On a recent snowy Monday morning, a crowd of Park School’s upper school students gathered in the auditorium to hear stories from two former Israel Defense Forces soldiers — Gal and Yehuda — that covered everything from arresting a knife-wielding man to helping asylum seekers who spent three years walking from Eritrea in northeast Africa to Israel.
The pair weren’t selling anything or raising money for any program and asked nothing of the students but to listen to their stories and question the mainstream narratives of what’s going on in Israel.
“If you watch one channel, watch three more. If you read one newspaper, read three other newspapers in order to understand the complete story,” Gal, a 25-year-old law student who served as a basic training commander in the IDF, told the students. For security reasons, neither of the soldiers gave last names. “There are two sides to every story, and I feel that our side is not properly conveyed in a fair way in the media.”
She and Yehuda, a native of Ethiopia who served in the IDF border patrol, shared their stories about life in the military and beyond. The presentation was organized through StandWithUs, a nonprofit organization that works to educate the public about Israel and its policies. The Park School presentation was part of a tour that included stops in Florida, Georgia, Washington, D.C., and also at Johns Hopkins University.
Gal and Yehuda spoke to students for about 40 minutes, then addressed a smaller group of about 10 students in a classroom for additional questions.
In her presentation, Gal spoke about why she joined the IDF and what her time as a commander was like.
“I decided that I wanted to do something meaningful in the IDF, because since I was a little girl, I heard a lot about joining the army and giving back to the county,” she said. Her late grandfather established the IDF’s paratrooper school as well as a paratrooper battalion, which her little brother joined during his service. “I decided to become a basic training commander. … That means I have a month-and-a-half to take seniors who just graduated from high school and turn them into soldiers.”
She spoke about going with three of her troops to the Israeli-Egyptian border, where they saw three men wearing all black and confronted them. They turned out to be asylum seekers from Eritrea who spent three years walking to Israel. Her troops got them to a safe place and later brought them blankets, food and clothes. Now a cupcake shop employee, one of her best friends and co-workers came from Eritrea.
“I know it’s really ironic, because I used to be a really tough commander and that’s how everyone knows me — I [taught] machine guns and M-16s — and now I’m a cupcake baker,” she joked.
Yehuda, 26, also spoke about his time in the IDF, which he didn’t join until he was 21 after he moved to Israel from Ethiopia. He is a political science and communications major at Hadassah College in Jerusalem. He spoke about the harsh realities of working border patrol in the West Bank.
“Imagine to be a solider in the Middle East, [where there are] people who have extremist [ideologies], that people are willing to die or to kill people in order to become martyrs,” he said. “It’s not an easy job to stand over there.”
He spoke about a time he and his fellow soldiers arrested a man wielding a knife at a holy site they were protecting; the man planned to attack worshippers.
“I personally want my future son to go to college when he is 18, not to go like me to the army,” Yehuda said. “But as a people, as a nation, what we need is constant peace, stable peace that cannot be threatened by any extremist groups that are coming to destroy us as a nation, as a people.”
The soldiers took questions on what it’s like in combat missions, how the world view of young soldiers changes and how American students can support friends in the IDF. In the smaller group, Gal and Yehuda spoke about the roles of race and age in the army, discussed lone soldiers — Israeli immigrants who enter the army without the benefit of having parents living in Israel — and what it’s like applying for jobs after service.
Max Rotenberg, a junior who interns with StandWithUs, helped set up the day’s program. He lived in Israel when he was in kindergarten and has been back many times since.
“Israel’s always been a really important part of my life,” he said. “It’s the home of the Jewish people. The least I can do is stand up for it in the court of public opinion.”
Micah Saltzberg, co-leader of Park’s Israel club, said the experience humanized IDF soldiers for him.
“It’s very easy to imagine when you join the army, you kind of lose who you are as a person, you become a small piece, you become a number in a larger goal or mission,” he said. “But hearing what it’s like from a personal side, it gives me a new appreciation for what it means to be in the Israeli army and why it’s important.”