The Jews do not weep at the Western (Wailing) Wall about the loss of their country anymore. They sing and dance with joy. This year we found ourselves in Jerusalem after a three-week stint as volunteers for the Israeli Defence Force (IDF) program called Sar-El. There aren’t that many days in our life which one can look back to and say – truly, Fate gifted me the experience of a lifetime. I found myself in the midst of an historic occasion – a treat which not many people are privileged to witness.
Yerushalayim was festooned with Israeli and American flags. The signs “Trump make Israel great” and “Trump is a friend of Zion” were ubiquitous. Israel was preparing for the American Embassy’s transition to Jerusalem from Tel Aviv. And yet, amid the rejoicing, I was unable to shake the feeling that however important this symbolic act of supreme political realism and courage might be, it was not the main reason for the boundless joy which filled the streets on that day. ews, young and old, Orthodox and secular, atheists and believers — none of them could cared less about what the world thought of Jerusalem and who it does or does not belong to. It was Jerusalem Day, pure and simple.
It was also Israeli Flag Day and most of the people we saw carried the national flag, waving them, wrapping themselves in them. Jerusalem of Gold was transformed into Jerusalem white and blue. That was the main event: the joy of being and belonging and living, of expressing love, patriotism, ancient heritage and pride. All this was mixed up in eruption of overwhelmingly positive energy which demanded release. Intoxicated by the enthusiasm around me, that feeling was infectious. I was whooping and jumping with the rest of the crowd, which accepted me without demur and in the blink of an eye. This was the day the witness of my eyes demolished the sardonic dictum of patriotism being the last refuge of a scoundrel.
I saw Jerusalem’s soul laid bare for anyone to see on that day. I was praying at the Western wall of Solomon’s Temple, the holiest place of Judaism, the place which witnessed the beginning of the transformation of pagan humanity into Western civilisation. The experience of touching the hewn stone blocks, polished by a myriad kisses and caresses, was profound. So, too, watching the emotions of people communing with the Almighty and asking Him favours by way of notes pushed into the cracks and gaps between the ancient stones.
The Jews do not cry at The Wall anymore. On this day, singing at the tops of their voices, there was unashamed joy in observing the public and unadulterated confirmation that Jerusalem is and always has been the eternal capital of the Jewish people. The sentiment was manifest everywhere I turned — on the streets, on the roofs, on the buses and trams – everywhere. The picturesque Yerushalayim of golden sandstone was full of pretty girls handing out sweets and drinks to dancers. There were cars with loudspeakers blaring folk music to the delight of youngsters dancing horas. Smiling police on placid horses calmed the excess of enthusiasm by letting people dance but also making passage for cars stalled by the festive throng. Families with little children waving flags, bemused foreign tourists drawn into the knots of dancers, some of them evangelical Christians wqith Lion of Judah flags. The Holy City was a maelstrom of joy.
Our bucket list adventure started with a notion to volunteer as a support worker for Zahal, the Israeli Defence Force (IDF), which welcomes Jewish and non-Jewish from all over the globe, with no age restrictions. The IDF lets them do various non-combat jobs — peeling potatoes, packing first aid kits, sweeping floors, filling containers with petrol, sorting out medical supplies and the like. The program has been going for many years. I decided to be a hero and enlisted, together with my long-suffering wife.
We came to the Sar El meeting place in the middle of Tel Aviv, a bustling, brash and busy metropolis of almost a million people, and that is where our jaws dropped. Instead of the dozen or so participants we expected, a considerable crowd was chatting away, greeting friends from previous years, introducing newbies and wotnot. What made these people, drawn from all walks of life, forgo the creature comforts of home for the austere conditions of unpaid work to aid a foreign army? Participants, especially non-Jewish participants, became coy when asked ‘Why did you sign up with Sar El?’ One of the reasons for such coyness has to do with a strictly observed condition for participating in the Sar El program: a pledge not to proselytise. To my astonishment, I learned there are Christian who are convinced that peace and brotherhood on Earth will come only after the last Jew becomes Christian. Or, alternatively, that love and peace, together with the Messiah, will descend only after all the world’s Jews gather in Israel. That is what they believe and they go to extraordinary lengths to see their dream fulfilled.
In a meantime, off to work we went. Those neophytes in our group who might have pictured secret arsenals of sophisticated weaponry guarded by menacing sentries, dogs and sophisticated security would have been disappointed. None of this was on the agenda for our crew of Norwegian housewives, Boston cardiologists, North Carolina farmers and Alaskan nurses, Melbourne retirees, Canadian bikers, South African pensioners, Hungarian workers and an Indian accountant. All of us were volunteers, and most, save the eight Jewish participants, listed themselves as Evangelical Christians.
