In anticipation of reviewing a collection of linked stories coming out in September called The People of Forever Are Not Afraid— a collection focusing on three young women doing their mandatory service in the Israeli Defense Forces–I revisited an epistolary essay I wrote after I met Sarai, a young Israeli army officer. Sarai was mostly skeptical about peace for her country. But towards the end of our conversation I heard a glimmer of hope in her voice. Here’s the letter I dedicated to her after our encounter four years ago.
There is a lot on your young shoulders. Twenty-one years old and you’re already an officer in the Israel Defense Forces.
Thank you for defending Israel. Thank you to your mother for sending you out into the world to do this work for the Jewish state, and for Jews everywhere. Back home in Boston descriptions of what you and your unit do sound surreal. People will shake their heads in disbelief as much as in admiration that your unit—18 and 19 year-old young women—monitors the Israel security barrier and the surrounding area 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.
“It’s only a job for girls,” one of your charges proudly says. “Because girls can multitask better than boys.”
Girls with long, shiny ponytails—the same ponytails I see swinging up and down the soccer field when I watch Anna play. They’re eating the same junk food teenagers everywhere eat. But these teens munch on potato chips while wearing their country’s uniform and focusing on their monitors. They blink as often as the guards at Buckingham Palace. The room where they work is uncannily silent.
I wonder what your subordinates think of the American visitors cheering on one of the girls as she follows a suspicious character and then communicates with soldiers in the field to pick him up for questioning. It’s stunning to realize that the decision is hers alone on who warrants a closer look. And it’s even more stunning to know that the soldiers on the ground have only her judgment to rely on. She’s the one who guides them if they have to crawl around brush and barbed wire to capture a suspect. If things go badly, hers is the last voice a soldier hears in his earpiece.
Sarai, your charges are only four years older than my daughter. I wouldn’t blame you if you were resentful that my daughter and her friends are relatively carefree. I can understand if it bothers you that American groups observing your work sometimes relate to it as if watching a video game. Please be patient with us. The first Gulf War was beamed into our living rooms like a remote video game. But that was in 1991. You were only 3 years old and the soldiers now in your charge were babies. None of you remember being bundled into your safe rooms.
I was so sad when you said you’ve lost all hope for peace. You chide your friends for being unrealistic, even naïve about peace between Jews and Arabs. You say it’s because you’ve seen too much. I can understand why it disheartens you to see 5 and 6 year-old Palestinian children throwing rocks through the fence at your fellow soldiers.
But your hopelessness coupled with those Arab children’s burgeoning hatred are also casualties of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
I’d like to share a personal story with you. When I was a little older than you I worked for a civil rights organization where my job was to monitor right-wing extremists. You have infrared cameras and the latest communications equipment to do your job. I collected my information by reading hate rags put out by the Ku Klux Klan, neo-Nazis, skinheads and Holocaust revisionists. I was 25-years old and had never encountered such raw hatred. I monitored these right-wing extremists for 3 years. I knew where every Klan cell was in the United States.
After reading so much hate material day in and day out, it skewed my vision of the world. A few hate-mongers led me to believe that the United States was a country full of racists and anti-Semites. I had to pull out of that job to get my bearings again. Maybe you need to do the same after you honor your commitment to the army.
Sarai, your name tempts me into midrash. Sarai was Sarah’s name before God changed it. Perhaps this is a before moment for you. Maybe you’re more pessimistic as a younger Sarai. But I think you’ll find your optimism again. I saw a glimmer of that optimism when I asked you why witnessing the conflict up close wouldn’t want to make you work that much harder for peace.
Even though you were stunned by the question, I saw an older, wiser Sarai briefly emerge. “I never thought about it this way,” you said. “I need some time before I can answer you.”
While you are thinking my dear Sarai, I want to leave you with a saying from the Talmud. “You are not required to finish the task, but neither are you free to absolve yourself from it.”
I know that your duties as an officer in the Israel Defense Forces wear on your soul. Remember that you don’t need to solve every problem you encounter. But please marshal your strength, your experience—and yes—your optimism to work for peace.