Two Israeli soldiers who have been on the front lines in the Middle East conflict came to the Bay Area last week to give a firsthand account of their experiences and champion the integrity of Israel Defense Forces operations.
The Israel advocacy group StandWithUs brought Orit and Jonathan (their last names were withheld for security reasons) to U.C. Berkeley on Oct. 12 as part of a nationwide ISSO (Israeli Soldiers Speaking Out) tour of six soldiers. Orit and Jonathan offered testimony to a group of 50 students and community members in a session that covered their experiences as soldiers, as well as their perspectives on the wider conflict.
Orit, 25, was a combat medic in the West Bank from 2003 to 2005 and still serves in the IDF reserves. She says her service changed her perception of the Israeli military.
“Before I joined the army, I heard from the world media a lot of bad things about the IDF,” she said. “I was so happy to find out that the army from the inside is very moral. It changed my view, because during my service, I gave medical aid to a lot of Palestinians in the West Bank. I didn’t know that the army was doing that on a regular basis, but we are.”
Jonathan, 25, was born in New York and raised in the United States. After studying in Israel for a year he decided to join the IDF, serving in the infantry and later becoming a platoon officer and commander from 2004 to 2009.
“My experience in the army gave me the perspective where I was able to see things from the eyes of an Israeli soldier,” he said. “That gave me a deeper and better understanding of the challenges that the Israeli army faces and the efforts they make to deal with those challenges and combat them.”
Though media reports and testimony of soldiers in the organization Breaking the Silence might give the impression that many IDF soldiers mistreat Palestinians, Orit and Jonathan both said they think these are isolated incidents.
“Our story is the everyday story of the IDF — their story is the exception,” said Orit. “Every system has its bad apples, and the IDF judges them and punishes them. … The majority of the orders in the army are moral.”
Focusing on the bad conduct of some soldiers may have other motives, Jonathan said. “I think those soldiers took their experiences to a political end,” he suggested. “Israel when faced with this situation has difficult tasks; they’re necessary. Not all Israeli soldiers agree or understand that.”
To illustrate his point, Jonathan shared a story from his service in southern Lebanon, when he was assigned to find Hezbollah missile installations. After he spotted one in a village and reported its location, his superiors called off the helicopter attack because of the proximity of a mosque — the collateral damage would have been too great. Although Jonathan initially felt frustrated about the thwarted attack, he now sees it as an example of the IDF’s ethics.
Orit’s perspective shifted when she attended to the wounds of a known West Bank terrorist; he had orchestrated a suicide bombing carried out by his sister in a Haifa restaurant that killed 21 people. Orit said she simply felt she was doing her duty as an IDF soldier and didn’t give a second thought to whether he should be treated.
During their nationwide tour as graduates of the StandWithUs Israel Fellowship Program, Orit and Jonathan said they’ve had a mostly positive experience, although they have encountered protests. “Americans are really willing to hear,” said Orit. “We educate people — we are not here to convince, we are just here to show them that the moral dilemmas are much more complicated than they might look like. The conflict is much more complicated, and it’s not as simple as some try to put it.”
Keeping Israel safe and secure is a priority for both soldiers. “I believe in the Jewish state and I believe that I have a responsibility to help defend and protect it,” Jonathan said. “It’s something I’m proud of. Israel is an island in a sea of rough seas.”