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Sunday, June 16, 2024 -
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Israel at War: A Christian’s story

By Jeff Myers

An Israeli security agent at JFK disabused me of the notion that getting into Israel during a time of war wouldn’t be that different than my previous trips. She sifted through every item in my suitcase and backpack, asking probing questions. “Why are you going to Israel now? Don’t you know we are at war?”

Candles and photos of the victims killed on, and held hostage by, Hamas terrorists since the Oct. 7 massacre, in Dizengoff Square, Tel Aviv. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Arriving at Tel Aviv’s nearly empty Ben Gurion Airport, I was once again questioned. This time, I was ready.

“I’m on a solidarity mission,” I said.

The passport agent fired back, “Solidarity with whom?” and shoved the stamped passport back across the counter without waiting for an answer.

The tension expressed by that passport agent was evident everywhere, even in the oddly quiet streets of Jerusalem, where the flow of pilgrims (usually two million a year) had slowed to a trickle.

In Jerusalem, the members of our group came together in a hotel conference room to learn about the state of the war from an intelligence officer named Itamar Ben David. He surprised us by asking if he could open the meeting with a Hebrew prayer of blessing from the book of Numbers:

May G-d bless you and keep you.
May G-d cause God’s spirit to shine upon you and be gracious unto you.
May G-d turn God’s spirit unto you and grant you peace.

Itamar’s lips quivered as he led us into this holy moment. I recalled a Shabbat dinner with a Jewish friend in which I placed my hands on the heads of my two sons and recited this blessing over them.

The discussion was lively — polite but pointed questions, equally straightforward responses. In fact, all our meetings were this way. To a person, those we met shared their thoughts and feelings without compunction. Many offered blunt assessments of the current military and political situation. All expressed gratitude that people from the US would come to personally hear them out.

Early the next morning, we hopped on a bus with our security guard and rode to the southern part of the country. Within an hour and a half from Jerusalem, we neared the Gaza border. Artillery shells flew overhead. Across farm fields, we could see clouds of smoke arising from Gaza as the IDF targeted terrorist hideouts. The road suddenly became rough, chewed up by tank treads.

This rural and agricultural part of Israel reminded me of Missouri or Oklahoma, or perhaps California’s central valley, except for the bomb shelters dotting the highways like bus stops. Many of these were colorfully painted, as if to smile them up a bit and disguise their purpose of sheltering travelers from Hamas’s death-dealing rocket attacks.

We were so close to the border that if Hamas did fire a rocket at us, we were told we would have seven seconds to take shelter. Residents there have built safe rooms designed to withstand rocket and mortar fire.

For many families, these safe rooms become children’s bedrooms, so the kids don’t have to figure out what to do in a terrifying situation. Most of the safe rooms did not have locks. Why would they? Rockets don’t attack through doors.

Soon, we arrived at Kfar Aza, a tiny agrarian community called a kibbutz. Surrounded by a razor wire-topped fence, Kfar Aza was once a bustling neighborhood consisting of a plastics business, a school, a clinic, a community center and modest homes. It was empty, except for our group of civilians and squads of soldiers touring the devastation.

We donned body armor and Kevlar helmets, a weighty reminder that we were in an active war zone.

Our guide, Chen Kotler, a local resident, shared her heartbreaking experience from Oct. 7.

Early in the morning, 70 Hamas terrorists had penetrated the compound from four directions and from paragliders. They stormed through the streets, shooting and killing anyone they encountered, launching rocket-propelled grenades into homes and burning alive those barricaded in their safe rooms. Sixty-five people perished.

The homes were riddled with bullet holes. Many showed evidence of explosions and fires. Each home featured spray-painted markings listing the date the building had been cleared. A red circle with a dot in the middle denoted whether a body had been found inside.

Nearly every home had a red circle.

One of them had been home to the community’s doctor, his wife, and twin 10-month-old children. Both the doctor and his wife were shot and killed by the terrorists. For 14 hours, the babies cried for their parents. Anyone who tried to come to their rescue was gunned down.

