Leaving for a trip with Lane Schlessel (Director, FIDF Ohio Chapter) on October 24th for a two-week jaunt around Israel had me feeling excited, apprehensive and at the same time, in light of events in the news, even intimidated.
I was excited to get back to Israel. It is a diverse and beautiful country in so many ways. Yet, I was apprehensive to leave my family and business for a “guys-only” trip. And I was intimidated because I didn’t know what to expect. Yet I wanted to go to learn where and how some of our family’s philanthropic dollars are spent. I needed to “see to believe”. And I did. It was eye-opening and meaningful.
FIDF (Friends of the Israel Defense Forces) is the world’s largest non-profit, financial supporter of Israeli soldiers. The FIDF initiates and helps support educational, social, cultural and recreational programs and facilities for the young men and women soldiers of Israel who defend the Jewish homeland. It’s Lone Soldier program takes special care of soldiers who’ve left their family from other countries (many are Americans but plenty more are from Canada, South America, Australia and multiple European countries) to nobly join the IDF. The IMPACT! program supports underprivileged soldiers with education scholarships for post military service.
A number of months ago my good friend, Danny Geller, called and said, “Danny, we’re putting on an FIDF guys-only trip with Lane and it’s going to include army bases and other IDF stuff and more…” He needn’t ask me twice. I tweaked my schedule, prodded some friends and soon enough a group of 12 coalesced into the FIDF Guys Mission to Israel from October 26th through November 4th.
Several of us arrived the Friday before to experience Shabbat, relax and to explore. We knew that traveling with Lane would provide uniqueness before the formal trip started. After all he has been to Israel more than fifty times! What a great idea it was. We had a terrific time in Tel Aviv those couple of days before the formal trip. And out of the blue, on Shabbat afternoon, it hit me.
We were walking down a hill taking in the sights and smells of the ancient port city of Jaffa when a small brigade of soldiers came walking toward us with rifles slung over their shoulders. They were chatting and smiling and enjoying the beautiful sunshine on Shabbat. I froze. It wasn’t the first time I’d seen a soldier with a rifle since landing the day before. There are a lot of uniformed soldiers protecting the tiny country. There always were and always will be. But it was the first time I looked at these soldiers as what they are; 18, 19 and 20 year-old, young adults from all walks of life. I envisioned my own son, Josh and daughter Sydney, in those uniforms holding those guns, with the weight of Israel and in fact in many ways that of the Jewish People in its entirety. I never saw it coming. I cried.
On Monday morning our group was together and we headed north from our Tel Aviv hotel for what would turn out to be a journey unlike any other. The circuit would incorporate a number of the requisite historical sites such as the Kotel (Western Wall) and the Old City of Jerusalem, Rosh Hanikra (beautiful grottoes on the Lebanon border), Ammunition Hill (where a horrific battle in the 1967 Six Day War took place), a moshav on the Jordanian border and ancient ruins in Caesarea, amongst a plethora of other sites – both historic and simply restful. And it included scheduled visits to multiple army bases that are otherwise off-limits to most ordinary citizens. What the itinerary didn’t include is the power and magnitude of what we would see, hear and otherwise participate in on the bases nor with our visits and experiential meetings with Israel scholars and Middle East experts. Few words can describe the education we received from soldiers and commanders on each base. We listened to pundits like Avi Melamed, former Israeli Senior Official on Arab Affairs and Intelligence Official who now lectures on Middle East geopolitical affairs. Zohar Raviv, International Vice President of Education for Taglit-Birthright Israel, lead an inspiration roundtable discussion. We interacted with the Israeli Air Force, combat soldiers, paratroopers, search and rescue helicopter pilots, tank battalion leaders, the Israeli Border Police and more. We climbed on tanks like little kids, practiced the Israeli fighting technique of Krav Maga and took part in firearms and counter-terrorism drills and training in a private facility. On a massive paratrooper base we did a simulation firing exercise where the mission was to neutralize the enemy, and keep those on your side safe. For several of us it was fun and games. Still others took it seriously and realized the enormity of how important this training is. Okay, full disclosure here… I was the number one scorer. No friendly fire hits, and more enemy kills than my makeshift comrades! While touring a Border Police facility we traveled in armored vehicles along the controversial separation wall and into Arab east Jerusalem - smack dab in the middle of one flashpoint in Middle East.. We went to the border of Gaza and peered through binoculars (although the naked eye was more than sufficient) at the towns and cities from which Hamas launched tens of thousands of rockets last year. We drove through the cities of Sderot and Ashkelon and saw the bomb shelters in which people have 15 seconds to seek safety upon the sirens blaring. We saw a sensitive and secret monitoring facility along the Gaza border with female IDF soldiers who study computer monitors for four straight hours at a time looking for suspicious activity and breeches along the heavily armed border. It was made clear to us – if not only by the fact that no cell phones or cameras were allowed inside – that what we were witnessing was secretive. It was James Bond in real life. With our very own eyes we saw young Palestinian men who were up to no good at the border. This was enormously eye-opening. We were told these incidences occur almost on the hour along the Gaza border. Dozens of incursions are attempted every day and virtually 1oo% are blocked by the IDF. Tunnel activity, we were told, is still difficult to detect. But the IDF and other Israeli intelligence does the best they can to isolate and destroy the tunnels.
