About twenty miles west of Jerusalem, near the town of Abu Ghosh and skirting the West Bank, there is a sloping pine forest. Its northernmost fringes lay bare, having been ravaged by fire throughout the years, including the occasional arson. But some wide and deeply ridged valleys slice east, all brimming with Aleppos, stone pines, and white oak. The place feels haunted. It was the site of running battles in the 1940s, when Jewish soldiers fought the Arab Legion, and a few poured cement lookouts still pepper the skyline, set back deep among the trees. I sometimes jogged there in the evening as the sun was going down, alone with the wind and my thoughts. With its sticky scent of dew, its glittering pines, and the mist drifting down from the hills, the forest felt peaceful and ominous all the same.
Ten years ago I served in the Israeli army as a foreign volunteer and lived on a kibbutz up the road from the woods. Since I didn’t have family in Israel, or know anyone there, for that matter, I was classified as a “lone soldier” and given an army-subsidized room in which to spend my leaves. Never mind why I had volunteered—I couldn’t have told you then, much less today, although, as an American Jew, I guess I felt a modicum of sympathy for the people with whom I was raised to believe I shared an ancestral tie. That or I was bored.
The kibbutz was called Ma’ale Hahamisha, or “ascent of the five” in Hebrew, signifying five Jewish farmers who had been killed in an ambush nearby during the Arab Revolt. About 320 people, mainly descendants of the founders, lived in its red-shingled homes. I rarely saw them, as I and the twelve other lone soldiers were consigned to two mildewing dorms, which was just as well because we formed a sort of family on our own.
We got leaves twice a month, sometimes less, and rarely together, so only three or four of us would be home at any given time. Usually the R-and-R lasted a couple of days, during which we’d drink ourselves silly. Most of the men were Soviet-born immigrants with a fondness for honey pepper vodka, which none of us could afford. Being American, I preferred whiskey, but this was hard to get, especially if you wanted something decent. We rarely smoked pot, as the army was rumored to test for that. We also had little in common—which is typical among soldiers—except for our propensity to drink and our collective sense that the rest of the country distrusted us.
As an American Jew, I felt a modicum of sympathy for the people with whom I was raised to believe I shared an ancestral tie. That or I was bored.
The kibbutz itself was struggling. Commodity prices had plunged. The Palestinian labor force on which the farmers had long depended—despite heroic images of self-sustenance—became unemployable after the uprising in 2000. Thais and Filipinos replaced them, though without much success. By the time I arrived in 2005, the kibbutz’s main source of income had become a refurbished hotel, which lined the south slope of the mountain. It was a ritzy affair, replete with tall marble columns and plated glass windows overlooking the forested hills. It also boasted a spa, which the kibbutz managers somewhat grudgingly allowed us to use.
One Saturday evening in January, after feasting on rations of canned corn, tuna, and white bread, three of us headed to the spa’s indoor hot tub. We weren’t even that interested in the hot tub; it was nice enough to be in a well-heated space, since we were otherwise freezing in our dorms and had spent the last twenty days guarding frigid steel outposts inside the West Bank or along the border with Lebanon.
The first thing we drank was coffee, tubs of it, which we quaffed in the lobby. I pocketed a basket of creamers and tea and eyed anything else that would be of use to a soldier: safety pins, paper towels, disinfectant, you name it. Then we changed in the locker room, donning flip-flops, bathing suits, and our service-issue rifles, which we were required to keep with us at all times. Mine was an M4A1 equipped with a Trijicon scope—the equipment of a marksman. A., a thick-set Canadian who joined us late, and whom I hadn’t seen in weeks, asked how my service was going.
I told him it wasn’t much fun. I had recently been sent to Jenin, and then to Bethlehem, where I mostly mopped floors and guarded alone in the cold.
“Sounds like training.”
“You kill anyone yet?”
“Not this week.”
Then he explained why he was late. He said he had gotten leave the previously night and had gone to a party in Jerusalem where a sixteen-year-old girl, a “patriotic” teen, had given herself up to a roomful of soldiers. He didn’t say if he’d indulged. He rubbed his shaved scalp, dimly sighed.
Twenty minutes later the four of us were up to our necks in the tub’s roiling foam when a busload of Americans, Birthrighters probably, came pouring through the glass doors. They were yapping loudly in English, complaining about the small pool or the deficiency of the weight room facilities. One girl, who stood beside the pool, kept eying the view through the windows and snapping pictures with her phone.
We watched her with grim fascination. Then one of us—a Ukrainian named M. who had recently given up drinking, owing to a variety of incidents—rose from the tub. His back was ornately tattooed, and his stomach was carved in a six-pack, which was incredible, really, considering that he had never run a mile in his life. He was an Air Force technician and didn’t even get to keep a gun, though that didn’t stop him from approaching her brazenly.
About three-dozen heads watched from the pool and deck chairs.
We couldn’t hear what he said, but after a couple minutes he was taking photos of her, and soon alongside her, wetly cupping her phone. She giggled constantly. Although she wasn’t fat, her figure was not well served by the gym shorts that covered the bottom of her two-piece, and her red hair slunk like a mop. Neither was a distraction to M., who returned with her number about twenty minutes later. He said he was going to meet her that night for a drink.
“I thought you gave it up?”
“Gave what up?” he asked.
The rest of us had to return to our bases the next morning, though he, as a jobnik, enjoyed a more flexible schedule. We were jealous of this and hated him for it.