The redness of the spray-painted markings called to mind the Passover in Egypt, when the blood-marked doorposts saved the Israelites from death. There was no passing over here. Death had visited nearly every home.

Our group reverently walked the streets, trying to get our minds around the slaughter that had taken place here just weeks before. Why had this happened? Were these attackers animals? How could they have so viciously attacked this peaceful community? How could the residents have been so caught off guard, knowing all they knew about Hamas’s stated intention of killing as many Jews as possible?

Back on the bus, our normally verbal group rode in silence.

Soon we arrived at the city of Sderot, where 40 people had been murdered, including a group of senior citizens on a minibus. Terrorists there had specifically targeted the police station, killing 20 officers.

We gathered in the temporary police headquarters and watched sickening video footage of the attack from the city’s CCTV cameras.

Of all the videos and photos I’ve seen of bodies, blood, and burned vehicles, nothing affected me as much as the CCTV footage of terrorists shooting the vehicle of a fleeing family. Our group watched in horror as a father flung open the door of the car, grabbed a child, and fled down the street in an awkward shuffle, body bent as a shield. Suddenly, gunfire felled him. The child jumped up and ran back down the street, her tiny hands covering her ears as she desperately searched for her mother.

As we watched clips of the attack, I studied the impassive faces of the police station employees. I didn’t blame them for being shut down emotionally. How much devastation and bloodshed can one person take? What was it like to be charged with people’s safety and find yourself completely helpless to save them? With Gaza just a three-minute drive away, when would the next attack come? In an hour? A day? A year? Would this go on forever?

A short drive later, we arrived at the gate of a military installation called Re’im. An IDF major boarded the bus to give us a briefing.

“We are pushing Hamas back and don’t expect an attack; but if one comes, drop down wherever you are, lay flat, and put your hands over the back of your neck. You’ll have less than 10 seconds.”

The major, we soon learned, was a reservist named Nir Boms. He casually mentioned that in civilian life, he served as a professor at Tel Aviv University. I looked him up later — DoctorNir Boms, a famous professor who spoke around the world and wrote scholarly articles in English, Hebrew, and Arabic.

Wow, I thought. Everyone here steps up; one must be a person of action as well as a person of thought.

Re’im was a mess. On Oct. 7, forty terrorists overwhelmed the gates and slaughtered everyone they could find. I have never seen so many bullet holes — hundreds. As the terrorists attacked Re’im, a small handful of soldiers had bravely confronted them. These soldiers, I later discovered, were Bedouin Muslims. One group of Muslims fought to preserve Israel, one group of Muslims fought to destroy it.

Later, under Major Bom’s guidance, our group visited the site of the Nova Music Festival, where terrorists murdered hundreds more Israelis, systematically gang-raping, shooting, mutilating, and burning alive their victims.

Our civilian and military guides struggled to communicate what they had witnessed. Their descriptions seemed robotic at times.

I wondered, How many times had they had to relive the nightmare for visiting dignitaries?

We ended the evening at a kibbutz called Mefalsim, a staging area for an elite IDF reserve force assembled just the week before to ensure the safety of returning citizens. There, we helped serve at a barbecue for reservists.

At dinner, I sat next to a soldier named Alex. His rifle barrel pointed upward and occasionally wavered in my direction, which made me nervous. Hadn’t he taken a safe hunter course and learned about muzzle control? It was hard to remember that just a week before, he had been a civilian, like me.

“What do you do in your civilian life, Alex?”

“I am — how do you say it? — a train driver.”

“Engineer. That’s what we call it in the US,” I said.

He laughed. “I am not an engineer. I just drive.”

Alex and I talked about his experience in the war. He struck me as completely open, willing to answer all my questions. When he didn’t know the answer, he called for help from the other soldiers seated around. We talked about faith, and Alex showed me a small icon he carried in his pocket — a gift from his father, who was a Christian.

