We’re marking the 70th anniversary of the founding of Israel with a year-long celebration! Keep an eye out for “Memphis Celebrates Israel at 70” branding at your synagogue, at events around town, and online. In this My Israel Story series, we’re asking Memphians to tell their personal Israel stories. Do you have a story to tell?
The only gun I have ever fired was an M-16 and I fired it on my 18th birthday.
It was 1991 and I was in Israel with my high school classmates (and our peers from another Jewish day school in Maryland) for our senior trip. The trip had an abbreviated schedule because the first Gulf War and the threat of Iraqi Scud missiles had postponed our departure from the US by two and a half months, reducing what would have been a four-month trip to a mere six weeks.
Many things were cut from our schedule, but one thing that was not was the week we spent participating in our own private session of Gadna, a pre-army training program of the IDF for high school students.
When we arrived at the Gadna base in the Galil early on a Sunday morning, the busload of us were divided up into several units of eight or ten for the week, assigned bunk numbers, and handed drab olive Israeli army fatigues and a pair of canteens. We were then given five minutes to find the bunks, drop our bags, get into the uniforms, fill the canteens and return to the field, lined up in our units. I don’t think that any of the units successfully completed the task. I know that mine did not, so we had to run some laps around the field. There were a lot of laps that week. There were also a lot of military-style drills, obstacle courses, and other physically demanding tasks.
Each unit had a commander, and our mefakedet was, well, let’s just say that the guys in our unit were not just motivated to run in the drills because they wanted to avoid having to run laps, but because they also wanted to impress the mefakedet. But she was not only responsible for running us through drills or sending us to clean the kitchen. We also spent an hour or two each day in a classroom, learning from our mefakedet how to handle, take apart, and reassemble an M-16, and learning about the concept of Tohar Haneshek, the purity of arms.
From its very beginnings, the IDF has emphasized that the acquisition of the capacity to exercise force must be accompanied by the moral responsibility to respect the humanity of those who would do Israel harm. This notion could be described in more neutral moral language as “restraint of force,” but what is most appealing to me about Tohar Haneshek as a concept is that the moral discourse of warfare which had no practical precedent in nearly 2000 years of Jewish history expresses the idea of humanity is in terms of Judaism’s religious vocabulary of sanctity.
The purity of weapons must be preserved; weaponry and those bearing weaponry as representatives of the Jewish state must be kept away from the defiling contamination of unjustifiably shed blood. Admittedly, the ideal is not always achieved perfectly, but it generally is, and the sincere, on-going effort at all levels of the IDF command structure to realize this ideal is itself noble.
At the end of the week of training and drilling and studying, we finally went out to the firing range, each of us with a magazine of ten bullets. We took turns following the various instructions called out by the range instructor, beginning with approaching the weapon and assuming a prone shooting position, through setting the safety to semi and firing. After each set of shooters emptied their magazines, the range instructor gave the order to stop firing, return the safety to the safe position, and so on through the steps until we were able to walk across the range and recover our targets. Afterwards, we compared our targets and the instructors scored them. Most of my friends had three or four holes scattered across their targets. Out of the group of 40, I was the only one who did not hit his or her target a single time.
Clearly, I determined, I am not meant to take up arms, but rather my place in this world is to stand back and support those brave men and women serving on the front lines in defense of our homeland.