In August 2006, thousands of Israeli reservists were called up to serve in Lebanon in the defensive campaign against Hezbollah. Among them was Daniel Reisel, 31, a medical student in London who had served in the Israeli army many years ago. He felt sure that his unit--reservists in their late twenties and early thirties--would not see any real fighting. He was wrong.
Thursday August 3, 2006. The call up to emergency army service came today at my father's house in Israel. The recorded message politely instructed me to meet the following day at a base in the north. I was supposed to punch in a specific code in order to confirm that I had received the order. Although I did as instructed, the machine continued to call at regular intervals through the evening. I should have known. This is a Jewish army. It doesn't command. It nags.
Living in London, I can choose whether or not to remain on the army's rolls. Previously I chose, on political grounds, not to serve in Gaza and the West Bank. But this is different. At stake here is not the perpetuation of a bitter occupation, but the natural right of a country to defend itself. No nation can tolerate the barrage of rockets that Israel has suffered for the last two weeks. Israel did not start this war and it did not want it.
To walk into something like this is never pleasant or easy. At the same time I feel a distinct pleasure--the pleasure of having an answer: We don't have to put up with it. Moreover, this concerns all of us, including Diaspora Jews. If we pretend what happens to Israel does not concern us, there are plenty of people who will remind us.
A poignant example. My local shul in London was stoned last week, shattering two stained-glass windows. Someone in the community asked the police not to report the assault to the media. He was afraid it might bring undue attention. Undue attention? It should be shouted from the rooftops! How many other such events escape our awareness due to fear of undue attention? Is this what our history teaches us?
Will fly out of London tonight. Pretty good deal if you ask me. Meet old friends, see new places, Israeli food, outdoor living, all free.
Friday August 4
My father picks me up at Ben Gurion Airport and together we drive up to the north. Along the way we stop at the Abu Salah Restaurant, owned and operated by Israeli Arabs. Hundreds of other Israeli soldiers, also on their way to war, stop off here to sample Abu Salah's renowned homemade pita with hummus and tahina. Above the door hangs the stately portrait of the pater familias in full kafiyeh, his Hajj dagger proudly displayed. The television is reporting the news: another rocket has fallen on an Arab village in the Galilee. Half of the Israeli victims have been Arab Israelis; they've suffered as much as Israeli Jews. Abu Salah's staff serves soldiers, and there is nothing odd about this. The soldiers who eat here are on their way to the front line, where they will soon serve them.
When we arrive we realize there are many more soldiers than the base can accommodate. Together we soldiers convert the dining room into temporary sleeping quarters. As I try to catch some z's, I'm slightly taken aback by the sign above my head: "By Army Order: Observe the Sabbath!"
There are eighty soldiers in my unit, and no staff or support on the base. We do everything ourselves--cook, clean, serve, organize. Thankfully, one guy in the unit is a chef by profession. Eli works the kitchen like a magician. He is perhaps the only cook in the IDF with Michelin-star ambitions. The ingredients are very limited, but each day he manages to make the Lof (the Israeli version of Spam) taste different.
Being here is a lesson on how to build a civil mini-society. The concept of rosh gadol--of taking responsibility and thinking of others before yourself--has been drilled into us from basic training. In the Israeli army the officers are well integrated with the soldiers. The officers in my unit seldom wear their stripes, and they do their share of the cooking and cleaning. We are all in this together.
A guard duty rotation is organized for the night. The base is shrouded by an odd orange glow from the forest fires nearby.
Saturday August 5
Today several dozen rockets fell on Kiryat Shmona. People now have to spend days as well as nights in shelters. The thought of these families in those cold, hard places fills me with anger. Kids go crazy after a few hours, and some kids haven't been able to leave the shelters for days. The phone company Bezek has promised free installation of phone lines in shelters for the north. Is this a sign that the conflict will continue forever? Whatever happened to the concept of a six-day war?
Being forced into shelters makes me think of my grandparents, Dutch Jews who survived the war concealed for a year and a half within a double wall of a medical clinic in Amsterdam. Joop Picard, the 29-year-old doctor who hid them, was not Jewish. When the Dutch underground contacted him about using his office to hide Jews whom he didn't know and had never met, he agreed. Like Moses when God called him from the burning bush, Picard simply said, "Hineni, Here I Am."
