Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Final Thoughts on My Service in the IDF

Dear Family and Friends, I hope you and your families are enjoying a wonderful holiday season.

On October 21, 2010, I was officially released from active duty in the IDF, ending two years of service. Since then, I spent 5 weeks traveling in the US, rejoicing in cousin Matt and Shannon’s wedding, relaxing in San Diego and Newport Beach, and reconnecting with family and friends. It was the beginning of my recovery from the army, physically, emotionally, and spiritually. I am back in Tel Aviv resting and enjoying Israel as a civilian for the first time in years.

I wanted to write one more entry to pull together sporadic thoughts and feelings about my service that have been marinating in my mind for several months. During my posting in the West Bank I had considerably more time to think about my service: what it means to me, how I have changed, and where it is taking me.

When you are “in the moment” of month after month after month of training (18 months in all), you quickly lose track of why you are here. When you haven’t showered in days, crawled over boulders and cacti, and marched all night, you begin to ask yourself, why am I here? Why I am not in a comfy New York City office, or at a bar with friends? WHY on earth did I think this was a good idea?! This question ran through my mind on repeat, sometimes pushing itself to the forefront of my thoughts a hundred times in a day.

Week after week after week I took the bus back to base, often fearful of what pain and suffering lay ahead. Saturday nights were always sleepless nights; I’d toss and turn, too nervous to sleep. Sunday morning I’d coast on auto pilot: uniform, gun, bus, train, base. Even when I gave myself eight hours to sleep, I never slept for more than five. Each bus ride I’d sit in my seat, looking down at my uniform and gun, repeating under my breath, this is what you wanted.

Day after day after day you were woken up by a commander screaming at you, “Two minutes dressed and outside!” You shiver in your tent, hearing the footsteps of soldiers running by, knowing that in just a few seconds, you too will be scampering around. Every soldier knows that feeling. Holding your sleeping bag tight, hoping your commander forgot. As you’re sprinting to formation, you can’t stop thinking, WHY? How is this going to make me a better soldier? Why did I sign up for this?

During Krav Maga and counter-terrorism exercises, you were holding pushups for 2, 5, even 10 minutes at a time. As you collapse to the ground, your arms no longer capable of holding your body’s weight, you’re thrust into a scenario where you have to survive five minutes against 23 men in a free-for-all. As you receive the first blow in your chest, the second from behind, and the third and fourth in perfect harmony from each side, WHY surfaces for a split second before you begin instinctual survival. How much more can my body take? Why did I do this?

I knew the answer all along: because without me, and my fellow soldiers, Israel does not exist. Because it is the right thing to do. Because if we don’t train harder than Hezbollah and Hamas, we lose. Because all of this training pushes your body to new limits, making you a better soldier and a better person. Because this is not for me, this is for our Jewish people. Because this is for the 6 million who are unable to fight back.

It is much easier for me to say this from the comfort of my Tel Aviv apartment than from the cold of the Negev, but what I have written above were my daily thoughts for two years. It is all too easy for us soldiers to become egotistical: when do I go home? when do I get switched from guard duty? why did he get extra time off and I didn’t?

I am guilty of all the above. When you are caught in the moment, your mind wanders to the easy out: why me? I deserve better. Although I repeated the “because” answers, it’s hard to really understand them. Only eight months ago did I finally grasp these answers.

While visiting my grandparents in San Diego this past April, I stayed with good college friend Dave Loomis. Dave presented me with a book, titled Hagakura: The Book of the Samurai. Fluent in Japanese and with a love for Japan, its culture, and especially the Samurai, Dave believed this book would provide me with a new perspective on my service by treatises written by some of the greatest warriors to walk this planet, some dating back nearly 1,000 years. After reading the book Dave was spot on: the philosophies, dedication, and culture of the Samurai helped me to refresh my service.

The Samurai believe in a complete devotion to their trait; they dedicate their lives to being the best swordsman or archer they can be. They are entirely faithful to their masters, often making seppuku, a noble suicide, once their master has been killed or passed. One treatise defines the balance of a Samurai:

Fit oneself inwardly with intelligence, humanity and courage—[the Three Virtues of Confucius]…Intelligence is nothing more than discussing things with others, limitless wisdom comes from this. Humanity is something done for the sake of others, simply compare oneself and put yourself in their shoes. Courage is gritting one’s teeth and pushing ahead. (66)

I have been thinking about the Samurai philosophy and believe that there is much to be gained from their devotion. By trying to be the absolute best you can be, it helps to overcome the temporary pain and frustration of a situation, such as sleepless nights, hours of guarding, or grueling training. Simply put, one treatise states that it is “spiritless to think you cannot attain to that which you have seen and heard the masters attain. The masters are men. You are also a man. If you think that you will be inferior in doing something, you will be on that road very soon. ‘Confucius was a sage because he had the will to become a scholar when he was 15 years old. He was not a sage because he studied later on’” (46).

The “because” answers are easy to say, even easier to type but to truly believe them you need to distance yourself from the situation and fully believe in what you are doing. It was after reading this book, and in the final six months of my service that I truly “grew up,” taking less and giving more. You realize that these two years of service were not for me; they were for helping my teammates, to give back to Israel, and to stand for what is right no matter how painful it is.

When I asked a dear friend of mine why he was going into officer’s course and signing an extra two years of service, he said it’s his truma—his donation—to Israel. This is the core of true soldiering, donating yourself to your country.

As I look over the last two years, I wouldn’t have had it any other way. My training was tough, but it made me tougher. My training was demanding, but it taught me how to give. My training was impossible, but I learned that word doesn’t exist. My training took away years 22, 23, and 24 of my life, but it gave me everything, it was my truma.