That night I heard a rocking from his room, predictably. It shook the two shelves on my wall, which held dusty paperbacks stolen from the kibbutz’s library—spy thrillers, mainly, from the ’70s. Since my roommate was out—I saw him only twice in fifteen months—I flicked on the lights and downed a few swigs of rye, hoping it would sedate me. It didn’t. Soon I was drunk, which is never advisable when you have an automatic rifle chained to your bed frame.
For fun, I blinded myself with a sock, clicked a watch, took apart my gun, and then reassembled it. One forty-eight—ten seconds off my best, though not unimpressive while drunk. I briefly considered shooting myself, as I suppose every serving soldier does. On my laptop I wrote a quick note to my parents, which I didn’t send; fortunately the kibbutz wasn’t wired. Then I played solitaire and lost.
Next door, the rocking had turned to moans. In three hours I was supposed to head back on a bus to Jerusalem and then the West Bank. One man from my battalion had killed himself already. Three more would soon be dead in Lebanon, but of course I didn’t know this at the time. One knows very little while serving.
I decided to go for a walk. Outside, the moon cut a swath in the sky, and the valley fields below smelled of diesel and chicken shit. I passed by a coop, then a shed.
About half a mile down, in a booth by the hotel, a Russian I knew was standing guard. He was normally embarrassed to be seen with us soldiers, since he had long ago finished his tour with the army and was now gainfully employed. Since I wasn’t Russian, he wasn’t averse to talking with me, but he had little to say; he was planning to visit Thailand in June, where he was hoping to remain for good, or at least until his savings dried up. We listened to Metallica on his phone, then I gave him a swig from my flask.
Further up the hill, I came upon the tennis courts, where, oddly enough, a couple of Americans were hitting loudly beneath the gold lights. It was three a.m. and they were sweating. I groggily waved.
Finally, passing beyond the kibbutz’s embankment, I crossed Route 425, which was bordered with an electric fence and led to a West Bank settlement. A soft mist curled up from the asphalt as the sky glimmered chemically pink. A truck whirred in the distance.
I headed south through the woods, scraping the brush with my boots and kicking up dust from the chalk path. A cool wind swept my face. The cedar boughs glistened and swayed in the dark, as if anchored invisibly to the massive white outcrops of limestone and shale and flecked moss. I kept my rifle locked and chugged along in my jacket, inhaling the scents of blue sow thistle, sage, and wild thyme. My destination lay about three hundred meters up, behind a thick screen of scrub oak and Calabrian pines. Animals cracked invisibly through the twigs—jackrabbits, probably. I left the trail and started up the slope.
At its summit I came upon the lookout: a three-story blockhouse, perched above a cliff where it faced down the Judean Hills. Surprisingly its sheet-metal door was unlocked, though a Hebrew warning sign indicated danger. As I pried back the door and crawled through its chains, a few mouse-eared bats came screaming out of the crenels and violently flapped through the pines.
Inside, the straw floor reeked of feces, and something scurried about. I twisted my flashlight and illuminated the five-by-five room. The stone walls were scribbled with Polish-sounding names, probably fighters from the ’40s: Benjamin Lansky, Menahem Steimetz, other indiscernible words. A few rusting tin cans lay along the floor, and in the corner a steel ladder rose through a hatch. Had I been even remotely sober, I would have been terrified to go up. As it was, I gripped the cool rungs and ascended, rifle at the ready, flask hanging off my pants.
The second floor smelled even worse and called to mind the tinned meat served in the army, which might well have been the odor’s source. Around the room, tall, narrow embrasures looked down on four sides. They were mostly covered in sod. One held a Heineken bottle.
The third floor was brighter: a pink, moted light fell through the embrasures. By this point I was sweating, half-nauseous, and afraid the ladder would give.
At last I emerged on the roof and crouched on its pine-needled bed. Below, the dark olive fields fell off in rows, all tiered with stone walls that were probably older than Christ. A few grottoes were carved in the mountains nearby, some of them lined with wall paintings and other ancient arcana. I had never been, and, as far as I knew at the time, the history of this place had begun in 1948.
I took out my flask and shared a long sip with the night. Far above the fields, through the loam and dim vines, Jerusalem hovered with its menorial glow. City of prophets and saints. I hated the place, truthfully. The only spirit I felt was this woods, with its dew-speckled pines, its cavernous oaks, its milky haze and wet air.
I had to make a decision at this point. I was considering extending my service. The main reason was that I wanted to become a sniper, which was a step up from marksman and required an extra year and a half. At the same time, since I had been deployed along the line, I realized what sniping entailed. It meant killing people. That sounds exciting to recruits and some full-on psychopaths you find on the line, but when you actually begin pointing your gun at people, you find it isn’t that glamorous. In that respect, it’s a bit like picking up girls. Some guys never lose the taste and want to keep at it. Some try but never get the knack. Others don’t enjoy it and would rather spend time with someone they love.
I had a girl back home. She lived in Los Angeles and had staked out a career in Hollywood making films. We had dated for five or six years, and though we had grown apart since then, I was hoping we’d reconnect. I missed her a great deal, but that wasn’t why I chose not to extend. I decided the prospect of killing wasn’t that appealing. I hadn’t needed to yet, and I was dreading the day when I would. This is a difficult thing to reconcile while serving: the desire to see blood and the desire to flee it. Nobody comes to terms with it, really. Except those who die.
Later that day I returned to base and decided not to put in the request. I finished my tour in May.
About fourteen months later, a full ground war erupted in Lebanon, where most of my platoon would be deployed. I didn’t go. As a foreign volunteer, I had gotten out early, having completed a shortened stint. I could have flown back for it. I could have given my life to that cause. A good friend of mine, Michael Levine, did. He is buried beneath a slab at Mount Herzl, along with the rest of my tribe.