I met Joop Picard once in my life, at my grandmother's eightieth birthday celebration. By then he was a small man in his eighties with white hair and a tired face. I was fascinated by the man without whom my grandparents would probably not have survived. I felt I too owed him my life. In the course of our conversation that night, I asked him the question of all questions: "Why did you risk yourself and your wife and daughter to save two Jews you had never met?" Joop Picard waited. Then he smiled faintly and said, "I did it for narcissistic reasons."
What did he mean by his enigmatic reply? I'm not sure. At the time I didn't dare ask. Perhaps he just did what he thought would make him feel at peace with himself. Perhaps he felt he had no choice.
Joop Picard died a short while after, and my father and his sister contacted the family to say they wished to have them recognized as one of the Chassidei Umot ha-Olam (Righteous Among the Nations) at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem. In response Joop Picard's children said their father had instructed them not to accept any honors for what he had done during the war. He said he had only done his duty.
Years later, Jews again are in shelters. The difference is that now there is a place of appeal: a country that will send its soldiers out to defend them against any enemy, big or small. Today the enemy is an international Shiite fundamentalist terrorist alliance. And the soldiers called to defend the Jews are us. Although it is a different time and place, I feel it is now our turn to answer the call of "Hineni."
Monday August 7
Today we received the general outline of our orders. We are to enter Lebanon by foot to secure the road north so that armored vehicles can pass through safely. Many of us have served in Lebanon before, but not during a war. Some of the soldiers are apprehensive. Our company officer, a soft-spoken captain with quiet determination, asks if any of us would prefer not to go. A handful of soldiers decide to take up the offer. One has a pregnant wife. Another is supposed to get married the following week. A big fellow called Poncho is brave enough to admit he is afraid. All of these soldiers will be allowed to remain at the base when the rest of us advance across the border. That these soldiers are given a choice is extraordinary, but even more extraordinary to me is the fact that every other soldier accepts it without complaint.
This moment is not without precedent. A similar conversation is recorded in a similar circumstance, in a place not that far from here. In the last book of the Torah, in Parashat Shoftim, the text describes a speech by the kohen hagadol (high priest) to the army of Israel. He exempts from duty all those who have betrothed a wife but not lived with her, built a house but not lived in it, planted a vineyard but not harvested it--even those whose hearts grow faint with the thought of war. The text explains: This is so that these men should not melt their fellow soldiers' hearts. I remember reading this passage and thinking what a bunch of softies these soldiers are. Now I understand: It is an extraordinary statement, not only of deep human insight, but also of military genius.
My rabbi once commented that although the kohen hagadol gave the soldiers an option, the court soldiers stood behind him with drawn swords as he spoke, ready to punish anyone who declined to go to battle. More than two thousand years have passed since then, but the dilemmas of Jewish history remain.
Tuesday August 8
Soldiers have different ways of deceiving their loved ones. Some say their phones lack reception; others complain of boring duties. Most mothers, wives, and girlfriends see through it but play along.
Today David, in the bed next to me, got a phone call from his wife. Their two kids had been distraught and missing him, she said. She'd therefore devised a cunning plan: the day before she ran out and bought a Spiderman kit for Benjamin and a doll for Lea. She wrapped the presents, wrote cards to both kids signed "with love from dad," and placed them in the mailbox. So today each kid received an unexpected present. From time immemorial, such has been the resourcefulness of Jewish women. And, from time immemorial, such has been the innocence of Jewish men. When speaking to his son, David asked excitedly: "A present! So, what did you get?"
A collection is being organized. The soldiers who have already spent nights in the field have asked for a change of socks. We've all been asked to donate one pair. I admit I thought twice: I might need my five pairs. Who knows how long they'll keep us here. Then I decided to contribute a pair on principle. Socks, the test of true comradeship.
Tonight the full moon is high in the sky. It is erev Tu b'Av (the 15th of the month of Av). In the days of the Temple, Jewish girls would dress in white and dance in the woods around Jerusalem. Tonight that same full moon will guide our troops through the slopes and river beds of southern Lebanon. A reconnaissance unit from our company is due to set out this evening. May that moon ensure Jewish continuity in our days as in the days of old.
Wednesday August 9
There seems to be a problem with our provisions. Several items in our kits are missing or faulty. There aren't enough bulletproof vests for all of us, and, strangely, there aren't enough belts. One guy is using a shoelace instead. I'd brought my comfy sleeping bag from home. This was good, because when I reported to duty to the most powerful army in the Middle East, I was told they were out of sleeping bags.
