Israelis Shai, 24, and Nir, 26, told compelling stories as StandWithUs’ “Between the Lines: Voices of Israel – Stories Untold” visited Rhode Island on Feb. 25 and 26.
Their presentation was part of the ninth StandWithUs tour, which features reservists who tell about their personal experiences serving in the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF), as well as about their backgrounds and lives in Israel.
Chabad of West Bay, in Warwick, and Laurelmead, in Providence, were hosts to the young Israelis, who told their stories to an audience of nearly 700 people at Praise Tabernacle in Cranston. Their appearances in Rhode Island concluded a two-week East Coast tour, including stops at the U.S. Military Academy and the Coast Guard Academy. Last names are withheld for security purposes.
Nir grew up in a house of opposites – his father was from a secular Dutch family and his mother from a religious Persian family of nine children. During the 1950s, the anti-Semitism and pogroms against Jews living in Arab countries increased and intensified, and Nir’s mother’s family left behind everything when they fled.
Meanwhile, his father’s parents were dealing with the horrors of World War II and the Holocaust. After years of living comfortably in the Netherlands, they were running for their lives – and survived thanks to some of the Righteous Among the Nations, who hid them in a secret room under the stairs in their house. If this seems similar to another famous Holocaust story from Holland, Nir revealed that prior to the war, his grandmother had been a close friend of Anne Frank.
Although their backgrounds are very different, Nir’s parents had something big in common: they fled persecution and came to the only Jewish country in the world. He compared his mixed household to the ingathering of the exiles of the Jewish people.
Military service is mandatory in Israel for men and women at age 18. Nir joined the elite Paratroopers Brigade as an officer and a deputy company commander. He told the audience that Israel, situated in the middle of “a tough neighborhood,” has been under attack for each of its 68 years of existence.
In addition to the Palestinian terrorist attacks within Israel, the West Bank and Gaza, Nir said ISIS is threatening Israel’s northern border, the terrorist group Hezbollah targets civilians from Lebanon, and the Syrian civil war spills across the border.
During Operation Protective Edge, Israel’s 2014 war against Hamas in Gaza, Nir was horrified to see children’s bedrooms turned into weapon storage areas and kindergartens converted into control centers for Hamas commanders.
Despite the enemy’s use of its own people as shields, Nir said Israel does its utmost to protect civilians by dropping flyers, making telephone calls and texting to alert them to an imminent attack so they can take cover.
Shai grew up on a kibbutz and served as a drill sergeant in the Israeli Air Force’s Pilot Cadet Course. A half-Australian and half-Indian Jew, she is religiously mixed as well, having both a Christian and a Muslim grandparent.
Shai shared a harrowing story of training her soldiers in the desert in 2012 when suddenly the flash of the Iron Dome alerted her to an attack. With no warning and no shelter, they waited for six hours as hundreds of rockets passed over their heads.
The stress of being in mortal danger, combined with her deep sense of responsibility for her soldiers, resulted in PTSD, which she suffers from to this day. Shai said every Red Alert throws her back to those moments of terror.
One day, after her service ended, Shai received such an alert on her phoneat work, causing her to hyperventilate. Her Palestinian Muslim co-worker questioned why she was so distressed, and Shai sadly disclosed the reason. Later, he told her that he had prayed for forgiveness. For Shai, this reinforced her hope in the possibility of mutual understanding.
The reservists concluded by saying that despite their many different backgrounds, Israelis have a natural brotherhood that will hopefully lead to the end of the conflict – that knowing how to talk to “the other” among themselves will eventually lead to success in dialogue with ‘the other’ outside themselves.
BRACHA STUART is executive director of the Rhode Island chapter of StandWithUs, a nonprofit Israeli education and advocacy organization.