With Syria in chaos, an American joins Israeli paratroopers

With Syria in chaos, an American joins Israeli paratroopers

JERUSALEM, Israel - To watch history play itself out is jarring, especially if you are a Westerner and therefore blessed/cursed to learn your heritage from books. 

Before the America Indian Wars were settled, and by settled I mean the European colonists won and the indigenous population of North America lost, some 40 “wars” were fought in what is now the contiguous United States to determine land issues. The indigenous American peoples were virtually wiped out.

The United States took Texas from Mexico in 1845 and then promptly launched another war that lasted a couple of years and resulted in the United States adding New Mexico and California to its territories. It is estimated that over 17,000 people were killed or wounded in that skirmish for land.

If you are an Anglo living in say, Oregon, like I am, you might ask, so what? But if you are one of the Confederated Tribes in Oregon, some 50,000 indigenous people, or about 1.6 percent of the total population, you may view that history in a significantly different way.

The United States was conceived in blood, and its territorial boundaries expanded in blood. Depending on whether you were on the winning side or the losing side, that’s probably either Manifest Destiny or genocide.

Tough call. You decide.

My main point is that context is everything. And history is part of context.

The State of Israel did not come into being fully formed, like Athena from the forehead of Zeus. The conflict between Jewish settlers and the indigenous population of the region developed over decades.

But for the sake of history books, the State of Israel came into being when the United Nations adopted Resolution 181 on 29 November 1947, calling for the partition of Palestine. The resolution passed with the required two-thirds majority vote. The Executive Head of the World Zionist Organization, David Ben-Gurion, declared the State of Israel on 14 May 1948.

Two days later the neighboring Arab states invaded. 

Since that time, Israel has fought 13 major wars.

Those wars were fought to right a horrible injustice perpetrated against the people of the region by the United Nations - or to protect the legally established rights of people determined by an internationally recognized body.

Maybe both. Probably both.

Again, context is everything.

Tough call. You decide.

As important as intellectual discussions are about the fate of entire peoples, reality has a more stark appearance, and, unfortunately, usually carries a weapon.

For whatever reason, the United States decided they should have the land belonging to the indigenous people and also decided they should have a large swath of northern Mexico; were willing to fight for it; and did.

For whatever reason, the State of Israel decided they should exist in land already occupied by others; were willing to fight for it; and did.

And still do.

As I said, to watch history play itself out is jarring.

Gas masks issued to Israelis near Syrian border

As I write this, the Syrian regime appears in its death throes, possibly part of the so-called Arab Spring, but in any case a particularly vicious and brutal situation, as civil wars inevitably are.

The troubling aspect to the region is that Syria is thought to have several tons of chemical weapons stored in at least 20 locations around the country; they also reportedly have weapons-ready sarin gas. Syrian president Assad has claimed he has hundreds of rockets that can reach Tel Aviv, and that if things go badly for him, he will use them. He has also claimed he will encourage Hezbollah to attack Israel as well, if things go badly for him.

And things are going badly for him right now.

Recently gas masks were issued to all the residents of the Golan Heights. The threat from the north is taken very seriously.

Israel has about 176,000 active duty troops, with about 450,000 troops in reserve. As with most modern armies, Israel depends on special forces to undertake the most dangerous missions.

The Paratroopers Brigade, also known as the 35th Brigade, will play a critical role if the conflict in Syria spills over into Israel. To volunteer to be in the paratroopers is to ask to be one of the first to be placed in harm’s way. 

Since 1948, roughly 22,000 Israelis have died in combat, this in a country of now just over 7 million. The United States, with a population of about 280 million, would have to suffer loses of over 800,000 people to be comparable.

Arab deaths are estimated to be over 90,000. That represents deaths from multiple countries, but the number is still horrifying large. At times it seems history is nothing but one long graves registration.

During the Six Day War in 1967, on June 7 to be exact, the paratroopers fought and took the area of the Western Wall in Jerusalem.

This week, a new class of paratroopers was sworn in there.

The elaborate ceremony involves long speeches reciting the bloodied history of the unit, then the inductees, standing at parade rest, snap to attention, swear to be faithful, and are presented with their weapon. The brigade includes women.

It also now includes at least one American from Philadelphia, Akiva Goldstein. 

“My entire life I wanted to join the army in Israel,” Goldstein said. “After high school I came over here.” 

“I trained hard, I ran a lot. Did a lot of push-ups.” Once in the IDF, the training, he said, was “just what I expected.”

Goldstein’s classmates back in the States are probably a bit surprised by all this; he attended a Christian high school. “It was a Quaker school, and very pacifist,” he said.

“My close friends,” he added, “are very supportive and they’re happy that I am here.”
The plaza in front of the Western Wall can hold about 400,000 people. During the swearing in ceremony, the entire plaza was packed with family and friends of the paratrooper hopefuls who will spend several months in training. 

If Assad launches chemical and gas weapons from the Golan toward Tel Aviv, that training may be cut short.

Dan Morrison is on assignment in Israel for KVAL.com.

Morrison has previously reported for KVAL.com from Helmand Province, Afghanistan, embedded with U.S. Marines there fighting the Taliban.

Morrison teaches journalism at the University of Oregon School of Journalism and Communications in Eugene, Ore.