Paula R. Stern is CEO and founder of WritePoint Ltd., a leading technical writing company offering documentation services and training seminars. She made aliyah in 1993 when her oldest son was 6 years old. In March 2007, her son Elie entered the Artillery Division of the Israeli army and Paula began writing about her experiences as A Soldier’s Mother. The blog continues as Elie begins Reserve Duty and her son Shmulik is now a soldier. She recently opened a publishing house, helping other authors fulfill their dream to publish.
When I was 13 years old, I fell in love with Israel. Simple as that. It is a love affair that has lasted all my life, since that moment when I picked up a novel called Exodus by Leon Uris and read about a ship, a naval blockade, and people who wanted, just wanted a home.
I had learned all manner of Jewish history, but it was a bit distant and foreign to me, until I learned about the story of an amazing ship, and the people on it. Reading the novel wasn't the end, it was the beginning. I started reading everything I could find on Israel, its history, its people, its army, its actions, its beliefs. I read. I laughed. I read. I rejoiced. I was so proud.
Then I did something harder. I began reading about the Holocaust. I had been taught that Jews walked like sheep to their deaths, but I had never been taught about those many who did not. Worse, I had not been taught about the humiliation, the degradation, the hatred and all that came before. I read. I cried. I read some more, and I was so proud.
The story of the Exodus, no, not the one from Egypt, but the one of a ship of refugees trying to reach Palestine and the Jewish homeland they hoped to help build there, touched my heart, united these two quests for knowledge, and it too made me proud.
I was shocked to learn that some idiot...no, wait, that isn't appropriate language for an intelligent discussion...I was shocked to learn that George Friedman write that the Exodus was "told the story of a Zionist provocation against the British." From there, his meanderings into the realm of logic go even further astray. You see, he wants to use (and abuse) the history of the Exodus to justify the flotilla fiasco and the violent, pre-planned propaganda battle. But there are so many fallacies, so many errors, that the comparison does not work and is, in fact, an incredible insult. It is, to my mind, almost as ludicrous and the Turkish calling this their 9/11.
So let's begin. The Exodus truly did have innocents aboard. Most were Holocaust survivors, desperate to get away from Europe and the horrors they had experienced. They were not members of terrorist organizations, as Israel has already shown some on board the flotilla were. They brought along their meager belongings...not knives, bats, clubs and a hatred so deep. The goal of the people on the Exodus was to evade the British blockade, not ram right into it and challenge British soldiers.
It was known from the start, that if they were caught, they would be returned to displaced persons camps - a fancy enough word for what was, essentially, a concentration camp that differed from the Nazi concentration camps only in that they didn't murder the people inside.
When the British boarded the ship, they were challenged. No, not by knives and bats. No, they were not beaten, three assailants to each British soldier. In fact, I have found no reports of any injuries among the British at all, though two passengers and one of the crew, 1st mate William Bernstein, a U.S. sailor from San Francisco were killed before the British had finished beating the passengers.
Of all cruel ironies, the deportation camp to which the British sent the Exodus "prisoners" was in Germany. Did I mention that most on-board the Exodus were Holocaust survivors? That insensitivity, that lack of humanity characterized much of the British Mandate and its treatment of the Jews. Of course, the British knew this was a stupid move, but they had tried to remove the passengers to France. The passengers refused to cooperate. There are no records of battles, simply people, tired of abuse and perhaps tired of life itself, simply refusing to disembark and, amazingly enough, the French refused to cooperate with the British. This left the British, in their somewhat twisted minds, no other option but to dump these people back in Germany.
Britain's position was later explained up by John Coulson, a diplomat at the British Embassy in Paris in a message sent to the Foreign Office in London in August 1947. This is what Coulson correctly pointed out:
You will realize that an announcement of decision to send immigrants back to Germany will produce violent hostile outburst in the press. The pros and cons of keeping the Exodus immigrants in camps ... there is one point that should be kept in mind. Our opponents in France, and I dare say in other countries, have made great play with the fact that these immigrants were being kept behind barbed wire, in concentration camps and guarded by Germans.
