Five days after returning from the Holy Land and I still rise at 4 a.m., my circadian rhythm swaying to Israeli time. I miss the hummus, the chatter of Hebrew and the rise and fall of the landscape out my bus window.
I spent 10 days there in June with the BlueStar Fellows, a program that takes college students to Israel and helps turns them into advocates for the Jewish state. These young adults face a barrage of anti-Israel invective on campus, but rather than swallow the lies unquestioningly, or bury their heads in the sand, they choose to see Israel for themselves.
I played the role of editorial whisperer, helping them keep their eyes and ears open, and later process what they had learned into cogent opinion pieces.
This year’s cohort of 24 turned out to be a rainbow coalition. We had a Chinese exchange student, a Sikh American born in India, a Filipino American, a Korean American, three Mexican Americans, six Israeli Americans, a Persian Jew and several evangelical Christians. For good measure, three American Ashkenazi Jews came along, too.
It struck me as a boon to have non-Jews on the trip. Whereas pro-Israel Jews might be dismissed as biased during campus debates, non-Jews could be seen as more objective. Time will tell on that, but we made a merry band.
BlueStar Fellows is not Birthright. We don’t do camels. Though the journey offers a few classic exper`iences — beach time in Tel Aviv; a trip to Yad Vashem — we usually veer off the beaten path.
For example, we visited Caliber 3, a private counter-terrorism training center in the West Bank. Though its mission is to train security personnel, it also welcomes the public. We got a lesson in tactics from a member of an elite Israeli counter-terrorism unit, who told us that mastering proper procedures makes the difference between “lahf and deeth” (he had a thick South African accent).
After some preliminary training, the students donned protective masks and vests, hoisted paintball rifles and took to an obstacle course under the blazing sun. Paintballs are not the cute green M&Ms they appear to be. They hurt. Several students got welts, bruises and cuts during the skirmish. But they also got a sense of what it means to live in a land where mortal danger is ever close, and what it takes to defend it.
We also went to Pek’in, a Druze village in the Upper Galilee. There we enjoyed lunch in a restaurant that appeared to have been carved into the living rock of the hillside. The students learned about the secretive Druze religion and how this Arab community — at least those who live in this region — is 100 percent loyal to Israel.
We visited Misgav Am, a kibbutz located a stone’s throw from the Lebanese border. Literally. Our host, American-born Alex Weiss, held a rock as he addressed the group, tossed it behind him and then said, “That rock just landed in Lebanon.” Though the kibbutz had once enjoyed good relations with its neighbors, those days are over. Violence may break out any second, and has too often. Alex couldn’t stop himself from cursing when recounting the murderous infiltrators who slipped across the border to commit mayhem. All of them are hailed as heroes back in Lebanon.
We stayed at a kibbutz of our own, Parod, a bucolic spot with mourning doves, off-leash dogs who had the run of the place and the deceptive tranquility of the north, a region so vulnerable to Hezbollah’s guns. The students loved it, taking over the kibbutz pub every night, toasting Israel and toasting each other. I, the token old guy, felt privileged to watch them celebrate themselves in all their defiant, youthful glory.
By trip’s end, I felt we’d done our jobs. The students seemed determined to push back against Israel hatred once back home. One of the non-Jewish students told me he would consider joining the IDF and fighting for Israel.
At first, I wondered why. This isn’t his fight, I thought. Later it struck me that, after 10 days in Israel, breathing in the justness of its existence, he had attached himself to Israel’s fight. He had become an honorary blood brother to the Jews.
By the time you read this, my jet lag will have faded. In time, the vividness of the trip will, too. But I doubt I’ll ever forget the sight of the 24 students, arms draped over each other in fellowship and common cause. I made some good friends during that week and a half. So did Israel.
Dan Pine can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.