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Sendoff for My Son — “Necessary Stories” column from The Jerusalem Report

August 22nd, 2010by Haim Watzman · 14 Comments · Culture and Ideas

Haim Watzman

Dear Niot,

The scene at your enlistment next Monday will not be as dramatic as your grandfather’s. He set off for infantry boot camp in the U.S. Army on February 19, 1944. His entire family—Ma, Pa, and sisters Jean, Bernice, and Laki—accompanied him to the train station at Cleveland’s Terminal Tower. Your great-grandmother and her daughters wailed and screamed. When the young recruit pointed out that other families, if teary-eyed, were sending their sons off with considerably more decorum, Ma retorted: “They’re not Jewish mothers!”

Nor will it be as lonely as my own enlistment. My parents, brother, and sister were on the other side of the world, and the kibbutz driver who dropped me and a few other guys off at the enlistment office in Tiberias on August 16, 1982, was hardly an adequate surrogate for family.

illustration by Avi Katz


Your older brother insisted on going alone; farewells were bid at our apartment door. You’ve kindly agreed to allow your mother to take the number 4 bus with you to Ammunition Hill in East Jerusalem, where an army bus will be waiting. I’ll be on the other side of the world, on a trip to the U.S.

Your grandfather and I enlisted in the middle of wars. His sergeant greeted him and his fellow-trainees by shouting: “Gentlemen, in six months, half of you will be dead!” My sergeant was not so blunt. But, while Beirut was not as deadly as D-Day, I faced the prospect of being sent to a front in a foreign land.

No war rages now, but your mother and I are not much comforted by that. While it’s true for the moment, Israel faces vicious enemies on all fronts. And we know that the present semi-calm is precarious—invasions, incursions, and operations are regular occurrences and there’s a good chance that you’ll be involved in one or more during the three years of your mandatory service. Since you’ve chosen the Golani Brigade, you’re likely to be in the vanguard of whatever campaign the government decides on.

Your grandfather joined a non-Jewish army to fight against Hitler, in a war he believed in with all his heart and soul. He ate, for the first time in his life, pork chops, ham, and bacon, and guiltily enjoyed them. He didn’t bother putting on tefillin. He had to put up with anti-Semitic comrades and his sergeant’s regular Sunday morning order: “Men, you will now attend the church of your choice!”

I joined a Jewish army fighting a war about which I was skeptical at enlistment. Within a few weeks, as the facts of the decision to invade Beirut and of the Sabra and Shatila massacres hit the newspapers, I was convinced that the Begin government’s Lebanon adventure was wrong. But in the IDF the food was kosher and we religious guys were given 20 minutes each morning to put on tefillin and daven a super-fast shaharit. There were no anti-Semites, but some of the tough development-town kids who were the great majority in our platoon were pathological Ashkenazi-baiters.

You are convinced—unlike your grandfather and father—that Israel’s occupation of the West Bank is just, and you are enlisting wholeheartedly in the war against Hezbollah, Hamas, and Islamic Jihad. You’re not much for praying, although you put on tefillin every morning—it will be interesting to see whether you keep it up under the pressure of basic training. Half-breed that you are, you can be Ashkenazi or Sephardi at your discretion. But, ironically, your platoon is likely to be less Jewish than mine was. Some of the soldiers will almost certainly be the sons of Russian immigrants, boys not Jewish according to halacha. Even if they or their parents converted, their Jewish status is under threat from the rabbinate and the Knesset.

Your grandfather wrote his parents a postcard every day. After the histrionic sendoff they’d given him, he filled the postcards with lies. He was happy and optimistic, he wrote to them with impeccable Yiddish penmanship, well-fed, brimming with vigor and good health, and having a wonderful time at camp. He got a furlough to visit home every six months or so.

I wrote my parents a weekly aerogramme. I tried to give them an entertaining account of my adventures, character sketches of my pals, descriptions of the nondescript landscape in our training area in the Negev. I asked my father about the petty theft of other guys’ gear that shocked me—not so much because it happened, but because it was institutionalized, accepted, and even ordered by our NCOs. (He said that anything of that type would have been severely punished in his unit.) I judiciously left out the kid who tried to commit suicide and, later, anything at all about Lebanon. Despite my efforts, the despair and loneliness of my darker moments seeped through. My parents’ letters to me were upbeat and encouraging, so I assumed they were not losing sleep over me. I learned later that I was totally wrong on that score. After a year, the army gave me a plane ticket to visit them for a week and a half.