We were put to work packing medical kits — bandages, morphine ampules, syringes and the like — into numbered pouches of shoulder bags, made of a mixture of oilskin and vinyl. Really, it is a mini-emergency department and the logic, pragmatism and the convenience of this carry-on ambulance is quite impressive. Gradually, the tempo increased. Our team leader, fittingly called Moshiach (Messiah in Hebrew) arrived with boxes on his fork lift. They look like ammo containers but were full to the brim with a variety of emergency medical supplies. The boxes look fresh off the battlefield, even smelling of cordite. This smell was infectious and strangely exciting. To observe grandparents with sweat pouring off them, gulping down water and flopping into chairs in utter exhaustion might seem hilarious, but this Dad’s Army was dead-set serious about what they were doing and why they were doing it. This is the effect Israel sometimes has on people – love it or hate it, sneer at it or cheer it – this place has a capacity to provoke extreme emotions in everyone. Not surprisingly, Israeli physicians have a special definition for such an impact: the Jerusalem Syndrome and is pathognomonic of a heightened state of excitement and anxiety, sometimes evolving into hallucinations and delusions that are mostly experienced by religious pilgrims.
During one morning roll-call we are told that Israelis have just hit Syrian (read Iranian) missile infrastructure, knocking it out and inflicting some casualties. Our madrichim (leaders) are reluctant to get into a discussion but concede that there might be some possibility of Iranian retaliation. Helpfully they point out the location of the nearest bomb shelter. So far the Iranians are big on threats but, mercifully, short on action. We all hope it will stay that way. It gives me a chill to feel the danger Israelis live with every day. This is really a one-bomb country: even the relatively unenergetic can traverse itlengthwise on a pushbike lengthwise in two or three days. On top of it all, every sixth Israeli resident is a Muslim. Despite the obvious danger to their Muslim brethren, the Iranian regime dreams of dropping a nuclear bomb on Israel and make no secret of this dream. How full of hatred must Iran’s mullahs be if they are so oblivious to the fate of co-religionists to be exterminated along with the Jews.
Our group is situated somewhere around Tel Aviv. The base, we are told, is huge and chaotic and volunteers are discouraged from roaming inside the perimeter around. Uniforms notwithstanding, our group looks distinctly non-military, especially the footwear, which is our own. We look like a bunch of grand-parental fuddy-duddies playing soldiers. We dismiss the faint ridiculousness of our appearance with a shrug and carry on with our assigned duties, including scrubbing toilets and floors with diligence and as much dignity as we can muster. There is an economic dimension to volunteering as well as a spiritual one. According to our leaders, there are about five thousand volunteers coming to Israel yearly at their own cost. They do jobs which need to be done but require manpower and resources the Israeli Government finds difficult to allocate — jobs like storage, transportation, renovation, maintenance, gardening, food preparation, cleaning, waste disposal. Instead of hiring, outsourcing or using soldiers for these types of jobs, the army deploys volunteers at the minimal cost of food and lodging.
The day starts with a hearty breakfast of exquisite Israeli dairy, fresh salads and cereals. Then we are required to fall in and salute the Israeli flag being raised, singing Hatiqva, the Israeli anthem. I cannot help noticing that some of our Christian friends sing with tears in their eyes, clutching small wooden crosses in hands clasped behind their backs. Almost all of them wear a ‘Magen David’, the six-pointed Jewish star, around their necks. The question on my mind remains: why? What makes these often elderly evangelical Christians endure the extremely hot weather, uncomfortable surroundings and privations. By the end of the first day we are all of us almost too tired to eat, yet we labour cheerfully. Some members of the Norwegian group have been coming to the Sar-El program for many years. What makes them tick? This question puzzles me so I sought an explanation.
The next day I quiz one of my fellow Sar El volunteers, Mrs Linda Berggraf, of Oslo, Norway. What makes evangelicals so supportive of Israel, despite overwhelmingly negative depiction of this country in the media, widespread support for the Palestinian cause, continued existence of anti-Semitism and Christian Europe’s long, dark history of hostility to Judaism? Mrs Berggraf, an approachable, friendly and quietly confident woman agreed to answer any questions I might have. Our interview took place in the mess hall after dinner. Here’s the gist of our conversation and others:
Linda Berggraf: ‘We love the Jewish people. We believe that we owe them a debt of gratitude, because they have given us the Bible and Jeshua, whom we know as Jesus Christ. The Torah, which is the first five books of Moses, was translated from Hebrew and became known as the first part of the Old Testament.
The Torah teaches the world how to behave as humans should. If only for this, we owe the Jewish people thanks for such a gift.