Anticipating future shortages, Avi, a large, industrious fellow, proposed that our unit appeal for private contributions. Everyone was asked to call friends and family. At the end of the evening we had twenty thousand shekels, most of it from the daughter of a Greek shipping magnate who had avoided the army all his life by making half-yearly trips to Greece. As the good book says, "A selfish act can have a good outcome."
I didn't call anyone for contributions. I was ashamed. There was no way I could tell my friends and family what a disorganized army I was in. Better to wear a shoelace instead of a belt than to admit to your family that IDF didn't have enough boots for its soldiers. Wasn't that what the pioneers did when they drove empty supply vehicles up dangerous roads to Jerusalem in the 1948 War of Independence? They risked their lives just to create the impression they had more supplies and ammunition than they actually did. By bluffing, the Jewish soldiers of 1948 won the right for all Jews to call Israel their home. Perhaps we can learn from the creativity of these brave pioneers.
Thursday August 10
There is a lot of talk about asymmetrical warfare these days. What better example than this war. Here we are--thirty thousand Israeli ground troops backed up by the rightly admired Israeli air force fighting a band of a few thousand militia soldiers.
And yet...within this asymmetrical relationship there is an inverse asymmetry: Hezbollah's soldiers are extremely well prepared. They have spent the six years following the Israeli withdrawal preparing for this moment. Their training camps in Iran are extremely rigorous, and because so many recruits wanted to destroy "the Zionist enemy," Hezbollah has had its pick of the best fighters in the land.
We, on the other hand, cannot exactly be described as the best in the land. We are just the guys who were stupid enough to respond when we got the call up. In my unit, we have every shape and size of Am Israel. We have a mousy guy who looks like Kafka. We have a thin Ethiopian guy called Akila with a high-pitched voice who's always irritated about something. Then there's Poncho with his paunch, who doesn't want to fight, and Natti, who plays the guitar and sings out of key. Improbably, we have three Russians called André. Professionally speaking, the people who in a few hours are going to fight Hezbollah include an accountant, a cook, a travel agent, a website designer, a secretary at the Jewish Agency, an aerobics instructor, a criminologist, the gabbai (sexton) of Eilat Airport Synagogue, and a fourth-year medical student.
Most of us are in our late twenties or early thirties. Half of us are married. Many are fathers already. All of us, with the exception of Akila, have the beginnings of expanding midsections. As everyone has been issued standard army fatigues, our uniforms are either too big or too small. We all completed three days of training before coming here--three full days of shvitzing in the Sorek valley. To our surprise, we still remembered a lot of what we learned during our army service. The body remembers. Unfortunately, the body seems to have forgotten that it is no longer young.
Friday August 11
We received more specific orders today. Half our unit, about forty soldiers, will set out tonight, the other half tomorrow. Our task is to reach the Litani River and then continue west until we cross its tributary, the Salouki. Sounds pretty good. Rolling hillsides, rivers, the cedars of Lebanon. Only problem: Hezbollah fighters are waiting in ambush. It feels quite unreal. Only a week ago I was sitting in Hyde Park watching kids playing and people walking arm in arm, English civility and tranquility everywhere. This is a different world. There are constant attacks from the air. More than a hundred rockets are hitting Israel daily. Hezbollah has shown itself to be a tough enemy. One of our guys, Kobi, was told by his brother's friend's friend's neighbor (who works in army intelligence) that Hezbollah soldiers can be ordered to sit in a cave for a week without food and without moving. That is one of the ways they are tested. As Kobi relays the story a shudder goes through us. This is the enemy we are supposed to face, perhaps within the next few days. From Kobi's description it's clear that, at some level, he respects the enemy. Respect where respect is due.
I'm in the second group. We all get our kits ready. The ones who are going in tonight put on face paint and camouflage gear. We hug as we part at the border. "See you soon." "Shmor al atzmechem!" ("Watch after yourselves!"). Avi tells me that when I get back to London I need to send him a replica black cab. His five-year-old son is completely crazy about them. I say, if we all get out of here alive, I'll even send him a red double-decker bus. "Of course we will," Avi says with a smile. Soldiers are calling home, telling their parents they'll be unable to phone for a few days. They are going to a safe base without telephone reception. The parents know what this means.
