From Fresno to the Israeli Military
By Darrow Pierce
In December 2009, despite great opposition from family and friends, I moved to Israel, gained citizenship and started learning Hebrew in a kibbutz in northern Israel. In 2010, I joined Garin Tzabar (a program that helps new Israelis acclimate and prepare for their army service). My garin (meaning “seed” in Hebrew) has people from 10 different countries, and we live on Kibbutz Nir Yitzhak. After living, learning, drafting, complaining, fighting, bonding, crying and laughing with each other, we’ve become a wonderfully eclectic sort of family. We live two kilometers from Gaza and a five-minute drive (as I accidentally discovered one day) from Egypt.
Life on a kibbutz is normally a quiet one, but that’s not the case where I live; Hamas regularly fires kassam rockets, patzmarim (rockets too small to trigger alarms) and the occasional phosphor bomb into my neighborhood. On weekends home from the army (I’m on base from Sunday to Thursday, and my weekends are free off base), I often find myself running for my life to nearby bomb shelters or cooped up in them for hours on end. It was a hard thing to get used to after growing up in the Tower District. I can’t begin to describe the immobilizing hopelessness you feel waiting for bombs to fall. Sometimes, you don’t have time to be scared. You suddenly hear explosions and your doors and windows unexpectedly shake. It’s not like this in the whole country; living so close to Gaza has some disadvantages.
I drafted in January to be a physical trainer/sports instructor in the army. In basic training, we learned to shoot an M16. My officers repeatedly emphasized the responsibility of having a gun, the importance of using it only when absolutely necessary, respect, self-discipline, humility and many other values good soldiers display. After finishing my course, in which I learned (in my new language) about physiology, nutrition, sports injuries and anatomy, I was placed on a base eight hours away from my kibbutz. The base focuses on education. New immigrants whose Hebrew levels aren’t high enough go to study Hebrew and start basic training there.
Because I have no family in Israel, I’m classified as a “lonely soldier.” Although other soldiers go back to a clean home and cry on mom’s shoulder, complain to dad about how incompetent their officer is and eat homemade food, lone soldiers must go home, do their own laundry, shop for and cook their own food, clean their own houses, and maybe Skype their family if the time difference allows. The toll it takes on one is heavy and unexpected. I haven’t seen my parents for 11 months, and by the time I go back to California, I won’t have been home for a year and a half.
Overall, I’d say my experience in the Israeli army has been a positive one. It’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done. Because I spoke no Hebrew before moving to Israel, I often found myself in trouble but unable to understand why. But the army has taught me many things besides a second language. I’m exposed to many different cultures and people—immigrants from all over the world, kibbutzniks, Druze, Israeli Arabs, people from villages, cities, religious, secular, etc.
I’ve matured immensely and learned how to deal with stress better. I’m comfortable living alone. I’m financially independent. I can figure out how to get anywhere on a bus. Being forced to draft after high school creates a more mature younger generation. Instead of thinking about classes or work or what to do because they dropped out, Israeli high school graduates are focused on getting into the best army units possible. Because I drafted instead of going to college, I will bring seriousness and a focus to my formal education that I didn’t possess before.
Both being in the army and living in a war zone have also changed much of my political view on Israel. Before I moved here, I thought that it was easy for people to get along and that everyone should simply do so. I once thought it unproductive to build walls and enforce blockades. But after seeing violence, deep-rooted, blind hatred and stubborn ignorance from both sides, and how every single person in Israel and Palestine is affected by war, I understand that it’s not so simple. I’ve met many families that have had to bury children or parents or loved ones. Fear and pain are constant presences at every age. And when your own life is threatened time and time again, your opinions change.
It’s eternally frustrating to see how the international media muddy things by irresponsibly regurgitating inaccuracies about what happens here without checking facts. The result is one-sided stories that distort Israel’s actions. I’m not saying that Israel can do no wrong, but there are two sides to every coin, and there are no innocent parties here. So much falls through the cracks. For example, the media claims that Israeli aircraft indiscriminately bomb Gaza but fails to mention Israel’s extraordinary efforts to avoid civilian casualties and that Israel launches airstrikes only in retaliation against Hamas’ own strikes against the Israeli civilian population.
