Every year, when most Israelis withdraw into temples and homes to observe the High Holy Days, a select few soldiers remain on patrol to ensure their safety. These are their stories.
(Download this story in Microsoft Word format here.)
(Download additional photo here. Caption: Select soldiers, such as these infantry soldiers preparing for a combat exercise, are required to serve during the High Holy Days, occasionally leading to comical or odd events. Credit: Iris Lainer, IDF Spokesperson Film Unit.)
“Get back to base immediately, there’s something special we have to do tonight,” Hillel, a former sergeant of an elite IDF combat unit, remembers being told on Yom Kippur.
Hillel, now 25, had arrived home from the army to take the holiday off, but was summoned to the West Bank. His unit had intelligence on a terror cell that was planning to infiltrate into Israel and murder worshippers during the Kol Nidre service.
“We got to his village, entered his house and he was standing there,” Hillel says of his unit’s target that night. “We were supposed to take him alive but when he went for his sidearm we shot and killed him…You have to understand, the general feeling is, from emotional perspectives, when you are in the army you protect, that is your job, you make sure the rest of the country can pray and be safe, as a soldier you understand that you might sacrifice that holiday for the rest of the country.”
* * * *
The IDF closes the West Bank on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur each year. In order to protect Israel during the holiday period, the army continues its policy of patrols and sets up ambushes in places where people might try to infiltrate through the security fence or into a Jewish community in the West Bank. The Israeli Police, meanwhile, “must pay attention and see that people who normally have work permits to enter Israel from the West Bank, are not permitted to remain for the holiday,” according to a police officer who works in the Acre and Haifa.
In order to provide some semblance of the holiday spirit, the IDF tries to make its members feel at home. The ensuing oddities seem to be what soldiers remember best.
* * * *
Ben, 23, a former officer in the Givati Brigade recounts how the army specially prepared a dinner with real plates and silverware for the soldiers who remained on base for the holiday. “One less happy moment, I found myself at Rosh Hashanah washing dishes until 3 a.m. because we were in the Golan…and no one could go home because of the tension with Syria over the bombing of their reactor,” Ben says.
“That was a less favorite moment of mine,” he says. “The funny part is that we had all these fancy dishes that they had given us for the holidays and I tried to just throw some of them out to hurry up with the washing…I got caught.”
* * * *
Moshe, who completed his service in June 2011, recalls a particularly odd incident. Palestinians in the area between Jenin and Umm al Fahm (literally “mother of coal”) are experts at making charcoal, Moshe explains, generally by burning wood and other chemicals out in the open—thereby releasing noxious smoke.
The greatest issue he encountered during the holidays, he says, was that his unit had to be moved around frequently to reduce the soldiers’ exposure to the fumes. The army feared that over time, the soldiers could develop cancer or other illnesses.
Moshe continues that, “the craziest thing I ever did was a three-day mission to catch a terrorist who had been wanted for 13 years.” His unit consisted of 400 men who entered the houses of the terrorist’s friends, using flash bang grenades and screaming for them to come out before going in. After two days, “we didn’t find [the terrorist], but in the end another unit got in a gun battle with him and he ran off and turned himself into the Palestinian police,” he says.
* * * *
According to Ben, the army juggles the priorities of providing soldiers with a pleasant holiday experience and retaining the manpower it needs to secure Jewish communities. That means soldiers might be asked to shoulder up their weapons and patrol for six hours at a moment’s notice.
“In terms of the holidays, especially in combat units, you have religious guys and there is a minyan to be had and special preparations to make the holiday feel like a holiday in adverse conditions,” Ben says.
Moshe, who served in a religious unit within the Kfir brigade, says that “a commander has to go to prayers, it is a must. I had an option but the officer must go to make a good example.” Ironically, Moshe explains that the best defense for Israel during the High Holy Days is to maintain the image of normalcy: “the only sense that the army is more alert is to keep it like an average day.”
“The Arabs perceive us as being less alert because we are fasting and praying,” Moshe says.
Seth J. Frantzman is a writer, journalist and scholar residing in Jerusalem.