Friday, April 9, 2010

I Must Be Moving On

When I moved to Israel in September of 2007, even after having spent about a year here during college, I couldn't help but feel a certain amount of anxiety. Uprooting your life and leaving everything you've known behind isn't easy, especially for a sentimentalist like me. My medicine against this churning in my heart was writing, and Israeli by Day, American by Night was administered in heavy dosage from Day One.

This blog was the backstop for my life. Everything I went through, all the crazy stuff I saw, was painted in my mind on a canvas of how it would appear encapsulated in a post. My perspective was constantly refracted through the lens of my sole creative endeavor. Not one day passed that I didn't pray for the material to create that one blog that would send me into Internet kingship, the master of Web 2.0. Honestly, this blog was my saving grace. If I didn't have the warm embrace of the orange "Publish Post" button, that feeling of satisfaction, completion, and purity, I might have never accomplished half of what I have.

Two and a half years after its inception, with two hundred and seventy blog posts published, multiple interviews, army spokesman offers, dozens of links from other sites, countless emails, hundreds of article comments, and random Facebook friends I've never met, I feel like I can finally say that I really created something meaningful in my life. I have something that I can, essentially, hold in my hands and say proudly, "I made this!!!" The constant responsibility of creating those posts, trying to make each more interesting than the last, has really paid off. I wouldn't trade my experience for any other, no matter what. Even if the books I want to write never materialize, which are already written in my head anyway, I can confidently look to this collection and feel a modicum of self-regard, pride, and achievement. This blog is my most cherished possession.

"Writing, I think, is not apart from living. Writing is a kind of double living. The writer experiences everything twice. Once in reality, and once in that mirror which waits always before or behind." Catherine Drinker Bowen

But all that responsibility, all that continual striving for yet another post, yet another batch of positive feedback, which of course is a writer's goal (who isn't looking for praise?), ends up taking its toll. I suppose that I've written a few hundred pages already, a book. The strain and pressures add up. And I'm tired. I have slowly been moving on, naturally, which doesn't make me sad in the least. Yes, my heart is tender over the matter, I'll admit, but I'm happy to write "The End" and package it all up. Time for the next adventure.

The truth is, I was supposed to finish my army service this very month of April, 2010. For many reasons, none of which I want to go into for the hundredth time, I signed up for another six months. In the grand scheme of things, it's really not a big deal. By the end of my service, which will be two years in total (nothing in terms of army services), I hope to feel the same closure on this period of my life as I feel now writing this final blog post. That's been my goal all along: To have a pretty little package of life experiences with four corners and a roof. Something with all the loose ends tied up.

Regrettably, nothing is ever that perfect. This blog, and my army experience, are no different. There are many loose ends. Would you believe me if I told you that I never even wrote about the most harrowing, exciting, and intense times of the army? I never did get around to writing that West Bank arrest operations post. How about having my own personal IED discovered before I was discovered all across the road? Ridiculous patrols with your finger on the trigger, or even the most hilarious adventures at 3:00am deep in the casbah. And Gaza... forget about it. All that stuff was the real army. I wrote the pretty stuff. The real, gross, disgusting, 'I don't want to see this' kind of stuff has conveniently been omitted. I suppose I intend all that for a different audience, or at least in a different medium. This open blog is just not the place.

Despite feeling that there were posts that slipped by, great ones even, I am still comfortable saying adios. I'd like to thank all my fans, the most dedicated and loyal readers whose names always appeared in the comments section. I waited on edge for your feedback. And I'd like to thank all the haters who always made their way to the blog. I knew which posts were my best by how viciously I was attacked.

So how do you do it? What's the very last thing you can say? A meaningful quote? A pompous, prophetic reflection? Something vague and post-moderny? No, no... for the Israeli soldier, there's really only one way to say goodbye, only two words - but two words that say it all.


!!???? עד מתי

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Yusuf And Yosef

(This post is long, but for a good reason. If you want to read it, set aside half an hour. These characters deserve more than my abbreviation.)

I’ve had a couple months already to marinate on the following characters and situation that I encountered one night while on guard duty inside al-Madina al-Muqaddasah. The impact on my understanding of the Israeli-Arab conflict at the time was so deep, and poignant, and time has only served to intensify the troubling perspective. I don’t want anyone to get the wrong idea here: I have made no revelations. My preconceived notions of this conflict haven’t so much gone out the window, as they have been placed in a frame on the wall. I knew this age-old struggle before. Now I have simply seen it first-hand, and more importantly, its victims. I only hope that this story serves to share the human side of being a curious soldier in a graying hostility.

At seven forty five in the evening I put down my copy of Dostoevsky’s great Karamazovian classic, grabbed my gun from my bed, and slinked off to my gear. Throwing on my ceramic body armor, then my combat vest full of magazines and grenades, I asked my commander which guard post I was responsible for lazily occupying.

“Eh... Guard Post Mouse. Six hours,” he replied nonchalantly.

“What?! Mouse for six hours? But we were just doing two hours all week, what happened?”

