At our November 11th, 2022 Friday Night Shabbat service, Mishkan Builder and Breaking the Silence member Jacob Portman shared about his experiences in the Israel Defense Forces. Breaking the Silence is an organization of veteran soldiers who have served in the Israeli military since the start of the Second Intifada and have taken it upon themselves to expose the Israeli public to the reality of everyday life in the Occupied Territories. Visit their site to learn more, or support their work. You can listen to this sermon on the Contact Chai podcast.
For those of you who do not know me, my name is Jacob and I am a builder here at Mishkan. I work as a chef and baker at a Jewish bakery on the southwest side, but I’m not here to talk about bread. I am here to talk to you as a former Israel Defense Forces soldier.
I served as a combat soldier in the Paratroopers Brigade between 2012 and 2014. During my service I spent time serving in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, where I participated in two military operations: Operation Brothers’ Keeper and Operation Protective Edge, both during the tumultuous summer of 2014, over eight years ago.
How did a kid from Columbus, Ohio end up serving in the IDF? I grew up in a family and community deeply connected to Israel. My dad’s side of the family lives in Jerusalem and I traveled there a lot to see them. I spent every summer at a camp affiliated with Bnei Akiva, which is a religious Zionist youth movement. Religious Zionism views the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948 not only as a moment of historic significance, but as a watershed moment in Jewish religious life as well. Columbus had a very small Jewish community and it was easy to feel like an outsider as an observant Jew, so there was something very exciting about Israel, a country where people spoke Hebrew out in the streets and the Jewish week and holidays determined the ebb and flow of daily life. Even though Israel was an ocean away, on an emotional level, it felt very very close. I have a vivid memory of my Israeli friends at summer camp talking about how when they graduated high school they were going to draft into the army. I told them that when they went to the army, I would go too. And in 2012 I did.
I immigrated, made aliyah, to Israel and when I received my draft call-up I tried out for and was accepted into the Paratroopers Brigade. This was a unit I had greatly admired as a kid. Soldiers from this unit were famously photographed in front of the Western Wall after fighting to capture the Old City of Jerusalem during the Six Day War. I had a poster of this very photo on my bedroom wall. I approached my service with a sense of purpose and duty; I was going to protect the Jewish People, my people.
I completed basic and advanced training, received my paratrooper jump wings and my red beret, and went off to serve with the active duty brigade in the Golan Heights and then on the Lebanese border. After a quiet winter we went down to the Jordan valley for summer training. I had now been in the army for almost a year and a half and I had not really spent any time in the occupied territories or interacted with any Palestinians, aside from a few weekends guarding Jewish settlements during training. That was about to change. One Shabbat in June 2014, we were at our respective homes for an off weekend when we were suddenly called back to base and told that three Israeli teenagers had been kidnapped in the West Bank and that we were headed out on an operation to find them and their kidnappers. We prepared our gear and that night we boarded a bus to a Jewish settlement near Hevron and from there we walked under the cover of night into a neighboring Palestinian village. After quietly moving through the alleyways and streets my platoon arrived at a house at the top of a hill. I went with my commander and a small group of soldiers to the front door. It was maybe 2 am. My commander knocked at the door and a middle aged Palestinian man answered. My commander asked the man if he spoke Hebrew, he said no. He then asked him if he spoke English, he said he did. My commander turned to me to relay to the man that we would be taking control of his home to use as a base while we were operating in the town, searching for the missing boys. I told the man to gather his family members into the living room. And he did, without protest, almost like this was a completely normal request, like this was just a regular night. He had done nothing wrong, he was not a suspect in the kidnapping. His house was located in the right place for our operation, that was why we were there. My platoon entered his home, our faces painted different shades of green, tracking dirt and dust across the floor, as we hauled our heavy packs up to the second floor bedrooms where we set up our reconnaissance equipment. Then our routine for the next few days unfolded. We took shifts guarding the owner of the house and his family on the first floor, who were not permitted to leave the house, we went on patrols and searches in the nearby neighborhood, used the equipment we set up to monitor the surrounding area, and took breaks to sleep on the floor of the bedrooms that we had taken over. The room I slept in was a kids bedroom and had cartoon characters painted across the child-sized furniture. During those days in the house the Palestinian man, I never learned his name, would ask me, as the established English speaker, how long we would be there, when would we be leaving. He told me that he worked at a school and that he needed to be there. I didn’t know when we would be leaving. Even if I did, I probably wouldn’t have been allowed to say. After a couple of days, we finally packed up and left. As we walked out of the living room to the front door, I remember looking at the man and saying “I’m sorry.” We walked to the next Palestinian town and took over another Palestinian home, and then another.
