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Meditations on Lebanon

The day Israeli troops began to pull out of their encampments on the Lebanese side of the border, a banner headline in Israel’s most widely read newspaper, Yediot Acharonot, screamed: “The Degradation!” Inside, the paper showed panic-stricken residents of Kiryat Shmona piling belongings and children into cars and getting the heck out of there. Residents of other border settlements with microphones stuck in their faces talked about betrayal and fear and abandonment.

But there were other photos too: the mostly joyous faces of Israeli troops crossing the border, leaving the Lebanese hell far behind them. The tears and laughter of a bereaved mother, one of the founders of the Four Mothers group lobbying for withdrawal, as she hugged the returning troops. Her face told the story: it was too late for her son, but she felt glad to see these others out of harm’s way.

Putting down the paper, I don’t know what I felt, really. Nothing solid and clear-cut. A cocktail of fear mixed with hope and a carefully measured dollop of cautious satisfaction. I think these feelings were shared by many of my countrymen. But an equal number, perhaps, felt differently, seeing in the pullback a disastrous mistake, “the degradation” of the Yediot headline.

I talked it over with my son-in-law, who has regularly spent several weeks a year in Lebanon doing reserve duty. What do you think, Shimon? I asked him.

Well, he said, I’ll tell you a story. I had a friend, one of the best soldiers in the whole platoon, who one morning went with six other soldiers to deliver some milk and bread to another unit. They got into their command vehicles and took off. On the way, a landmine was detonated, killing all seven. That was Lebanon, he assured me. Ninety-five percent of the time, we soldiers spent simply trying to keep ourselves alive, with hardly any time left over to actively combat terrorists. Now that we’ve pulled back and are in safe territory, we can turn our attention to actually fortifying the border and guarding it against attacks.

This makes perfect sense, I thought. And the fact is that 4,000 Katyusha rockets fell in Kiryat Shmona before the pullout, so we can’t exactly argue that security arrangements before were wonderfully successful. Still, there is this nagging doubt at the back of my head that refuses to go away. And it is this: If all these things were true, then why in Heaven’s name did we stay this long? Why did we lose so many boys? Was it really all for nothing?

And if there was a good, strategic and military rationale for Israeli soldiers enforcing a security zone on the Lebanese side of the border, why have we left now?

I think I know the answer to the last question: Four Mothers, and thousands more worried parents of draftees who mounted a legitimate and extremely forceful campaign to get their sons out of harm’s way. And if we run our national defense according to the natural desires of parents to keep their sons safe, how are we going to continue defending ourselves as a sovereign state?

In general, parents from the south don’t want to risk the lives of their sons in defending the northern borders; and parents of yeshiva students want their sons to continue learning, and have other mother’s sons take the burden; and more and more boys simply get a Code 21 draft exemption because they “aren’t suited” for army life, and find that their evasion of service holds less and less stigma.

And the people who are most militaristic and gung-ho are sometimes also those who don’t have to serve (and won’t even honor a moment of silence on Memorial Day for those who gave their lives so that we could have a state).

I have always said that Israel doesn’t really have an army. For an army is a fighting unit made up of the children of people you don’t know who live far away. America has an army. An all volunteer one at that. In Israel, all we have is my son, and your brother, and our husbands, and their fathers. It’s very different. I know what it’s like to be married to a soldier, and to be the mother of one.

But in order to have a country that is free, sovereign, and defensible, there is no way to eliminate an army, or the dangers of being a soldier. My heart rejoices that our troops have pulled out of Lebanon. My mind is troubled.

I can only pray that Israel’s long border with the Lebanese falls into the quietness of present day European borders, where no one mans the checkpoints between France and Spain, and life and people flow serenely, unimpeded, in both directions.

But in my heart I know: Lebanon is not France. And Israel is not Spain. Still, we pray and hope. And only time will tell.

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