You’re going into the army with a cell phone, and while your commanders certainly won’t let you chat at will, your mother and I will have access to you to a degree unimaginable to my parents and your grandfather’s parents. As is the custom in the IDF, you’ll be home every weekend or every other weekend during most of your service. I’d like to delude myself that you’ll tell me everything, but I know that it will be your own world, one to be discussed with friends but not much with your elders. I hope you don’t have any dark moments, and that if you do, you’ll seek help from us or from others who can help. But that probably won’t happen. Unlike your grandfather and father, you’ve grown up in a society that’s prepared you psychologically for this experience from a young age.

Your grandfather served in an army of occupation. After Germany surrendered, his unit was shipped to the Pacific theater. He and his buddies thought that their drill sergeant’s promise was about to come true—Japanese soldiers, they knew, fought to the death and never retreated. But by the time they reached the Philippines, Emperor Hirohito had surrendered, and the American soldiers arrived as conquerors.

Grandpa’s parents saved the detailed letters he wrote home from Chichibu, a village about 30 miles west of Tokyo, just as Grandma and Grandpa saved my aerogrammes. (One of the tragedies of technology is that you, with your cell phone, will leave us with nothing to save for you to reconsider years hence.) Grandpa is discomfited today by some of the language he used to describe the subject people. But he had an open mind and quickly saw that the stereotypes the army and the press had fed him weren’t true.

Here’s a passage worth quoting: “You know: the land of yellow-skinned liars and smiling monkeys, of two-faced backstabbers and suicidal maniacs. Where hara-kiri is traditional and assassination in an art. Where the people believe themselves to be the conquering angels of their solar Lord. Well, where are they, these people? I don’t know. All I’ve found so far is a frightened populace.… Not only do they seem incapable of suicide, but also incapable of every cruelty their own sons perpetrated on the battlefields and in the prison camps.” Another letter tells of a visit to a Buddhist shrine, where your Grandpa, who had a dim opinion of pagan cults, nevertheless tried (unsuccessfully, and to the alarm of a group of school kids) to replace the head of a shattered idol.

I was an occupier in Lebanon. My unit spent many months bivouacked in a tiny Christian village, ‘Ana, at the foot of a towering mountain, Jabal Barouk. Our base was the village’s brand new elementary school building. Soon after arriving I made a bad name for myself by asking, and asking again and again, where the village’s kids were going to school. No one, from our regimental commander on down, seemed to think it was any concern of theirs. Before Christmas, on leave in Jerusalem, I ventured into a bookstore in the Arab part of the city and bought the only Arabic language book with a title I could make out with my elementary knowledge of the language. It was a four-volume edition of “The 1001 Nights.” Back in ‘Ana, I convinced an officer to accompany me—against all orders and security warnings—to the home of a village elder to present the books as a gift to the library of the school that didn’t exist. When my excursion came to the attention of my commanding officer, he wasn’t even angry. He just thought I was crazy and deluded—an opinion that, in retrospect, I’m pretty sure the village elder shared.

You’ll almost certainly be spending a good part of your service as an occupying soldier in the West Bank. If you don’t, it will be because a peace treaty is signed—unlikely—or because a war breaks out—much more likely, but something that I, even if I dread seeing you as an occupier, cannot hope for. I hope you’ll carry on the family tradition of looking beyond the stereotypes.

Your grandfather came home from the army safe and sound. He didn’t think his debt to society was paid, though. He worked for civil rights for blacks, and as a newspaper reporter weeded out corruption in local, state, and national government. He and your grandmother raised three children, all of them socially-aware, committed Jews.

I came home from the army safe and sound, although the army didn’t leave me to my devices. I continued to serve for a decade and a half thereafter in the reserves. In between stints of reserve duty, I did what I could to work for a more just, more equitable Israel, and did my best to raise my four children on the values I learned from my father.

