Making Safe Spaces

On college campuses across the country, students are seeking ‘safe spaces.’ They want to shield themselves from ideas with which they disagree. Half a world away, their same-age Israeli peers are thinking about safe spaces too. But in Israel, ‘safe spaces’ shield you from missiles, rockets, and random acts of terror.

Meet four remarkable officers in the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), soldiers who make safe spaces.

  • Ariel, Captain in the Air Defense Unit
  • Ely, Lieutenant in the Tactical Command of the IDF
  • Shelly, Lieutenant in Air Force Intelligence
  • Ofir, 2nd Lieutenant in the Yahalom, the special task force of the Combat Engineering Corps

This IDF delegation spent a week in the Twin Cities sharing their stories with our community. The soldiers also took part in our Yom HaZicharon ceremony, their pain intensified by marking this solemn day away from Israel. Eilat Harel of the Israel Center of the Minneapolis Jewish Federation organized their visit as part of the Partnership2Gether Program.

The soldiers spoke to students and adults, Jews and non-Jews, plunging each audience into the moral dilemmas they face. Here was one example:

Ely was commander of a unit in Gaza during Operation Protective Edge in 2014. One night his soldiers spotted a figure moving in the dark toward their building. The person was carrying something.

As the figure drew closer, the soldiers realized that it was a pre-teen girl. They ordered her to stop– in Arabic, Hebrew, English, even French. But she kept moving forward. Ely asked every audience this question:

“What would you do? Shoot or don’t shoot? You have ten seconds to decide.”

Complicating the decision were two factors. The day before, several soldiers were killed in Gaza when they answered an old man’s plea for help. Once they got close, he blew himself up. Was this girl a suicide bomber too?

Ely’s soldiers were also aware that Hamas could be filming the girl. Even warning shots aimed in her direction would be prize footage in the propaganda war against Israel.

Ten seconds to decide.

Ely had one more idea. He remembered that there is a difference between the Arabic dialect of the West Bank and that of Gaza. A soldier who spoke Gaza’s Arabic dialect ordered the girl to stop. Finally, she did.

Ely’s team discovered that Hamas sent this 12-year-old girl to scope out Israeli military positions. This is the kind of cynical enemy that the IDF is dealing with. Including commanders like Ely, who was 21 years old at the time.

Through such stories, the soldiers put audiences in their own dusty boots.

I had several candid conversations with Ariel, Ely, Shelly, and Ofir throughout the week. Below are excerpts:

Why did you choose to take part in this delegation?

Shelly: “I want the world to know what is going on in the IDF; the truth is not being shown.”

Ely: “We are losing the propaganda war, even in the Jewish community.”

Ofir: “Let people see that we have a face, that we are normal people.”

Ariel: “We all came to have fun, but to learn too.” Israelis don’t know the ways in which local Jewish communal institutions are fighting anti-Semitism and BDS. Ariel will take this information home. “The connection between the Jewish people is a two-way connection.”

What are the critical messages that you want to deliver while you’re here?

Ely: “I want to explain the challenges that we have as young Israelis. I also want to tell people that their kids must come for one year to Israel, to help and support as well.”

Ariel:  “Take the time and come to Israel. There’s no other way to open yourself to what the options of the Jewish experience are.”

Ofir: “Look at the big picture. Read more than your usual articles so that you get the big picture.”

Shelly:  Speaking as a young officer who learned what it takes to lead, “Put the people in your life in the center.”

The IDF officers pin, an olive branch resting on a sword

What insights will you bring home to your family, friends, fellow soldiers?

Shelley: “I am so proud of being an Israeli and serving in the IDF.”

Ariel: “I am very proud of the community here. It’s a privilege to be Jewish, to be Israeli, to have this experience.”

Ely: “I’m really proud of my Mom who made aliyah the day after she finished college. I don’t take it for granted.”

Spending even a week in the Diaspora has strengthened the soldiers’ identity as Israelis. As well, the visit deepened their sense of klal Yisrael:

Ofir: “We have another half here. There is no ‘you and I’, no ‘us and them’. We are one nation, we are all Jews, and we must minimize the gap between us.”

There is a movement gaining strength among your Jewish American peers. They are deeply distressed with an Israel they believe is not living up to Jewish values. They want the occupation to end now. Some are even moving toward a Judaism that is without Zionism. What is your message to them?

Ariel: “Let’s have a real and open conversation about it. We can’t stay in our own truth. We have to be open to other truths and hear them.”

Ely: “The basic assumption is that we all want peace. No one wants war. No one wants to send their kids to war. I would like to see Palestinians live happily wherever they are.” Ely believes that these American Jews are well-intentioned but naive. “They don’t understand the reality on the ground.”

Ariel, Ely, Shelly, and Ofir showed me the officers pin that each one wears, a sword topped with an olive branch. Symbols of a moral military that defends its people. An army that has peace as its ultimate goal.

These are the young men and women who risk their lives to make safe spaces for Israel’s citizens. They shoulder a level of responsibility most of us cannot fathom. They make the kind of life and death decisions most of us will never face. They do it with humility, professionalism, compassion, ethics, dignity, and total commitment.

As Ofir said- We are one people, one nation.

But I will add this: These soldiers are the very best of us.