“The backup from the training base left. You complaining?”

“No,” I said, retracting my previous exasperation. “Just wondering what happened...”

I picked up my helmet and headed off in the direction of Mouse. This guard post is really just a paved square surrounded on three sides by apartment buildings five stories tall. The fourth side is a large opening to a side street that cuts from the main city street to a small Muslim and Jewish holy site. Owing to the religious significance, Israeli “settlers” live in the area, overwhelmingly surrounded on all sides by the local Arabs. Hence, my presence.

Whenever I walk to a guard post, especially when starting six straight hours in the same spot without sitting, I greedily study the passing scenery as if I can bring it all with me to my stationary post. Our tiny base is inside the city, just as if it’s any other complex on any other street, with a gate and military sign, and closed shops on either side of us. I passed by the seemingly ancient plumbing stores, and groceries, electricians, clothing shops, and even a Turkish bathhouse, all of which must have closed decades ago. Their signs and posters all remain, faded nearly beyond recognition, but calling out from the grave with their hoary ink. I see the ghosts of the long-passed owner sitting at the counter, sipping black coffee, smoking a water pipe. Young clerks mill about the aisles, pretending to work while dreaming of other young girls who by now must be grandmothers. Who used to live here, I wonder. Whose shop was this, and where’d they go? Sealed green door after sealed green door, padlocked and welded shut. This conflict must be like a spreading foreign insect, jumping from crop to crop across a region, devouring anything in its path. Few tourists come to this part of the city, Jew or Arab, but they should. Whose fault is it? I do not know.

Finally I arrived at Guard Post Mouse, switched my jubilant buddy Ari out, and settled in for a long night. When you take a look at your watch at eight o’clock and know that you’re stuck in one spot until two in the morning, nothing but the dirty walls of long abandoned Turkish-built apartments to watch, buildings that by definition have no activity, no one coming or going, no lights in the windows, nothingness hiding no-one-ness, when you make that realization about the fate of your night, a creeping sense of gloom makes its way over your heart. Even the darkest of surroundings, like my abandoned square, take a turn for the worse.

But all isn’t despair here in Mouse, or in a long guard shift in general. Even if you’re only passively interested in matters of architecture and history, you’ll be forced to examine every single window, noting the detailed carvings in the stone sills and frames, and the inscriptions gracing archways and columns. The Turks, even during the twilight years of their empire, didn’t seem to lack enthusiasm for beautifying their buildings. Of a much later time, though probably a decade-old in the least, Yasser Arafat stares out at me from a discolored, tattered election poster peeling from a barricaded shop door. There is much to keep me busy here.


I heard a child shout from the opening to the main street, and I quickly turned around to assess who was approaching. You see, that part of the street, because it leads directly to the ancient Jewish Quarter, is a Jewish-only path. If you knew how many times, and how recently, there have been massacres along these shared Arab and Jewish streets, you wouldn’t feel so bad about limiting one small side street’s use either. Either way, the child was a young Jewish boy on a bike, his black yarmulke nearly flying off his head as he speed my way. In his hand was a paper plate.

“What’s up,” I ask. “What’ve you got there?”

He came to a skidding stop next to me. Standing on his bike pedals so he’d approach my above-average height, he held out the plate covered in clear wrap. It was full of grilled chicken wings, and even a breast that looked twice as big as anything I’d ever received in the army’s dining halls. I invited him to eat with me, since it was more than I could handle by myself.

“No, that’s ok” he replied. “I just ate. Hey, where’s that French kid? I was talking to him earlier, and he told me that he’d come by and bring me an army wallet he wasn’t using.”

“Oh, Shai? Yeah, I would forget about that. I saw him give it to a kid this morning. You guys are always trying to get stuff off us!”

I expected him to look away in disappointment, but these settler kids are tougher than nails. You can’t walk down the street without them surrounding you, asking for a watch cover, an insignia embroidered wallet, dog tags, or some other army paraphernalia. I slipped off my old watch cover, one I made myself by stitching an old IDF patch onto some black, stretchy fabric, and handed it over. He smiled, stuffed it in his pocket, and watched me start on the delicious, slightly burnt chicken wings. Changing his mind, he also grabbed a piece.

A number of minutes later, while ravenously enjoying the food, I decided to find out more about my unexpected yet welcomed company. “What’s your name” seemed like a good enough start.

“Yosef.” He turned back to his wing.

“Ah, cool name. I’m Danny. Nice to meet you.” He smiled again, and naturally turned back to eating. He had soft features, like a rounded chin and faint cheekbones. A peppering of small brown freckles evoked innocence, and I couldn’t imagine him being anything but. I studied his dark brown, straight hair, which was recently cut and neatly ruffled from the wind. Being that he is an orthodox Jew, he had those strange sidelocks, but like many kids, he tucked them behind his ears. Not shame, just the habit of an active boy. He was still sitting on his bike, but now he had both feet firmly on the ground, rocking back and forth. I wished I was sitting too, but it’s forbidden and you never know who is coming round to check on you.