I hope you’ll continue in that family tradition, too—especially the part about returning safe and sound.

Your grandfather hoped that his sons would not have to fight in wars. I hoped that my sons would not have to fight in wars. Grandpa was proven wrong. The way things look, I probably will be, too. But I hope that you, too, hope that hope. And I hope that for you it comes true.

love,

Abba

Links to more Necessary Stories columns

And see especially another letter to my son, Jews, Despite the Holocaust

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14 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Clif // Aug 22, 2010 at 10:44 pm

    Haim – a moving and very informative letter, as I would expect from you.

    As I’ve mentioned, I now have a blog that is devoted to changing the relationship between Israel and America – to distance the United States from Israel. As a result of research done for the blog, I learn more detail daily on the situation in the West Bank and I am aghast that my money and my country are shielding such gross oppression.

    As I become better informed, I think to myself “Haim and Gershom have to get out of there!”

    I think this because I support your effort to find justice for the Palestinians in the occupied territories. I am deeply affected by the work of the many Israeli NGOs that tireless strive to make a dent in the awful enterprise that your country drives forward with a will. In fact my blog is dedicated to those NGOs

    I look at their efforts and then I look at the government of your country that flouts the opinion of the entire world due to the backing of one fail-safe source of funding – my country. Your government is a rogue. Where will it stop? Would it hesitate to start a nuclear war? That a pre-emptive strike on Iran is seriously considered makes me wonder if you are led by madmen. The surest way to dedicate Iran to the outright pursuit of nuclear weapons with no excuses is to attack it to prevent it. If they want them, they will get them.

    Israel has gone from the underdog to the uber-state of the region, bristling with weapons, that feels justified in acting unilaterally. There is a disturbing parallel with the behavior of the United States during the Bush II years. It frightens me to see this because I wonder about the influences of your country on mine.

    The result of the Bush policies were rapidly pushing the U.S. into the solitude that Israel has achieved.

    I have found American Jews who repudiate what Israel is doing, who deny that Israel is the self-proclaimed voice of Jewry worldwide, who resent being lumped with an a militarist state bent on riding roughshod over another indigenous people.

    These Jews, along with many other Americans are outraged at “standing with” a country that repudiates the liberty and justice that America is supposed to stand for, our sorry history of hypocrisy notwithstanding.

    I don’t see the Netanyahu supporters, the settlement supporters being restrained. This will only add to the hatred from without. There is no going back to act in a more just manner, nor will the Palestinians disappear.

    Just what does Israel stand for, not in 1948 but today? Any sympathy has been lost as we see demolition, military justice, denial of property rights, even of drinking water to people who have every right to say they are native to the land. People object to what they see happening in a country of 7 million yet that country bulls on regardless, acting as if it were the superpower that protects it. Talk about power corrupting? We have the people who have done so much for the dignity of humanity through the ages now dressed in fatigues, loudly and menacingly speaking of the will of God, and bulldozing the helpless off their land. This is the dream of Zion?

    I see no reason to hope for the success of the good guys in Israel such as yourself, such as those with B’Tselem, HaMoked, such as Jeff Halper. Your leaders strut with the arrogance of anyone ruler of ancient Rome and will march you to disaster without hesitation – with the IDF as the instrument to do so, exactly as our previous administration almost gleefully jumped into the abyss of Iraq and Afghanistan – where so many thousands of lives were and are being blown away.

    I don’t want to see you go down in flames or be sitting in the new South Africa. How you can see a future there in keeping with what you hold dear escapes me.