As many of you have already seen, I have begun my next truma for Israel. I have spoken at several college campuses across the US and for Israel Bonds. I have been attacked by protesters, received hate mail, and called a racist and a Nazi. I have watched people misquote me, YouTube videos lambast me, and seen websites defile me.

I welcome this. I refuse to back down. Israel is fighting from the corner, a small country surrounded by hate. Not everyone will agree with me or Israel. I do not always agree with Israel’s actions, but that is the beauty of democracy. The same democracy that allows the 70 Arizona State University students who protested my speech (watch it HERE) is the same democracy that permits gay Arabs to seek refuge in Tel Aviv, away from the death penalties of their native countries.

This is why I will continue to give presentations on the supreme level of ethics of the IDF as defined by Ruach Tzahal, The Spirit of the IDF. This is why I openly encourage rational and civilized debate with those that oppose my views. As the protesters walked out in the middle of my speech at ASU, I stopped my presentation and addressed the protesters saying, “I truly wish that you would stay and have a rational and factual discussion with me on the Middle East. Ironically you continue to ask where there is no peace. How can there be when you walk out?”

This is why after the presentation I had a rational dialogue with several protesters who did return. This is why one Palestinian came to me and said that he was “pleasantly surprised by [my] presentation and has the utmost respect for [me].” He said that he refused to join the protesters because he wanted to have a dialogue and that he wanted to hear my side. He did not want to show up closed minded.

I hope to continue these presentations. If you know of an organization (JCC, synagogue, youth movement, university, etc) that would be interested in hosting me, please contact me at: nadav.weinberg@gmail.com.

Thank you for your continued support and reading through all of my posts (I know they’re not short!)

Wishing you the happiest of holidays,

With love and VDBL,

Nadav E. Weinberg

Friday, July 30, 2010

Update from Israel: Missions in the West Bank and a thorough analysis of the Flotilla debacle

Dear family and friends,

I hope that you and your families are well and enjoying a relaxing summer.

Before I begin, as promised, I have updated new pictures of the army and my experiences which can be seen here.

As usual, things have been rather busy. My unit, Orev Nachal, is currently based out of the West Bank where things have been mostly quiet. We are mainly responsible for patrols and emergency response teams when not on missions. Our missions vary in scope and objective and are, for obvious reasons, classified in nature. However, there are two missions that I have been given permission to discuss. The first mission took place at the end of April. The target, Ali Ahmed Sweiti, has been on Israel’s most wanted list for the past 11 years. A senior member of terrorist organization Hamas, Sweiti was personally responsible for the death of 2nd Lt. Yaniv Mashiach in April 2004 as well as involvement in other shooting and bombing attacks. Surfacing from unknown locations once every year to two years, Sweiti had been able to thwart several attempted arrests by the IDF and Shabak (Israel internal intelligence, Israel’s FBI). IDF and Shabak intelligence again pinpointed Sweiti’s location to a specific house in the mostly Palestinian city of Hevron, and along with an elite SWAT team, Yamam, my unit (the Nachal Reconnaissance Battalion), were given the green light to arrest Sweiti. After repeated requests to peacefully leave the house, Sweiti refused, and responded by isolating himself in a room and shot wildly from a window. Sweiti was killed at some point between the exchange of fire and the bulldozing of the house. The mission made national headlines; you can read about it here.

The second interesting mission was more of a helping hand to the Israeli Police than a standard “military” mission. Most of the time, after arresting the suspect, we search the premises, and drive away with the suspect in custody. However, in this specific mission, we were arresting two known criminals for being ring leaders in an auto chop-shop crime syndicate, spearheading the stealing, dismantling, and selling of cars from both Israelis and Palestinians. After arresting both men, we left the scene with both men in custody, trailed by two massive flatbed semis, each loaded with 4-5 cars. It was a comical scene, something that none of us had ever seen before. Either way, when you arrest these criminals and discover hundreds of rounds of illegal ammunition and weapons, recover 8-10 cars, and hand the criminals over to the Police, you can’t help but feel that my year and a half of training was for something and even more, that I have personally helped in the betterment and safety of Israel and our Jewish people.

I have been debating for sometime if I want to talk about the following, and how exactly to express my feelings. One of the largest problems Israel faces from Palestinians in the West Bank is shabachim, or illegal aliens crossing the border into Israel. The Palestinians are usually searching for work and are harmless, but Israel’s biggest fear is the smuggling of drugs, arms, and bomb making substances.

When I returned from the US in April, I was sent on a standard patrol. We were notified of several shabachim in a valley, drove to the location, identified the shabachim, and began a full sprint pursuit. The shabachim immediately froze, dropped their bags, and formed a straight line. Upon request, they removed the contents of their pockets, removed their coats, and opened their bags. Each presented his personal identification. While my officer scanned each ID for potential criminals, my partner and I were in charge of securing the perimeter and making sure the shabachim remained quiet and orderly. As we have been taught for the last year and a half of training, we remained focused on the group, our guns pointed at the shabachim. This was the first time in my life that I had pointed my gun at someone. It was not a shooting range target, a metal plate, or even a crate; it was a living, breathing person.

As I have detailed in past updates, the IDF is extremely strict about its ethics policy and when a soldier is permitted to fire upon a suspect. In this situation, unless the shabachim become disorderly and legitimately threaten our lives, we are NOT permitted to open fire. Furthermore, if the shabachim suddenly run away we are NOT allowed to fire, even at their knees and below. Regardless, as most soldiers will tell you, there is nothing quite like the first time you have a person in your sights. You feel an overwhelming power, knowing that with the flick of your index finger, you can end a life. You nerves tense with a sprinkle of fear, a dash of the unknown. I trust my instincts, after a year and a half of intensive training; my reflexes know what to do before my mind has time to process the situation. After a few seconds of shock, my nerves calmed and I returned to a state of equilibrium.

