Diary of an Israeli Soldier – How it All Began (Part 7)

As we rummaged through old Maoz Israel Reports and documents for the “How it All Began” series about the early days of Maoz and Israel as a whole, we came across some journal entries Ari kept when he was fighting in the first Lebanon war in the early 1980’s.  This account covers his call-up in March-April, 1983. His entries are a rare inside view of a unique time in Israel.  If you read last month’s article in the Maoz Israel Report, “The Major and the Millionaire” these journal entries will give you a more intimate look at what was happening during this exact time in the life of Ari as an IDF soldier. – Shani Sorko-Ram Ferguson

Monday – 1st Day

I’ve been called up for reserve duty in the army. Every year they call us up for a month or so of shoring up our skills in the reserves. But when there’s war, our service time is uncertain. When I arrive, I see hundreds of soldiers milling about waiting for buses. I am told my destination is Lebanon. We are transferred to an army base to receive weapons and uniforms and a bed for the night.

Tuesday – 2nd Day

Our bus heads north and crosses into Lebanon through the famous “Good Fence.” Though it is chilly, we ride with our windows down and weapons pointing out the window. Yesterday, there was an ambush by the PLO (Yasser Arafat’s Palestinian Liberation Organization) and nine Israeli soldiers were seriously wounded.

We arrive safely at our base which is in a Lebanese town. There we receive our local assignments. I go on water patrol, which means our armed vehicle escorts the truck which brings water to our bases. We mainly watch for ambushes or mines laid in the potholes of the Lebanese roads.

Friday – 5th Day

Unlike the American army in which I also served, Israel tries to send home as many soldiers as possible for the Sabbath. But I have weekend duty, so I do not go home. The army strictly observes the holidays and the Sabbath. When it comes time for the Sabbath meal on the base, everyone sits down at the table and the doors are locked. No one comes or goes and no one eats until the prayers and the blessings are finished.

I sense that though most of the soldiers are not religious, they still have a reverence towards God and honor the Sabbath. Everyone participated in the Sabbath blessings before the meal, and afterwards the dining hall was filled with songs from the Psalms and the Bible.

Saturday – 6th Day

I go on guard duty at 6 a.m. Suddenly an Arab begins to walk towards me, intoxicated. I ask him what he wants. He yells something in Arabic. I speak to him in Hebrew, English and French (many Lebanese speak French). He continues towards me, yelling all the time in Arabic. He could easily be armed or possess a grenade.

I shout more aggressively for him to stop. He continues towards me. I release the safety latch from my weapon which makes a loud click. He continues his approach, jabbering all the way. I motion more, speaking in three languages. Arabs around us begin to look on as he walks towards me. I load a round into the chamber—which gets everyone’s attention. A local citizen jumps out of a car, grabs him and takes him away. I inhale deeply and silently thank God He saved me from having to hurt anyone.

Wednesday – 10th Day

I am allowed to go home for a few days. On the way out of Lebanon, I have a chance to get a good look at the countryside. I compare it to news footage I had seen from the summer before when Yasser Arafat conquered and then controlled the area. It has been less than a year since the IDF, together with its ally, the South Lebanon Army,  liberated the area. Where, under Arafat the fields had been run down, abandoned, and unkempt, the farmers are now back farming. Orchards in all the valleys are being tended. Children are playing everywhere. Soccer fields are full of young people. Stores are full of merchandise and produce. The busy sounds of buying and selling which had waned under the rule of the PLO are now back with a vengeance.

I am very glad to get home to Shira and the children. I appreciate a bed where my feet do not hang over and the blankets cover me.

Ari, Shira, Ayal and Shani photographed outside their home when Ari returned from Lebanon for a weekend of rest.

Sunday – 14th Day

It takes most of the day to get back to the base in Lebanon from Tel Aviv. When I arrive, I receive news that two of our officers were killed when their vehicle ran over a land mine that had been planted the night before. I quickly snap back to reality that though a cease-fire has been signed, there is still a war going on and people are still losing their lives. We run our routine patrol with the water truck.

Monday – 15th Day

I have guard duty. Major Haddad (leader of the South Lebanon Army) arrives at the base with several of his military aids and a PLO infiltrator who had been captured. Since I had interviewed Major Haddad on several occasions, including the film we did for George Otis’s radio and TV stations, we exchange a friendly nod.

I wonder if he is as comforted as I am—both of us knowing that he, a Lebanese army leader, and I, an Israeli soldier, are born-again believers.

