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”
Daylle Deanna Schwartz, an author and music-industry writer in New York, likens Israel to “‘The Little Engine that Could’ – a tiny country that stands up for itself in a hostile environment.” But Israel, as a state, is not just a symbol of greatness for Israelis, she says. It represents immeasurable pride, international justification, and a redressing of past wrongs for non-Israeli Jews (like herself) living elsewhere in the world.
“After being oppressed throughout the centuries, the scapegoats for people’s anger, the target of extinction during World War II; Israel is a symbol of survival and winning for many Jews,” Schwartz says. “It is Jews standing up for themselves in a region filled with hate for them.”
The land Israel was founded on, and his since fought for, is sacred to much of the world.
For instance, Israel’s ancient and often-embattled city, Jerusalem, is key to three of the world’s great religions: To the Jews, it is Yerushalayim, the place where God laid the bedrock for the creation of the earth. It has also been considered the Jewish capital since the reign of King David. To Christians, it is the place where Jesus Christ was crucified, buried, resurrected, and ascended into Heaven. To Muslims, it is known as El Quds (the Holy), the place from which the Prophet Mohammed embarked on his nocturnal journey to Heaven.
Jerusalem is but one of many cities and sites located throughout Israel considered sacred to so many. And so many want a piece of her.
There is also the issue of the Palestinian people. Palestinian Arabs (mostly Muslim) make up nearly 20 percent of Israel’s population. Those numbers are well over 80 percent on the West Bank, and over 99 percent on the Gaza Strip.
Palestinians have been living in what is today Israel for thousands of years. Thus, there is the ongoing conflict between Israelis and Palestinians. Though complex, it can be boiled down to four basic realities: First, Palestinians want rights, full citizenship, and independent statehood. Second, some of the more radical Palestinian elements want nothing less than the annihilation of the Jewish state. Third, for Israelis, it is the issue of Israel’s very “right to exist,” and a refusal to succumb to terrorism. Fourth, years of killing have added a variable of retribution into the mix.
Not surprising, there has been tremendous friction between the two. According to the International Peace Research Institute, Oslo; the Israelis and the Palestinians have been in a perpetual state of civil war since 1948. And the recent election of the terrorist organization, Hamas, as the majority party of the Palestinian Authority Legislative Council, has not helped matters.
Additionally, there is little love for Israel from most of its neighbors.
THE SWORD OF GIDEON
Israel had to learn to fight, and it had to learn fast. On the day after declaring its independence, the new Jewish state was attacked by five Arab armies. It won that war, and all others militarily (though there have been some politically based concessions over the years). The nation, however, has suffered tremendously at the hands of suicide bombers and other terrorists. Israel’s citizens have been hit with artillery shells and missiles from neighboring countries. Terrorist networks like Hezbollah and Al Qaeda hate Israel as much, if not more, than they hate the United States and its European allies. Now Iran may be close to developing a nuclear capability, and has repeatedly called for Israel's destruction.
Fortunately for Israel, the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) and the Mossad (Israel’s foreign intelligence service) are masters of both conventional warfare and counterterrorism. They are known for aggressively collecting and acting on intelligence. They waste no time in preempting any threats against their nation. They stand by their allies. And we Americans – today, deeply involved in our own war against terror – have learned much about combating terrorism from the Israelis, and they are learning from us.
“A WESTERN COUNTRY IN THE MIDDLE EAST”
“The only thing standing between Western Civilization and the anarchy of Islamo-fascism is the fact that there is a Western country in the Middle East, namely Israel,” says Linder. “If Israel did not exist, all of the energy and attention of the Islamic World would be focused on Christian Europe.”
My friend, Gary Goldstein, a New York-based books editor and fourth-generation Jewish American, agrees.
“Strategically, Israel is a major deterrent to the spread of radical Islam throughout that part of the world,” says Goldstein. “Israeli intelligence is a vital component to the U.S. and our country's interests in that oil-rich but wildly unstable part of the world. And Lord knows we could take a page from the IDF and the Mossad on fighting terrorism – you don't read much about bureaucratic infighting and the not sharing of major intelligence between those two groups.”
So, the big question might be what the future holds for the Jewish state. No one has that answer. What is known is that Israel is one of the most hotly contested lands in the world. It always has been. It may always be.
And on this 58th anniversary of Israel’s Independence, I am reminded of the words of the late social commentator Eric Hoffer, who in 1967 said, “I have a premonition that will not leave me: as it goes with Israel so it will go with all of us. Should Israel perish, the Holocaust will be upon us. ISRAEL MUST LIVE!”