I have always said that I want to finish my service having never shot a bullet. I feel that no person can be whole after he has washed his hands in blood. After two years in the military, I unwaveringly stand by this belief. If the situation arises when I must use my training, I will not think twice and pull the trigger. Yet, there is no valor in taking another man’s life; no medal will cleanse your actions. However, this is the life of a soldier. After two months in the army, the IDF makes every soldier take an ashba-ah, a ceremony of “swearing in,” where you promise to defend Israel and abide by her rules. It is the first time you are permitted to take your rifle home, swearing that you will use it only to defend the country, never to inflict unlawful harm. Soldiers are trained to killed, to protect, to defend. Yet no training will prepare you for the moment you line up a human target. Since this moment, I have participated in countless missions, arrests, and patrols, often setting my scope on a person. Each time my brain registers the situation, my nerves tense for a split second before my training kicks in and I return to equilibrium, calm on the trigger. I thank God each time for my training and the IDF’s insistence on the importance of human life, even those of our enemies.

As many of you have seen in the news, Israel was recently attacked by a group of thugs disguised as “peaceniks” aboard the Gaza bound flotilla, the Mayi Marmara. For those who are unfamiliar with the situation, at the end of May, six boats left the Mediterranean, headed for Gaza on a “humanitarian mission.” When the boats approached the Israel coastline, the IDF Navy called to the boats to be checked for weapons and possible terrorist aid in the Israeli port of Ashdod. The IDF made a promise that if there were no banned substances aboard, they would permit the humanitarian aid to enter Gaza, even though no humanitarian crisis exists. Five boats cooperated and docked in Ashdod, where they were checked and their contents disseminated in Gaza. However, one boat, now known as the “Flotilla” refused Naval orders, and proceeded to “break the Gaza blockade.” The IDF responded by sending its elite team of Navy Seals (a unit known as Shayetet). Less than 20 commandos descended to the Flotilla, one by one from a helicopter hovering above, onto the deck of the vessel, where 600 thugs pounced upon the soldiers as soon as they landed. The soldiers were armed with paintball guns and pistols as a last-case-scenario if the mission got out of control. The Flotilla “peaceniks” were armed with armed with sling shots, metal poles, large hammers, knives, stock piles of gas masks, and homemade explosives. You can watch a video of the weapons found aboard the Flotilla here. The soldiers were given the permission to open fire with their pistols once one of the soldiers had his pistol ripped away from his belt and the “peacenik” shot him in the stomach. Amazingly, the commandos were able to regain control of the situation which ended in the death of 10 “peaceniks” and several injuries to Shayetet soldiers.

As usual, the entire world was quick to condemn Israel’s actions. I watched the entire event unfold on Israeli TV with up to the minute updates and videos. After talking with many of you, I was amazed to hear that most of these videos never made the US news. I am sure that many of you have your own ideas and some of you may even criticize Israel’s actions. I want to offer a few thoughts and articles for you to process.

1) I, along with many Israelis, do not agree with the Navy’s actions to send less than 20 Shayetet soldiers from a helicopter, one by one, down a rope, unto a deck of the flotilla, teaming with 600 thugs. The IDF intelligence was disgraceful, and they put the lives of our soldiers in jeopardy. Under no circumstance should the commandos have ever boarded the vessel with paintball guns and not legitimate weapons with nonlethal force (rubber bullets, stun grenades, etc). Furthermore, the flotilla should have been stopped by larger naval ships and forced to dock in Ashdod. However, I was not in the command center and none of us know the specific reasons for the orders, yet I do place blame on the IDF for its questionable tactics, especially putting her soldiers at risk.

2) For those who believe the Flotilla passengers were actually peaceniks with only humanitarian aid in mind, I ask you, how do you explain all of the weapons and homemade explosives onboard the ship? How do you explain the dialogue between the commanders of the Flotilla and the IDF Navy, where after being warned that the vessel was entering an area under naval blockade, the Flotilla “peaceniks” responded with calls of “Go back to Auschwitz” and “Don’t forget 9/11 guys?”

One flotilla passenger told a reporter during a stop in Cyprus, “We are now waiting for one of two good things: either to reach Gaza or achieve martyrdom.”

The commander of the fleet also said, “We will not allow the Zionists to come near us, and we will wage resistance against them.' With what will they wage resistance? With their fingernails. These are people who wish to be martyred for the sake of Allah. As much as they want to reach Gaza, the other option is more desirable to them." (Source for both quotes)

Furthermore, how do you explain the video footage of what transpired? It is astounding to me that these videos, widely shown on Israeli news channels, barely made CNN, even Fox News. Here and here you can see Shayetet soldiers boarding the Flotilla, one-by-one from a helicopter. You can see the “peaceniks” pulling the helicopter’s rope as soldiers are sliding down, and you can watch the “peaceniks” attack the soldiers—often 15 against each soldier—with metal pipes and knives while soldiers retaliate by shooting paintballs. You can see them throw a soldier off the main deck of the Flotilla. You can see the paintball gun at the 51st second of the first video.

In this video, you can see firebombs and stun grenades thrown at the soldiers. I continue to ask myself, how can anyone believe that these are peaceniks? How can you objectively watch these videos and believe that the people aboard the Flotilla were not trying to kill the soldiers?

3) Of course, this entire debacle brings up the question, why is there a blockade on Gaza? I will defer to an excellent article by renowned lawyer and Israel advocate, Alan Dershowitz. You can read his article here. I would like to add that as recent as this past November, a vessel was stopped and boarded off the Israel coastline. Aboard the ship were 500 tons of guns, explosives, and arms, enough to arm a 400 man army battalion. The ship left Iran and was apparently on its way to Hezbollah in Lebanon. You can read about the specifics of the attempted smuggling here.