When they arrived in Germany, the women and children on board agreed to leave the ship, the men refused and were carried off. There were some scuffles on board. The British used batons and water cannons. Here, there were injuries among both the British and the Jews. Thirty-three Jews, including four women, were injured in the fighting. Sixty-eight Jews were held in custody to be put on trial for unruly behavior. Only three soldiers were hurt.
According to Lt. Col. Gregson, the commander of the operation, wrote "It is a very frightening thing to go into the hold full of yelling maniacs when outnumbered six or eight to one."
Yes, I'm sure the Israeli soldiers who boarded the flotilla felt the same way. Of course, in our case, the "yelling maniacs" weren't Holocaust survivors, but so-called peace-activists who quickly and systematically surrounded each soldier and simply started beating him with whatever was at hand, even tossing one soldier off the deck to fall 30 feet (after stabbing him, of course).
But, speaking of "whatever was at hand," comes the question - what did the Jews use to battle the British? Lt. Col Gregson wrote: "After a very short pause, with a lot of yelling and female screams, every available weapon up to a biscuit and bulks of timber was hurled at the soldiers. They withstood it admirably and very stoically till the Jews assaulted and in the first rush several soldiers were downed with half a dozen Jews on top kicking and tearing ... No other troops could have done it as well and as humanely as these British ones did."
However, one witness gave a different impression from the British report: "They went into the operation as a football match ... and it seemed evident that they had not had it explained to them that they were dealing with people who had suffered a lot and who are resisting in accordance with their convictions. People were usually hit in the stomach and this in my opinion explains that many people who did not show any signs of injury were staggering and moving very slowly along the staircase giving the impression that they were half-starved and beaten up. When the people walked off the ship, many of them, especially younger people, were shouting to the troops 'Hitler commandos', 'gentleman fascists', 'sadists'.
One woman simply yelled "I am from Dachau." Perhaps assuming that the British soldiers would care that she too was a Holocaust survivor. The soldiers did not respond or react and so she called them "Hitler commandos." She did not, of course, stab any soldiers, crack any skulls, etc.
After world opinion rose against them, the British investigated and concluded that excessive force had not been used, though they did note one case in which a Jew "was dragged down the gangway by the feet with his head bumping on the wooden slats". Excessive? I guess not to the British.
So let's talk about the flotilla that George Friedman thinks we should associate with the Exodus and some of the monumental differences between these two ships. When done, I can only hope that you will conclude that these two instances are similar only in that they both involved ships that float in water.
1. The goal for the people on board the Exodus was clear. They wanted to reach the Jewish homeland and their deepest prayer was to avoid the British naval blockade. For the flotilla, the goal was publicity and propaganda. It was never about humanitarian aid. Both Israel and Egypt had already offered to off-load the supplies and deliver them to Gaza.
2. On board, the Jews took all their worldly possessions, the few precious things they had gathered - some books, some clothes, food for the journey. If they were lucky, perhaps they had pictures of loved ones they had lost. I know of one man whose grandfather jumped one of these ships and swam to the shores of Palestine when all the others were dragged off by the British. He had in his pocket, a small prayer book that was wrapped and wrapped and though it got a bit wet, to this day, his grandson takes it and shows it to people as a memory of how his grandfather's dream came true. On board the flotilla, well, we already know what they had on board.
3. We hear from the British themselves that the weapon of the Jew on the Exodus was "yelling and female screams, every available weapon up to a biscuit and bulks of timber was hurled at the soldiers". There are no references to metal bats, clubs or knives and one must conclude that people, in their anger, grabbed whatever was there - including biscuits - aboard the Exodus. While aboard the "Freedom Flotilla" they came much more prepared for battle. No ship parts were used, it seems...and certainly no biscuits. No female screams and yelling - why bother when the goal was to hurt the soldiers and get those propaganda pictures of a battle? They screamed on the Mavi Marmara that the Jews should go back to Auschwitz.
