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What Did You Do During the War, Daddy?

May 9, 2009 | by Bennett M. Epstein

Years down the road, what would I be able to say that I did while Israel was fighting for its very existence in the war on terror?

My children weren't the ones asking me the question. I was inquiring of myself. Years down the road, what would I be able to say that I did in 2002, while Israel was fighting for its very existence in the war on terror? That I launched a thunderous barrage of faxes? That I rallied cyber-troops with forwarded material? That I verbally attacked CNN at a cocktail party? Had I done something that mattered? Or was history repeating itself, like America ignoring the Holocaust during the '30s and '40s, only now it was my generation's turn - my turn? Israel was under attack. The Jewish people were under attack. And I was treating a matter of life and death like it was a PTA election. It was beginning to bother me.

Oh, I had made some sacrifices. I cancelled my subscription to the New York Times -- for a whole week, between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. I "marched" to the Capitol. On an air-conditioned bus. I contributed to the Israel Emergency Fund and sent flowers to friends in Israel via the Internet. But not enough to really make a dent on my credit card.

The time had arrived for me to get up off my chair.

Let's face it, I was a dilettante when it came to this crisis situation, and the reason was clear: I hadn't been to Israel in eighteen months, since January, 2001. Eighteen months during which Israelis were being bombed on the streets and slaughtered in their beds, and the best I could do was send virtual condolences. The time had arrived for me to get up off my chair.

I heard that the Israel Defense Forces welcome civilian volunteers, in a program called Sar-el, to work on army bases inside the green line, doing maintenance and repair work. For someone like me, whose military career consisted of two years of learning how to march in ROTC, this seemed like an acceptable level of challenge and also the chance to make a difference. Equally important, I would be in Israel at a time when I was needed. My family and friends at home would see me go. My friends in Israel would see that I was with them. The terrorists would have intimidated one less person.

I landed at Ben-Gurion, feeling a little bit like the green recruit in "Private Benjamin." I was picked up, taken to the supply base that would be my home for the next couple of weeks, issued a set of military fatigues and boots, assigned a bunk and trained for a few hours in how to rewire a piece of combat electronic equipment on a small assembly line. Our base had a motto: Im u'lmaan ha yechidot ("With and for the fighting units"). It was appropriate. Somewhere in the field, soldiers were relying upon the equipment we assembled.

The base I was on had about 30 volunteers, and I was surprised to find that a majority of them were from places other than America, and were not Jewish. Maybe Americans feel that because of our country's strong support for Israel we can be spectators, although just the opposite is true. There were Jews from Belgium, Norway and Chile and whole contingent of non-Jews from Brazil plus several from the Netherlands and South Africa, making a strong statement of solidarity with Israel. It's nice to know that Israel has such friends in the world, but American Jews should be there in greater numbers. We should be leading the way with our presence as a way of supporting our President.

The volunteers worked side by side with soldiers doing the same work. We also ate with them in the dining hall, assembled at the flagpole with them in the morning and spoke with them a lot. It was like seeing Israel from the inside out, a view that you can never get as a tourist. The only thing the soldiers did that we did not was guard duty. We provided a form of military manpower, enabling the army to expand and direct its resources to other needed areas. I know we saved the army money, and I like to think that maybe we enabled some reservists to stay home and support their families while we took their place.

We also contributed to the economy in other ways. We were free to travel on our own from Thursday night to Sunday morning. I stayed in hotels in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem and shopped in stores that surely need the business. Everywhere, there was a conspicuous absence of tourists, and people were grateful to see us. The Israelis are going about their lives, and they are, like the supply base's motto "with and for the fighting units" but they are doing so without us being there.

That has to change. We also have to be Im u'lmaan ha yechidot, and you can't do it by fax. Now that I am home, I intend to keep up the faxes, the e-mails, and to try to keep the media honest. Those things do have value in the fickle world of politics. I also intend to keep making donations and buying Israeli goods, particularly in these times of boycotts directed against Israel. But before too long, I will be asking myself the question again, and I know how I will answer it. It is a question every one of us should be asking.

Courtesy of

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