4) Moreover, for those who continue to question the legality of the blockade even after reading Mr. Dershowitz’s article, I offer you this legal explanation by the Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

5) As for the question of a “humanitarian crisis” in Gaza, the evidence is clear, there simply is NO crisis. Every week 10,000 tons of food, medicine and other humanitarian supplies are sent by Israel to Gaza. A recent UN convoy, led by Robert Serry, has declared that there is “no humanitarian problem in Gaza.” Serry acknowledged that there is a lack of building supplies in Gaza, but Israeli President, Shimon Peres explained, “Hamas is a murderous body, a terrorist organization, and an Iranian agent that spends all its efforts in expanding its weapons arsenal through tunnel smuggling. Hamas uses building materials [intended for houses and schools] to construct these tunnels and strengthen its terrorist network. Israel will not compromise the security of its citizens by allowing such tunnels.”

If you want to continue to question the “humanitarian problem” in Gaza, I ask you to read the following quote by Defense Minister Ehud Barak:

There are 1.5 million people living in Gaza and only one of them really needs humanitarian aid. Only one of them is locked in a tiny room and never sees the light of day, only one of them is not allowed visits and is in uncertain health – his name is Gilad Shalit, and this month four years will have passed since he was kidnapped.

6) Finally, I want to end with a personal testament to the character, resolve, and professionalism of the Shayetet commandos. I have a personal connection with Shayetet as my cousin served in the unit and another dear friend is currently in the unit. Simply put, Shayetet soldiers are some of, if not the best soldiers in the IDF and in the world. If they had not be as skillfully trained as they are, there would have been a much larger bloodbath, resulting in the loss of significantly more “peaceniks” and potentially IDF soldiers.

A significant part of my training was Krav Maga, the IDF’s hand-to-hand combat. One of our drills was to survive an ambush of 20-plus people. For three minutes, I was beaten in every direction, fighting furiously for my life. The drill was done in full padding and under strict supervision. At the end of three minutes I collapsed on the ground, completely exhausted. When I compare this to the Shayetet soldiers, I gasp in pure respect and amazement. These soldiers not only boarded a boat from a helicopter, one-by-one, outnumbered roughly 30-to-1, but they were able to sustain knives, sling shots, and metal pipes while doing the “real” version of my exercise. As you can see in the videos, one soldier was thrown overboard, yet the soldiers continued to respond with nonlethal force, firing harmless paintball pellets at the thugs, doing nothing over than covering the assailants with water based, temporary paint.

As a soldier, I am awed by Shayetet’s professionalism and soldering. Without question, they are heroes. I offer you this final video of a Shayetet soldier explaining the encounter.

Breaking away from politics, I had the pleasure of spending two extended weekends with two of my best friends, Jacob Kornblatt and Ronnie Barnett. Ronnie was on a Birthright trip and Jacob decided on a whim to spend a two week vacation in Israel after graduating from Case Western in May. I invited Jacob to my old stomping ground, Kibbutz Yiftach, where we spent a quiet evening with my adopted family, the Baraks. Jacob got to experience the never-ending bus ride from Tel Aviv to Yiftach, and then the laidback nature of Kibbutz life.

We returned for a weekend in Tel Aviv, spending a great two nights partying, swimming in the Mediterranean, and relaxing on the beach. We discussed philosophies of life and Jacob confessed his realization that he wants to make Aliyah and live in Israel. After a long discussion with roommate, Ethan, Jacob has decided that to completely assimilate into Israeli society, you have to join the IDF—he’s right by the way. As such, Jacob believes he will return to serve in the IDF after his contract with Teach for America finishes. I have my doubts, but I continue to wish him the best of luck.

As usual, I have provided you with a significant, first person account of serving on the front lines in the IDF—as well as a sequel to War and Peace. I hope that you have taken the time to watch the videos and read the articles that I have linked to this update. Israel needs all of her children to support her as much of the world is set to condemn her. The best way to respond to those against Israel is to know the facts, to watch the actual videos, and listen to the actual dialogues. As usual, I ask you to use this blog as a resource of information and a firsthand account of the West Bank and the IDF. Please pass my message along to anyone and everyone who is interested or needs to read my experiences. Remember, if you do not stand up for Israel, who do you expect to?

With much love, respect, and VDBL,

Nadav Weinberg

Friday, April 23, 2010

Passover in Cleveland, the loss of a close friend, stories from the West Bank, and the decline of Jewish support for Israel

Family and Friends,

I hope that you and your family are well and have enjoyed a wonderful Passover and Easter. I was lucky enough to spend Passover at HOME, in Shaker Heights, with my entire family! It was a perfect trip home, kicked off by my parents picking me up at the airport and a B-line directly to Chipotle. The first weekend happened to coincide with Greek Week at my alma mater, Case Western, and aside from catching up with fellow alumni in town, I was lucky enough to watch my beloved Sigma Phi Epsilon Fraternity brothers win a third consecutive Greek Week.

My sister, Tali (a new Emory graduate!), flew up from Atlanta and the entire Weinberg clan spent Passover at Darma’s Moroccan restaurant along with 90+ other friends. Despite losing my voice, I was able to catch up with dear friends and spend the evening entertained by Passover “Beatle MCs” Margy and Aaron Weinberg! (The Sedar songs were sung to famous Beatles tunes). Other highlights include a trip to The Shvitz (Cleveland’s famous Turkish bath house), third row seats at the Cav’s game (eternally indebted to the Sadler’s, thank you!), many coffees, lunches, and beers with dear friends, and a famous Weinberg BBQ.

