“Remember Who You Are. Remember Why You Are Here”
[“The Book I’ve Been Avoiding Writing” (a.k.a. “Three Years of Writing and 40+ Years of Thinking About The Lion’s Gate“) is a mini-series about the writing of my new book, The Lion’s Gate. Thanks for tuning in as it runs Mondays and Fridays over the next few weeks.]
I am visiting the 101 Squadron at Hatzor Air Base in the Negev desert. We’re talking about the concept of En Brera, “no alternative.”
What is it that makes the Israel Defense Forces—in particular, the air force—so exceptional? Is it something in the institutional culture? If that quality could be identified, could it be exported? Could a different army, a different air force use it? Or is it unique to Israel and to the Jewish people?
The first hour of our visit is spent in the pilots’ briefing room. The young fliers and their commanders are honoring Lou Lenart, who was one of the founding members of the squadron in 1948. I’m watching the pilots. I have never seen such a good-looking bunch of guys. They laugh and horse around; there is nothing remotely “macho” in their attitude or bearing. What is unmistakable is their supreme level of professionalism—and how committed they are to their mission.
Lou has to wipe tears when he speaks to them.
I am moved too.
When the ceremony is over, the squadron commander takes a few of us back to a classroom. “I want you to see,” he says, “an abbreviated version of a program we present to the pilot candidates in the flight school.”
The first part is a short film.
It’s about Auschwitz.
On September 4, 2003, at the invitation of the Polish Air Force, three F-15 fighter planes of the IAF performed a fly-over of the extermination camp of Auschwitz-Birkenau. Between 960,000 and 1.1 million Jews were killed there during World War II.
The overflight was supposed to be executed at 10,000 feet but the Israeli pilots, all of whom were children of death camp survivors, insisted upon passing over the site at the lowest altitude possible. They carried aboard their planes the testimony of a number of victims, murdered on that same day sixty years earlier.
The film is very short, only a couple of minutes. It’s grainy and not particularly well produced. A critic, if he wanted to, could make the case that its message is clumsy and heavy-handed, lacking in subtlety. But such quibbles cannot diminish the emotional impact.
The first time you see the camp, that awful gate, the railroad tracks, the selection platform, and the crematoria [says Amir Eshel, commander of the IAF contingent in the film and one of the pilots performing the flyover] … you look at the terrible annihilation below and look to the other side and see the strength of this people today, how far we have come in just sixty years … from the terrible injustice to the situation in which we now stand.
The young pilots-in-training watch this film. After it, there’s a short PowerPoint-type presentation. One of the elements of emphasis is this:
Remember who you are. Remember why you are here.
On the wall of the classroom hangs a map of Israel. You can see the waist of the country, the pre-’67 borders, just nine miles across. A jet fighter today can take off from Cairo and penetrate the Israeli frontier in twenty minutes. Flying time from Amman, Jordan is under five minutes.
Remember who you are. Remember why you are here.
I have to raise my hand. Do those words mean what I think they mean? I ask the squadron commander if he would care to expand upon them and make them more specific.
“They mean what they mean,” he says. I cannot get him to say more.
Later I speak privately with a couple of pilots, a captain and a major. I ask them what those sentences in the presentation mean to them. The captain answers first.
They mean we are Jews. We have seen what our enemies do to us when they have us in their power. We are pilots. Our role is to defend our people. We can never forget who we are and why we are here.
The major adds this:
In America when you fight a war, it is thousands of miles from home. You can fail to win, you can even lose, but when you return to the States, there is everything just as you left it—your family, your town, your country.
We Israelis live in a different neighborhood. Here there is only one kind of war—a war of survival.
Win or die. En brera. No alternative.
“Remember who you are. Remember why you are here.” Simple yet profound! A mantra for a purposeful life.
Today is Iyar 26. In the Jewish Calendar, the 6 Day War started on Iyar 26.
No choice. No alternative.
Good heads up David. Yes it is Iyar 26 and day 37 if one is counting the Omer.
Remembering not only the fighters themselves, but why the fight was fought, and for whom – a fitting post for Memorial Day.
Video won’t play.
I’m going to take exception again. Those Israeli pilots have in recent history bombed targets in Gaza, Lebanon and other Middle Eastern areas that had nothing to do with Israel’s survival. An international school bombed to smithereens? Why?
The Holocaust was horrendous, but it cannot be an excuse ever for despicable behavior by the descendants of those who survived it. When can we finally measure every country’s behavior with the same yardstick?
A powerful riveting story.
Everyone who lives in Israel should keep those words close to him or her. Every Jew who lives in the Diaspora should remember those words. If we totally assimilate we are finished. Israel is the homeland for every Jew, living in the Middle East or elsewhere and there is no other country that is a truly safe haven.
link to fly-over inop
Got it fixed. Sorry!