It's Friday night. Someone has the idea that we should all say kiddush. Surprisingly, everyone seems to agree, even though most of these guys would never dream of saying kiddush on a normal Friday night. Eli the cook finds some white army-issue kippot in the kitchen. There is a strong wind tonight, so we huddle together under the camouflage net. As Israeli army helicopters fly overhead, bringing the wounded back to Israel, our saying the simple blessing over wine and breaking bread together feels like the right thing to do. It expresses what we're all feeling but are too afraid to put into words.
Saturday August 12
The atmosphere is tense. The first group is already deep into enemy territory, racing toward the Salouki River in a convoy of twenty-one tanks. The rest of us will set out on our mission tonight. The terrain is hilly. The noise of the tanks is deafening. It's hard to distinguish incoming from outgoing fire. Four infantry soldiers are crammed into each tank. Inside our tank compartment Kobi says that in the First World War, more Allied soldiers died on the last day of fighting than in the landing at Normandy. In the next war, remind me not to share a tank with a military history buff.
We are told that a cease-fire deal has been brokered by the UN. If accepted, we will not have to go to the front line. Never before have I hoped more strongly that diplomacy will prevail. We are all ready, poised. Waiting for the order.
We hear that the first group has been hit with anti-tank missiles. The Hezbollah fighters were prepared. They hit the first tank in the convoy, injuring the battalion commander, and, seconds later, the last tank, injuring his deputy. The two men and one other wounded soldier from our unit are being flown to an Israeli hospital.
News comes in that the Israeli government has accepted the cease-fire deal. We won't be needed at the front line. The first group will return tonight. I feel a wave of relief rushing through me. I shout to André, the Russian guy: "Yesh hafsakat esh!" ("There is a cease-fire," literally a "pause of fire"). André, his face covered in sand and dust, looks perplexed and shouts back through the noise: "Le kama zman?" ("For how long?").
Monday August 14
This morning the artillery fire was very heavy until exactly 8 A.M., when the cease-fire took effect. An eerie silence ensued.
The first group has now returned. Many of the men are in a state of shock. They experienced very heavy fighting. In total, ten tanks were hit by anti-tank missiles. In one case the missile penetrated into the soldiers' compartment. Moshe had to pull two dead soldiers from another unit out of a tank. The area was under heavy fire, preventing the rescue helicopter from landing until the next morning. The Israeli army never leaves soldiers, even fallen soldiers, unattended in the field. Moshe had to stay in a ditch all night with those two bodies. He looks pale as he describes the smell of burnt flesh and how his shirt was soaked with their blood.
There are also stories of people performing above and beyond the call of duty. Dima, our paramedic, was injured in the face by shrapnel. He continued to treat other injured soldiers before finally attending to himself. Eventually he was flown out by helicopter. Tsafrir, who was injured in the first stage of the campaign, was also flown out to hospital; the next day he was back on the base, ready for the next mission.
Seeing everyone again is great. I ask Eli the cook: "Nu, did we win?" "Lo ha-paam" ("No, not this time around"), he answers. Considering the events of the last two weeks, I agree. Israel cannot claim victory in this war. As Jews and as Israelis we know that wars have no winners. But as a unit we won--all of us came out alive. And those in our unit who were lightly wounded are expected to recover soon.
Tuesday August 15
We spend the day cleaning our gear and placing unused ammunition back in boxes. Amazingly, the cease-fire seems to be holding. Normalcy is slowly returning. In the evening we begin the journey south from the base. Even if we cannot claim victory, it's still a wonderful feeling, a mixture of relief and elation, to be going home. School girls are standing by the road handing us roses. I get on the bus and try to pay for my ticket to Tel Aviv, but the bus driver refuses to take my money.
And yet...when our bus makes a stop in Afula, some Israeli guy in civilian clothes pushes in front of me in the queue.
Oh Israel, I think, I love you despite yourself.
As I approach my father's house I feel alive in a new and different way. The smell of lemons from the fields seems stronger than before. Our campaign in the north was only partly a success. Many objectives were not met and many lessons will be learned. But the population of Kiryat Shmona will be able to sleep in their own beds tonight. Next week I'll go back to London. I make a mental note not to forget to send that toy black cab to Avi's five-year-old. The kid deserves it.