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,