From UFC to IDF: Israeli fighter exits mixed martial arts cage for Gaza operation

Click photo to download. Caption: Noad Lahat (right) fights Steven Siler in a July 26 Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) bout. Credit: Getty/Zuffa L.L.C.

By Jacob Kamaras/JNS.org

Days after winning his Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) featherweight bout against Steven Siler on July 26, Israeli-born mixed martial arts competitor Noad Lahat boarded a plane for his native country, choosing to temporarily exit UFC’s octagonal cage to rejoin the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) as a paratrooper for its operation against Hamas in Gaza. Except he didn’t actually consider it a choice.

“When [our] home is in danger, there is no other way for us [but to serve in the army],” Lahat told JNS.org in a phone interview from the airport on July 30, en route to the Jewish state. “For us [Israelis] it’s not a war far away in Iraq or Afghanistan. For us it’s right at home. My family is in danger, my country… you have to go and defend it.”

“There was no doubt about it. It wasn’t a decision,” he said.

The 30-year-old Lahat—whose return to the IDF has garnered significant media coverage, including by CNN—said he is “not looking for any long-term career in the military,” but rather is “just coming to do what I need, and then I’ll go back [to the UFC].” Amid his arrival in Israel, a deal for a 72-hour cease-fire was reached July 31, only to collapse shortly after its 8 a.m. implementation on Aug. 1 when Hamas continued firing rockets and reportedly kidnapped an Israeli soldier. Another cease-fire began Tuesday as Israel withdrew its ground troops from Gaza.

Lahat is from the community of Alfei Menashe in Samaria. Asked about how Israeli-controlled territory in Judea and Samaria comes under frequent international scrutiny due to its location beyond the 1967 lines, Lahat said, “Everything the Jewish people do comes under criticism.” He said those who ignore the actions of human rights-abusing countries such as Syria, Sudan, and Iran “always have time to criticize the Jewish state.”

Click photo to download. Caption: Noad Lahat (front) serves for the Israel Defense Forces. Credit: Courtesy of UFC.

“Just the name Judea and Samaria, if anybody has any doubt about who are the native people of that place… It’s called Judea and Samaria for a reason,” said Lahat. “For me, [the critics] can keep saying whatever they say. We are the people that came home.”

What kind of a reception does Lahat’s background receive in the world of mixed martial arts? He said most people he trains with “are pro-Israel, pro-America.”

“People that have any kind of a negativity about Israel know to stay far away from me,” Lahat said. “Most of my friends that I train with, I think that 100 percent of them know what’s going on [in the Middle East], so I never had trouble with that.”

Lahat does, however, encounter cyber hate.

“Especially online, I get a lot of hate from all kinds of people,” he said. “And for me, I find it fascinating that the things that they say against Jewish people online, like ‘Death to the Jews’… you can never say that to any other minority. People say it with their full name, full picture, everybody can know who they are, and they have no problem saying it. … When people say stuff like that, I’m just ignoring them, because if someone has a question, and we have a conversation, it’s no problem. But if someone has overly anti-Semitic opinions like that, there’s no place to talk.”

Click photo to download. Caption: Noah Lahat flashes a mouthguard designed after the Israeli flag during his July 26 Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) bout against Steven Siler. Credit: Getty/Zuffa L.L.C.

While some celebrities have denounced Israel’s actions during the current conflict—such as the couple Penelope Cruz and Javier Bardem, Spanish actors who signed an open letter accusing the Jewish state of “genocide”—Lahat said he doesn’t feel the need to use his name recognition to speak up for Israel just because “someone else speaks.” But at the same time, he said he is “always true and always honest with who I am and what I think.”

“You see me walk out to the [UFC] cage, I have my Star of David, I have my [Israeli] flag, everybody knows who I am, I’m not hiding,” said Lahat. “I’m not feeling ashamed of who I am, I feel pride, and I always show it around. Everybody knows that I am the Israeli, and I feel 100 percent okay with that.”

Lahat said he would “never run away from anything” upon his return to the IDF, citing both the current and historical imperatives for a Jewish homeland. 

“Right now, and it has always been [this way], the Jewish people are able to live everywhere just because we have a strong Jewish state,” he said. “You see the people [suffering from anti-Semitism] in France right now, [it’s] not safe there.”

“History shows that every few years, Jews need to pick up their stuff and run away,” added Lahat. “Where are they going to run to? The only place in the world that Jews are safe, and can be Jews, and not be embarrassed or ashamed or anything like that, is in Israel. So even people who don’t live in Israel have to show their support for that one safe haven in the whole world that we have.”

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Posted on August 3, 2014 and filed under Features, Israel, U.S..