After 9 days at home, I flew to San Diego and spent three amazing days with my grandparents. We spent hours talking about life, family history and stories, and the future. It’s amazing to see my grandparents, at 95 and 88 years old, devouring books, researching financial markets, and living life to the fullest. Great college friend, Dave Loomis, recently moved to San Diego and put cousin Daniel and myself up the entire time. Just a few blocks from the Pacific Beach bars, we enjoyed several nights out, including stops at In-N-Out and fresh Mexican food at every turn. Family came down from Newport and Los Angeles for a small family reunion, allowing me to catch up with aunts, uncles, and young cousins I have rarely met. One of the highlights of my entire trip home was three incredible days with my great friend and cousin, Daniel. Although we have always been close, the trip was an amazing way to catch up and build an even stronger bond: walking on the beach, margarita in one hand, fresh shrimp taco in the other.

All in all it was an unbelievable trip, and it has never been harder to leave. Equipped with Sweet Baby Ray’s BBQ Sauce and 5 bottles of Tea House Noodle’s brilliant Rica Rica sauce, I came back to Israel and the IDF, never having been more “shavuz”—NOT wanting to return to the army.

Before I flew home, I finished another three month block of training (for those keeping track at home, the running total is a year and a half straight training). I returned knowing that my unit would be stationed in the West Bank, but where we would be and what we would be doing were answers unknown to me. With these questions and “shavuz” feelings looming in my mind, and still digesting my amazing time in the States, I tossed and turned all night, barely sleeping two hours. Traveling all day, I arrived at my base in the West Bank at 8 PM.

The slogan of my unit, Orev Nachal, is “Ain Makom Acher.” A popular Israeli song, the slogan is translated literally as, “There’s No Other Place,” but holds the meaning, “this is home, there’s nowhere else I’d rather be.” When I arrived at base, I was still in shock of being in uniform, holding my gun, and entering an army base. However, as soon as I walked into my platoon, my entire unit jumped on me, everyone hugging me, kissing my cheeks, and asking how my trip was. While half of my team demanded to hear stories, the others dug through a 5 lbs bag of peanut M&M’s and Skittles, devouring every piece in 30 minutes. When I finally got a minute to myself, I arranged my bed and as I laid down, a smile crept over my face. I couldn’t help but whispered to myself, “Ain Makom Acher.”

My unit’s assignments in the West Bank are multifold with the main goal of maintaining peace and order between both sides and all factions. Often the biggest threat to peace in the West Bank is not the violence between Palestinians and Israelis as you would guess, but the extreme political leftists. These hardcore leftists come from all around the world—mostly Europe, Israel, and sadly enough, the US—and as shocking as it is to hear, the vast majority are Jewish. They come to defend the Palestinians and put up as much of a resistance to IDF soldiers as possible.

I would like to take a minute and explain a little about the background of IDF training and ethical expectations. As I have commented before, before each and every exercise that we do, we read a “tachkir”—a case study of a past accident that is prevalent to the exercise. The IDF takes every possible step to avoid mishap and catastrophe. Similarly, each and every day, as well as before each assignment that we have, you are questioned by a high ranking officer about different situations that can occur and the correct use of force in each condition. For example, if someone is running towards you, can you shoot him? It’s not as simple as you think. Before you can open fire, you have to yell at him in Arabic and Hebrew to stop several times, to slap the barrel grips of the gun loudly, to fire two warning shots in the air at 60 degrees, all the while continuing to yell in Arabic and Hebrew and requesting permission from an officer over the radio. Only once he will not stop and you have determined that he has the intent to harm you—you see he’s carrying a gun, knife, or other weapon—only and only then can you fire, but your fire is restricted to his knees and below. In this case, the only time a soldier is permitted to shoot to kill the suspected person is if he is shooting at you (he has to initiate it) or directly threatening your life or those of the people around you.

To say that the IDF takes ethical matters seriously is an understatement. I have sat through hours of meetings on the ethical treatment of terrorists, suspects, and protesters. I am proud to serve for a military that requires the highest level of moral conduct from its soldiers, something I have personally witnessed and experienced. I have escorted Palestinian children to and from school to make sure they are safe to receive an education. While doing so, the extreme leftists wait for the children, embrace them with open arms, give us a look of disgust, and ask us how we live with ourselves as “suppressors” of the children.

In another instance, I was summoned to kindly request herds of Palestinian goats and sheep to return to their side of a valley. It is well understood where established Israeli and Palestinian settlements are and where their boundaries lie. Yet for years now, day after day, soldiers are summoned to request the Palestinians to return their herds from understood Israeli territory and back onto Palestinian property. When I was sent to ask a Palestinian herder to move his sheep back to his side of the valley, I was greeted by one Palestinian herder, a leftist Israeli, and three American Jews. The herder began to scream and yell at us in Arabic, the Israeli asked us what the problem was, and the Americans asked for a map detailing the jurisdiction lines of the valley. Soon after we approached, another Palestinian herder arrived, video camcorder in hand, and the Americans began to take pictures, shoving cameras in our faces, often a foot from my face. Each party began to yell at us, trying to initiate an angry response that would be recorded on camera and broadcasted around the world, depicting the “angry Israeli soldiers” yelling at a “poor Palestinian herder.”

I feel the need to write these stories and share them with you because these are all too often the stories you do not hear. While I was there and not a single soldier spoke to anyone but the herder, calmly requesting him for an hour to move his herd ten meters, the video can be easily edited to show three heavily armed, fully outfitted IDF soldiers around one Palestinian herder. Sound like pictures you’ve seen on the news recently?