There’s so much more the Jews have gifted the world. They were persecuted unjustly and we wish to express our love in a tangible way, with words as well as with deeds, with hard work to show that we mean what we say. We stand by Jewish people and support the State of Israel, first of all because this is the right thing to do and, secondly, because it is the place of gathering [of the Jewish exiles] in preparation for the Second Coming as foretold in the New Testament, which we believe in as well as the Old Testament.”
Here’s part of my interview with another member of the Norwegian group:
Mrs. Esther Wehus, a quietly spoken grandmother: “I feel privileged to come and to serve. This way I feel that when you come and show your support in a practical way, it might speak louder than words only. As a Christian believer, I know about the dark history of Christianity towards the Jewish people. I am looking at the Jewish people as my spiritual older brothers. And it means that I want to serve and to show to them my friendship and my love.
The story of Ruth is an inspiration for me. (Ruth was a non-Jewish woman, whose Jewish mother-in-law told her that she was free to continue her life as she saw fit, after her son, Ruth’s husband, died.) Ruth answered her mother-in-law: ‘Do not make me leave. Your people are my people, your God is my God. Wherever you go – I will go, wherever you shall live – I shall live’.
Asking my fellow Sar El volunteers these questions made me realise that I should answer these questions myself first. What was I doing in Israel? What were my expectations? I was driven by similar emotions – the debt of gratitude to the country which brought me and my family out of the Soviet Union, plus a suppressed guilt at not coming to Israel but instead migrating to the safety and prosperity of God-blessed Australia. What I did not expect was the discovery of an immensely diverse and large group of people who, not being as voluble as Israel’s detractors, are nevertheless, steadfast in their love and support for the Jewish nation. These people are short on words and prefer to show support with practical deeds. Logically, by expressing such love, they should have felt equally strong in a negative sense about Israel’s enemies. That is not the case. There is no negativity towards Arabs and their allies whatsoever.
We are led by a group of four young soldiers, all female. They try to be serious and, when occasion demands, they can be that and more, but each is of an age where they might be a granddaughter to most of those they supervise. These girls giggle, dance and laugh; they are approachable and enthusiastic. They are a refreshing and beautiful face on the IDF’s lean and mean fighting machine.
The food in a mess hall is kosher — milk and meat products not served together but at separate distribution points, several kinds of salads on stands in the middle of a huge room, and there is no dessert, only fresh fruit. We eat exactly the same food as other Israelis be they soldiers or civilian employees. The food incudes grilled chicken, chevapchichies (sort of skinless sausages) or stews, vegetarian patties, beef-steaks and hamburgers, boiled eggs and grilled vegies. In short – the food is good. It is simple, wholesome, tasty and filling.
People who work at the base long ago got used to elderly pseudo-warriors strolling around in sneakers and speaking no Hebrew. Many, in their turn, speak no English and this gives rise to hilarious situations. Every morning we meet a warehouse manager who supervises the sorting medical supplies but does not know how to explain what he needs in the tongue that is his charges’ lingua franca. His bearded face becomes red, he screams louder, sincerely not understanding why his stupid foreigners can’t understand simple Hebrew. He submits to the inevitable and fetches his boss, who speaks English and is much younger. They scream at each other and, at first, I thought that they must surely come to blows, so intense and heated is their exchange. Then the younger man c gives his shrieking interlocutor a hug, kisses him in the cheek and explains the job to us. Then he explains: the screamer “cannot hear, he is deaf. So, he screams.” We nod our heads in unison, pretending that we believe him. He, in turn pretends that he believes that we believe him. Everyone’s face saved and all of us get on with today’s jobs. This performance gets repeated every morning and we came to expect it in cheerful anticipation. The actors in the drama are so expressive and believable they could sell tickets to watch it.
The time has come to say good bye. These three weeks were gone in a blink, their legacy a feeling of having done meaningful work, of good fellowship, a sense of unity and purpose. I doubt if any of us have experienced intensity of emotion to such a degree.
A final scene: we are on the upper level of the Tel Aviv train station and trying to bring two heavy suitcases down the stairs because the elevator is switched off for maintenance. Suddenly, someone gets hold of a suitcase handle, and, while talking to me in Hebrew, takes it down without looking back. I have no idea what is going on but immediately assume that my belongings are in danger of being stolen. At the bottom of the stairs, the young man leaves the suitcase and jumps into a moving train, waving to me as he disappears. I hear the startled voice of my wife and see the same scene replayed – some young fellow takes her suitcase in exactly the same fashion. We did not ask for help. Those youngsters saw two pensioners struggling with heavy stuff and helped. Thanks, guys, it was very much appreciated.
Dr Michael Galak and his family came to Australia as refugees from the Soviet Union in 1978