We both finished a wing at the same time, and being that there was only one left, I offered it to him. He refused, but I made him eat it. “If you want to grow up to be big like me, you better eat that wing. Lots of protein.” It didn’t take much encouragement after he sized me up, probably imagining being 15 and my height. Yosef ate the final piece of chicken just as quickly as the first one, only as growing boys can. As soon as he finished, he wiped his hands together, trying to get the grease off. Realizing that that wouldn’t work, he turned on his bike and said he’d be back.

I watched him peddle furiously off around the corner, the strings of his tzitzit from his shirt flying in the wind behind him. Wondering where he ran off to, I returned my attention to the square. Between two of the buildings in the northwest corner there is a turnstile gate leading from the Arab souk (market). Only one specific Arab family is allowed to enter this square from that corner, or from any direction at all, and I even had a laminated list of about twenty permitted individuals. I wondered if any of them would come, and to what degree of sternness I should present to unidentified visitors. My feet led me to the dark corner, with its recessed gate and alley underneath a domed roof. I entered the nook and rested my hands on the cold iron. Spying through the entrance, all I could see were more dark corners of another tiny alley, with a dingy bend only fifty feet ahead. Not a soul in sight.

“Danny! Hey!” Yosef called me again out of my pondering mind as he bore down on me from the far street. “What are you doing?”

I stepped away from the turnstile and walked across the small square to where he stopped. He had brought us wet wipes to clean the chicken grease from our hands, as well as a large bottle of Coca-Cola and plastic cups. I smiled at my young friend. He didn’t even notice my appreciation, and just started drinking, but only after he poured me a cup and placed it on my cement guard block.

“Where do you live,” I asked.

He simply lifted his hand and pointed over my shoulder in the general direction of the Jewish residences near our base. Though he was a good kid, he certainly didn’t speak much. I was determined to hear his opinion on life here in al-Madina al-Muqaddasah, so I kept pushing to start a conversation. Eventually he would open up, I assured myself. I took another sip of soda and went straight in.

“So, what is it like living so close to the Arabs? Do you guys ever have problems?”

“Yeah, we get in fights sometimes.”

“Who starts them?”


“You start them, don’t you,” I teased him.

“No! I only finish them.” He looked at me straight in the eyes, and something about that led me to believe that he wasn’t just acting tough.

“OK. I hope you don’t get into trouble doing that. Seriously though,” changing the tone, “is it ever like you guys are minding your own business and the Arab kids just start attacking you all?”

“Not really.” He had begun pacing the area, with his hands in his pocket. He scraped the heel of his shoe on a loose brick in the wall, getting some imagined dirt off. Maybe a nervous habit. “If there’s a fight,” he continued without lifting his eyes from his shoes, “you know it’s coming. It always happens when we’re in their part of town, or right along the roads where they walk.”

“You know why it doesn’t happen in your neighborhood, right?”


“The IDF.”

“What about them?”

“We guard your neighborhood.”

“Oh, yeah. I guess.” I knew that he already realized this, but I was just interested at this point to see just how much they notice our presence. Really, to see if they appreciate the protection that we give, no questions asked. Twenty-four hours a day, three hundred sixty five days a year. He didn’t seem interested.

“What are you up to right now? Why aren’t you at home? Aren’t your parents worried about you, out in this city biking the streets at night?” I thought about the numerous plaques along the streets, saying this family was shot here, or this kid was beaten to death there.

“What do you mean? No one stays at home at night. My friends are at your base right now giving out doughnuts and bags of candy. Tonight is a party at my school for my class, so I’m going to that in a few minutes. There’s gonna be cake and soda and all types of stuff. I’ll bring you more if you want?”

“No, no thanks. I’m full. What grade are you in?”

“Eighth grade.”

“Obviously a religious school, right?”


“Let me guess... your dad is a rabbi?”

“Yeah!” Animated, he asked how I knew.

“Just a feeling.”

Though I got him to open up, I wasn’t sure I was really getting that unique picture into the life of a 14-year-old Jewish kid living in the midst of a hostile Arab population. One versus a few hundred thousand. Shouldn’t there be some great perspective, some revealing aspect of his life that would allow me to understand just what he goes through on a daily basis in his struggle for normality? Is it all just chicken wings, soda, religious parents, and fun school parties on a Wednesday night? What is the impact of the conflict on this still innocent young participant?

But before I could get to the bottom of it all, before I really learned anything at all, Yosef jumped on his bike and told me that he had to get to his party. I wished him well, thanked him for the food again, and watched as he zoomed as fast as his lanky legs could peddle. I dropped my head and studied the pavement, wondering when it was paved last. Probably before the Second Intifadah. I bet people lived in these buildings before then. That big rock next to the Mouse post, you think an Arab youth threw that at the guard standing here ten years ago?

I don’t know how many hours I passed letting my mind go in these directions. Left. Right. Downwards and skywards. Architecture, history, religion. War. I hear Thailand is great in December. This Yosef kid, he seemed happy. Am I happy? When did it get so cold? I should have brought my gloves. Stupid. Facebook. How is it that I finished college three and a half years ago? I wish I could shoot that flickering streetlamp. What a terrible sign to have at a guard post. In Memory Of Corporal ---, Murdered In Action Here In 2003.