  • 2 Gregory Pollock // Aug 23, 2010 at 2:36 am

  • 3 Arye Ben Harav // Aug 24, 2010 at 4:07 am

    May your son serve well and return to you safely along with my sons and all of Zahal (IDF). I liked your honest discussion of your family’s history, the colorful descriptions and your feelings about serving as a soldier in Lebanon. Nicely written. I served in Oct. ’73 ,’82 in Lebanon, and the countless times, in Lebanon in Gaza, Rafi’ah, Golan Heights and the West Bank. Years and years of combat reserve duty, usually beyond the hallowed ‘green line’. I felt that the job was necessary. I always admired the WWII generation. If people like your grandfather had to serve first 6,000 miles from home and then 12,000 miles away to protect the USA, I certainly had no problem serving anywhere in the Middle East, from Cairo to Beirut to Damascus, to protect Israel. The Japanese and the Germans were the most vicious occupyers since Atilla, the Mongols, the Barbarians; you get the picture. Many thanks to your family for saving us from both 20th century incarnations of those brutal invaders. I never understood the mentality of soldiers, citizens, politicians who believed that Israel could be defended without any strategic depth of any kind and that ‘shipping out’ 50 or 100 miles from home was some kind of imperialism. I found the idea of calling it an unjust occupation, just a little silly. We were usually the next town over from some Israeli town or within 10 or 15 miles of tiny Israel proper. I usually chalked it up to their way of simply saying, ” I’m scared, I want to go home. I could get killed. Let someone else do this dirty and dangerous job.” or “We are surrounded by people who hate us. It’s unpleasant. Let’s go home.” No reflection on you, just my sincere feelings from back then and to this very day. True, it ain’t pretty at the tip of the spear but it needs to be done. Hezbollah, Hamas or any other Arab regime at the doorstep of Jewish homes means that the work of the Japanese Emperor and his German counterpart, the Cossacks and Haman continues and therefore, so must we.

  • 4 Yam Erez // Aug 24, 2010 at 2:08 pm

    Wow. Clif. Well put. I’m interested in finding your blog. While I can’t answer for Haim, since I do identify with Haim’s ideals, I’ll say for myself that when a friend asked me the question that you essentially just put to Haim, I replied that there is injustice everywhere, and our goal should be to speak out against it and teach our children to do the same. This is my country; this is where my people’s story began and is still being told. Just as the Palis do, I have a right to love this land, and I do. Crazy, yeah, but that’s my answer.

  • 5 Gregory Pollock // Aug 25, 2010 at 2:27 am

    Not crazy, Yam, but the essence of hope. Recall that a Prime Minister of Aparthid South Africa released Mandella, began and stayed with the process which lead to majority rule. He was not enthralled with the final outcome, but he stuck with it. My own attitude toward Israel has shifted precisely because this blog exists. There ARE people out there willing to speak in their own country despite nullifying patriotism, racism, and fear (the fear is real: I had never thought of the 2000 Intifada as “the suicide bombing war” until encounter the label on this blog, but now think that an apt description). If we condemn the Israeli populace to ostracism how can things get better, or how can greater disaster be averted? I am not there. I cannot blog as Chris can. What I can do is NOT despair those there.

    I have wondered my fascination to obsession with Israel. Partly it must come from my now repudiated Christian background. Partly from the revulsion that Chris describes over the American State’s support and silence. Partly from the Holocaust and recovery. Partly from the 2000 years of harm done to those labeled Jew. But there is, in recent reflection, another reason: Israel is a cauldron for humanity which we would like to forget. Racism, violence and struggle against these evolved us. In Israel these go on with a force unknown in most of the developed world. Israel is our past present. Israel is what we were and would become again under the right circumstances. We, or at least this olding I of no import, cannot give up on Isreal without giving up on Homo sapiens sapiens. Can we face what made us? Or just run to the obivion of simulated television/movie violence? Torah is still with us raw, as is Qur’an. As is the American flag. I do not give up on Israel because I do not give up on where I am at this moment.

    My first comment was blank silence because I had nothing to say to a father, nothing of any value at all. I still don’t.

    But I did read, this morning, this poem by Natan Zach (an Israeli educated in the UK), translated by Tsipi Keller:

    To rise from the ashes
    is a complicated matter. Only one bird
    can do it and no one has ever seen it.
    The pre-requisites, of course, are ashes: a spark,
    or cinders, cigarette ashes, amost anything.
    In the absence of ashes, shards will do,
    crumbling plaster, a general collapse, ruins.
    Anything that’s anti-biological, anti-ecological.
    Another condition is the ability to rise
    and stand again on your feet after the fall
    as in the boxing ring:
    the points are against you, your chances to win
    are slim, even your fans have abandoned you,
    already thinking of home and a late supper.
    .
    .
    .
    Only a few will ever rise to life or one their feet.
    However, this is no reason for despair. On the contray,
    any bird-watcher will confirm: It is here with us.
    But extremely rare.

