The lone sol­dier

Amer­i­cans travel from afar to de­fend the Is­raeli ally in democ­racy

The Washington Times Weekly - - Commentary - By David A. Keene

Ear­lier this week, an es­ti­mated 20,000 Is­raelis gath­ered in Haifa for the funeral of a 21-year-old from South Padre Is­land, Texas, who had come to Is­rael, joined the Is­raeli De­fense Forces (IDF), and died in fierce fight­ing in Gaza. Sean Carmeli was what the Is­raelis call a “lone sol­dier.” A lone sol­dier is de­fined by the Is­raeli govern­ment as a young man or woman with­out par­ents or fam­ily in Is­rael who joins the army to help de­fend the Is­raeli state. There are sev­eral thou­sand lone soldiers serv­ing in the Is­raeli army at any given time, and about 35 per­cent of them are from the United States. Carmeli and another lone sol­dier, 24-year-old Max Stein­berg of Los An­ge­les, were among the early ca­su­al­ties in the cur­rent con­flict with Ha­mas fight­ers on the Gaza Strip.

Like most Amer­i­cans, I had never heard of lone soldiers, but I met sev­eral last year dur­ing a trip to Is­rael. They come from all over: I met young soldiers from the United King­dom, Swe­den and New Jersey, who had all left their homes and fam­ily to join the IDF. Their sto­ries were all pretty much the same and re­minded me of sto­ries I’d read of Amer­i­cans who fought with the French and Bri­tish in World War I be­fore their own coun­try en­tered the war.

They’re called lone soldiers be­cause they are alone in Is­rael, hav­ing left their fam­i­lies in Lon­don, Stock­holm or Jersey City to travel to a for­eign coun­try to serve. Some are dual cit­i­zens, and oth­ers had made a de­ci­sion to be­come per­ma­nent Is­raeli cit­i­zens be­fore sign­ing up, but I was told that a few aren’t even Jewish. They view their ser­vice as es­sen­tial to the sur­vival of the Jewish state, and share a ded­i­ca­tion to the need to de­fend Is­rael. They tend to end up in elite IDF units and bond with each other. Stein­berg, for ex­am­ple, was a sharp­shooter in the IDF’s elite Golani Bri­gade.

I asked those I met if they ever get a chance to visit their par­ents and fam­i­lies. Some par­ents travel to Is­rael to see them when they are on leave, and af­ter their first year of ser­vice, they are granted a month’s leave so they can go back to their na­tive coun­tries to see fam­i­lies and friends. The sol­dier I met from New Jersey said he went back and was happy to see his fam­ily, but some­what dis­ap­pointed when he got to­gether with his old high school friends to hang out.

“It was hard to iden­tify with them any­more,” he told me. “They seemed more in­ter­ested in things that I now think triv­ial than in the sorts of things that I’m do­ing.” None of them re­ally un­der­stood or ap­pre­ci­ated why he had de­cided to risk ev­ery­thing by ac­tu­ally vol­un­teer­ing to help de­fend the peo­ple of a for­eign coun­try against a bru­tal en­emy. He said it was a de­ci­sion he had dif­fi­culty ex­plain­ing, even to his Jewish friends, but it was one of which he was proud.

Many Amer­i­can young peo­ple these days man­age to ex­tend their ado­les­cence into their 20s, so it was easy to see why this young man who had cho­sen a dif­fer­ent path and lit­er­ally been forced to grow up had lit­tle in com­mon with his for­mer class­mates. He would, one sus­pects, have been more com­fort­able shar­ing his ex­pe­ri­ences with young Amer­i­can vet­er­ans of Iraq and Afghanistan.

The IDF does all it can to make life eas­ier for its lone soldiers, be­cause the Is­raelis know how dif­fi­cult and lonely be­ing so far away from home can be. Pri­vate groups join in and vir­tu­ally adopt them while they are in Is­rael and help them when they fin­ish their ser­vice should they de­cide to stay and make their home there.

There are young men and women who are IDF lone soldiers at home in the United States right now who are anx­iously try­ing to get back to Is­rael to re­join their units. Many will stay in Is­rael, but oth­ers, know­ing they have done what they can to help that tiny, but im­por­tant na­tion sur­vive will re­turn to this coun­try as vet­er­ans of a war they could have avoided. That they chose in­stead to vol­un­teer, travel alone to a far­away na­tion, and risk their lives on be­half of the only demo­cratic state in the Mid­dle East says a lot about them, their ded­i­ca­tion and their courage. It’s no won­der so many Is­raelis showed up to honor the young man from Texas.

IL­LUS­TRA­TION BY LINAS GARSYS/THE WASH­ING­TON TIMES

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