Latest update: July 6th, 2012
So I’m staring down the barrel of Israel’s lethal new state-of-the-art Tavor assault rifle. Feet planted firmly, I can hear my breath and the wind blowing small rocks around the hem of my skirt. It’s me and the ruthless terrorist just meters away, and as I carefully squeeze the trigger, I’ve got him! Right in the stomach! Malkah, ruthless Jewish warrioress, has protected her clan, saved the country, and is now headed back to the benches where she will distribute juice and snacks she brought from the car.
Because it’s shooting range day with the staff of The Jewish Press online.
Part team building exercise, part reward for all the hard work we put into sharing news and views with you fine readers, we made the journey to the Caliber 3 training facility and firing range in the hills of Judea.
And though we expected to learn how to handle weapons and hone self-defense skills with some awesome Chuck Norris lookalikes, we did not anticipate receiving the touch which would place the mantle of the heroism of Israel on our own shoulders. And I did not expect to have one of the most moving days of my life.
The day began simply enough – a little bit of ‘petel’ (think bug juice from camp), some sun screen, and a range all to ourselves with Shai Ish-Shalom, one of the expert trainers at Caliber 3.
Sounding more than a little bit like Topol but looking like he could bench press our hatchback, Ish-Shalom introduced us to the theory and the art of using guns for self-defense. With calm coolness, patience, and humor, he discussed the use of guns to protect your home or community, and the necessity of exercising gun safety. He introduced us to weapons some of us knew from our days in the army, others from our days in the yishuvim of Samaria, and others just from the movies.
Ish-Shalom is not just an expert. He’s the expert who trains the experts. And as we laughed and listened, and got ready to take our turn against the targets, he inadvertently blew my mind.
Discussing his own illustrious military and security history (and leaving out all details, as one would expect), which has seen him operating in the defense of Jews on the highest levels and for the highest levels, he mentioned his participation in Operation Thunderbolt, the 1976 operation to free Israeli hostages from a hijacked Air France plane in Entebbe, Uganda.
In that moment, I froze, my jaw agape (those of you who know me know that my jaw hanging open is not THAT newsworthy, but personal digs aside).
I am a pretty regular Jewish lady, for all I can tell. I have a husband, two kids, and am constantly trying to figure out how to be done with the laundry. Yes, I made aliyah, yes, I live in eastern Jerusalem, yes, I once stole the mezuzah off the doorpost of a Jews for Jesus office in Tel Aviv (that’s a whole other story), yes, Shai says I look like Bar Refaeli (truer words have never been spoken), but other than that, I’m pretty normal.
But as a true-to-the-core Zionist and lover of all things noble and proud (I did grow up in Texas), I was shocked and humbled to be in the presence of someone who participated in what I perceived to be one of the greatest feats of Jewish heroism in the modern era, and a hallmark of Jewish familihood and survival. The rescue operation, planned in 48 hours, comprising 100 commandoes led by Sayeret Matkal special forces commander Yonatan Netanyahu, the 90 minute operation not only saved the lives of all but 4 hostages (unfortunately costing Yoni’s own life, too), but in its success filled the wellsprings of Israeli pride and brotherly love. The risk those young men took, the daring and ingenuity they displayed in order to bring home the mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, wives, husbands, daughters and sons, was not only heralded throughout the country at the time, but stands now as an iconic representation of fundamental Israeliness.
Which meant not only was I being treated – even if only for a couple hours – as a real student of as righteous, as decorated, and as skilled an Israeli soldier as I may ever have the hope of meeting, I was also coming eye to eye, trigger to trigger, with the Real Israeli.
We couldn’t leave the range without interviewing Shai. My husband, Yishai – the one I’ve vowed to lock and load with for the rest of my life – discussed Shai’s outlook on Jewish defense and his participation in the Entebbe Rescue Operation – which happened on July 4, 1976.
“My generation grew up after the Holocaust,” Ish Shalom told Yishai on Jewish Press Radio. “And I remember in the elite unit in which I served, sitting in the tent in a very, very difficult training, very blue like I always am [on Israel’s annual Holocaust memorial day], but I see my members quite the same…. I initiated by saying I’m blue because it’s Holocaust day and I joined Sayeret Matkal only so this will not happen again to the Jewish people as long as I contribute my best. And [my friend] said ‘I was ashamed to talk about it, but I feel the same!’ and all the people around said the same.”