The inaccuracies for the comparisons go on and on, but the main point must be remembered - no one offered the people on the Exodus the chance to fulfill their deepest, truest mission - to make their homes in what would soon become the State of Israel. The flotilla proclaimed a goal of delivering humanitarian aid and this was offered to them by Israel AND Egypt long before the Israeli navy made any attempt to board the ships.
No, the goal of the flotilla was clear - it was to deliver to the world pictures of violence. There was violence - now it is left to the world to decide if it will be duped by the pictures the thugs spoke...or the pictures their eyes can see in the numerous videos.
Beyond all the above - no one on the Exodus stabbed a British soldier in the back; no one beat them unconscious with metal clubs. No one cut off the ear of a British soldier...and no one claimed a purpose other than the truest one of all. The passengers on the Exodus were not paid $10,000 in cash as mercenaries to cause trouble. None of the passengers on the Exodus were later found to be key members of terrorist organizations...as have some of the passengers aboard the "Freedom Flotilla."
It goes on and on...but this comparison was a very personal one for me because my dream of coming to Israel began with the story of people, disheartened, abused, abandoned and almost defeated...rising up to try to find a new home.
They did not do it for political gains; they had no other options. They came from the gas chambers and the concentration camps and when the British finished with them, they all but sent them back there.
Israel declared a naval blockade and when our navy went to enforce that blockade, we were not met with screams, tears, and biscuits. The honor of being the newest member of the International Hall of Shame goes to George Friedman, who dared to compare the brave survivors of the Holocaust to the thugs of the Mavi Marmara.
September 11 was about innocent victims and terrorism. How telling that the Turks use and abuse this event for their own political and cynical gains. It is dangerous to be an Israeli in Turkey today. The families of Israeli diplomats have come back to Israel, as a cautionary move against possible violence. The diplomats, so far, have not been recalled. The flotilla fiasco is, according to some in Turkey, their 9/11. Of all the discussions I have heard, all the comments from all sides, this is perhaps the most telling.
September 11 was a day in which 50,000 people were attacked, more if you count the Pentagon and still more if you understand it was as much an attack on the United States itself, rather than “only” the World Trade Center. September 11 was a day in which innocence was attacked. Those who care more about making a point than reality, could argue that those in the Pentagon might not have been innocent, but no rational human being can say that those who perished, and those who survived, had done anything to justify what happened.
No, September 11 was about innocent victims and terrorism. How telling that the Turks use and abuse this event for their own political and cynical gains. The flotilla was not about humanitarian aid. No one can seriously believe that when Israel had constantly, even the day before, made public announcements that it was prepared to deliver the cargo to Gaza, once it was checked for security reasons and smuggling of contraband or weaponry.
Seriously, is there anyone in the world who doesn’t know about the hundreds of tunnels we have found and stopped, the endless smuggling of drugs, women, explosives, missiles and more that constantly flows into Gaza? It cannot be. I refuse to believe it.
It is possible people are unaware of the tens of thousands of missiles aimed at Israel – of the damage that has been caused here, the loss of life in Israel? I know the world has not forgotten the Gaza War – they are still looking for ways to condemn Israel. Even Richard Goldstone, the hanging judge of South Africa, admits to the rocket attacks and the damage we have sustained, even Richard Goldstone. A naval blockade was legally declared. The flotilla refused to comply. From there, the situation is clear.
So clearly, Israel was justified in demanding our right to protect our citizens and verify that the cargo was innocent. Turkish citizens and others took to the waters. A naval blockade was legally declared. The flotilla refused to comply. From there, the situation is clear.
Israel attempted to board the ships. In all honesty, though I am not a military person, I can see that the soldiers believed they were dropping down into a ship of activists – the very humanitarian and peace-loving people they claimed they would be. It would be a matter of arrest, transfer, pack up the cargo, deliver it. End of story.
But the people on the ship were not the innocents of 9/11. I don’t remember seeing anyone beating, stabbing, and shoving others from heights. I remember people helping others, crying, hugging, and most of all, running in fear for their lives as the terrorist threat turned into reality.