The turnstile’s clicking snapped me out of my stream of consciousness. I instinctively pulled my hand out of my warm pocket and squeezed the grip of my Tavor rifle, placing it and myself in the low and ready. Only one family is allowed through that gate in the northwest corner, and it’s dark as hell over there. Who or what was going to come out was left to my imagination, and it seemed that hours passed before anything emerged. The moon shifted positions above, illuminating the gray, wispy clouds rolling in the raven sky too quickly for reality. I was looking through the looking glass. Silence. Black, billowing silence.

Out of the shadows emerged a small, imperceptible figure. I waited a second for the streetlamp to illuminate the subject. As he entered the light, I instantly scanned for anything at all suspicious. He was small in stature, but his face was that of a young teen. Fifteen, maybe. Dark jeans and a dark shirt with Hebrew writing, black, greasy hair, and the complexion of the Middle East. Arab. Forbidden.

“STOP,” I yelled in Arabic. He froze in place, with his hands open to the side. “Lift your shirt.” He did, and I saw that he wasn’t armed, at least in the most common spot. “Come here.”

He approached my position, and I walked sideways as to steer him under the dim yellow light from above. He looked like a normal kid, but I could distinguish some sense of sadness on his face. The typical nervousness, anger, or discomfort was missing, and I could tell that he was familiar with soldiers. I suppose more than one had stopped him before.

“You’re new here, aren’t you,” he asked in Hebrew.

“Give me your ID, please.” He handed over the green Palestinian Authority plastic cardholder, and looked me in the eyes while I checked his name against the laminated list of permissible Arab residents. Yusuf. Fifteen years old. Son of the owner. “Have a nice night,” I said as I gestured for him to pass.

“Thank you. You’re new here? I know all the soldiers that guard around us. Where is that French guy? He spoke a little bit of Arabic.”

“Yeah, I’m just filling in for another group. I don’t know where he is.”

“Oh, what’s his name?”

“I can’t tell you that.”

“OK.” I thought he would leave then, noticing my distance with him. He just stared around though, inspecting the same buildings and litter on the street that I was just minutes before. I watched him closely, wondering what he was thinking about. I’ve often experienced chatty locals, but something about him was different. Usually the chatty ones are overly friendly, buttering you up for various reasons – nefarious at times, unclear at others.

“Which apartment do you live in,” I asked. I pointed to the windows of the complex to my left, noticing that only one had its light on. He lifted his finger up in a vague direction, but either way I noted that there were no lights on in that area. He smiled at me.

“Did you learn Hebrew in school? It’s pretty good,” I said, offering a compliment.

“No. I learned on the street, just talking to you guys.”


“Yes. Just chatting. What unit are you in?”

“I can’t tell you that,” I replied. I didn’t suspect that he was gathering intel for some enemy, but I continued to keep him at a safe distance. Everyone knows that we’re Golani, and everyone knows our reputation, but my new face must have been a point of curiosity for him. He asked several other questions that I wouldn’t answer, but my silence didn’t discourage him.

“What are you doing walking around at night?”

“I dunno,” Yusuf replied. He looked at the ground, not shifting positions or moving at all, simply fastened in place like an invisible stake was pinning him to the ground.

“Don’t you have school in the morning?”

“I don’t go to school.”

“Why not?”

“I dunno.” Yusuf raised his eyes to mine. He asked if I’d be around in an hour, and I evaded the question with a “maybe.” I watched as he turned around, a dark figure in the night exuding a sadness that echoed the gloomy, long-forgotten old walls surrounding him. As he dragged himself slowly back towards that abysmal corner, hands in his pockets and head slightly downwards, I called out to him and asked where he was going.

“To find my brother. If you see a small boy named Aswad, tell him Yusuf is looking for him.”

And with that he was gone, and I was left wondering if he was even real or if an apparition visited me on my long night in the dark. I had to check the list again to see if there really was a Yusuf that lived in that apartment. If it weren’t for a name printed and laminated in my hands, I truly would have thought I had met a ghost. His presence was so heavy and full of dejection, an unidentified melancholy, and the air was left stale and sour in his wake.

I watched diligently for the next person to cross from the dark side, but no one came. As the minutes passed, I found myself longing for Yusuf’s little brother to appear, this Aswad. What a name, I thought. Why isn’t a child at home late at night in the middle of the week? Yusuf seemed friendly, but what was that sense of desperation I noticed in him? What’s wrong with him? All the Arab versus Jews, Palestinians versus Israelis crap went out the door for me right then. I saw a boy that did not seem ok, and I wanted to help.

Remembering his question of whether or not I’d still be guarding in an hour, I began hoping for Yusuf’s return. An hour passed, but I was still alone in this yellow square. Leaning against the concrete barricade of my guard post, my eyes were glued to the gate in the far corner. An hour and fifteen minutes. I heard the crunching of a sheet of aluminum siding that was on the ground next to the turnstile, and with that I stood upright and waited for a dark horse.