What I learned from this experience is that the situation with the Palestinian people is beyond complex. I learned that reading about it in the media is not enough. One cannot paint a simple picture and insist Israel give back land inhabited by Jews for thousands of years and won in successive wars since the founding of the modern state of Israel in 1948. Any reasonable person who experienced what we did would quickly understand the frailty and complexity of the region is without reproach. The mantra of talking heads who insist Israel give back land for peace is trite and dangerous to Israel and to Jews the world over. With our exclusive access to army bases and on-the-ground experts across Israel, we were educated better than classroom professor could do. Seeing with our own eyes the situation and tensions along hostile borders, talking one on one with soldiers and hearing from scholars and specialists in Israel, it is clear that it is impossible to solve the Middle East issues with land agreements alone. We learned that a sea change in attitudes from neighboring Arab countries about living side by side in peace with the State of Israel must embed itself in some of the cultures. The mores of hatred and mistrust of Israel and the Jewish people taught to so many young people must end.
My take-away was that the history and mentalities of the Middle East are too multifarious for a simple solution of land for peace. Additionally, the physical positioning and proximities of Jewish and Arab settlements makes this arduous, if not nearly impossible.
But what is certain is that without a robust IDF, security for the country and Jewish people everywhere is at risk and the consequences far too great. The intelligence, the brute strength and capability of the IDF are some of the finest in the world. The soldiers, while young, are courageous and strong. Every soldier we met held their head high and recounted a common theme in standing proud and tall for the state of Israel. True enough that we learn from our rabbis and leaders to go forward as Jews and to embrace the value and traditions of our religion and culture. They preach to not let the experiences of the past guide our lives now. But the history in Europe more than 70 years ago is still emblazoned in the culture and hearts of so many Israelis including the young generation and the entire IDF. Soldiers visit Yad Vashem (the Holocaust memorial and museum). They learn about the thousands of years of Jewish history in the land of Israel. They learn that the persecution of Jews in the Middle East and throughout the world began long before the World Wars. And because they’re taught “never to forget”, they have the fortitude to stand up, protect and fight for the land of Israel and for the Jewish people. The FIDF says, “Their job is to look after Israel. Ours is to look after them.”
The trip was incredible and we learned so much. We met terrific people and partook in stimulating conversation about the conflicts in the region and at the same time, the amazing things happening in Israel. Within just a couple of years, for example, Israel will be largely energy independent. No more coal-burning plants and instead using natural gas from reserves found within Israel’s borders. The Sea of Galilee, the Jordan River and the Dead Sea will be restored to a more natural state as de-salinization plants come on line to support virtually all of Israel’s water needs (in addition to natural aquifers). Israel continues to lead the world in this vital technology.
I came away from this trip with a better understanding of how important the FIDF’s role is in supporting the brave soldiers of the IDF. What they do for Israel and the Jewish people is beyond amazing.
On behalf of our family and the men on our “2015 Ohio FIDF Guys Mission” I could not be any more proud to support the FIDF and the State of Israel.