Our conversation was interrupted when two reservists with a keyboard and a saxophone struck up a lively tune. Within seconds, everyone was clapping and singing along, especially when they got to the chorus, which in English is:

This is my home; this is my heart.
And I will not leave you,
Our ancestors, our roots.
We are the flowers, the melodies,
Sitting as brothers and sisters.

Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Dr. Nir Bom, the reserve major, dancing along with a silly shuffle.

Suddenly, a reservist with gray hair strode up to the keyboardist for a loud exchange. The music stopped. The soldiers fell into an embarrassed silence.

Before storming out of the tent, the man shouted something in Hebrew. I asked a Hebrew-speaking friend to translate. “He says, ‘It is not a time for joy with 136 of our community not here. Keep the noise down.’”

Immediately, the musicians switched to a somber tune — a prayer, really — one that is recited in unison at the synagogue every Monday and Thursday. In English, it says:

As for our brothers,
The whole house of Israel
Who are given over to trouble or captivity,
Whether they abide on the sea or the dry land:
May the All-present have mercy upon them,
And bring them forth from trouble to enlargement,
From darkness to light,
And from subjection to redemption,
Now speedily and at a near time.

After a bit, I wandered back outside and came across an IDF soldier I had connected with earlier in the day.

“Do you want an espresso?” he asked.

“No, I think I’ll have a hard enough time getting to sleep tonight. But I’ll go with you.”

He opened the back of his van and fired up a small Nespresso machine just like the one I have at home. While I waited for him to finish, I helped my friend David Nekrutman stow two large boxes of socks in the van. David and his wife, Kalanit, have worked tirelessly to meet the needs of the reservists and other Israelis affected by the war. The soldiers were thrilled with the socks. It’s amazing what counts as a thoughtful gift when you’ve suddenly left home and found yourself away for three months.

The soldier climbed down out of his van, espresso in hand. I shivered in the cold and sort of wished I had taken him up on his offer. We talked about his experience in the war. Some of what he shared I am not going to tell you because it was disturbing beyond what I feel capable of describing in this book. But one statement I will remember forever.

“People say the terrorists who did this weren’t human, that they were beasts.” The soldier paused to take a sip of coffee. “It isn’t true. They were humans just like us. But they believed a lie and went to a dark place.”

All we like sheep have gone astray, I recalled from Isaiah. Certainly, there are levels of evil. But there is no one who is innocent, no, not one. L-rd, have mercy. It reminded me of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s lament in Gulag Archipelago, a voluminous account of evil in the Soviet system: “the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being.”

It was late, and we ran out of words. Shaking hands, I offered a quick blessing I hoped would encourage him and wandered back to the meal tent. Dinner was over, and the music had stopped; but many reservists remained behind to chat with our group.

One of the soldiers — a computer scientist working for a prestigious company in civilian life — took me aside. He pulled out his phone, showing me a picture of a beautiful young woman.

“Her name is Shani Louk,” he said. “I work with her mother. Shani was at the festival. After Hamas attacked, her mother begged me to find her daughter.” He paused, looking me in the eyes. “I did not find her. But I found part of her skull. No one can live when they lose that part of their skull. I had to tell her mother that Shani is no longer with us.”

The soldier put his phone back in his pocket. We stood quietly for a moment. What could I say? Anger flashed briefly in his eyes, settling into a deep sadness.

Finally, he said, “This is why we do what we do.”

I didn’t talk to anyone on the bus ride back to our hotel. That’s not like me. But what more was there to talk about? What we had seen, we couldn’t unsee. What we had heard, we couldn’t unhear.

I pulled out my journal and tapped on the overhead light. I had a responsibility — a duty — to process, to pray, and to tell the truth. Over the next few weeks, that search led me to explore the birth of the nation that is at the heart of the conflict we now face.

Citations: Numbers 6:24-26. Isaiah 53:6. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, The Gulag Archipelago 1918-1956: An Experiment in Literary Investigation (NY: Harper and Row, 1973),168.

This memoir is excerpted from Jeff Myers’ book, Should Christians Support Israel? He earned a PhD from DU and is president of Summit Ministries based in Colorado.




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