Yusuf materialized from the mysterious pall. With his hands in his pockets he approached me. I told him to show me his hands, trying not to let down my guard with this unknown person. After I was confident that he was unarmed, I let my inquisitiveness get the better of me.

“What’s going on, man?” I was itching with the need to figure out this shadow of a child, so unlike the other fifteen-year-old I had met earlier.

“What do you mean?”

“What’s wrong?”

He shrugged his shoulders, and let out a sigh while looking to his right. “Nothing.”

“Why don’t you just go home?”

He sighed again, obviously hiding something. “How much does it cost to get pizza delivered to here?”

“Why,” I asked naively. He was so elusive and indeterminable that I felt like a lost boy myself.

“Can you order it for me? They won’t deliver it to me.”

“I can’t do that,” I replied regretfully. “Where are your parents? Tell them to feed you.”

“My dad is in the hospital,” he let go in a wave of anguish. “No one is at home.”

“Well,” reaching for ways to help, “isn’t there something in your fridge at home? Just make a sandwich at least.”

“I don’t have a key, and besides, there’s nothing inside the house.”

I remembered something interesting that I saw on the list of residents for the apartment. At the top of the sheet was the name of the father, with “master of the house” as his status. Below his name were there female names, all of which were given the status of “wife.” I was unsure what that meant, but my speculation was about to be confirmed.

“Where’s your mom?”

“I don’t know, somewhere in town.”

“And the two other women... who are they?”

“My dad’s other wives. We all live together.”

At this point I became angry, not at the fact that his father was a polygamist. That, as a matter of fact, is more than normal in this area. Just about every man I’ve met seems to have multiple wives, and who knows how many children. Rather, my anger was directed against the fact that this boy had so many people to care for him, and yet he had absolutely no one. He was all-alone in a crowded life.

“You’re telling me,” I started indignantly, “that no one has fed you or taken care of you and it’s already almost midnight? You should go to your neighbors,” and I pointed at the lit window on the first floor.

“They’re weird.”

“And why don’t you go to the international aid organization and tell them to help you?”

“They’re weird too. And pathetic. They treat you like you’ve got cancer or something.”

I had no way to help this boy, nothing at all that I could do for him, and yet with all my soul I just wanted to feed him and give him a safe place to sleep. If I was in his shoes, alone at fifteen and in a sinister city full of wanna-be terrorists and religious fanatics, I think I would just want to cry. What other option would you have? And yet, Yusuf, this doe-eyed, soft-spoken child seemed strong and resolute, despite his obvious frustration and grief. My guess is that this is not the first night he’s been locked out with no where to turn.

Yusuf just put his hands in his pockets and looked around, sighed, and told me that he was going to go look for his brother again. I advised him to look at any relative’s houses, or friends of his brother. I wanted to do anything for him, really anything to give him some security, but I was impotent and entirely powerless. With my assault rifle and grenades, bulletproof armor and knowledge of how to use it all, I stood still like a dumb statue. No way to help. Yusuf turned and left, shoulders sagging and head pointed to the ground, and my anger boiled over.

Instead of waiting now hoping to find his brother, with the intention of helping them get home, I waited ready to lash out at one of his “mothers.” I knew that they would come eventually, or so I prayed, and I prepared myself for battle.

Shortly after Yusuf leaving, and luckily before my wrath burned me whole from within, two women, a baby, and a small boy appeared at the gate. It almost seemed like a play, with one character exiting the stage only for another to come striding on, with an entirely different atmosphere radically changing the scene. There they came, these mothers, nonchalant and blithe as if the world was in perfect order. After the routine security check, I began my condemnation.

“You know Yusuf, the 15-year-old that lives with you all?”

“Yes, yes,” the woman holding the baby replied in a heavy accent, smiling, ever smiling.

“Well he’s been looking all over for you guys all night. He’s locked out, and he still hasn’t eaten! It’s midnight!”

“Oh,” she replied thoughtfully, and then resumed her smiling. “Ok! Thank you!” She began to walk away, but I stopped her.

“How could you let this kid live like that? He’s been over here twice searching all over the market and the streets. He doesn’t have a key, did you know that? He doesn’t go to school, and he learned Hebrew on his own. Obviously he’s smart. You know that you’re responsible for him? What’s he going to do next, start robbing people for food money? And then you know what happens? I come knocking on the door, with this gun,” and I showed her my gun, “and we take good Yusuf away in the middle of the night. You want that? I’m serious, make him a sandwich now so when he gets back he’ll finally eat!”

She smiled like an idiot, but I knew good and well that she spoke Hebrew. Her face gave her away during certain parts, like the robbing comment, but nothing could peel away her fake, obsequious grin. I hated her, and would have liked nothing more than to have been that Israeli soldier I read about in the Arab press, the one I’ve never met but at times like this envy.

