Thursday, August 24, 2006

August 24, 2006 A Walk in the Woods

August 24, 2006

The cease-fire in Lebanon is expensive. Another soldier died yesterday when his unit accidently tripped an old Israeli Army mine, placed in Lebanese soil the last time Israel had to occupy that territory. So far the French, who pushed so hard for a cease-fire and international force, haven’t sent over a serious fighting force. Neither has anyone else. So the Israelis, as expected, are stuck holding the fort.

The fever pitch to oust Prime Minister Olmert, Defense Minister Peretz, and Chief-of-Staff Halutz seems to have died down. One pundit excused their actions by saying, ‘They were given a bucket filled with holes and told to go to the well and get water.’ Now the investigations will be into who gave them the bucket, who allowed a bucket with holes to be considered as a way to carry water, and how did the holes get in the bucket in the first place? From a distance the blame seems easy to place. Closer to the facts prejudice and pre-judgment become irrelevant as the truth become clearer.

This morning during a stroll in the Jerusalem Forest, taking the family mutt, Libra, a black mixed-breed lab/pointer, for her morning constitutional, my companion and I encountered Ami and his three tiger-striped mongrel boxers, a mother and her two male off-spring. None of the dogs were leashed. When they meet the dogs usually entertain themselves chasing each other. The boxers can never catch Libra, a fleet-footed escape artist, not the barrel-chested fighter. The idea of the forest walk is that the dogs can roam free, jump and play, do their business, and then return back to the confinements of urban living. It’s a very relaxing peaceful 45-minutes for their owners as well.

Ami is a young father. Handsome, in his thirties, looks a bit like Tom Cruise. He said he’d found the mother, homeless, with the two puppies, a year ago, and took her in. He’s a nice guy. He walks the dogs every morning. Frequently his dog and Libra play together, chasing each other through the brush and bushes, dodging around the pine trees of the forest, while we chat. But Ami had been missing for a couple of weeks. This morning he explained he’d been in Lebanon.

Okay, an eye-witness to the events in Lebanon. He was attached to a tank unit. He was vague about his job, and rank. In these situations one learns not to ask questions that will only elicit an uncomfortable, probably disingenuous, answer. What about the soldier’s protest in the Rose Garden opposite the Prime Minister’s office? Was he in favor of it? He pondered the question carefully before answering. No, he didn’t think Olmert and Peretz and Halutz were to blame. The problems existed before they came to office. But there were problems with parts of the war and how it was executed.

What about the supplies, the lack of water and food and equipment? Again, the careful, thoughtful answer. No, he didn’t think that was a real problem, either. “The Army has enough uniforms,” he said, when asked about a report that only 12,000 pairs of pants were in army warehouses, when a million were needed. “And the other stuff? It was all okay, sooner or later,” he said, slowly. He didn’t talk fast. Didn’t get excited. Didn’t wave his hands and rant and rave. He talked calmly, in a low voice. He seemed the kind of guy you’d want as your officer, if you had to go into battle.

So what were the problems? What happened? “We had plans for everything,” he said. “There wasn’t anything we didn’t have a battle plan for. We were prepared. The problem was that some of the plans weren’t put into practice. Those were field decisions. Nothing to do with the government. It was all army. Those are questions that need answers. But the rest of it. No, we were ready for it.”

But what about the lack of training for Lebanon, the unpreparedness? Again, he considered the question. “The units all have been training,” he said. “Everyone knows their jobs. Some train for a war with Syria, others for a war with Iraq, some for Gaza, others for the West Bank. Some for fighting Hezbollah. No, training wasn’t the problem. It was just a few plans that didn’t get carried out the way they should have. Who knows why? But it will all come out. It always does.”

He started to walk away. I realized that while he’d been on the path many times, it wasn’t clear what he did in civilian life. “What do you do during the day, when you’re not in the army?”

“Oh, that,” he answered, with a little smile. “I’m working on my Ph.D.”

A smart soldier. What was the field, he was asked. Again the little smile. “The history of strategic planning and asymmetrical warfare.” He waved, and walked away.