Since coming to the West Bank, I have seen one of my biggest fears come to fruition: Jews who hate Israel. On Yom Haatzmaut (Israel’s Independence Day) extreme religious “Jews” burned Israeli flags in Jerusalem’s radical Meya Sha-arim district. I spent part of the previous day—Yom Hazikaron, Israel’s Remembrance Day—protecting a group of religious women who came to a memorial site where a Palestinian suicide bomber blew up a bus. While I was asking the herder to move his sheep, the horn blew for Yom Hashoah (Holocaust Remembrance Day) and one of the American Jews started yelling at me, “This is how you are remembering the Holocaust?!” I cannot tell you how badly I wanted to reach out, shake this man, and say I HAVE to spend my day this way because YOU are a deterrence to peace and spend your Yom Hashoah verbally abusing IDF soldiers! But alas we are trained not to confront these protesters, and I continued, as calmly as I could, to urge the herder to move his sheep, ignoring the protester.

It tears me apart that my own people are such a deterrent to peace. By no way am I defending the extreme Israeli right either, but to watch Jewish American professors protest Israel, to use their classroom to decry Israel and her struggle to survive, and then spend Holocaust Remembrance Day proudly serving my people to a diatribe of hate speech from a Jew, I cannot standby any longer, I need to share these stories with you and the world. This is no longer a worry; it is an imminent threat to Israel, ironically caused by our Jewish people.

I want to end this update with a memory of a friend who passed away two months ago. Avi Schaefer is the second friend of mine to pass away since joining the IDF, and although I was only privileged to know him for a year, he is someone who I will always remember. Avi, a native of California, made Aliyah two years before me and was a member of Garin Tzabar. Joining the IDF as a lone soldier with his twin brother Yoav, Avi was recruited to Nachal and after passing the tryout for Special Forces, was accepted to Orev (my unit), where he served with many of my future commanders. During training, Avi sustained injuries to his knees and left Orev to become a handgun instructor and later a “LOTAR” instructor—SWAT tactical training. After serving a full three years of service, Avi returned to the US and enrolled at Brown University in the Fall of 2009. Two months ago, Avi attended a party at Brown. He left the party and got into a car with his friend. After a few minutes, Avi realized that his friend was too drunk to drive and insisted that his friend pull over so Avi could walk his other friend home, making sure that she arrived safely. While walking home, a different drunk driver turned a corner and ran over Avi, killing him and injuring his friend.

When I heard the news, I was completely shocked and remained distant for several days. Avi made the correct decision to leave the car, was a gentleman in walking his friend home, and yet, suffered because of it. To say that Avi is loved is an understatement. While Avi was laid to peace at home in California, we held a service in Jerusalem, streaming the funeral live. What began as a 20 member event was attended by over 300 people, sharing memories and reminiscing on the amazing impact Avi was able to have over our lives.

Less than two weeks before Avi passed, he sent me a message on Facebook, saying how he regrets not having had the chance to build our relationship more. He discovered my blog and spent several hours reading every entry. Avi discussed his greatest concern—the same concern I mentioned previously—is the growing number of Jews who defy, do not support, or ignore Israel. The following is an excerpt from his message, citing his frustrations back in the US with American Jews:

I have to tell you, our future—that of the Jewish People and Israel looks grimmer and grimmer. I am so frustrated by the notion of Jewish paralysis here in America. Jews are embarrassed of Israel—the lack of Jewish identity, education, and love for Judaism has manifested itself into a reality, where at a campus that is 30% Jewish, I only have a handful who are willing to stand up and say that it is wrong to call Israelis Nazi’s, that it is wrong to compare Gaza with the Holocaust, and that it is wrong to question Israel’s right to exist. I wish I could tell you that this was only one example, but sadly, as I am sure you know, this is a microcosm that is echoed throughout the Western World.

It seems so obvious that this new rhetoric is anti-Semitism’s new outlet, new poison, but how deep has it has crept when Jews, liberals—defenders of human rights and democracy are embarrassed to be seen as allies of the Jewish state!

As you can read, Avi was an amazing writer and a man who bled Zionism. He was a man with an aura: when I shook his hand the first time, I knew there was something special about him. He understood both Israelis and Palestinians—one of his best friends at Brown was the head of the Brown Palestinian club—and knew that the only chance for peace was an open and honest dialogue, to accept both of our pasts so we can move to a united future. Avi was a man we can all learn from, look up to, and emulate. Brother, you will be missed. I only hope that people heed your word and realize that there is only ONE Jewish homeland and as Jews we must defend her. I will continue the work you have started, but you leave very large shoes to fill. A friend and I created three collages that were hung at the ceremony in Jerusalem, you can see them here: collage 1, collage 2, collage 3.

I have many, many more pictures to share, but I do not have the time to load them currently. Please visit my blog in the coming weeks for new pictures.

I realize that I have written some very bold statements but I want to tell you, first hand, what it is like here. For those of you who know me well, you know I speak from the heart and “tell it as it is.” That is what I have presented to you here. I hope that you heed Avi’s words and do what you can to support Israel. If you are moved by my words, please pass them on to anyone you know because Israel needs the world to know the truth, she needs her children to support her. That is why I am here risking my life in the IDF. I am serving so my children will not have to. I pray that day will come to fruition.

With respect, love, and VDBL,

Nadav Weinberg

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Finishing 14 months of training, spending the High Holidays guarding, and why I will never cross an electrical fence again!

Family and Friends,

I hope that all of you and your families are well and weathering the winter in comfort (hey, there’s no snow in Israel!).

It has been roughly four months since my last email, for which I apologize, but as you will read, I’ve been busier than ever. Since my last correspondence, I have FINALLY finished one year and two months of Special Forces training, including five weeks of “finals” that tested every piece of information and training that I’ve learned. Also, I completed parachuting course and as usual, was at the receiving end of several humorous stories that you can read about below.

