I want to share a word about Max Steinberg. May his memory truly be for a blessing.
And a word about the idea of reducing actual, complex, young human beings – open-hearted, full-spirited, generous and loving – to abstract tools in the service of an argument.
This week, a photograph of Max Steinberg was used to head an article titled, "‘Lone soldiers’ and young ideologues from around the world contribute to Israeli war crimes."
The piece, by Pam Bailey and Ramy S. Abdu, PhD, likened "lone soldiers" like Max, whose immediate families do not live in Israel, to a growing number of U.S. and European citizens traveling to Syria to join extremist militant fighters – and worse:
"Indeed, according to a report in the Jewish Journal, lone soldiers are regarded as 'a kind of star in Israel,'" - to which, Bailey and Abdu added parenthetically – "sort of like the acclaim fellow militants gave the 'American suicide bomber' in Syria."
Bailey and Abdu go on to conclude that "lone soldiers" violate UN Resolution 3103, which states that “the use of mercenaries by colonial and racist regimes against national liberation movements struggling for their freedom and independence from the yoke of colonialism and alien domination is considered to be a criminal act and the mercenaries should accordingly be punished as criminals.”
When Max Steinberg was killed this month at the age of 24, news accounts noted that the native of Woodland Hills, California, a San Fernando Valley suburb of Los Angeles, had first visited Israel on a Birthright trip.
Having discovered a place which, unexpectedly, spoke deeply to him, and people with whom he felt inexplicably at home, he was to decide to move here. He joined the army, volunteering for the Golani infantry brigade, and it was there, this month, that he became one of the first Israeli soldiers killed in Gaza.
For most of us in Israel, that was the first we had heard of him. For some of us on the left, that was more than enough.
"What makes an American kid with shaky Hebrew and no ties to the state of Israel suddenly decide he is ready to make this sacrifice?" Slate senior editor Allison Benedikt asked in an essay which seemed to some to suggest that Birthright itself had duped, brainwashed, and helped kill an otherwise intelligent, red-blooded American Jew.
I have long been used to Israelis knowing nothing about American Jews who come to live in Israel. I am less used to American Jews not knowing the first thing about them, but drawing extensive conclusions nonetheless.
Writing on the day of Max's funeral, New York-based journalist Philip Weiss remarked that Max had "visited Israel for the first time in 2012 on a Birthright trip, the program that sends American Jews to Israel, and he drank the Kool-Aid. His parents had never been to Israel."
In fact, Stuart and Evie Steinberg's first visit to Israel would be to attend the burial at Jerusalem's Mount Herzl cemetery.
I have been to many funerals in Israel. Too many, by far. And for deaths which came much, much too early in life.
But I have never been to a funeral in Israel even remotely like Max's. Tens of thousands of Israelis, silent, still, showing a level of respect that implied that this was something altogether new in their experience as well.
Nearly none of us had known him. But by the end of intensely personal eulogies by family and friends, it seemed that all of us had.
The same could not be said of Allison Benedikt, trying to explain why someone like Max might want to tie his fate to a place like this, to people like these:
"Maybe Max was especially lost, or especially susceptible, or maybe he was just looking to do some good and became convinced by his Birthright experience that putting on an IDF uniform and grabbing a gun was the way to do it," she wrote.
"It turns out that it’s not that hard to persuade young people to see the world a certain way and that Birthright is very good at doing it. You spend hundreds of millions of dollars to convince young Jews that they are deeply connected to a country that desperately needs their support? This is what you get."
She's wrong. So is Phil Weiss. So are Pam Bailey and Dr. Abdu. How do I know? For the same reason that they'll doubtless dismiss what I have to say as worthless.
I was once a kid growing up in the Valley, like Max, not at all particularly interested in Israel, much more into music and sports. Only when I visited here, did I understand what Max would as well. Kool-Aid has nothing to do with it. Nor indoctrination, nor millions of dollars, nor uniforms and guns.
It's the people who are here. Not everyone, but an extraordinary number, given the circumstances. Decent, loving, wounded, coping. They have everything to do with it.
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