It is my last day in Jerusalem, and my heart longs to return here, in spite of the attack yesterday morning on American Jews worshipping in a synagogue, the all-too-familiar sound of small weapons fire occurring occasionally off in the distance, and a briefing with conservative media members last night regarding the back story of the attack. In all of it, I have felt the same divine peace I experienced in Iraq, and honestly, my greatest trials while in Israel have been getting Internet access.
Part of the reason for my peace within the City of Peace has been the experience of being quietly protected by former members of the IDF, the Israeli Defense Forces, who were literally formed only a few days after Israel became a nation in 1948. All of our tour guides have been in the IDF, as is the law for all eligible Israeli men and women. However, in our case, we have lived among the legendary.
The first name of the man who heads up the tour company with whom we have travelled literally means “peace,” and he served in the Six Day War as well as the Yom Kippur War of 1973. When his name is said, people pay attention, and I have watched with deep thankfulness as he has expertly assessed threat levels, changed locations as needed, and made it possible for us to get on to an active IDF base in the Golan Heights, where we were literally staring at Syria. He also made it possible for our group of nearly 300 people to get on the Temple Mount, which is not easy ever, and especially in the last few weeks.
What has been the most impressive has been how low key it has all been, and that is my first “boots on the ground” insight: When you experientially live “in the presence of your enemies,” there is a quiet understanding that freedom is more than fragile, and being willing to defend it is as non-negotiable as breathing.
One of our tour guides has reminded me of comedian Martin Short. He is wiry, quick, and hilariously funny, with a humor that has been born out of the determination of his parents to build a new life here when they immigrated in the late ‘40s and early ‘50s. They were miraculously spared from Auschwitz, his father by jumping off the train as the older and stronger ones pried open the door, his mother by Raoul Wallenberg, the “Oskar Schindler” of Sweden who is credited with saving the lives of approximately 25,000 Jews in several countries by creating false visas.
There is a tree planted in his honor at Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Memorial in Jerusalem. The tree is part of the Garden of the Righteous Among the Nations, which commemorates non-Jews such as Corrie Ten Boom and countless others who risked their own lives to save Jewish lives when Europe went mad 75 years ago. It was not until he pulled it all together for us by saying through tears, “He saved my mama,” (and then let us know that he had just lost her in March) that we understood the impact of Wallenberg’s courage. Insight number two: Live in gratitude, and give honor where honor is due.
This same tour guide had the most remarkable understanding of history, culture and archaeology at his command, (without any notes, I might add) that I have ever encountered in one human being, ever. I am not just talking about Israeli history, ancient and modern. I am talking about Church history, European, African, American, Middle Eastern, et al, and he deserves to be referred to as “Phenome-ron,” a shameless as well as affectionate play on his name. We can throw in a fascinating understanding of botany as well as art while we’re at it, and I will be indebted to him for the rest of my life. Why? Not just because he made the tour so remarkable, but he knew history, the power of which was my third in- sight.
He was scholastically unshakeable in the conclusions of his research, and with boundless energy was committed to seeing to it that anyone even remotely interested receive the same sense of the value and beauty of life as he possesses. He is who he is because he knows where he has been, something I fear as college students in the States look at pictures of Adolph Hitler and wonder if he was a film actor.
I watched with a knot in my throat as a group of young soldiers went into Yad Veshem to see what their great-grandparents endured that they might be free, and I don’t think there will ever be a movement in Israel to take the Torah off the IDF bases, or out of their ruck-sacks because it is “offensive.” Our safari jeep driver said it best: “We are who we are, we have been where we have been, and people don’t have to like us.” May our own soldiers have their own opportunity to “live among the legendary.”
By: Ali Elizabeth Turner