Before I begin, I want to pay tribute to those of you who have given so generously to my unit’s fundraising efforts for improved gear. Family and friends alike, you have been my rock, supporting my efforts to join the IDF, and constantly racking up high telephone bills to make sure I’m safe. Yet again you came to my assistance when I requested assistance in raising funds to purchase gear for my unit. With your assistance my unit now has state-of-the-art hiking boots, headlamps, water pouches (Camelbaks), and warm winter fleeces. Words are not enough to thank you for your generosity. We have been utilizing the gear for the last three months of training and not only has our performance improved, but injuries are down significantly. On behalf of my unit, and from the bottom of my heart, thank you for your generosity and support. I have added a significant number of new pictures, many of which highlight the new gear that you purchased. The new pictures a can be reached by clicking on the first slideshow of thumbnails on the right side of the blog or by clicking HERE.

Usually the Jewish High Holidays are a time to relax, take a break from one’s life, and reflect on the past year: what one did wrong, who one wronged, and where one needs to improve. It is a time that I take very seriously and enjoy the cleansing process. However, as with each first in the army, this year’s High Holidays were significantly different. For all three major holidays—Rosh Hashanah (New Year), Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement), and Sukot—I was in the army. As you can see in this picture, my unit was called to provide extra security in the West Bank, and while fasting, I was forced to pray while on guard duty for all three holidays. Although far from the comforts of Cantor Shifman and B’nai Jeshurun’s choir, this was—as every holiday in the army has been—memorable. The core of the High Holidays is to reflect on your actions, to forgive those you’ve wronged, and to make a pledge to be a better person, a better Jew. Political views aside, spending my past year and the year to come protecting our Jewish people and Israel is the greatest way that I can become a better person and Jew. Standing for hours overlooking the West Bank, praying, and contemplating my past year of service and life decisions, I could not be more proud of myself. I know that I have hurt many of you along the way by making the choices I have made, and for that I ask for your forgiveness, but ask you to also look at the better man I have become for what I have done.

The last three months of training were without a doubt the hardest of the 14 months. Each week builds on what you’ve learned the previous few weeks, that it, it’s all cumulative. As such, the amount of information you’re expected to retain is astounding, forcing you to be at your best at all times. For example, my unit has done several months of navigations. Each week’s navigations get longer, harder, and you begin carrying weight—then more weight, and more weight, and more weight. (Again, I am not permitted to discuss my training in depth, so bear with me). One week, we navigated for four straight days, and at the end of each navigation, you had to build a camouflaged fort, alternating sleeping and studying the next day’s navigation (remember, I memorize all navigations, that is, when you actually navigate, you do so without a map!). Each navigation takes you up and down mountains and valleys, through villages and forests. Over the course of the four days, my partner and I navigated over 100 km (60+ miles)—including 15 mountains—while carrying 90 lbs.

With such intense weeks often come the most humorous stories, and this week led to one of my most memorable moments in the army. Navigations will often take you through farm lands, meaning that with 90+ lbs on your back, you have to negotiate barbwire fences, and at times electrical fences. Since it is often impossible to circumvent the fences, you and your partner carefully climb over or crawl under the fences (emphasis on CAREFULLY). About 8 hours into a navigation—and with another 4 hours to go—my partner and I came across a large electrical fence. We knew that we had to get to the other side of the farmland, but circumventing it would take at least an hour. We surveyed the fence and found a section where we could safely detach the fence and pass through. My partner—significantly smaller than me—threw his bag through and slipped right through the fence. Following his lead, I also threw my bag through and began to shimmy my way through the tight opening. Nearly through, my M-16 shifted, and the gun caught both sides of the fence, connecting the electrical circuit, and pumping electricity through my body. I should clarify that these electrical fences are engineered to keep roaming cows from eating the crops inside. As such, the voltage is enough to send a strong message to a cow. For me, a human being, this voltage was enough to launch me back out of the opening and throw me to the ground. Lying on the ground, I checked to see that my heart was still beating, and I could still move all my appendages. Lucky for me, I was okay, but the shock was enough to keep me fearful of every fence we approached from thereon.

At the end of this 12 hour navigation, my partner and I, joined by another pair, built a fort and went to sleep. Unfortunately it was 90 degrees and humid outside, a problem when your feet are blistered and you’re required to sleep in your boots and vest. Completely exhausted but unable to sleep, each person removed his shoes and vest. With our luck, for the first time all week our officer decided to come by and check on us. Seeing us without boots and vests, he began yelling and threatening us. Checking the other forts, he discovered that just about everyone was sleeping without boots and vests. In short, our punishment was to do the ENTIRE week again. You had better believe that no one removed his vest or boots that week!

Our “final” for navigations included navigations in the North and South of Israel (forest and desert regions). Navigating 25-30 km by yourself, while carrying 100 lbs, it was fair to say that these were the toughest navigations we’d ever done. Two of my friends were nearly eaten by Bedouin dogs while I climbed mountain ranges so high that the low clouds diminished visibility to just one meter in each direction. While navigating in the North, I climbed a mountain so steep, it took me nearly two hours to climb one mile (usually done in 20 minutes). While walking at 4 AM in the thick of a forest, I heard the distinct sound of grunting and stamping the ground. We were warned about this one: wild boars. Stopping dead in my path, I inserted my magazine, cocked the gun, and slowly retreated backwards. As I began to descend from this enormous mountain range, I had planned a path (which using a topographic map looked okay) and began to descend. Fighting my way through trees, gigantic boulders, and shrubbery, I again stopped dead in my path as I looked straight down a 100 foot rock wall! Deciding this wasn’t the ideal way to descend the mountain, I turned slowly—remember I have 100 lbs on my back—and began to retrace my steps to the top. I found a “better” path down, which was basically 6-10 foot boulder drops that I scooted down on my tush. Here’s a picture of me working my way down this “path.” These were some of the scariest moments of my life, but as everything over the past year and two months, I cursed the mountains as I descended them, then laughed about the experiences with my teammates afterwards, knowing that we were all a little tougher and stronger for what we had overcome.