There was nothing more that I could say to her. She didn’t care, and no sermon from a hated Israeli would change that. I let them go, feeling as dejected and disappointed in humankind as ever. Yusuf didn’t come back that night, even as I left my shift at 2am. I wondered where he went, if he ever ate or went to bed hungry. I wondered if maybe he smoked a bummed cigarette to blunt the hunger. Or maybe he stole from a 24-hour convenience store, if there even is one here. And what about sleep? Did he sleep at all, or maybe he found a dark corner to nap in.

My mind went in all directions, but most of all it went back to Yosef, the normal Jewish boy I met earlier in the night.

I remembered watching him throw a small rock at a road sign twenty yards away, carefree and smiling when he nearly hit the cat he was actually aiming for. I looked down at my clothes, the bulletproof armor, the vest, the gun, the grenade tucked safely away on my chest. I looked at the pillar of glazed rocks that I was leaning on, and the engraved plaque resting on the top. In Memory Of Corporal ---, Killed In Action Here In 2003.

His life, for him, is as normal as anyone else’s in the Western World. For only a handful of families, hundreds of soldiers from all branches of the army patrol his streets. My goal, and the IDF’s stated goal, is to maintain the peace here in this very specific part of a much larger city. For Yosef, the rabbi’s son, that relatively tall, brown-haired 14-year-old with a fast bike, life is defined not by the Arabs living around him, but rather by all the things that define any one of our own lives. Food, family, friends, and hobbies. He just happens to have guys like me all around him. We don't interfere in his life, his comings and goings, the way his peer Yusuf experiences. Jewish Yosef simply lives as he wishes. He probably hardly notices us.

And this is the bottom line. He’s got the good life. Us soldiers, on the other hand, we're the ones putting it on the line. While he enjoys nights with his classmates, we're standing on a lonely street corner next to a plaque talking about the last soldier to die there. But we’re happy to do it. Actually, we ask to do it. Why? We know that Yosef and kids like him are growing up in loving families, families that go about their life in a normal way. They talk about morals and ethics, soccer and the future. They want to live, and they want their children to be safe. You feel good protecting humans like that from harm’s way. You feel like you’re protecting freedom; the freedom of the innocent.

Yusuf, I can’t help but assume, is prime fodder for some terrorist organization. Poor parenting, which I have seen so much of in Arab society, or at least in the Arab cities and towns I have operated in, must be the surefire route to encouraging an otherwise normal kid to do the dumbest things. Let’s imagine that Yusuf didn’t sleep in a dark corner that night, but rather happened across some guys wearing kefiyyas around their necks. That cigarette he bummed? It might sound contrived, but who says he didn’t get it off just another of the types that we have arrested in weekly terrorism-related operations.

Maybe my imagination is getting the better of me. Maybe I’m forgetting all those families out there, even financially comfortable ones, that brainwash their children into a culture of hate. A culture of terrorism and martyrdom. Maybe so, but that’s not what I’m concerned about. As innocent as those kids are, I’m more heartbroken over the mature, independent ones, like Yusuf, who are only really interested in leading normal lives. Like eating regularly, or having a bed. Were I to have a way to fight for his freedom, in the way that I fight for the freedom of his neighbors.

The people that define this conflict are innocents like Yusuf. I don't care about the terrorists, though they are humans and they have their reasons and purpose for existence. I don't care about those that harbor the terrorists, no matter their reasons or justifications. I care about those kids that have nothing at all to do with the fight. The Yusuf that lives in a society that will not help him, a society where a boy can have 3 mothers and not one of them around to feed him.

What I can’t help but come to is how stupid and senseless this conflict is. At the end of the day, I understand why there is a bomb planted on the Gaza fence almost daily. I understand why masked gunmen opened fire on soldiers standing guard next to the Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron. I understand why Gilad Shalit was taken captive, and I know why he still hasn’t been released. None of that is senseless to me.

What I will never understand is the capacity for indifference I’ve witnessed here. At more than a specific level, don’t those attackers realize what their crimes will do to the innocents around them? The children that used to walk the street where the soldier was killed – they have to deal with all manner of heightened security procedures, and endure even greater military interference in their lives. Certainly they don’t play so freely in the street since we now stand there, watching. And what about Hamas’ terrorist rule of Gaza, which has only caused suffocation for the population. How many Yusuf’s live in that God-forsaken strip of land, most of which haven’t even seen a Jew in their life? For what are they suffering? The real question is, for whom are they suffering?

The mistakes and crimes of both sides are unpardonable, but the indifference of the terrorists towards their own children is beyond understanding. I hate to pile blame on the Arab side, but I’ve seen too much wrong in that society. Have you seen pre-teen children smoking like veterans? Or what about 10-year-old boys walking to town with their dad – right past the open school? And a toddler on his family’s porch playing with a toy AK-47, in this city, in this west bank of the Jordan River, during this never-ending conflict.

