Sending Our Sons Into Battle: The Failure of Another Israeli Generation

We can blame the Palestinians, the Arabs and the international community all we like, but it was our responsibility to make sure our children wouldn’t have to go off and kill or be killed.

Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer
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Israeli soldiers camouflage their faces at an army staging area the Gaza border, July 30, 2014.Credit: AFP
Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer

On Tuesday I drove down south with a veteran journalist, ostensibly to do some reporting. But for both of us this wasn’t just another assignment, we both felt the need to be close to our sons.

Like any road trip it was fun: cracking jokes, gossiping about colleagues, bluffing our way past checkpoints and following up on stories, but there was a sense of tension left unmentioned. Not between us, we got along like a house on fire, but a strange sensitivity affected us both, an undercurrent running beneath all our conversations, every meeting with soldiers who had just come out of the Gaza Strip or were waiting to go in. Without saying a word, we had both entered into the worst stage of our lives as Israelis — the days of endless worry and guilt.

If you grow up in Israel, you always remember your first fallen soldier. It may be someone you know, a relative, even a father or an older brother, maybe a former classmate. In my case, when I was 10, it was someone from the same school and the same youth movement, a guy the older kids remembered, who was killed in Lebanon. My first dead soldier, brought to life in memorial services, in photographs on the school’s memorial wall, in the alumni who spoke of him. He was the first one I could actually imagine, who was more than just a name, because he had lived in the same streets, dreamed in the same classrooms and sweated on the same basketball courts as I.

There are more of them as you grow up and are old enough to attend the funerals on Mount Herzl of boys you actually knew, who were a few years ahead of you in high school. And then, all of a sudden, you’re in the second phase of Israeli life and it’s you. You who is wearing the uniform, you who is ducking and weaving and hitchhiking home, exhausted, in your grimy uniform. And at the funerals — of soldiers killed in Lebanon, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, but also in stupid army accidents, or who found their young lives too much to bear and turned their weapons on themselves. Someone you shared a desk or a tent with, someone whose service number is only a few digits higher or lower than your own.

For the next 20 years you have friends and acquaintances and colleagues on every front and in every unit, as conscripts, reservists and career officers. It’s your generation bearing the burden, and all of a sudden you’re 40 and the letter arrives thanking you for all those years of service. You start thinking about moving that old backpack with uniforms, belts and straps and keepsakes and making some space in the wardrobe but you don’t. Someone else may need it.

Nothing prepares you for that moment when the next war or major operation comes around and you’re a parent. Sure, you’ve been a parent for nearly two decades, but in modern Hebrew there’s an edge to the word, horim, when it refers to the parents of soldiers, which increases in resonance when it’s the parents of wounded soldiers and reaches a crescendo when it becomes horim shakulim — the bereaved parents of fallen soldiers. And it’s not just the never-ending terror of that knock on the door and the officers standing there with the message of Job, it’s the realization of a deep and terrible responsibility fallen now to your son or daughter, and the children of your friends, to wage war, to kill on your behalf. It doesn’t matter whether they are among those doing the actual fighting, in the line of fire, your child, vulnerable, out there on the battlefield, ready to look at another human being, to pull a trigger and take a life instead of losing their own, or whether they are among those who are supplying the troops, repairing their weapons and providing them with the information they need about targets. Your flesh and blood is now in the business of killing. And you can feel fear, pride and protectiveness, but you also know you have failed as a parent. You’re a member of yet another generation of Israelis who hasn’t managed to deliver to the next a nation at peace with its neighbors.

If you were born or lived a significant period of time abroad and have a second passport, you also realize that it’s too late to run away and act upon that most basic of parental instincts, to keep your child as far away as possible from danger.

A British colleague who is currently doing outstanding work reporting from inside Gaza said to me a few weeks ago that he is the first male in his family since before World War I not to put on a uniform and go off to war. Perhaps that is partly why he’s had such an incredible career covering wars as a civilian. I told him I was the first member of my family ever to bear arms and serve as a combat soldier.

When I enlisted, I still had romantic notions of being part of this giant reversal of Jewish history — from 2,000 years of death and persecutions to the generation of redemption that could fight for survival instead of dying in some Belorussian pogrom and writing Yiden Nekuma (Yiddish for “Jews, Revenge”) in my blood on the wall.

My grandfather, a Holocaust survivor who never lived in Israel, ruined it for me when, on his first visit after I became a soldier, he recoiled at the sight of my uniform and rifle. There was nothing political about his reaction, but it took me years to understand that he was the “normal” one, that a normal grandparent isn’t thrilled at the sight of his first grandson holding a weapon. Just as it took me years as a journalist, as a father and as a reservist, returning year after year to the West Bank and to Gaza, to fully realize that while the sight of an Israeli soldier in combat gear fills nearly all Israeli Jews with pride and security, for many others it triggers the opposite feelings.

And now, looking at our sons, we cling to the pride and wallow in the fear in order to assuage the guilt.

Israel has won this war with Hamas. It won even before Operation Protective Edge began, because no matter what the Hamas charter says about destroying the Jewish state, the organization will never be in a position to carry it out. Actually the first two generations of Israelis won already in 1967, or at the latest in 1973, when they proved once and for all that our neighbors could not dislodge us. Israel won even before some of the parents of sons who are fighting in Gaza were even born. The next generation and now ours have succeeded in safeguarding that victory, in building a thriving (if unequal) economy, but failed in our task of ensuring that we won’t have to go to war again.

It’s not about politics or whether you think the best way of ensuring Israel’s security is making concessions to the Palestinians, or hitting them so hard they won’t dare ever again to launch rockets or another intifada. It’s not about whether you see the Gaza campaign as a complete travesty or fervently believe it was forced upon Israel; whether you entirely blame Hamas and its supporters or admit that Israel’s politicians share a portion of the responsibility for the desperate situation in Gaza. Because at the end of the day we have to recognize the bitter taste of failure and admit that we have let our children down. We can blame the Palestinians and the Arabs and the international community all we like, but it was our responsibility to make sure they wouldn’t have to go off and kill or be killed. No one can take that away from us.