    —————-

    I bow to our hosts.

    Chris, I have tried leaving comments to your blog twice, but failed. I am WordPress, but my WordPress id was not accepted.

  • 6 Clif // Aug 25, 2010 at 3:41 am

    Greg – I, too have had trouble posting comments on blogger within last 2 weeks with either FF or IE. It works for me now with both browsers. Please
    try again.

  • 7 Letter to a Son // Aug 25, 2010 at 5:58 am

    [...] journalist, storyteller, Haim Watzman, writes his son, Niot, a letter upon his induction into the Israeli army’s Golani Brigade: The scene at your enlistment next [...]

  • 8 Haim Watzman // Aug 26, 2010 at 4:52 pm

    I find two of these comments offensive.

    Aryeh ben HaRav says that having any Arab regime on Israel’s doorstep is equivalent to having Hirohito and Hitler on Israel’s doorstep. Just as I reject lefties playing the Nazi card against Israel, I find it unacceptable to play it against others as well. That some Arab groups want to kill us is a fact. To say that every Arab wants to kill us just because he’s an Arab is simply racist.

    Clif, thanks for your compliments, but no thanks for your tirade about the country I choose to live in. The country you live in has military forces across the globe; denies congressional representation to the residents of its capital city, most of whom are black; has a political system that inequitably favors radical fundamentalists who believe that Muslims are agents of the devil and that their president is a Muslim; and denies its citizens adequate unemployment compensation during a recession, causing great misery to the weakest members of its population. What country are you planning to move to tomorrow?

    The point is not that America is an awful place. The point is that all societies are flawed. I’m critical of both Israel and America, but as countries go, they rank up pretty high on the list of countries that I’d want to live in.

  • 9 Arye Ben Harav // Sep 5, 2010 at 4:44 am

    Haim, you wrote: “To say that every Arab wants to kill us just because he’s an Arab is simply racist.”
    I didn’t say that , you did.
    I said, very carefully, “Hezbollah, Hamas or any other Arab regime at the doorstep of Jewish homes means that the work of the Japanese Emperor and his German counterpart, the Cossacks and Haman continues and therefore, so must we.”
    I was very specific about Arab regimes. None has been able to both make peace with Israel and to quell the ever increasing level of Anti-Israel and Anti-Semetic rhetoric. A simple example is when Arab tourists from the Gulf visit the Lebanon-Israel border and throw rocks while yelling ” Etbach bil Yahud”. They see nothing but brutal anti Israel propaganda and their governments do nothing to alleviate the process. When I see an Arab regime, again, (note that I said, regime and not Arabs,) acting like a normal Western Society, I will have as much trust in them as I do in say, Britain or France. But that trust, as a Jew who has extensive first, second and third hand knowledge of our history, in Europe and in the Middle East is deeply colored by those events. So before you label everyone who is skeptical about modern Arab regimes as ‘racist’, a bit of reflection is in order. This is our lives and our childrens’ lives and our country that we are putting on the line. Don’t trivialize or marginalize those who join the discussion. I suggest it is you who needs to work on his prejudices.

  • 10 Gregory Pollock // Sep 6, 2010 at 6:36 am

    Arye Ben Harav,

    Why do you demand others to be better than you? Is not invasion, occupation, then another bombing/infintry incursion enough to generate some who will come to the northern Israeli border and spit? Do you really think Israeli nationals a priori beyond such a response in turn? Can I not map this hatred and disgust to you, to your foes, and back again?

    Our first enemy is our own hatred. But if you fight that, who will be your ally?

  • 11 Haim Watzman // Sep 6, 2010 at 7:34 am

    I quote Aryeh ben HaRav:

    “Hezbollah, Hamas ***or any other Arab regime*** at the doorstep of Jewish homes means that the work of the Japanese Emperor and his German counterpart, the Cossacks and Haman continues.”

    I don’t see any way to read this except that you maintain that any Arab regime, of any type, is a mortal danger to Israel, simply because it is Arab.