My heart is heavy with these things I have seen. When I hear people ask if there will ever be a resolution, if the cycle of violence will ever stop, I see those kids. They quickly lose their innocence here, from parents that don’t know how to say “love your neighbor,” and most importantly, they don’t know how to show it. And the Jews that celebrate Baruch Goldstein’s terrorist act, they’re no different. They are the inverse to the converse. What’s my political stance, I’ve been asked. Not this, certainly not any of that.

I believe in innocence. But over here, it’s sometimes hard to find.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Observations on Soldier Life

The life of an Israeli soldier is...

Sleeping on the floor of a public intercity bus while 50 cozy civilians enjoy their seats;

Discovering that hobos are smart, in that cardboard really feels like a mattress when trying to sleep on a concrete slab;

A 101.2 temperature is no reason you can't pull guard duty;

Having a runny nose and no tissues - well, they're combat pants, aren't they?;

Discovering a new use for mil-spec night vision goggles: stargazing;

Realizing that no matter how much you dream for weeks while on base about the simple pleasures of civilian life, like dipping cookies in milk, or drinking a Corona with lime, your imagination will always be infinitely more potent than reality;

Scanning the newspapers for your exploits, only to find misinformation and truncation;

Not being embarrassed about foot fungus - you try not taking off boots, at all, for two weeks straight;

Finding that scientific rules do not pertain to the army, like the pack-a-day smoker who is the best runner in the platoon;

Waking up exhausted in the middle of the night to falling Kassam rockets but not giving a damn, and certainly not enough to run to a bunker;

Watching red tracers light up the night sky but thinking about fireworks with your family on the Fourth of July;

Experiencing unrivaled joy when having to eat kosher Spam plain but miraculously finding ketchup;

Being called a 'hero' by a stranger on the street when all you really did that week was work in the kitchen;

Finding that you hate your enemy most not when they attack, but rather when they take away from valuable sleeping time;

Ignoring all the cool weapons and tanks and APC's you dreamed about seeing before the army because all you really want to do is be at home, in bed, watching an action movie;

Wondering what real girls look like, since the ones that work around infantry bases resemble armored Humvees more than anything else;

Conversely, chatting with pretty Arab girls at checkpoints because, eh, that's the real challenge;

Looking in the mirror in full uniform and feeling ten feet tall and bulletproof.

Friday, February 5, 2010

Facebook Knows Jewish Guilt

I, like many people, often have the desire to eliminate the ever-intruding Facebook from my life. My most recent urge to remove myself from the network is really a component of my frustration with technology in the form of smartphones. Specifically, I purchased a cool Nokia phone 3 weeks ago. Last night, however, during a routine update from Nokia, it decided to die and go to Nokia's overcrowded heaven. Just the mess of trying to figure out international warranty between America, Israel, and Nokia Asia has caused me to hate all technological contraptions, from cool phones to useful social networking tools.

Facebook has met my wrath before. In the summer of 2008, "The Great Purge" was executed. In an attempt to trim away the fat, I went through my "friends" list with a hatchet, hacking away all those who I couldn't really identify without looking at their picture, or seeing where they went to high school. "Oh, she graduated three years after me from high school? That would mean that... I have no clue who she is." Hack. Out of my 500 some friends, I think I purged around 100 to 150 people that I truly couldn't remember. Stalin would have been proud, and The Great Purge was successful.

Within days, however, many of those people 're-friended' me. How they figured out that I had pushed them away I do not know. Maybe they really follow my comments, and after they noticed my disappearance they were worried and fretted over my metaphysical Internet existence. I don't know. It was pretty creepy, though. Since then, I have been careful what I say on Facebook. You never know who is stalking.

Well anyway, my extreme frustration with yet another smartphone breaking on me led me to a desire to get back to the basics: email. I can do email. Seriously, I'd prefer snail-mail, since I like to write, but email is also fine. Between Facebook wall posts, comments, status updates, and private messages, I get lost on where to start, on which messages to reply to first, and who said what and when. Email just sticks around until you get to it. Facebook, as I've experienced it in the past year and a half with a 3G high-speed Internet phone, demands my constant attention just to keep up with who said what. So, no more smartphone, no more Facebook relevancy.

That was my logic. So, I went onto Facebook to check to see if there was anything interesting. Nope, just the same old events I can't go to, group invites I don't even read, and status updates about something I don't care about (I realize the irony, if you'd read my current status). I went to send two private messages. "Oops, there was an error sending your message! Try later." Ok, I guess Facebook wants to get cute when their service doesn't even work. I suppose the final straw before wanting to just junk the whole mess was when I went to respond to a wall post, only to find that the sender DEFRIENDED me! Ah, the rejection was too much to bear.

Settings > Deactivate account

Mark Zuckerberg, an AEPi Jewish fraternity alum, is the founder of Facebook. As you could guess from his name and choice of frats, he is a Jew. Though he is an atheist, he is obviously schooled in Jewish culture. Nothing is more overwhelmingly Jewish, in my experience, than the oft-mentioned "Jewish Guilt." In the Israeli Army, I felt guilt over whether or not to be a combat soldier ("Ben Gurion wanted you to be combat, and the country needs you"). With my cell phone provider I was guilted over my choice of phone ("Why do you want to buy a phone overseas? Don't you like our models?"). But Facebook, and Mark Zuckerberg's scheming ways, top them all. Here's the page that came up when I wanted to remove myself from their service. (Click on it for a close-up).