After my service this is the experience I thought about the most. Even more than the war in Gaza that I served in just a few short weeks after we stayed in the house. I thought about the Palestinian man, and his family, and the ease at which we barged in and disrupted their home. The arbitrary nature of why we stayed where we did, he and his family had done nothing wrong. We stayed in his home for the very reason that he had done nothing wrong. At the time I probably viewed him and other Palestinians with suspicion and fear, but after coming back to the States after my service ended I began to question that narrative of fear. I was struck by how little the American Jewish conversation around Israel and the Palestinians had changed since I was away. But in reality it was I who had changed. I remember during those years immediately after my service listening to an episode of NPR’s Hidden Brain, called “Tribes and Traitors.” In that episode, a member of Breaking the Silence spoke about taking over Palestinian homes to use as bases during operations during his time as an IDF soldier. He said that this is a maneuver known as a “straw widow.” I had never heard this term used before. I did not know soldiers routinely took over Palestinian homes. I thought when we did it, it was an exceptional situation. But how would I know? I had never talked about those experiences before. I had never heard anyone talk about it before? It was only then, listening to a podcast, that I realized that the Palestinian man whose home we stayed in acted like Israeli soldiers taking over Palestinian homes happened all the time, because it does. Those days I spent in the house became the focal point of questioning many things I had learned about Israel and the Palestinians, but for the Palestinian family whose house we took over, and many of their neighbors, it was just a regular week in the West Bank. I reached out to Breaking the Silence a few years later and shared testimony of my time operating in the West Bank and Gaza.
If there is a recurring motif in the section of Parshat Va-Yera that we are reading this week it is hosting guests. One hot day, Avraham rushes to greet three men who approach his tent. Avraham insists that these travelers stay at his tent to wash up, rest, and eat, without knowing they are angels. He and his wife Sarah quickly rush to prepare an elaborate meal for these guests, who after resting and eating, tell Avraham and Sarah, who had been struggling to have children that Sarah will soon have a son, revealing their divine identity only after Avraham and Sarah’s instinct to accommodate them so hospitably. The travelers then set out to the city of Sodom where they run into Avraham’s nephew Lot, who is just as eager to host these travelers as Avraham was. Lot also insists that his guests wash up, rest and eat, without knowing that they were angels, and he too prepares an elaborate feast for them. These angels have not come just to rest, but to warn Lot that they will be destroying Sodom, but tell Lot to gather his family and escape. The repetition of Avraham and Lot hosting guests, both followed by good news, Avraham and Sarah learning they will have a child, Lot and his family learning they will be spared from the destruction of their entire city, emphasizes how important the text views hosting guests. Hosting guests, welcoming others into your space, is a sign of a person’s righteousness, that making sure the people who pass through your home are nourished and rested is praise worthy and deserving of reward.
I was not a guest for those several days in the Palestinian family’s home, I was an occupying force. The host says, come into my home I insist. The soldier says, I am coming into your home, do not resist. Home is a sacred space, the location of so many of life’s joys and sorrows, memories, and life cycle events. The opening up of one’s home, an act of vulnerability and trust, is a blessing for the guest and host. The invasion of one’s home, an act of violation and aggression, is traumatic and destructive, for the occupied, as well as the occupier.
A few years ago, I had the opportunity to join Breaking the Silence on a delegation to the West Bank. On this trip I met with Israeli and Palestinian activists working together to confront and challenge the Israeli army, Jewish settlers, and other mechanisms of occupation. One hot summer day, I rested and ate a meal in the home of Nasser Nawaj’ah, a Palestinian activist from the South Hebron Hills town of Susiyah. Susiyah has been demolished by the IDF many many times as it lies in a part of the West Bank where Israel prohibits nearly all Palestinian construction. This time I was in the West Bank, not as a soldier, but as someone committed to learning from Palestinians how to support their fight for freedom and dignity. I was in a Palestinian’s home, Nasser’s home, not because I forced my way in, dressed in full combat gear, but because I was invited as a partner in hearing about his life on the other side of the occupation. Earlier this year, members of Standing Together, an Israeli organization made up of Jews and Palestinians working for social change across a wide-range of issues came to Chicago and I had the chance to moderate one of the events. Something they said there stuck with me: In Israel and Palestine we need to change the us vs. them mentality to one of a bigger “us,” that includes both Israelis and Palestinians. That is what is emblematic of the host and guest relationship, the creation of a larger sense of who is included in our concept of “us,” our concept of home. I came to Israel with a narrow sense of who was included in that “us,” but years later I was back in some of the same areas I had served as a soldier with a broader sense of who is included in that “us.” The path to recognizing that a unified movement of Israelis and Palestinians working together towards a nonviolent dismantling of Israeli’s military occupation over the Palestinians required me to reckon with the active role I had played in maintaining it. As former IDF soldiers, Breaking the Silence testifiers know the costs of the small “us,” it leads to violently imposing ourselves into the daily lives of Palestinians. That is why we broke our silence, why we share our stories. To show what maintaining the unjust status quo looks like, and to propose thinking in a new way about a place that although it is an ocean away, still feels very close.