Another great story came in our second to last week of training. Navigating, fighting, and taking over buildings—and just about everything else you can think about—with three teammates for four days, we lived off of a can of tuna a day per person and a handful of peanuts. Starving and exhausted while climbing one of the largest mountains I’ve ever seen, my “hooliah” (a small unit) noticed that on the road near us a car was driving quite slow until it came to a complete stop. One of my teammates, a chain smoker, decided he’d take a chance to see if the driver had a cigarette. As it turned out, the driver was none other than one of my teammate’s mothers! Not only did she bring a carton of cigarettes for the smokers, but a bag full of hamburgers, chips, and Coke! I cannot emphasize how shocked everyone was at that moment. This teammate had the foresight to call his mother and tell her that he’d be at a certain location at a certain time and to meet him there with food. NEVER has a hamburger tasted so good. When you’re carrying 110 lbs, climbing mountains, fighting, and living on only a few hours of sleep and a can of tuna a day, this is better than winning the lottery.

Easily the most exciting experience I’ve had over the past four months has been jumping out of an airplane. Anyone who knows me knows how scared I am of heights, flying, and especially parachuting. One of the “chuparim” (benefits/gifts) of being in a Special Forces unit is that you get to do course “tznicha” (jump course). By far the oldest soldier in my platoon, there was no way I was going to chicken out, so I sucked it up, and did the course. Not only was it painful (you’re strapped in around your groin and practice landing over and over hurts your knees), but it was tedious. Since you parachute solo and your chute automatically opens, you have to practice landing since that’s where the majority of injuries occur. As such, we practiced “galagim” (a name for the motion of landing: knees and feet together, feel the contact and roll in that direction, flinging your legs over your body, ideally eliminating the force of landing) over and over and over again, until the word made each of us cringe. You can watch a movie of me partaking in one of the more painful exercises HERE.

At the end of the course, we parachuted twice, easily the scariest experience of my life. They teach you to look up (so you don’t see the ground) and straight (so you don’t see the plane or people who jumped before you), but it doesn’t matter, when you get to the door of an airplane and you’re in the air, flying, you know exactly what you’re doing. When I got to the door, I saw my friend who had jumped right before me, twisted in air, falling to the ground. I don’t remember exactly what happened next, but I was told to jump and I responded with a stream of curses, and didn’t move. They told me to jump again, and before I could react, they had pushed me out of the plane. There are no words to explain the three seconds of sheer fear before your parachute opens, but once it does, there is no better feeling, and the world goes completely silent around you, a truly liberating feeling. You watch a video of my second jump HERE and another video of me safely on the ground HERE. I would love to tell you that I landed perfectly, just liked I’d been taught for two weeks, but as usual, my superb coordination was on display. Anyone who has parachuted understands the phenomenon of how fast the ground comes up to you. Preparing for landing, I entered into ready position, just like I’d been taught. My feet hit the ground, and instead of rolling, I landed flat on my tush, then my back. Lying on the ground, I found myself in a peculiar position again, reminiscent of my encounter with the electrical fence.

My final week of training, known as “Mesakem Maslul” (Finals of Training), was one of, if not the hardest weeks of my army experience. Living on nearly no food and no sleep for four days, my team navigated up and down mountains and valleys for miles at a time, executing missions along the way. I was carrying 110 lbs with my Negev (machine gun) throughout the week and at times felt as if I was going to collapse mid-step—I fell asleep walking for the first time; there are periods of 10-15 minutes that I do not remember at all. The week was very special for me because it ended on December 31st, the day before my dear childhood friend, Kambili Moukwa, died last year (New Years). For those who remember, I named my Negev Kam and whenever I felt like I couldn’t keep going, I thought of Kambili, and kept pushing through. As I ascended the final mountain, I pushed back tears as I cradled my Negev, remembering Kambili and muttering, “We did it, we finally did it!” Standing on top of that mountain and watching the sunrise was one of the greatest moments of my life. I have never been more proud of any award, degree, or achievement in my life. Nothing has shaped me or matured me the way the last 14 months of training have. I know now that there is NOTHING I can’t do. I’ve lived the last 14 months working 120 hours a week, with virtually no personal life, on call 24/7, starving, exhausted, and pushed the brink of what the body can survive, and then some. HERE is a slightly glorified video of my unit’s training (sorry, you must have Facebook to watch the movie; it is too long to post on YouTube). In addition, you can read an article that was published in the official IDF Magazine, Bemahana, on my platoon and my unit’s last week of training HERE (I’m actually quoted in the article; the article is in Hebrew as well).

After finishing training, I was graciously granted two weeks of leave to travel with my parents. We spent the first part of it moving my belongings to Tel Aviv where I am living with two of my best friends from the kibbutz, Ethan and Blake. We spent the rest of the time traveling around the country visiting family and friends while trying to relax when time permitted. Although a stressful move (lord knows how painful bureaucracy is in Israel), it was great to see my parents and spend time with them. Living halfway around the world sure does pull families together!

Please note, my new address is:

Nadav Weinberg
25 Pinkas #6
Tel Aviv, Israel 62662

New Skype name: nadav.e.weinberg

Thank you to all for your birthday wishes, it was a much better birthday this year than last. Know that you are all missed dearly and in my heart and prayers.

Much love and VDBL,

Nadav E. Weinberg