“See, that’s what I mean,” my companion said. “That’s the army we have. What do they have? Fanatics out to kill us, and for what?”

Earlier in the week I met two Tzadekim, wise holy men, who were visiting Israel. They’d never consider themselves Tzadekim. It simply wouldn’t occur to them. But they were, at least this week. Two simple men who came to Israel from the United States to help out the Jewish people if they could. One of the men, let’s call him Joseph, had been in Israel for three weeks. He was an ex-Israeli, who’d moved to the USA thirty-odd years ago, but still had brothers and nephews and nieces and cousins in Tel Aviv. He’d spent the last two weeks of the war in the north giving out food. He’d raised some money, with Sam, his business partner, come over, bought two truck-loads of sandwiches and went around from border-crossing to border-crossing passing out the sandwiches to the soldiers. When the truck was empty, he refilled it and came back for more. “You’d be amazed how hungry they were,” he said. “They liked tuna the most.”

Wasn’t he concerned about his safety? “Sure,” he said. “I was scared. But we did it anyway.” This more or less matched what James Jones wrote in his little-known novel “Go To The Widow-maker.” In it Jones’ protagonist was sitting on the gunwale of a rowboat about to free-dive 100 feet. Jones, known for his work “From Here to Eternity” was a war hero himself. He said in the “Widow-maker” the problem wasn’t being afraid of diving, it was being afraid and doing it anyway. That was courage. Doing it anyway. Joseph did it anyway.

Then his partner Sam arrived in the country. The two of them rented a car and went driving around the north of Israel passing out money to institutions and people who needed it. They were both Lubavitcher Habadniks, although in their daily lives they held down good jobs and dealt with secular people. They weren’t “professional Jews.” They’d raised the money themselves, from friends, and acquaintances in the States. It wasn’t a fortune, about fifty-thousand dollars, but it was more than just ‘something.’ And they weren’t doing it for their own glory. They were doing it because it was a ‘mitzvah.’ Because things like this needed to be done. They are good examples of what the religious community stands for, at its core.

Of course, the Hebrew month of Elul began Thursday, and the count-down started to the High Holidays. It is a month when religious fervor builds all the way to Yom Kippur, broken by the two-day feast of Rosh Hashana, and then is capped off with the joyous holiday of Simchat Torah, celebrating the time when Moses received the Ten Commandments on Mt. Sinai. During this month Slichot (prayers of forgiveness) are said by the Sephardi Jews, from the first of Elul until Yom Kippur, and by the Ashkenazi Jews from the Saturday night before Yom Kippur. It is a month to do penance for ones sins. In Jerusalem the Sephardi synagogues turn on their lights at 3:00 AM, the hour Napoleon said was when courage was tested, and the worshippers begin arriving, to say their Slichot prayers when most people are still in bed. The worshipers finish their forgiveness prayers just before sunrise, say their morning prayers, and then go to work. This grueling ritual goes on for over a month.

Hezbollah, then, doesn’t have a lock on religious observance, fervor, or devotion. Joseph and his partner Sam are both very religious. Both have beards, wear skullcaps, have ritual fringes beneath their clothing. But it is hard to imagine them putting on a vest laden with explosives and walking into a crowded market just to kill innocent Arabs just because they’re Moslems..

When the holidays come rolling around, Ami will probably leave his three dogs at home and take his family to synagogue. He might hear a sermon about repentance, and God’s will, but it’s hard to imagine the Rabbi, if there is one, calling on Ami to kill anyone who isn’t willing to become a Jew, or who is living on Jewish land. Not saying he couldn’t physically do that. He’s trained to kill. He’s a soldier. But the goal is to defend his family, his home. And then his faith.

But this is all well known. Propagandists spew out this stuff like water flowing down from Niagara Falls. What’s needed is someone to step up and some-how or another stop the fighting. This time with Hezbollah. The next time with Iran. The time after that, who knows? Jewish history is built on these battles. The Bible is filled with them. The amazing thing is that the Jewish people are still around to read them. Will what’s going on now be written down one day, and added to the lore? Or will the enemies of the Hebrew people win out, finally, destroying a people that have contributed so much to civilization?

God knows.