The flotilla “peace activists” had metal clubs with which they beat soldier after soldier. With the knives on board, vicious, long and sharp weapons of violence, they stabbed one courageously – in the back – and shoved him over the railing to drop 30 feet. Other brave protesters were busy cracking a soldier’s skull, grabbed weapons of others, and opened fire on our soldiers (and likely on their fellow passengers). These were not peace activists, but violent protesters with a cause…and the cause was not humanitarian aid to Gaza.
A full forty minutes passed before the soldiers were given permission to fight back for their lives, to open fire. The videos show this, taken from above and watched by thousands. News reporters heard the soldiers calling, one to the other, “don’t shoot, don’t shoot.” This is what they were trained to do and despite being beaten, they stuck to the training and did not meet deadly force with deadly force for a full 40 minutes.
For me, I am entranced with the concept that this violent act, this battle on the seas, could be compared to a massive terrorist attack against unsuspecting people on their way to work. The protesters were not unarmed as were the people of the World Trade Center; the protesters were not taken unaware. Knives were on board for this purpose (you don’t even cut a thick steak with the knives these protesters wielded).
Unsuspecting? This was at sea, out in the open – the flotilla was approached, warned repeatedly and loudly – yes, there are videos of these warnings (and again the offer to deliver the cargo to Gaza). A helicopter hovered over their heads as they planned their ambush and their victims – yes, their victims – were fed to them one by one as the soldiers dropped to the ships, each taken and viciously beaten. Each soldier was confronted by three or more armed men before he had even landed and the first blows often started while the soldier was still descending. Peace activists? No, not even close. Unsuspecting? Seriously not. Unarmed? Not even close.
I do not know if the American government of Barack Hussein Obama will take issue with what the Turks are now claiming, the message they are trying to float to the world. I do not know if the world is stupid enough to believe that those aboard were innocent.
Already yesterday and today, the contents of most of the ships has been transferred to Gaza – as promised before this whole fiasco, less the knives and other weapons found. A friend suggested that what Is Already yesterday and today, the contents of most of the ships has been transferred to Gaza – as promised before this whole fiasco, less the knives and other weapons found. rael should have done was send their commandos under the waters to simply pull the “plugs” on the ships, open a hole in the bottoms – and just let them sink.
We would be there to rescue those who wished to be rescued, let others rescue them, or let them drown. Had we done that, ten of our soldiers would not have been wounded, two in critical condition from the brutal attacks. And, had we done that, perhaps so many protesters would not have died and been injured. Of course, Gaza would not have gotten the aid it now has, but then again, that was never the point anyway.
I have now become a proponent of the concept of “retro-active sinking.” Should more flotillas come, and they will – we should sink the ships, simple as that. Those on board can sink or swim, be rescued or drowned. They wanted pictures of violence – they got them. That was expected, acceptable and inevitable.
Calling it Turkey’s 9/11 was not expected, should not be acceptable and though it might have been inevitable, it must be condemned. More than 50,000 innocent, unsuspecting people were attacked in the most brutal terrorist attack this world has seen. To compare that to the pre-planned battle and its consequences on the flotilla is obscene and must not be tolerated. In the strongest terms, Obama and others must demand a full apology and retraction from the Turks. Sadly, the Turks are so busy protesting and attacking all things Israeli and Jewish they can find, they are likely not to hear.
When Elie finished his Commanders Course, there was a ceremony. After the speeches, his commanding officer approached each of the soldiers in his group and pinned up the pocket flap they'd left dangling down. In this way, they were uncovering the new pin each had been given. It would take too long to pin on each medal and so it was easier to go and fix the flap as a sign that each had been given the new rank and job of Commander.
When Or approached Elie, he seemed to be standing there a long time relative to how long he stood before the others. I wondered what was happening...and suddenly, Elie's face broke into a grin. Or tapped him on the shoulder, a brief hug, and on to the next soldier.
