We fight to live, we don’t live to fight.” We were 40 inquisitive teens with a thirst for knowledge, and Rabbi Yotav Eliach instilled in us the importance of separating fact from fiction. Rabbi Eliach is a Write On educator and principal at Rambam Mesivta High School in Lawrence, L.I.
In the case of Israel’s struggle for existence, only the facts dictate to whom the land belongs. Understanding the facts and learning their value defined our Write On For Israel summer experience.
Our trip could actually be defined as a fact finding-mission. Led by the not only knowledgeable but experienced Rabbi Yotav Eliach (once a reserve soldier for the Israel Defense Forces); directed by former CNN correspondent Linda Scherzer; and backed by The Jewish Week and the Avi Chai Foundation, Write On For Israel transforms the lives of its students. From the seven seminars throughout the year to the two-week Israel trip in July, the amount of knowledge digested and the amount of first-hand information obtained encourages every student to become part of the Israel advocacy community.
“There is nothing more gratifying than taking 40 exceptionally bright, highly motivated Jewish high school students to the State of Israel for an in-depth hasbara oriented tour,” wrote Rabbi Eliach in an e-mail. “At Write On we have crafted a 10-day trip to Israel that highlights the realities of Israel’s day to day existence which sadly includes its war on Palestinian and Hezbollah terror. Our students see very clearly that Israel fights to live and does not live to fight.”
The uniqueness of the Israel trip — and its repercussions — is what sets the Write On student up for life. I felt that and my colleagues felt that. And it’s only because of what we did and what we saw.
A trip to Israel solely to bear witness to the truth concerning its history, borders and cultural life is rare. The uniqueness of this trip is the degree of exposure that it allows — we understood the political realities, realized the security necessities and felt our connection to Israel. Whether we had never been there before or had been there 10 times before, no one had experienced such a trip; the educational, emotional and historical value is beyond anything we had ever seen. A handful of specific experiences rendered the trip as powerful as it was.
The Qalqilya Checkpoint. On our first day we stopped near Judea and Samaria, known today as the West Bank. We saw the security fence that runs along the West Bank border (actually 95 percent fence and only 5 percent wall) and understood its purpose. With suicide bombers walking straight into Israeli cities during the Intifada, a fence was needed to stop the violence; sometimes inconvenience is the cost of security.
At the checkpoint we saw lines of cars. Israeli and Palestinian drivers waited in line to be searched—unfair, but completely necessary. We learned that evaluating Israel’s security can’t be done while sitting in a chair in Washington, D.C. On the ground, standing in the hot sun, it was clear what security measures were invaluable.
Army base on the Syrian border. There’s no harsher reality than observing 18-year-old boys setting up mortars in practice for a real war. We were briefed by a military commander on top of the Hermon, one of the highest mountains in the region. We looked over the mountaintops into Syria and suddenly the fear of a battle in such terrain became a reality. And yet the boys moved swiftly over sweltering bleached sand, well trained in their exercises. As our bus descended the mountaintop, my heart was filled with anguish and respect for those serving up there, protecting our country.
Iksal. Perhaps the most intriguing visit of the whole trip was to an Arab Israeli village. We walked past half-built homes, run down streets and young men on bicycles. Contrary to popular belief, we were not in the town of the enemy. The young men that took us graciously into their homes for drinks and discussion, in particular my host Tariq, told us of the divide within the community. A large majority of residents support Hamas, but many do not, he said. One of the town leaders, Mohammed Darwasha, head of the Abraham Fund that works to improve relations between Israeli Arabs and the Israeli government, described to us the poor treatment by the Israeli government. Sometimes Israeli Arabs are denied jobs even when they are more qualified than their Israeli counterpart and they are often treated as second class citizens. Some would even rather be Palestinians, not Israeli. The fact is Israeli Arabs are allies that we need.
Har Herzl Military Cemetery. Eighteen, 19, 20, each grave read a similar age. Suddenly these soldiers were not soldiers — they were boys whose lives, their favorite sports team and favorite book, were displayed on their burial ground. Rabbi Eliach couldn’t control his emotions when speaking of their sacrifice and their youth. Approaching that age, I felt afraid. I felt an almost personal connection with those lying before me.
Sderot. As I walked off the bus, I tripped in a hole created by a Kassam rocket. The holes decorated the streets and sidewalks of the city. But despite this, the town was tranquil — those brave enough to remain in a bombarded city want to live their lives.
A friend of our group, Nurit Davida, took us into her home for lunch and a discussion of life in Sderot. After touring the city, we felt comfortable there. We saw a normal city, but the holes in the ground, the bomb shelters and the constant fear of rocket fire tore through the happiness. Because of the fear, the atmosphere was one of love for Sderot. Only a community so determined to live could emanate such a feeling.
If there was one feeling that we left Israel with, it was how connected we are as a people to that land. For 3,000 years its been ours or ours in our dreams. While Christianity and Islam do have legitimate claims and ties to the land, none are as strong as the Jews. Jerusalem is a religious hub, holy to many, but in a world where Islam has Mecca and Christianity has Vatican City, the undisputed fact that Israel is and always has been home to the Jewish people remains strong.
Write On succeeded. We live in a world of hypocrisy, turmoil and dissent; such a trip where the proof of facts is witnessed in the actual landscape is precious. It’s taking the high road, but it’s the only path that ends in the right direction: Israel’s survival for generations.
This article was reprinted from October 30, 2009.
Joshua Fattal is a senior at the Yeshivah of Flatbush in Brooklyn.