I see that even on one’s own blog, one is not safe from critics. When we produce, someone will always disagree with our flavor, idea, or product. TR said it best, “Its not the critic that counts…”
Today is Memorial Day. I just ran w/ the Wear Blue Run to Remember group in Dupont, Washington. To come home and read about how desperate the security situation in Israel continues to be is sobering.
2/3 the way through “The Lion’s Gate”, deliberately drawing it out…will likely read it again immediately when I’m done.
Ours is not so desperate. We are mollified by 2 oceans and extraordinary wealth, reading about a desperate kid in Santa Barbara…a photo of two men kissing after a football draft…I do not wish harm upon our people, but I do think our culture is due for a sharp slap on the face.
Those pilots get it.
Good stuff again Steven.
John, Those Israeli pilots bombed targets in Gaza from which rockets were being fired at Israel and where the people who planned the racket attacks against Israel were hiding. Not a matter of survival? Why don’t you ask the people who live in Sderot and Ashkelon (cities within the so-called 1967 borders, by the way) about survival? When a rocket is fired from Gaza they have less than 30 seconds to find shelter.
To yehudit rose:
Israel invaded Gaza to ward off rocket attacks that had killed almost no people as they were almost always off the mark and certainly didn’t pose a threat to Israel’s survival. It went in with full force and killed more than a thousand people, many of them completely innocent.
That school was the only American International school in that area and one of the few chances for people to get a good education there. It was the sister school to the American International my children went to in Cyprus at the time, along with the children of the US and the Israeli ambassadors. There was no indication that anybody had anything hidden in the Gaza school.
Likewise, I was in the Golan on the UN premises in late 2006 and could see the images of and the damage the Israelis had caused with their bombings of Lebanon in the summer of 2006. Again, it was very clear that targets were deliberately destroyed without a clear reason as to why, other than to damage the infrastructure or otherwise disable a working village.
I’m not saying Israel can’t defend itself, but often their actions are completely out of proportion to the threat. I’m also saying that any wrong inflicted upon Jews in the past can never be a justification for future wrongs by the Jews. And the latter applies to any other group as well.
If I may say so, this blog is the most powerful thing you’ve ever done.
Is this blog about writing or about pro-Israeli politics? I am a huge fan of Pressfield’s work and of this blog, but I find the tenor and lack of nuance in these discussions about the IDF very distasteful. The subject of Israel’s current politics and treatment of Palestinians in the region (which is neither related to nor justified by the German-committed holocaust) is a very contentious and divisive one. I’m not sure I will continue to support this blog if it becomes a forum for the discussion of Israeli politics, rather than for the craft of writing.
We’re damned if we do and damned if we don’t. Praise the Lord with a loud noise you didn’t cower behind enemy lines of Resistance, and obeyed soul’s code to write this book.
“Forty years” is straight from the Torah. Perhaps you had a chuckle in the Negev, where the Children of Israel wrestled their own 40.
Thanks again for continuing to share your process. Your fellowship of journey is most appreciated as I struggle daily writing my own politically charged subject that has bugged me for decades.
Also, this Memorial Day, thank you for your service.
I`m a huge fan of Steve.
He` a very generous and talented individual with a great heart. I support his right to write on whatever subject he chooses. He does so with great wisdom and lucidity and truthfulness.
Yet on this particular topic and perhaps even this book, I feel a great surge of perhaps repressed sentimentalism getting in the way. And if that happens to be so, thats also fine. But still, I`m a little perplexed by some of the recent posts, even if, I can understand where the root of them may stem from.
I`m Irish but have many Jewish friends, whom I love dearly. I also know my history, Jewish, Irish and much more. From my own Irish experience I`m used to the well meaning but slightly distorted sentimentalism that great cultural/national tragedy often gives birth too. Yet I`m wary of it too, because it dosent represent progress toward truth, instead remaining in the realm of mythology.
I belive the true identity of everyone is love, regardless of nation, as powerful and important as that is. Treat others as we wish to be treated. No one is fundamentally against Isreal, (not even in the middle east), but there`s a plotical strand in Isreal politics (not Steve) thats its own worst enemy and creates inevitable conflcit by its policies and actions. Building on Palestinian land for example. Most reasonable people, including many noteable jews, arrive at that conclusion too.
We can`t pick and choose truth. It must apply to us all equally.
Best wishes and goodwill to you all.
Ps, – me again…
Dear Steve + (friends I havent yet met or met).
I want to share something with you in good heart.
Great leadership always comes at a price.
Imagine being an Irishman denoucing violence or hatred toward England even though Irish people suffered for 800 years because of the English (whom I love, because generally great people).
Imagine a Jew, born and raised in Israel, (not in USA) living with heart with truth and the price that comes with that. Such people are very rare, because
they pay a high price, but to be truthful is to be free and have the key to our hearts. The mind, always wants to be on the side thats winning.
Anyway, check these if you have time.
Warm regards and best wishes to everyone,
I`m terribly sorry, my eyesight is not what it used to be and I see my posts are strewn with grammatical and spelling errors.