There have been many times when I’ve wished to go home with all of my aching body and mind. But when I really think about it, I’d never trade this experience for anything. It was especially during those hard times that I grew as a person and as a citizen of this world. I once heard that moving to Israel is like a marriage—you give, take, fight, love, disagree, compromise and work on your relationship with the country and the people. For some, it doesn’t work out, whereas others are happy for the rest of their lives. I don’t know what’ll happen after I discharge from the army, but for now, my marriage is going great.
Darrow Pierce was born and raised in Fresno. She is a 20-year-old graduate of Fresno High and currently serves in the Israeli army as a physical trainer. If you have questions or constructive dialogue, e-mail her at email@example.com.
Haunted, Broken and Cognitive Dissonance
By Leonard Adame
The near annihilation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki has led me, over the years, to think about whether that nuclear attack was necessary, whether Americans were accurately informed on the cause of WWII and whether Japan was, on that terrible August day, already a beaten nation.
Much has been written about the bombing—to save American lives, to bring the war to a certain end, etc. Others say Japan at the time was a defeated nation.
If the latter is true, why did the atomic scientists of the time lobby President Harry Truman to drop the bombs? Did they simply want to see the bomb’s effects?
Yet from my research, I’ve learned that people in and out of government were against the bombings, despite the scientists’ wishes.
So I want to consider the following: What does “just war” mean? Put another way, according to my philosophy-teaching cousin Gabe Del Real, “What constitutes justice”? Revenge? Destruction of a culture?
He argues that “the Buddha, Christ, or even a modern figure such as Gandhi would see revenge as a ‘common wisdom,’ that seeking ‘retribution’ would constitute an unenlightened” act.
He writes that Augustine and Thomas Aquinas, “rooted in the philosophical tradition of Aristotle as well as Plato, assert that justice is rendering what is due to someone (or something) in order to promote his/her (its) wholeness [or] being. The general principle here is that preserving being is better than destroying it.”
If my cousin is right, I wonder why a country with Christian civilians and presidents has engaged in so many wars. If turning the other cheek means promoting a people’s wholeness and/or humanity, why has this nation resorted to violence to settle conflicts rather than diplomacy and loving one’s enemies? And how does unleashing biblical annihilation exemplify a nation’s Christian principles? How do the actions of this nation in WWII constitute a “just war”?
The rationalization for dropping the bombs is that Japan attacked the United States first and that Old Testament missives justify retaliation. Yet fighting back doesn’t square with “turn the other cheek” and “love thy neighbor.” But if we conclude that the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki was a matter of vengeance, doesn’t that act become ungodly, especially if one understands Christ in New Testament terms?
“War literally requires that people act irrationally, as it is built upon nothing but a mythology, which declares the ‘enemy’ as ‘not people,’ and therefore whose death is of no moral concern,” says my cousin. He also states that war victims ultimately behave like perpetrators. In war, soldiers of either side commit atrocities that leave them haunted and broken for the rest of their lives.
My uncle fought in WWII in the Philippines. He returned infected with malaria and nightmares. At times, he “sleep-walked” down neighborhood streets slicing the air with a Japanese (“souvenir”) sword, according to my father, who had to tackle him, risking being sliced up, and wake him and bring him home. Afterward, my uncle sat shivering on his bed, his eyes red and fixed on some bloody memory.
Tragically, it’s easy to objectify people (cognitive dissonance) to define them as targets that must be annihilated.
To add to all of this, all Asians, citizens and otherwise, have always faced pervasive racism and the effects of the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. Thus, Japanese-American citizens were interned and accused of aiding Japan. In turn, this racial animosity made it easier to bomb Japanese cities.
Clearly, cognitive dissonance also affected Japanese soldiers, who committed atrocities, much of which my uncle witnessed, and for which he hated the Japanese until he died.
If there’s ambivalence here, it’s because I’m conflicted. There are times when, as my cousin says, that killing can be a just act: self-defense or in saving another’s life. Even so, I feel that killing for any reason is a violation of Christian principles, especially when we’re supposed to love others as we do ourselves. But do we love ourselves? Do we use the intelligence we’re born with, the compassion we’re taught, so we can do as Christ wishes?