    You’re right when you say that we need to be willing and able to fight. But we need to fight our real enemies, not myths based on stereotypes and inept historical comparisons.

  • 12 Arye Ben Harav // Sep 7, 2010 at 4:21 am

    “I don’t see any way to read this except that you maintain that any Arab regime, of any type, is a mortal danger to Israel, simply because it is Arab”
    Ok, Haim, point noted. You and Mr. Pollack don’t like it that I refer to our neighbors as ‘Arab countries’ or ‘Arab regimes’. It is not racist, it is a fact. All of the neighboring countries are Arab, that’s all. We are the Jewish State and they are collectively and separately known as the Arabs. This is not hatred as Mr. Pollack claims. I think that you fellows have become PC in the extreme. Overly sensitive. Perhaps this conversation taking place in Midtown Manhattan might be a problem but in the Middle East we are a bit more direct, practical and to the point. ( On all sides.) I do indeed mistrust of those/their reactionary regimes. It is up to them to prove to us that they are worthy of our trust. I track these regimes daily on my blogs. I track their hate speech and I track their deeds. I let their deeds and their declarations speak for themselves with little or no commentary.
    http://www.hezbollahwar.blogspost.com, http://www.artzenu.com and http://www.statesponsoredhate.com.
    I apologize for the blatant ‘plug’ however I think it is important to listen to what they actually say and not our convoluted imaginings of their meanings and goals.
    We are the only ones taking a national risk. Mr. Pollack and I also disagree in that I believe that a very aggressive defense is appropriate where he seems to think that infantry incursions and bombing enemy targets is somehow, inappropriate. We must never put our defense in the hands of others or trust simply in either goodwill or fancy pieces of paper.They will not love us and that is not our goal. Strategic depth, a powerful military, a solid economy and a unified national consensus on these three( consensus being the the hardest to achieve) are the keys to Israel’s future success.

  • 13 Gregory Pollock // Sep 8, 2010 at 8:05 am

    Arye Ben Harav,

    Israel, by its own law, has Arab Israeli citizens. It is more than “the Jewish State.” I, or my kind (as puny as we are) did not do this; your Kenesset did this. The line dividing “us” and “them” goes through your own State–which, I believe, will ultimately be the way out of this mess.

    ” Infantry incursions and bombing enemy targets” would be all wonderful if that is all that was done, but we all know that more than the enemy is necessarily bombed and “incurred” (no such word, I guess). Anticeptic, surgical decisions do well in total war, but your war cannot be total; the West will not allow; more importantly, your citizens, or enough of them, would not allow it.

    I have no doubt that the ideologies and emotions you document are strongly there. I must doubt that only such exist in the Arab states. Your relentless corporate nationalism will ultimately orphan your Arab Israeli co-citizens.

    In your aggressive defenses you make more of your enemy–unless you think these all your enemy no matter what. You are right that I cannot be harmed by the dangers you face. I think that outsiders like myself cannot provide a solution, let alone dictate one. But we can warn: do you really want to remove Arab Israelis from your land, do you want to become the consequence of that?

    You are right to distrust the statements and acts of surrounding States (and afar). But I distrust the statements and acts of the Israeli State as well–the Lebanon invasion and occupation are enough for that.

    Your “unified national consensus” is impossible for your State is more than one nation. You are more than any Aryan defense of nation. A hard place to be. The United States couldn’t do it. Can Israel?

    ps

    Sarah Palin is wrong to think Alaska a “microcosm of America.” So too Midtown Manhatten is not all of America.

  • 14 Omar Salah // Sep 30, 2010 at 6:09 am

    As a Jordanian who continues to work with Israeli businessmen in cementing the peace, I am comforted by the wisdom of the writers.
    I am an Arab, I am a Jordanian – but I am also American and my forefathers were Palestinian. The behavior of the State of Israel is undermining the work of any Arab who wants to earn the trust of Israel as some of you may demand. We have shown that coexistence is possible, but are no longer able to advocate for continue relations in the face of raw aggression unrestrained by wisdom nor self interest. Yes Israelis need to live themselves. And to know they can, and will be loved. But do first behave.

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