A local girl in the IDF

Darrow Pierce (left) with Bedouins

Darrow Pierce (left) with Bedouins on her first trip to Israel

I can’t overemphasize how honored I feel to have received permission to publish the following letter. It is from a young woman from Fresno, Darrow Pierce, who recently moved to Israel and began her army service.

So what’s so special about this? Darrow is. She’s very, very smart, but there are lots of smart people. What distinguishes Darrow is the degree to which she is able to perceive the world clearly, think for herself and act on her beliefs.

I’ve known Darrow and her parents for some years — her parents are well-educated professionals who would describe their politics as ‘progressive’. Darrow even participated in an interfaith summer program led by a Palestinian, one who is anything but a friend of Israel.

It would be an understatement to say that her parents were not enthusiastic when Darrow informed them of her plans. But you don’t raise someone like Darrow by accident, and they understood that an adult gets to make her own decisions — and also that the Israeli-Arab conflict is more complicated than it may have seemed before.

I have reproduced Darrow’s letter exactly as received, including some things that sound like she was thinking in Hebrew.

By Darrow Pierce

In December of 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 lives 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 Qassam 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 [Fresno’s ‘bohemian’ neighborhood]. 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.’ While 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 home-made 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 eleven 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 a seriousness and 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 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 world 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, and 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.

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One Response to “A local girl in the IDF”

  1. Robman says:

    What an incredible young person.

    When I visited Israel for my one and only (and hopefully, not my last) time in 2007, I was particularly impressed by the young people. So positive, mature, yet respectful of their elders, and full of life!

    As uncertain as things may seem right now, I’m confident that Israel has a bright future, first and foremost because of the way their young people are raised.

    One of the images in my mind from my very first day in Israel, was looking down from the window of my tourist bus into the car of a young family. The mother was driving, and the father was in the back with a baby, perhaps no more than six months old. The father was reading to the infant, very happily doing so, and even as he knew the infant didn’t “understand” what was being read to him, he (she?) was happy, attentive, and both father and child were not only clearly having a good time, but the father also knew that this early reading would be very helpful for his child.

    This vignette of attentive parenting – not a “chore”, but a joy – seemed to me to sum up the very best of what Israel and Jewish culture are really about…and the true secret of the success and dynamism of our people. Sounds corny, I know, but I really believe that.