It seems to me people who engage in deadly conflict have lost their way, have forgotten that we’re supposed to enhance our being, our Christian existence of which the noblest ideal is the preservation of life.
My fear is that this noble ideal is unattainable, that we are unable to accept that we are all one people and that this loss of understanding of Christ’s lessons will always lead to war and tragedy.
Leonard Adame has retired from teaching college English. He now plays drums in various bands, takes photographs, reads mystery novels to a fault and has published poetry in college anthologies. He most enjoys re-learning about human beings from his grandkids. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Prisoners Are Human Beings
By Linda Whitlow
California incarcerates 11,250 women and spends more than $35,000 a year to hold each prisoner. California also has the largest women’s prison in the world.
I started writing to women and men in the prisons in the 1980s in order to give them a sense of hope. I felt a need to fill the void endured by women who have no one in their life to communicate with them. Some of them have lost their own families due to their incarceration. Just to see the joy it brings to them to receive a card during the holidays is uplifting. To receive a letter is like receiving gold, many have stated to me.
So I began my spiritual journey. This is the calling that God has given me.
Transferring inmates from California to prisons in other states is very costly. It also makes it harder for the families to stay in touch with their loved ones. They have no contacts with their children. It is not easy for a child to grow up and not be able to see his or her dad or mother. Are we to punish the children too? It has an effect on both parties, inside and outside the prisons.
Quality healthcare is not available in the prisons, due to extreme understaffing from state and federal budget cuts. Inadequate care is provided because qualified and caring doctors are not likely to work in prisons where the pay is less and work conditions are worse. The lack of treatment within prison walls makes women much more likely to become repeat offenders once they are released. They do not get rehabilitated and wind up going right back to the lifestyle that got them in trouble in the first place.
In a related health matter, at Pelican Bay a prisoner’s repeated cries for medical help went unheeded. As a consequence, his appendix ruptured.
Pelican Bay, also known as “Prison SHU,” is where the tightest maximum security facility in the nation exists. Caged in a windowless, 8-by-10 foot bare cell, the SHU prisoner is isolated in an empty, silent world, forbidden to decorate the cell walls and denied work opportunities, as well as educational classes, vocational training, counseling, religious services and communal activities of any kind.
The true purpose of Pelican Bay Prison SHU is to inflict physical and psychological torture to break the prisoners’ mind, body and spirit. Visits from family and friends are cut off and excessively restricted in part due to the remote, isolated and difficult-to-get-to location of the prison. There are no commercial airfields nearby. It is approximately a 20-hour drive from Los Angeles, and you must schedule visits well in advance. Visits are restricted to 1–2 hours at most.
My own personal experience was with my son who was incarcerated in California, where the judge tried to give him 113 years! I was so frightened and scared for his life. I knew deep in my heart and I kept saying: “This cannot be true, it cannot be happening.” Because of his prior criminal record, they wanted to give him 113 years for something he did not do. This was not justice! I never gave up on him. I knew there was a real God when the charges were dropped.
But then in another state, he was sent to prison for violating his parole. He was sent to a prison in New Jersey. I had no way to go see him because of the distance and expense involved. This is where correctional officers almost beat him to death. My son was trying to change his lifestyle.
God answered my prayers as He protected my son. My son, Donnie, completely turned his life around and is now married to his beautiful wife, Rita, and they have five children. They are both ministers, whereby they preach and evangelize. I encourage you if you have a loved one who is incarcerated to let your voices be heard and get involved with their situation. Continue to pray for them and remember that we are all human beings and we have rights.
Linda Whitlow is the vice president for the California Central Valley Journey for Justice and can be reached at email@example.com. She has been involved with prison ministering for 30 years.
This testimony by Linda becomes all the more relevant given the recent prison hunger strikes throughout the state of California in protest of deteriorating living conditions, aggravated by the recent budget cuts. The hunger strikes originated at Pelican Bay SHU, from which they spread in solidarity among the prisoners at the various prisons.
The replacement of previous well-paid union jobs in Wisconsin by unpaid prison labor in exchange for reduced prison sentences shows why the issue of prisons and human rights in prisons is of relevance to all of us.