Volunteering in Israel yields appreciation

Last week was the worst week of my life. I’ve been here in Israel for eleven months as a volunteer for the Israel Defense Forces, which has thrown my personal life into chaos, but I’m doing this because I wanted to fight against terrorism. I’m not Jewish; I’m not doing this for religious reasons but solely because Israel is a friend of the United States. To me, the attacks Israelis have suffered this year are not only directed against them, but against the civilized world as a whole. Most importantly, Israel is a U.S. ally, and that is enough for me.

I’m tired, however. My body aches, my stress level has been too high and the heat of a Middle Eastern summer has wiped me out. Yes, I hate Minnesota winters, but I’ve learned I definitely am not made for this climate. I’ve stayed because I want to help Israel and be a part of the vanguard of Americans supporting our important ally. Nonetheless, I have to face the fact that I’m tired, hurting and a bit sad at the difficulty of getting control of the situation here. So as of last week, I began to prepare to finally come home to America.

On Sept. 11, like all of you, I experienced what was done to America. I’d like to be able to write something powerful, positive and uplifting, but the reality is it’s beyond my ability to handle. As I write this, I still haven’t heard from several friends since their offices were hit in the World Trade Center. This has contributed to my personal sense of total disorientation.

I’ve been here in Israel for eleven months. When I came out, I thought I’d only be here for a few weeks. But it has been good. I never sought anything in return, but I have been thanked voluminously.

Since Sept. 11, however, the whole world I’m in has been turned upside down. I have loved reading Tom Clancy books, but not even he could have captured the calamity of this past week. Israelis have been pouring out all over the place to show their support and love of Americans. This is so bizarre for me. Suddenly, I’m like a hero here, as are all Americans. It is almost strange, if albeit natural.

At the really big terrorist attack sites, such as the Dolphinarium where 21 young kids were killed June 1, Israelis are putting up memorials to the American people. Do we deserve this? Israel has been through so much, and I’m not sure if we Americans have exactly been the best of friends to them. And yet, Israelis now are not hesitating to open their hearts to us.

The day after the attacks, only a few hours passed before 1,000 units of universal type-O blood was donated by Israelis and flown by special military air transport to New York. That day was also declared a national day of mourning by Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. Israel was the first to be there for us. Special rescue teams were assembled in case we needed them in New York City and Washington, D.C.

The Saturday following the attacks, I attended a massive rally in Rabin Square in support of America. “You’ve got a friend” was the message. One speaker added, “Your friend is a little friend, but a big friend too.” Foreign Minister Shimon Peres spoke eloquently about the justice and resolve of America this past century. He said America does not seek war, but when one has been forced on us, we fight so as to achieve victory not only for ourselves but for all freedom-loving people worldwide. The Sunday after the Sept. 11 tragedy, Israel’s parliament, the Knesset, held a special session regarding the attacks the Americans had suffered.

This is all so strange. I never imagined America would be so central in this war against terrorism when I came here last fall. I’m listening to Israeli radio to find out what is happening in the United States and listening to Voice of America to find out what is happening here. The world is turned upside down.

But one thing is clear: Israel is a friend and ally of America. The support I’m seeing for us from the Israeli people is justifying all these months I’ve been here working for Israel. You might want to see only propaganda value in it, but let me point out it is something you can’t completely ignore. Afghans are running to the hills while Israelis are rushing to embrace us. Can’t you see who our friends are here?

I don’t blame the Palestinians for as much as you might think. I actually feel very bad for them. I hope they will have a better future soon. And I am betting Israel will find a way to make an effective compromise with them. That said, however, I was hurt by those Palestinians who poured into the streets in Gaza, Nablus and East Jerusalem to celebrate the Sept. 11 attacks. That was wrong of them. Yes, I’m here in Israel helping the Israeli army, but I don’t celebrate when Palestinians are killed. All war and terrorism is a tragedy.

In times like this, it is vital we bear in mind that no distinction is made in our Constitution between Muslims and non-Muslims, Arabs and non-Arabs. Muslims and Arabs are our fellow citizens too, and we must not let these attacks we’ve suffered compel us to attack and oppress innocent Arab and Muslim citizens. In fact, as Americans, we can now show the world a lesson by embracing our fellow Arab-Americans and respecting the Muslims who live in our Judeo-Christian society. This is a complicated world, and they are Americans no less than the rest of us are.

If we resort to mistreating them simply because their nationality and religion might be similar to the terrorists responsible for Sept. 11, we will only be lowering ourselves as the terrorists want us to. We will be no better than those Palestinians who celebrated last week. Please don’t do this. This is our time as Americans to show the world what we believe in. The world is watching us, embracing us, and we therefore have an opportunity to teach the world what we are all about.

I’m so proud of all of you. I’ve been watching the news and hearing from friends. They tell me incredible stories of your patriotism and efforts to rise above the hateful terrorism unleashed on us.

I’ve been trying to do this here for 11 months, and now all of you, every American, is a part of this effort. Let’s join together; support our military and leadership as we fight this war. We are going to kick some serious butt, but bear in mind there will be Arabs and Muslims in the U.S. military participating in those attacks and maybe even some Afghan-Americans. They are our fellow citizens, and we must not forget this.

As for Israel, I’m going to be leaving here soon. Yet, I will not be returning to the homeland I once knew. That is gone forever, permanently changed as of Sept. 11. Israelis are our good friends, greatly supporting me as well as all of you. They justify all these months I’ve spent here supporting them in a time of terrible suffering.

I’ll be sad to leave, but I’m now eager to come home to America. See you soon.


Joe Roche is a graduate student studying history. Send comments to [email protected]