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Thursday, 15 January 2015

Why is Israel so special? By Paul Mirbach

flagBy Paul Mirbach

I am a Zionist. Passionate and unashamed. It defines me. I wear it as a badge of honour. I can afford to do that, living here in Israel. In Israel, Zionism is held up as something positive; it is not a slur.

For some, Zionism is an ideal. They write about it. They promote Zionist causes in the countries they live, they even dedicate their lives to Israel. They live for Israel. So do I, but more importantly I live in Israel. I could not be whole, if I didn’t live here.

But what makes Israel so special, for me?

I guess it started way back in October 1973 when I lived in Rhodesia. That Yom Kippur was the first Yom Kippur after my Bar Mitzvah. I was now a man, and I was determined to observe the fast. No brushing teeth, not wearing leather shoes, walking to the shul, even if it was five kilometres from home. I intended to daven fervently throughout the service, but I just couldn’t do it; halfway through Yizkor, I broke and I had to go out for some fresh air. I was sitting on the parapet just next to the garden with some friends, when I saw someone wearing a kippa and a talith jump out of his car and rush into the shul. My first thought was, what was he doing in his car on Yom Kippur? But something told me to follow him inside. When I entered the shul, everyone was feverishly whispering and the buzz was beginning to drown out the cantor. At last, the cantor was told to stop and the Rabbi announced that he had just heard that Israel had been attacked by the Egyptian and Syrian armies. He did not mention how he had come by this information on the Sabbath of Sabbaths, but it certainly wasn’t by divine interruption. Anyway, it didn’t matter. Israel’s peril trumped the holiest day, that year. The fear and concern was palpable; I was struck by how much the fate of a little country, thousands of miles away, affected the lives of all these people, most of whom had never even set foot in it. The realization of the huge influence Israel had on the lives of all Jews everywhere, was the first sign for me of how special Israel was. I believe it was on that day, that the seeds of my desire to live in Israel were planted.

I first visited Israel in 1978, for a two month visit. After all the hours spent talking about Israel, idealising about Israel, dreaming about Israel in Habonim, our youth movement, we were finally here. The excitement I felt when we landed, was indescribable. I had a lump in my throat and I felt I would start crying at any moment. I cannot think of any other country that can evoke so much emotion from someone visiting it for the first time. By the way, the visit lived up to all the hype. I fell in love with Israel, and it was then I knew that I was going to come and live here. I channelled all my energy from the day I returned to South Africa to that one purpose: to make Aliya and to link my fate with that of the country I had fallen in love with.

In 1982 I made Aliya. How does one express the feeling of serenity that descended upon me when I landed in Israel once again? It was like at last, I had come home, here is where I belong. I had left my home at 16, to a boarding school in Capetown from what was then called Rhodesia, as it began to fall apart. I had a deep yearning to lay down roots and I just knew that this was the place: Kibbutz Tuval, a fledgling kibbutz, not even a year old in the beautiful, green Galilee. Which other country could give you the opportunity to fulfil your dream of building a brand new society from mud and rocks, to be the master of your destiny, a pioneer? Only in Israel could you achieve such a dream. That was 33 years ago, and I am still here, as deeply in love with the home I have built today, as I was then, as a young idealist.

At the age of 24, I volunteered for the army. I served in infantry. I remember that at one point I was a sergeant in command of a squad of ten soldiers, guarding Joseph’s Tomb, in Shechem (Nablus). There was a period of violence and unrest in the area. The Israeli Chief of Staff decided to visit the area, and of course, the site. We received him at the entrance to Joseph’s tomb – after frenzied preparations, tins of boot polish, and briefings on topography and strategic strengths and weaknesses. Upon his arrival, the Chief of Staff, Lt General Moshe Levi stood in front of us, 6ft 6in tall. I am all of 5ft 4in. He pointed to me to come forward. “Which kibbutz are you from?” he asked me. I stammered out my reply and he asked me if I knew so–and-so and to send him his regards. This was the army’s Chief of Staff, talking to a sergeant! Only in Israel. I don’t remember the rest of the conversation, I only remember thinking: Look at the size of his feet! He must be a 48! Do they make boots especially for him?

Later, in reserve duty, the true special nature of Israel is exposed. In my unit, we had a company CEO, a taxi driver, a gay curtain salesman, a kibbutznik (me), a home renovator and a school teacher. It was the most natural thing in the world for us to meet up every year, all coming from such diverse walks of life, to serve together. Despite our backgrounds and conflicting political views, you could never find a closer knit unit. We never missed a year together. One year, we all volunteered to do reserve duty in the Golan Heights over Pesach. We held our own Pesach service, and invited foreign UN officers stationed in the Golan Heights to join us. That was one of the most memorable Pesach seders I have ever had.

But, let us not forget. This is Israel. You cannot escape the terrorist attacks and the wars. It is with you always; either the threat and anticipation, or the aftermath. In times of distress, all of Israel comes together. We set aside our differences and our petty political squabbles and open our hearts. The following anecdote illustrates more than anything else, what makes Israel truly special. Max Steinberg was a lone soldier. That in itself is special. He came to Israel from the United States to serve in the army. That doesn’t happen anywhere else. He was tragically killed in service of his adopted country in Operation Protective Edge. He had no family in the country. It was feared that a minyan could not be found to hold the memorial service. Maccabi Haifa, a football club received word of this, and appealed to its fans to attend the funeral so that there would be a minyan. Thirty thousand people attended this hero’s funeral! None of them knew him, yet the deep appreciation of his contribution to the country and the ultimate price he paid, was expressed in the most fundamental respect that could be shown.

So, why is Israel so special? Come and experience it for yourselves.

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