I caught the grin on camera and asked Elie what had happened. He explained to me that there is a tradition. In each group, the army designates an "Excellent" soldier. There are many factors to this - how they do, but also other factors that make the army want to recognize this soldier. Another "undocumented" feature is the pin exchange. Put simply, this is a private moment between each commander and one soldier that he chooses. As he approaches, rather than give the soldier the new pin, he removes his own from his shirt, gives the new soldier this old pin as a sign of respect and honor, and keeps the new pin for himself in place of the old one.
This is what Or did for Elie - and Elie recognized and appreciated the honor. It is done quietly with no announcement - it is for the soldier and, if the family is lucky enough to see it and understand, for them too.
On Monday, as I watched Chaim receive his rifle and Bible, I noticed his commanding officer reach up to his own shoulder and remove something. Later I would learn it was his tag, that announced he was part of the Kfir Brigade. This time, I caught it all on video - all clear. The commanding officer placed his own tag on Chaim's shoulder and then gave him a hard push - some other tradition I don't know but saw was done with each soldier.
At this point, I was able to understand - he had chosen Chaim. My eyes filled with tears and I was afraid I was going to mess up the video. I blinked my eyes furiously to clear them, to keep watching and tried to hold the camera straight. This is an honor - from soldier to soldier; an exchange between a commander and his soldier, but so much more.
These are the traditions I knew nothing about the first time around and which mean so much now that I do understand. It is one more thing I love about the Israeli army.
Shmulik is undergoing the hardest part of army service - the basic training. There is no leeway given to soldiers, no extras. Though the army watches them carefully...and watches out for them, they give the soldier the impression that they do not care, that the soldier is merely a part of a great machine.
This time around...I expected more from the army...and in return, the experience is worse. For a variety of reasons, this is coming harder for Shmulik than it was for Elie. This is actually funny because Shmulik went into the army in better physical condition. Years ago, when he was around 14, he was a bit pudgy (is that a word?). I wasn't concerned because I was sure he would grow out of it as Elie had...as my husband had when he was the same age.
Not only did Shmulik grow very quickly, but he got in shape. He started exercising and strengthening his muscles. But more, he went on a diet and lost weight. So much so, that I was afraid he was too thin and took him to the doctor.
“How do you feel?” the doctor asked my son.
“Fine,” Shmulik answered. The doctor turned to me and asked what the problem was. I explained that he’d gone on a diet and lost weight…but I thought it was too much. He throws up sometimes, I explained, and I was getting nervous.
The doctor weighed him and measured him…and asked him if he was forcing himself to throw up. Shmulik looked a bit surprised at the idea and answered that he wasn’t…it just happened sometimes.
The doctor asked him what his favorite foods were. “I don’t know,” Shmulik said with some hesitation, “Pizza? Ice cream?”
“He’s normal,” said the doctor. “Leave him alone.”
That was years ago. Since then, Shmulik has been into exercise and food. He eats well, sometimes snacks too much, balances it out. I thought he’d sail through the army as Elie did. It isn’t happening.
So that’s the update on Shmulik, who is still complaining of headaches but is hopefully settling in and, in any event, coming home on Friday morning.
As for Elie, the explanations, the decompression continues. Yesterday came yet another really funny story. He was explaining how the army takes new soldiers out into the field. It simulates battle conditions – less food, less sleep. And, as part of this, it collects all of their watches. From the first, they are taught the importance of time…to the minute they are given tasks to do…and then suddenly, the minutes still count, but the time of day is gone. After a little while, they return the watches set to 12:00. They’ve already been out in the field for hours. They can’t tell any more what time it is. Time of day has no meaning…the hours blend together, the days. It is meant to confuse you, disorient you…and it probably worked…
well…sort of…once upon a time…
This is where modern technology defeats the old army way. The concept of taking the watches and resetting them was created at a time…when there were likely no cellular phones. Or, if there were…they made phone calls.
Apparently, the army overlooked this flaw in their logic when Elie’s group was taken out to the field and so they held onto this anchor. The goal of the army is to make you improvise, make you follow orders, but thinking is valued too.