“In my time, it’s [Zionism] to take a guy… and make him in six days a proper security guard… I’m going to beat him up, I’m going to put him on the ground, just so when and if the time comes, I know I gave him my best. This is Zionism,” Ish-Shalom said. “We know that [battle] can bring us to die. And we’re willing to die… we know that’s what it takes, and we’re willing to take it.”
Although we were eager to hear war stories from Entebbe, Ish-Shalom was not forthcoming. He explained the background of Arab hijackings following the 1972 Munich Olympics massacre, in which the Palestinian Black September terror group took hostage and murdered 11 Israeli athletes and coaches.
He also discussed his Sayeret Matkal unit’s readiness to participate in the rescue at Entebbe, and the most dangerous aspect of the mission – the 20 minutes of flight between Nairobi and Entebbe during which their aircraft was not covered by Israeli jets.
But the juicy details never came. “It doesn’t matter – we carried it out,” Ish-Shalom told Yishai. “No vanity, we just did what we did because as I said before, I’m willing to give my life for you, even though I don’t know you, because this is my nature. “
“We came in, we did our job, we were accurate…. But as a Jew, we are willing to take the risk, because we won’t let any Holocaust happen again. This is all I can say.”
Ish-Shalom also stressed the importance of teaching Jews today that they are responsible for their own safety in an uncertain world.
“It’s our fault,” Ish-Shalom said. “We took our children and said ‘we had such a tough time, let’s keep it away from them,’ so that’s what we do… Now when they have to cope, they don’t know how to do it because we always covered for them. So when I’m here and with the youngsters, I show them it’s their responsibility – and be tough, nobody will come for your rescue, only yourself, no father, no mother, you! “
And that is a message he tells both Israelis and Jews from the Diaspora.
“First of all, you must know it is safe here for Jews. You must know – the safest place on the earth for Jews,” Ish-Shalom said. “But if you want to be a Jew and you want to be in the Diaspora and you don’t feel safe, make it safe for yourself. It’s easy to do. Or come here.”
I was deeply moved by my experience. Standing in the foothills of Judea, Malkah Fleisher, Israeli olah, held a specialized Israeli-designed weapon – one of just a few we have crafted to defend ourselves since breaking away from millennia of victimization – with careful directions being whispered in my ear by a man who himself was groomed to perfect weapons use in the defense of the Jewish people, and went on to do so in one of the most valorous missions the Jewish people have undertaken in 2,000 years. Next to him, his assistant – a former member of the New Zealand military who then became a Christian missionary, ultimately realizing the error of his ways and converting to Judaism, then taking it to the next step by making aliyah. The date of our shooting day: the 27th of Sivan, the eve of the hijacking of that Air France plane so many years ago (on the Jewish calendar – no, we didn’t plan it that way). And all around us – Caliber 3, one of the country’s six state-authorized police, army, counter-terror and special forces training facilities – erected from the bottom up by a Jew who left the United States to join in the greatest mission of all – to build the Jewish state alongside all of us here today.
As for me, I saved a bullet casing that fell on the floor and the earplugs we were issued to wear on that day. I’m putting them aside for my kids. We all want to leave our children our treasures when we die (don’t worry, I don’t plan on dying for at least another 88 years). We pass on our diamonds, our stocks, our properties, our books and photographs. But I’m going to leave these little trinkets for them to cherish – because they are just as valuable and prized an inheritance, and something I think will mean more to them than the cash (God willing, lots and lots of cash).
See, with anyone else, anywhere else, it would’ve been just another day at the range. But for me, on the 27th of Sivan, with Shai Ish-Shalom, in Judea, with our Tavor, at Caliber 3, it was the passing of a torch. I joined a long line of Jewish history and heroism, and became part of the deep and primal beauty and bravery of the Real Israel. Be the next.
About the Author: Malkah Fleisher is a graduate of Cardozo Law School in New York City. She is an editor/staff writer at JewishPress.com and co-hosts a weekly Israeli FM radio show. Malkah lives with her husband and two children on the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem.
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