(From my Israel journal, started on 12 March, completed on 14 March.)
I get separated from my group at Banias, past the plausible site of Caesarea Phillipi, walking out towards the waterfalls.
The agents of separation are high school kids.
School kids in Israel appear to travel a lot – and appear to travel well, since tour buses here are so readily available. (Top industry in Israel? Tourism. I don’t think there’s a close second.) At any of the national parks, it’s not uncommon to find several school groups wandering around. On this day, it’s groups of early teenagers – girls preening and posing for digital pictures as if they’re supermodels, boys playfighting with each other as if they’re WWE wrestlers, exasperated teachers and parents trying to maintain a semblance of order.
In other words, not that much different from American school kids.
Except for this – every group we saw, we saw one or two – not appearing much older than school age, if they’re older at all – carrying rifles, slung over their shoulders, very visible.
A couple of remarks between us American travelers, when we first saw them, were about how much these guys looked like kids playing soldier. Honestly, I hope you’d forgive me for that. There was no way either of those guys was a day over 19, not even with the beard that one of them was sporting.
But now I’m separated from my guys, and I find myself behind this group of high school kids, and I wind up walking aside these two rifle guys, and we exchange pleasantries. The bearded guy asks, “Where are you from?” “Northern Georgia, in the United States. Do you know where Atlanta is?” He does, but he’s never heard of Rome. We get some doses of each others’ geography.
I find out that the bearded guy, the guy who’s most eager to talk to the Georgia redneck, is named Odi. His job is to provide security for the school kids. Every school group has to have security provided for them when they’re out. It really doesn’t take much imagination to see why.
Now, I do a lousy job of putting on airs. I don’t know if it was politic or not to tell Odi what we thought he was when we first saw him – just a school kid that’s too eager to join the military. But when I say this to Odi, it’s clear that he doesn’t think I was out of line at all. He just laughs. “I am eager to join the military!”
“Well, doesn’t everybody have to serve in the military in Israel?”
“Yes, but that does not matter. Everybody wants to serve. See, America is a wonderful country. Everybody wants to serve in the American military, no?”
Oh, wow, that line of questioning blindsided me. I stammer something like “well, you might think so, but these are strange times.” All I can think in my head is this: Now is probably not the time to bring up Iraq..
Odi looks at me strangely. “I don’t understand. American military pays well, no?”
“Well, yes, but…” but I suddenly realize that Odi’s not listening to me. “The Israeli military pays only 700 sheqels a month. But that does not matter. Israel is a wonderful country – but we cannot know what might happen tomorrow. We have to be ready. I want to be ready.”
Odi is stiffening, standing straighter, as he talks. He is talking passionately. When he looks at me, I see only one thing in his eyes:
I love Israel, and no one will take Israel away from me.
I say a few things about how admirable his passion is, and how sometimes I wish we felt as strongly about America as he feels about Israel. But at this point his group is stopping, and I have no clue how much farther my group is ahead, and I’m conscious of the fact that I don’t want to get lost in a strange land, so I say my goodbyes.
As the week has gone on, and as we’ve seen the military gather this place or that, the one thing that stuns me is how often the soldiers are having fun, how often there are smiles on the soldier’s faces. There are sometimes serious looks, in the stressful places, but never weary or fatigued looks, and only rarely is there a flash of anger. It seems this is a military that genuinely enjoys serving and longs to serve. I may not know much about war, but I do expect it’s much harder to defeat an army that wants to serve than an army that doesn’t.