This interesting story came around after several iterations of editing while I was working with this graduate student for the Being Blog. I think it turned out well (possibly could’ve been longer because there’s so much story that’s being left unsaid but…):
Praying with an IDF soldier from Givati Brigades at the Wailing Wall in 1995.
Moshe Hillel Eytan, born Marcus Hardie, is a Long Beach, California native who converted to Judaism at the age of 22. Marcus, who was raised Baptist and belonged to one of Southern California’s most notorious gangs, the Eight Ball Crips, says he found what he had searched for all his life. He found refuge in a religion that offered him a home and an identity that, he says, connected him to God.
“I experienced Yiddishkeit (Jewish Identity) at my own pace. Judaism taught me that race is of no significance and that you are judged by your actions,” says Marcus, the name he prefers to be called now.
In 2000, Moshe Hillel Eytan, as he was known at that time, thought making Aliyah to Israel had completed his conversion to Judaism. After all, he had converted to Judaism three times, twice in the U.S. and once in the Orthodox branch of Judaism in Israel. But it wasn’t enough for Moshe, who, at the age of 28, decided to join the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF). By doing so, he felt he was securing his allegiance to Judaism and to the state of Israel.
“It wasn’t enough to make Aliyah to Israel, I needed to protect Israel. I couldn’t just come [to Israel] and integrate, and become a rabbi … or have a wife or have a child. I needed to give back,” says Marcus. “My Jewish identity, or my interest in Jewish affairs, took over my life. It felt like I was possessed.”
His way of giving back was by defending his new-found homeland from terrorists. He equated it to the violence he had once escaped from as a teenager. Except this time, he thought he would be fighting on the right side, the good side. So a year after having made Aliyah to Israel, Marcus joined the IDF.
Americans in IDF
Near the end of basic training in the Israeli Defense Forces in August 2001.
“Jewish People and Jewish students in particular feel a tremendous allegiance to the state of Israel. Historically, we need a country of our own. (And) a few young men and women chose to do a condensed version of serving in the Israel army,” says Rabbi Aron Hier.
Hier, who is the current director of the campus outreach program for the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles, was born and raised in Canada by Jewish parents. And, like Marcus, he too volunteered to serve in the IDF.
“I finished college and I wasn’t sure of what I wanted to do and so I said I’ll give them a year and half. It’s that brutal, you can train as much as you want and you can’t get used to the heat, you can’t get used to the lack of privacy and living in the same clothes for a week at a time. Its not about pumping weights, it tests you in many ways. It was very hard and very rewarding.”
It’s not uncommon for foreigners, including Americans, to serve in the IDF. Some Americans are the children of Israelis who emigrated years ago; others, like Rabbi Hier and Marcus, have no family connection whatsoever.
A 2010 Ha’aretz article profiling foreigners serving in the IDF reported that about 3,000 lone immigrant soldiers were serving in the IDF and, in 2010, more than 500 soldiers were from United States.
Rabbi Hier dismissed the potential pitfalls of an American swearing allegiance to Israel. Since the two are close allies, he doesn’t see a problem. Besides, by law, Americans are permitted to serve in a foreign military.
Rabbi Mayer May, the executive director of the Wiesenthal Center and the President of the Rabbinical Council of California, also supports the idea that American Jews can go serve in the IDF.
“I can understand a lot of the kids who grow up in America, and have strong feelings for the state of Israel. They watch it and feel it as the underdog, even though it sometimes is positioned as the occupier,” May said. “But it’s not the occupier when you think of all the ten million of Arabs that are surrounding it.”
“What happens in Israel affects us profoundly here, and not only in terms of our presence in America, but profoundly because we know of our profound connection to the land of Israel for 3, 000 years.”
A Faith Replaced by Nationalism and Anger
Holding an assault rifle on the Sabbath.
Marcus says his service in the military quickly changed his life and his views of Israel. Just as the Second Palestinian Intifida started in 2000, Israel became a more violent place. He had to suppress riots and police Palestinians. He was often the first on scene after a bomb went off.
“I would arrive and see all sorts of body parts, the ground saturated with blood. I saw people suffering. It was more than I bargained for,” says Marcus.
This is where Marcus claims his faith was replaced by nationalism and anger. He says he started placing the state of Israel in the position of God.
“Instead of saying God is powerful, I would say Israel is powerful,” says Marcus.
On Merkava battle tank at Sayereem Military Base in Israel in 2001.
Marcus became less and less religious as he completed his two years in the IDF. The religious connection he once felt towards Israel began to fade. Although he had signed up to protect Israel, Marcus acknowledges that he knew very little about the Palestinians and Arabs living in Israel. He had only learned about the terrorists who targeted innocent Israelis. But after becoming an anti-terror fighter in the IDF, he learned the lines were often blurred.
“I didn’t really have much contact with Palestinians before then. That was a big blind spot that I had. And when I look back, in retrospect I always saw Israel as a Jewish state,” Marcus said. “For me, the Palestinian Arabs were invisible. They were invisible people. I don’t remember meeting even one Palestinian. I don’t remember having interest in meeting one.”
Marcus says his experience in the IDF did the opposite of what he expected. His service in the IDF did not complete his religious journey to Judaism. But it did changed Marcus’s life in ways he would have never imagined.
Soon after he completed his service in the military, Marcus returned to the United States and was diagnosed with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Today, Marcus Hardie, resides in a modest group home in Whittier, California. He has published an autobiographical book, Black & Bulletproof, where he shares his life story and gives readers an inside look at the Israeli army and its operatives from the perspective of an African-American Jew.
Marcus still considers himself a man of faith and worships at Temple Beth Shalom in Whittier. He admits that he isn’t as religious as he once was, but says he continues to practice Judaism.
“I still think of Israel as my homeland, but the connection just isn’t as strong as it was before. No one can take away what I saw happen to innocent people, both Palestinians and Israelis.”
Rosalina Nieves is a graduate student in the Specialized Journalism Program at the University of Southern California and an assignment editor at CNN in Los Angeles.
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