Most mornings I take a walk on the taiyelet (boardwalk) in Tel Aviv to pray. But today, I ran into one of those warmongering Israeli soldiers. This time, he was attacking an innocent ice cream cone!!! You can see how angry he looks! He probably beat up a felafel after I left!
Of course, I'm joking. But it is amazing how misunderstood the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) are. One of the great lies that has been spread in the Arab world in some ways has worked as a deterrent. Arab nations tend to teach their children that Jews are savages.
We supposedly kidnap Christian or Muslim children (depending on where the story is being told), and we mingle their blood to make matzah for Passover. Our soldiers are rapists and murderers, and you should be very afraid of them. They wake up each day hoping this will be the day they get to murder a Palestinian. Or so the story goes…
In case you're wondering, I have been Jewish all my life and for almost 20 years, Israeli. Until now, I have not seen any evidence of the widespread anti-Semitic trope that we kidnap children for ritualistic purposes. We were also accused of poisoning the wells of Europe during the black plague (even though Jews died with everyone else).. And we are already being blamed for coronavirus! (You're welcome, China!)
But when it comes to the Israeli Defense Forces, we're not talking about a hard-core army of bristled, chiseled soldiers, just waiting for their next opportunity to butcher the enemy. In fact, nothing could be further from the truth. We are a civilian army, meaning everyone goes into the IDF.
IDF stands for:
צְבָא הַהֲגָנָה לְיִשְׂרָאֵל
Literally: the Army of Defense of Israel, or Israeli Defense Forces.
When you run into a group of soldiers, it's very different than what I experienced growing up in America. In the United States, people in the army want to be in the army. It may be in order to grow up and mature, or it could be the beginning of a career, or maybe they want to get help for college. Some want to see the world (the Israeli soldiers get to see Ramallah!), and some are excited about the idea of warfare. For many people, it's their only option—a ticket out of a bad situation. But one thing is for sure, when you run into a soldier, he or she looks the part.
You see, most Israeli soldiers would prefer not to be in the army at all. They'd rather be in college or starting their career or traveling to Europe. Imagine if every young man and woman in your country had to wait two to three years to begin their adult life after high school. Don't get me wrong, it has its advantages. The lessons learned in the IDF are often better than a college education—or at least, a great supplement. In the best-selling book Start-up Nation, the authors credit the IDF and the training that Israelis receive for giving them the tenacity and character to have more startup companies per capita than any nation in the world.
The former IDF soldier simply does not know how to give up. That is one of the greatest qualities they learn. Yes, it is true that they may not want to be there, but once they are in the army, they are trained to take high risks to protect the homeland and their fellow soldiers. Israeli soldiers are known to run into gunfire in order to retrieve the body of a fallen soldier. In most armies, the commander says "forward," in the IDF, he says, "acharii," after me—and Israel has paid a high price in blood for this policy of commanders leading the way, but it sets the example and endears the type of loyalty needed to survive in a region surrounded by sworn enemies.
"Then, as now, the fact that Arabs outnumbered Israelis by forty to one in population and more than six hundred to one in territory was plainly irrelevant to those who turned apoplectic about the "expansionist" Israeli-Jewish Reich—approximately the size of tiny Wales or the state of New Jersey!"
We have an elite army made up of computer geeks, Instagram influencer wannabes, aspiring bakers, comic book collectors, and people that just don't know what they want to do with their life yet. Some will go on to be hairstylists, many might start a business, and others will actually make a career in the army. The point is that our soldiers are our children. Everyone's children.
(L) Elana with a group of soldiers and (R), me, Ron, on the same day.
So when we see a group of soldiers, we don't bristle with fear; our hearts are filled with compassion. We want to hug them, buy them a meal, or give them a cup of coffee. We know that they're probably exhausted. Our daughters would come home from the army on Thursday afternoon (unless they had to stay on base for the weekend) and often collapse until morning.
(L) This is from a our daughter's swearing in service. Those are copies of the Hebrew Scriptures on the table. (M) Our daughter Yael, just before her swearing in. (R) Danielle on one of her last days. We went to her base for her "getting out" party.
In Israel, it's a bit different. I don't want to throw shade at our wonderful IDF, but you do not have near the discipline that you would have in the American armed forces. Don't get me wrong, when it comes to training and execution, the IDF has proven that we are a force to be reckoned with. But the regular daily uniform of the Israeli soldier looks a little bit shabby. His hair is not so neat as his American counterpart. He might even have a beard. He looks exhausted, and while his shirt should be tucked in, he probably hasn't done a very good job.
When we do Israel tours, and by the grace of God, we will soon do them again, one of the favorite things for our groups is to shower love on a group of soldiers. And the soldiers love it. Just imagine, and forgive me for using America as my plumbline, but that's where I grew up, a group of tourists from China or Europe jumping all over a bunch of Marines! They might get shot! The Marines would certainly have no context to understand the foreigners' excitement.
Video of a recent tour, when we ran into a group of soldiers on the Golan Heights.
But in Israel, it is a common thing for tourists to take pictures with soldiers. So, the next time you are in Israel, and hopefully you'll be with Elana and me, make sure to at least have a conversation, if not buy an ice cream or cup of coffee, for an Israeli soldier. You will make their day!
 Excerpt From: Robert S. Wistrich. “A Lethal Obsession.” Apple Books. https://books.apple.com/us/book/a-lethal-obsession/id420731763