military tradition, and religious faith that few national armies can match. Though military service is mandatory in Israel, there is an almost spiritual quality to it. There is a reason for that.
Grafted to an ancient homeland that had achieved statehood only a few decades earlier, the soldiers I patrolled with knew their country was surrounded by enemies. They knew those enemies wanted Israel driven into the sea. They also knew that their forebears had fought a series of blistering albeit successful wars against those enemies, and they themselves were battling domestic – sometimes foreign – terrorism. Beyond that, those soldiers saw themselves as warriors defending a temple of refuge in the broadest sense.
TEMPLE OF REFUGE
Israel has always been considered something of a temple of refuge since its founding 58-years-ago. But for Holocaust survivors like Romanian-born Al Linder, who now lives in Stamford, Connecticut, that “temple” was too long in coming.
When he was a boy during World War II, Linder and his family were rounded up by the Nazis and shipped to Bershad, a slave-labor camp in the Ukraine. There he watched as his grandparents and his 18-month-old sister died of starvation and disease. “If you were a Jew living in Europe [during the war], you had nowhere to run,” he told me last week. “Nobody wanted you. But had Israel existed then, we would have had a place to go and survive.”
Such a “place” was founded three years after the war, on May 14, 1948, when Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben Gurion, declared Israel’s Independence (Based on the Jewish calendar for 2006, Israel’s Independence Day will be celebrated, this week, on May 3).
“THE LITTLE ENGINE THAT COULD”