By Michael Jacobs
The teens attending the BBYO and NFTY conventions will get to see the diverse face of the Israel Defense Forces.
Israel advocacy group StandWithUs is bringing its Israeli Soldiers Tour to Georgia for the conventions and for stops at Emory University, Georgia Tech, the University of Georgia and Atlanta Jewish Academy.
The tour is bringing in two Israelis who are on reserve status while in school after completing their active-duty military service: Gal and Yehuda (only their first names are being used).
Gal, 24, who was born in Lima, Peru, is a second-year law student in international criminal law at Bar-Ilan University and a Tel Aviv resident after serving as a basic training commander at an intelligence base for the IDF. She was with the Israel Scouts as a teenager and is the granddaughter of the paratrooper colonel who established the IDF’s paratrooper school.
Yehuda took a different path to the IDF. A native of Ethiopia’s capital, Addis Ababa, he immigrated to Israel in 2009 at age 21 and volunteered with the IDF, where he served in a border police unit at West Bank checkpoints and at holy sites in Hebron and Jerusalem. He lives in Jerusalem and is studying political science and communications at Hadassah College in Jerusalem.
Both IDF veterans spoke to the Atlanta Jewish Times by phone from Jerusalem, where they were training for their U.S. tour.
The tour will not be Gal’s first time working with North American youths. She delayed military service for a year after high school to serve as a Jewish Agency emissary in Toronto, where she helped connect children in day schools and synagogues to Israel, and she worked as a counselor at the Alexander Muss High School in Israel after the army.
Gal said she’s thankful for the opportunity to tell Israel’s story to Jewish teens because she doesn’t take diaspora support for Israel for granted. “The fact that people care about a place some will never live, thank you that you care so much.”
She said her time in Toronto exposed her to the misconceptions spread by the news media, which show “the face of a soldier that I’ve never seen before. It’s important to go and show them the true soldier.”Yehuda
Gal said the foreign coverage of the fighting in Gaza last summer was painful, and she wants the teens to see the truth.
She sees each of the teens at the BBYO and NFTY conventions as a young ambassador of Israel, and she wants to arm them with the facts to defend Israel from the hatred they will find on college campuses and the advances of the boycott, divest, sanction movement. “They’re protecting me. They’re protecting my family, my friends.”
That protection goes both ways, she said, because the IDF provides defense not only to all Israeli citizens, regardless of religion, but also to all Jewish people everywhere by showing the world that Jews aren’t weak anymore.
It’s important for the Jewish teens to understand that Israel applies that strength ethically through a 10-part code that includes a unique standard on the “purity of arms,” Gal said.
“We won’t use a weapon if we have a less extreme solution,” she said. “That shapes who I am as a persona and a soldier.
It’s a rule she applied along the Egyptian border while providing relief to the regular border troops. In the middle of the night, three men dressed in black were spotting crossing the barbed-wire fence dividing the countries.
As the commander in the field, it was her call how to respond. She decided to hold fire, secure the perimeter, call for backup and try to capture the intruders, who turned out to be asylum-seekers from Eritrea.
The morality of the situation was driven home two years later when Gal went to work at a cupcake shop and became friends with an Eritrean co-worker, who told her about the abuse he suffered from Egyptian soldiers on his way to Israel.
One of the payoffs for Gal was an invitation to her co-worker’s sister’s Christian Eritrean wedding. “I looked different, but I was so welcome. Everyone hugged me and came to speak to me, and I felt like I belonged. … It’s so easy to mention the negative things; no one writes about Zarai’s sister’s wedding.”
She said the diversity of Israel, which like the United States is made up of immigrants from many countries, is crucial to the beauty of the nation. She sees it in the different skin colors of her university classmates and in her own family tree, which includes Morocco, Iraq and Egypt.
“There are so many different countries that form what it is to be Israeli. I can’t imagine Israel without this community,” Gal said. “This is my everyday reality. This is what I experience. This is who I am.”
Yehuda, as an immigrant from Ethiopia whose English (his third language at best) isn’t as fluent as Gal’s, is an example of that diversity.
“We are growing up hearing about Jerusalem since childhood,” he said. “My dream and all the Ethiopian Jewish community dream of coming to Jerusalem one day to be a part of it.”
He had culture shock in a couple of ways when he arrived in his dream city, Jerusalem. First, the tiny size of Israel, in terms of geography and population, was a surprise for someone who grew up in a city of 6 million people, three-quarters of Israel’s entire population.
He also was caught off-guard by the very diversity of which he is an example. He got to sample so many different kinds of food, music and culture and to hear 15 languages spoken on a single bus.
“It’s difficult to come to a new way of life, a new society, a new culture,” Yehuda said, so it’s natural for immigrants from particular countries to build a community together.
Yehuda came to learn that Israel’s diversity is what makes the country strong. He said Israel’s neighbors should learn that lesson. “It’s very important to have different kinds of people.”
Israel’s embrace of diversity makes a joke of the charge that it’s an apartheid state, he said. That apartheid charge is the kind of misleading information he wants to correct for his American audiences.
Yehuda has firsthand knowledge because he manned checkpoints between Palestinian territory in the West Bank and Israel. He said that work, providing protection from terrorists, was good because it was an effort to bring peace to the holy land.
He also helped maintain the peace at the Temple Mount, where his task was to prevent Jewish trouble because only Muslims are allowed to pray atop the mount. “On the one hand, it is strange,” Yehuda said. “On the other, it is an indication of how we can serve those people regardless of religious differences.”
Yehuda hopes that the Jewish teens in Atlanta learn two things from him. “I want them to know how much is important the unity and diversity of the people. … Second is the threat of extremists in the Middle East.”
Both Gal and Yehuda see their enemy not as a particular country or ethnicity or religion, but extremism.
“I don’t think the true solution is to become the extremists that we’re fighting,” Gal said. “We’re against them. Using their techniques and being more violent are not the right tools.”
“People here want peace like every other people,” Yehuda said. “We’re fighting against extremism like every other country.”
And like citizens of other countries, they are proud of theirs.
“People who are judging this country without knowing things exactly, they cannot know those things from a different perspective,” Yehuda said. “They should come to judge the country in person.”
People should talk to the diverse range of Israelis, including the Druze, not just Jews, Gal said. “I want the world to see it and know it. I think there’s a place for every person to come to Israel.”