I don't curse on Israeli by Day, in general. But this one deserves a "holy sh*t." Let's take a closer look and examine. According to Mark Zuckerberg and Facebook, if I disconnect, my "friends will no longer be able to keep in touch with [me]." If you're not on Facebook, that's it! You don't exist! No email, no cell phone, no address - no Facebook, no existence. That's pretty intense.

Not wasting precious time, Facebook throws five friends in my face, and actually include a line saying that they will miss me. Name by name, they say that "Dave will miss you; Stephanie will miss you." Five times they say that. Normally that wouldn't get to me, and I don't know what kind of genius algorithms they are using, but they somehow picked five good friends out of 560 acquaintances to guilt me with. You might be thinking that they simply picked the five that I talk to the most, but that is not hardly the case. I haven't communicated for a long time with a few of those people on Facebook, but I'd be very sad to lose touch with them completely. I fear that would be the case if it weren't for Facebook.

But look closer. Not only did they pick those five good friends, and not only did they include the line that they would miss me, but they included pictures of that friend. Again, take another look. Notice the real guilt trick? All of the pictures are of us together! I'm not even sure what to say, other than that their guilt trip took me a long way. Those pictures happen to all be of very cool experiences in my life. They are meaningful as hell. One is of the Jerusalem Winter Ball in 2009, which I attended during my 10-day vacation from the army for finishing basic training - a great excuse to drink bathtub-quality vodka. Another picture is of my graduation from college, with all of our friends around. Yet another is in the coolest pool ever, in the nicest hotel ever, during one of the greatest weekends I've ever had in Israel. Just look at those pictures: buddies.

I can't delete those guys. Facebook gives me the option right beneath those pictures to message my friends. What do they want you to say? "Hey friend, I'm going off the grid. I won't see any of your pictures, read what you're up to through your status updates, or remember where you work. Talk to you later - not sure how though..." Guilt. How could you remove them from your life? They really drive home the message that Facebook is a necessary part of your life, and with an invaluable smartphone, you're never separated from your friends.

The scary part of it all is that I believe them. How would I ever remember all those acquaintances that I like to keep tabs on? I do like to see what kind of jobs they have. And my real friends, how will I see what they look like if not for the photos they post? And wow, birthdays. Considering I have forgotten my own birthday once, if Facebook didn't alert me to anyone else's it'd be a sealed matter; no happy bday from Danny!

In conclusion, I have lost yet another Nokia phone for no good reason. My days in the army of constant Internet use, an addiction most likely, are therefore temporarily suspended. My Facebook connection is severed. Checking that site once every two weeks is just about worthless. Despite that setback, and my refusal to get another good phone for awhile, I cannot purge Facebook itself. Mark Zuckerberg and his creation have implemented 5,000 years of Jewish history's greatest weapon, and I've fallen prey to it just as if it's one and the same as my grandmother ("Hey, I drove all morning in the rain to buy you two pounds of high-quality deli meat for the weekend, aren't you hungry for a sandwich?").

I guess I'll link to this blog post on my Facebook home page.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Israel In The Haiti Earthquake Disaster

I've quietly been following the earthquake disaster in Haiti, like most people. I can't really help, and I don't necessarily have extra money to send, so I'm just pining away with guilt and sadness. All these great and big industrialized, even post-modern, nations of the world have so much to offer, so many ways they can help, but nothing seems to be getting done. It seems that no one there has enough water, or food, or shelter. No one can find proper medical care. All the nations and their armies are standing impotently in some proverbial corner, afraid to touch the Haitians.

I know some are trying, but it doesn't seem to be enough. I've taken great heart, however, from little tiny Israel's constant commitment to be the leader in humanitarianism. Whenever there is a world disaster, Israel sends its crack search and rescue squad, ZAKA, to the front lines. Backing them up, the military's emergency medical crew, and a hospital, set up camp and beg for all the toughest cases. While Germany and Japan and France, three nations that in my humble opinion shouldn't have armies, reserve their amazing wealth and wasted fortunes for a worthless armed forces, cash-strapped Israel risks all for the sake of tikkun olam - healing and helping the world and her people. I realize I'm being harsh on nations like Germany, since we have even recently cooperated with them on aid missions, but the amount they are doing relative to their ability is simply not good enough.

Just watch the following video if you really, truly think Israel is some devil; the little Satan. Do you know how much money it costs to do what they're showing in this video? Delivering babies, performing surgeries, and rescuing the trapped. But of course Israel won't really receive recognition for any of this, and not that we even care. We'll probably be accused of stealing Haitian baby blood for Passover or something anyway. Bitter? Oh, no, of course not... (If you receive the blog post from email, and the video doesn't come up, just come to the site for this amazing clip:

Here's another article if you want to read more about Israel's efforts.