My daughter spoke those words this morning as I drove her to school. She was talking about our visit to Shmulik's base. We arrived after a long drive, parked the car and walked past a table of female soldiers who "registered us." They asked the name of our soldier, checked it off, handed us a note about what we would see, a business - size card with the name and phone number of the head of the Kfir division (including office and mobile phone numbers) and a rose for the mothers. A beautiful red rose...can you imagine?
We walked along a pathway until we got to a large gathering of chairs. As we walked around the curve, we saw perhaps a dozen soldiers, in full combat gear and guns, laying on the ground "hiding" behind the small hill just to the side. We sat and almost immediately, the event began.
The Kfir division commander introduced himself. He gave his name and position and then explained. He lives in Maale Adumim (where I do). He is married, and gave his wife's name. He is the father of four daughters, named them and gave their ages, "yes, four daughters," he said with pride, with a smile and a laugh, and people clapped for him.
He wants to show us what our sons will be learning in the months to come. When we first told them they would run three kilometers, he said, half of them had a heart attack. Now they do it easily. By the end of the training, they will be able to travel more than 40 kilometers on foot, he told us - carrying stretchers even. And then he directed us to look at the mountain just behind him.
A man in black stood crouched about half way up, "there are two terrorists that have been spotted," the commander said, "don't worry - they will be firing blanks only" and again, people laughed. At first I saw only one "terrorist" as he rose and began firing at us. A unit of soldiers went into action as the commander explained; as we heard the unit commander ordering his troops. They spanned out, as another terrorist jumped up and fired.
The soldiers rolled to the ground, in a coordinated effort, soldiers fired as one among them rolled and then advanced...and thus they moved into position until they fired and took out one of the terrorists. The young man fell, raising his legs in the air as he "died" - gaining another laugh from the audience...an actor he will never be.
The unit continued to fire and advance, taking out the second of the terrorists. "They continue beyond this point," the commander explained, "to determine if there are more terrorists." A third we had not known about stood to fire and again was "eliminated."
"These are soldiers who entered the army in November, 2009," the commander explained as the parents clapped for the soldiers. "Just four months ahead of your sons."
They will learn to master weapons, the commander explained. He directed us to look to his left - targets had been set up. He introduced the weapons our sons will use - guns and grenade launchers...
They fired each of the weapons. Each came with a ping as they hit their target, up to a boom and a small explosion. They set part of the field on fire - "Don't worry," the commander said, "we are prepared for this too." And we watched as a group of soldiers ran out and put the fire out.
"Look on the mountain," the commander told us again. There was a house there, a small structure with Hamas and Fatah flags on it. This too, our soldiers will do. He explained that a wanted terrorist is inside and we watched as those soldiers we had seen when we first arrived, came over the small hill and began their advance. It was like a play-by-play of a football game, only this was too real.
As the soldiers secured the position...we heard the terms they use. They surrounded the building. "Notice how they are alert to all directions. Imagine this was a house in the casbah" - the market in the center of an Arab town. "Enemies can come from all directions, shots from any window." More than a mother wants to imagine.
Part of Shmulik's unit includes trained dogs who can sniff out explosives, or take a terrorist down. They threw in smoke bombs and the "terrorist" emerged and began to run. The soldier playing the part was heavily padded - the dog attacked and brought him down. Quickly the soldiers surrounded the fallen terrorist. "First we secure the situation," the commander said, "then we call off the dog." The dog quickly was removed but watched at attention as the soldiers checked the "terrorist" and led him off.
The house was still a threat, the commander explained, directing our eyes back to the the small structure. It has to be checked...and so the unit continued.
With the fears of a child, I learned today, my daughter thought perhaps that the terrorist in the house was real. For me, perhaps the most chilling part of the day was not the actions these soldiers took but the commanders next words, "remember, these soldiers are just four months ahead of your sons. In four months, it will be your sons doing this for another group of parents. You aren't invited, though," he said with a laugh.
In four months...less even, because part of that time has already passed. "Time is short," the commander had said when we began the event. Yes, it is...four months....