By: Lieba Nesis
A Christian girl who made Aliyah to Israel, a Palestinian who decided he was more Israeli than Muslim, a high schooler from Passaic New Jersey whose Rabbi’s house was firebombed, a blind Ethiopian teenager with scant family-these are the faces of the soldiers of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) who joined 1,200 others at the Hilton Hotel on Wednesday September 25th for “A Night of Heroes” celebrating diversity and multiculturalism in the only democracy in the Middle East. I was sitting next to one of those brave individuals whose Muslim family disowned him after disclosing his desire to fight for Israel; forcing him to live on the streets until he was accepted into the IDF family. He couldn’t state his name for fear of retribution nor could he appear in photos. I assumed he was Jewish until he stood on stage declaring to rapturous applause that he was proud and humbled to serve as a commanding officer in the Army despite his Muslim background. A Muslim Zionist is typically an oxymoron and yet there he was sitting beside me boldly declaring his love for the Jewish people. This evening, the Friends of the Israel Defense Forces (FIDF) gathered an amalgam of Christians, African Americans and Jews to salute these heroic iconoclasts who provided a transformative evening that won’t soon be forgotten.
Political honchos Ray Kelly, Danny Danon, and Dani Dayan were a few of the dignitaries who took time out from their busy UN schedules to salute our soldiers. In fact, due to the heavy UN traffic the dinner began 40 minutes late, allowing me more time to indulge in the delicious smorgasbord featuring heaps of carved meat and duck bathed in sauce. Michelle Makori, the emcee and lead anchor at i24 News, began the dinner by praising the IDF’s restraint and recounting her long family history of serving in the IDF. FIDF was established in 1981 to help soldiers in the IDF, wounded veterans and the families of fallen soldiers. The array of programs it offers to improve the well being of those who complete military service include an Impact Scholarship Program which grants full academic scholarships to those from disadvantaged homes; Educational Programs to broaden soldiers horizons; a Lone Soldiers Program to support those who leave their places of origin to serve the state of Israel; and a Wounded Veterans Program to provide recreational activities for those injured. In 2018 more than 105,000 soldiers lives were touched by this pivotal organization and under the leadership of Peter Weintraub, this success is sure to explode. Weintraub, who became National Chairman last year and is a former Rabbi who is now in private equity, has the looks of a movie star with the affect of a television host. He is there for one purpose and one purpose only: to ensure money is raised to better the lives of those who serve in the Army so that we in the United States can feel protected by our battalion in Israel.
Providing an insider’s view into the workings of the Army is one of the signatures of this dinner and tonight we were given a glimpse into Operation Northern Shield which lasted from December 4, 2018 until January 13, 2019 culminating in the destruction of six Hezbollah tunnels that crossed the Blue Line from Lebanon into northern Israel. A video was shown depicting the complex infrastructure located throughout the tunnels created for the sole purpose of kidnapping and killing Israeli civilians. We were fortunate to hear from those who led the mission including General Yoel Strick who commands the ground forces in the IDF and helped identify the location of the tunnels as well as dozens of tunnels constructed by Hamas leading from Gaza into Israel. Others leading the fight against our enemies, included a family of two boys and a girl, Daniel, Major J, and Gili, who all serve in the Air Force and whose father lost his arm in the Yom Kippur War and ultimately died from his injuries while participating in a triathlon. Joined by their proud mother on stage who called her children heroes, Weintraub wiped tears from his eyes as he described himself “speechless” at the courageousness of this family. Another intrepid Jew, Aaron Eckstein, grew up in New Jersey and after being called dirty Jew one too many times and watching his neighbor’s house being firebombed, he decided to make aliyah at 17 and is now a sniper in the paratroopers.
Anti-Semitism continues its rise with many noting the inextricable link between the Holocaust and the Israeli Army as General Yoel Strick declared he lives without fear after recounting his grandfather being murdered in the Holocaust. During the money raising portion of the evening, which lasted 40 minutes, we heard from survivor Sam Klein who recalled a Christian priest telling his father during the Second World War that the Jews were akin to cockroaches that needed to be exterminated. The only assurance we have that our fate will not be the same of those in the 1940’s is the existence of the IDF, declared the 97-year-old Klein, who pledged his entire fortune to the FIDF.
This organization continues to garner massive amounts of money as the California division’s 2018 annual dinner raised $60 million. The only charitable organization to rival FIDF is Robin Hood which has backing from nearly every major Wall Street hedge funder. As the contributions poured in, most in increments of $100,000, an anonymous donor announced $16 million from the estate of a couple who bequeathed their entire fortune to the soldiers. And the numbers kept rising: $1.15 million from the Platts: $500,000 from the Falics; $2.5 million from “Brothers for Life” -until it was announced that a record-breaking $37 million had been reached. The evening concluded at 10:30 PM at which point I spotted CEO of FIDF General Meir Klifi-Amir huddled amidst 30 soldiers; he stood clutching the Palestinian officer’s arm declaring him a great hero of the Jewish people as the ebullient group burst into applause. That kind of unity is the paradigm the IDF continually strives for.
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