Mystifying optimism

Mystifying optimism

A report on Israel’s wounded warriors

The most jolting thing about visiting wounded Israeli soldiers from Operation Protective Edge at Tel Hashomer Hospital near Tel Aviv is how upbeat they are.

One soldier, 19 years old, was shot in the back of the head. The bullet shattered the bones in his skull, permanently ripped out his hearing, and exited through his right eye. After six weeks in the hospital he is just beginning to recover. But that did not stop him from springing out of his bed, hugging me and my family, and thanking us profusely for visiting.

Another soldier, a 22-year-old commander, had his entire right arm shattered by shrapnel and lost his thumb. The doctors planned to amputate, but a courageous surgeon undertook a 5-hour operation to reconstruct what he could. The soldier faces two grueling years of physiotherapy and the possible restoration of 70 percent of his arm. But still he joked and laughed with us the entire time. I asked him if he was sleeping and he said, “No. I get night terrors about the battle and all the pills they give me can’t stop them. So I try and stay awake.” A moment later he was back to his jovial self.

Yet another soldier had his leg shattered by a grenade. Bones were taken from the right leg to save the left. With great effort, he hopped from his wheelchair to jump into the bed of an even more seriously injured soldier to take a picture with him.

Then there was the soldier who experienced severe head trauma when a missile was fired at his tank. Long lines of stiches covered his shaven head. He said, “Look at this,” and showed us a printed sheet of paper on the door of his hospital room that read, “Bar Refaeli. Please visit. The soldiers need you.” Refaeli apparently saw a picture of the poster on her Facebook wall. She came and visited. The soldier showed us the picture. He was elated.

The battle between Israel and Hamas is not one between Jews and Muslims, Israelis and Palestinians. It is, rather, a battle of values between those who glorify life and those who celebrate death. That much always has been clear. Hamas is nothing but a gay-hating, women-honor-killing, Jew-murdering, freedom-crushing, child-sacrificing fundamentalist death cult. But I saw the contrast between the Hamas murderers who aspire to die and encourage children to “offer their shoulders and chests” in martyrdom against Israel and Israelis in my visits with Israelis who had lost children in terror attacks or who had been severely wounded in battle.

A few days before visiting the hospital, we traveled to the West Bank home of Ofir and Bat Galim Shaer. Their son Gilad, 16, was one of the three Israeli teenagers whose kidnapping and brutal murder precipitated Israel’s third Gaza war.

What do you say to the parents of a child murdered in one of the most gruesome terror attacks in memory?

I shared that a famous rabbi had written a column that said that had the three teens not died, Israel never would have known about the extensive Hamas tunnels. Hundreds would have died. The terror attack was a hidden blessing. I was shocked by the comment and even responded with a column of my own. “This kind of justification minimizes the tragedy,” I wrote. “We Jews are supposed to protest to God these seeming divine miscarriages of justice, not find silver linings in murder.”

But Bat Galim disagreed with me. “We miss our child every moment,” she said. “But we also want to know he did not just die in vain. If his horrible death can preserve life, then we have to give it meaning.”

She continued, “In the wake of our son’s murder, and the Hamas rocket barrage against civilians, the world is now seeing Hamas for what it is. They’re becoming more understanding of Israel’s position. The European nations and especially the Americans know that today it’s Israel, tomorrow it will be them.”

This is an attitude we hear constantly. Israelis love life. But they acknowledge that protecting their land comes with a cost that we in the United States farm out to just two percent of the population – our brave military – whom we almost never meet.

Nancy Grace may be the only American TV host who regularly reads the names of American servicemen killed in Afghanistan. Even on days when our country will bury some 10 soldiers killed in wars in the Middle East, the United States barely even feels our loss. We have become so accustomed to freedom that we are almost unaware of its price. We have forgotten Jefferson’s famous declaration that “the tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time by the blood of patriots…”

In Israel, however, it’s a national mantra.

I spoke to a father who had lost two sons in the two previous Gaza wars. The IDF was keeping his third and last son out of combat so that the family would not bury its final child. Even so, the father had lobbied the Army to allow him to fight because his son was so disturbed to be left out while his friends went to war. “This land demands taxes,” he said to me, sending a chill running down my spine. “I have had to pay the tax. It hurts. But it’s the only way to live here. And we Jews have no place else to go. Israel is our only home.”

As for me – and as a parent of a child who served in the IDF – I cannot understand how Israeli families can accept so much death and horror surrounding them. I cannot accept that there is any blessing whatsoever in the death of a teen boy. Surely Israel could have found out about the tunnels through intelligence or informers. I am not a Christian, and I reject the idea that death can be redemptive.

Still, I sit in awe at the bravery, courage, and majesty of the Israeli people. They are glorious in every way.