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An American Behind the Gun in the Israeli Army

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Those of us who keep an eye on current events know that things are starting to heat up once again in Israel. Last week, during the Jewish holiday of Passover, a barrage of rockets poured into the Jewish state from Gaza.

It is times like these that I reconnect to the days of serving in the Israeli Defense Forces, specifically to the Persian Gulf War in 1991, right about the time I was working on Kibbutz Sufa as part of our pre-army experience, which is one of scenes of my memoir, Silence: What the Israel Defense Forces Taught Me About Empowerment, Courage and Faith.

Just a few months prior to that, I was just your American kid living in a subsidized building known as Westbeth, in the heart of Greenwich Village, NYC. Not knowing that I would be inducted during one of the most psychologically chaotic wars of Israel's history, I felt a powerful urge to volunteer for and join the Israeli Defense Forces for personal reasons. I wanted to be independent and strong like the soldiers I had observed in the summer of 1989 when I volunteered on my aunt's kibbutz. I was drawn to the concept of freedom to express myself in another country without being imposed by my mom's paranoia and fears. You can love Israelis, but you don't have to die for Israel. Mom's words.

Because of my limited Israel experience, I opted to join a bunch of new immigrants to do the Nahal experience, which stands for "Noar" "Halutzi" "Lohem" whose movement goes back to the days of border patrolling the settlements as pioneers who came to Israeli struggled to help it become a state. We were new immigrants from all over the world. Shortly after the intensive three-month period of working on the kibbutz and with each other on Kibbutz Sufa just a few kilometers from Gaza, we found ourselves running to shelters with our gas masks. I was handed a gun by another kibbutz member.

"Here, hold this." It was my adopted kibbutz "father."

He handed me a bulky Uzi that looked like a rifle.

I stood paralyzed with fear.

"What am I supposed to do with this?" I asked in broken Hebrew.

"Shoot it!" he cried.

"But I've never used a gun in my life."

"Don't worry. You probably won't need to use it. The rockets won't make their way down here," he said jokingly,

But by then, I was already worked up.

I hadn't yet officially been inducted in the army. I had no idea what a shelter was and had no idea how to handle a gun. I quickly got used to rockets and sealed off windows and rooms. Fortunately for us, nobody was hurt. Some of the other soldiers were preparing to enter Gaza.

The stories I had heard of buildings and storefronts blowing up in Tel-Aviv were scary, but they weren't enough to send me home.

When we did get inducted in the army in February 1991, my interest in guns had steadily climbed. I had moved from a pacifist to a soldier thinking that a soldier with a gun equals power. I wanted to be the bearer of that power.

There was just one problem.

I had find a way to bond with other members of my garin, our army group. Since I wasn't taken seriously because of my kooky, high-spirited nature, I had to believe I could be taken seriously.

One day Andy, the leader of our garin, pulled me aside and said, "Dorit, you have to start acting less crazy..." I want to be funny, bubbly Dorit. "You can't have things within a group both ways. Either you just melt with the group and let your identity be absorbed by the group or you can be bubbly and very intense but realize the risks and the benefits."

Risks? Benefits?

"Always think ahead of what will be when you do or contemplate something..." Andy's voice trailed off in the distance. I don't want to be the topic of discussion like when the garin voted to throw James out from the garin because he wasn't suitable garin material and wrote a letter to Dov, the coordinator of our garin and the kibbutz secretary and to another James, who was in charge of our garin on Kibbutz Sufa. Poor James. He left our garin after three months because we voted to throw him off. But I wanted him to stay.

You may be wondering why these two events led others to think of me as incapable. One garin member had said, "you'll never be a soldier. You lack army material."

I had to fight back to hold the tears. After all a soon-to-be-inducted soldier never cries right before getting inducted.

On the bus to the inducted center early one morning, I could hear my mom say, "You're a tough cookie. You can fight it out." But what she didn't know was that I was going against her wishes to become a soldier.

I'm one tough cookie. I thought. I'm going to be alright.

My thoughts were quickly interrupted by one of the girls in the garin, Svetlana from the former Soviet Union, who had the very same look of frightful intensity. She happened to be sitting right next to me. I moved closer to her and looked at her in the eyes.

"Are you excited to get inducted?" I asked.

"Thrilled," she said sarcastically. "Who wants to serve in the army? I have to do it because I came here before 18. You, on the other hand... I have no idea why you would want to. "Eize Americayit Tipsha - What a stupid American."

"You and me both," I laughed. I could tell Svetlana wanted to be released from the army already. Maybe it was possible that the experience of serving in the army would only sink in later.

"Is it true that you had to do the army?" I asked.

I continued laughing but deep inside, I was worried. I could already feel that the road ahead would be incredibly bumpy. I wondered if I had made the right choice to serve in the army with new immigrants as opposed to serving alongside with native Israelis.