Tuesday – 16th Day

I’m up at 4:45 a.m. for devotions, thinking about the officers who were killed. Still, I sense God near me.

It’s time for my guard duty. Today a command comes down for us not to let anyone leave the base without at least one escort vehicle with a minimum of three people in each vehicle, and all must wear bullet-proof vests at all times off the base. And I am the one who must deliver the news.

Pandemonium breaks out. A line of vehicles with everyone from generals to privates is backed up as far as the eye can see. Each has his own story as to why he doesn’t have to conform to the rules. For one and a half hours people yell at me for not letting them out of the base. With God’s help, I keep my cool. After it is all over, I learn that a high officer in military education was watching the whole affair and wants to transfer me to his division.

The Day before Passover

Tonight is Passover. Most of the soldiers will be home for the traditional Seder. Even though our family is disappointed I won’t be home for Passover, I realize God may have a reason for me to stay at the base. Shira also felt that the Lord has some special reason for my staying on the base during this time. It was not long after I had finished morning duty that I began to see God’s hand working.

I had gone back to my room and was sitting on my bed practicing chords on my guitar while people were rushing around, preparing for the Seder. Since there is not much entertainment for the soldiers, it was not long before a dozen or more soldiers gathered in my room and asked me to sing for them. I sang several songs including some praise songs like “Ronu Shamayim,” from the Psalms, which translated means, “May the Heavens Rejoice.” Naturally the question was asked, “Are you dahti (religious)?” I answered, “Well, in a way, according to the Scriptures.”

When asked to clarify whether that meant I was Orthodox, Conservative or Reformed, I said it meant I am a Messianic Jew. For several hours we discussed everything from God’s plan for restoration and salvation of the Jewish people to a deep conversation about the “prophet” whom Moses had said would rise up after him.

Afterwards, one man with an Orthodox background told me he wanted to read the Scriptures to confirm what I was saying. I assured him that God would honor his searching and that I would help him find the verses.

Evening of Passover

The Seder was well planned even though the Rabbi who led it lacked charisma. Most soldiers knew all the traditional songs and I could tell they had a strong desire to celebrate something. So the Haggadah was read quickly as a matter of form, and the meal was eaten. After the meal, the soldiers just took over and began to sing their own songs. It was a cultural feast to hear Jews from all over the world each bringing their Biblical songs from Yemen, South America, North America, Europe and Africa.

Passover Day

Guard duty at 6 a.m. First hour and a half very quiet since it is a holiday. Had great prayer time. About 7:30 a.m. one of the soldiers came to the gate to talk to me about my conversation the day before.

That evening I was praying in my room when a fellow I’ll call Shaul who was sharing the room with me spoke up. He was a Sephardic Jew, about 6 ft. tall, with strong features, perhaps 35 years old and had been raised in an Orthodox home. He asked me why I was not praying in the synagogue with a Siddur (prayer book). I told him that these were personal prayers to God and that sometimes I did pray from the Siddur, but most of the time I pray straight from my heart. When he asked me what I prayed about, I told him that at that moment I was praying for him and several other soldiers.

Taken back, he said I couldn’t do that. His religious orientation had taught him to accept traditional oral law which says you must pray prayers from the Prayer Book, and many of them must be prayed in the synagogue. A brusque and outspoken Sabra (native-born Israeli), he was insistent that I could not pray for him and that I had no right to do so.

I told him that not only did I have a right to, but that I must, and that God would answer my prayers. By this time several men had gathered again, and I began to explain to them that God has a covenant relationship with the Jewish people, and we must do things according to His Covenants, of which talking to God is an essential part.

I felt the Lord prompting me to tell Shaul that I would pray for him and that God would change his attitude about the New Covenant, about who the Messiah is and when He will come. I would pray that God would put a desire in his heart to find the truth so that he, too, might fellowship with the God of Israel through the Messiah. I told him he could accept it or reject it, but he would not be able to deny that God was revealing Himself. I said God would answer my prayer before my reserve duty was ended—and by this he would know that God answers prayer according to His Word.

Over the next couple of days, I had several discussions with various groups of soldiers who were continually asking questions until it was time to go home on leave.

Friday – 26th Day

Shira and the children were in Jerusalem for the Passover week, so I joined them and we fellowshipped with believers. A preacher from the East Coast began to prophesy to me, stating among other things that God would give me more boldness and authority when I spoke the Word. As I was going back to the base, I was eager to see what would unfold.

Sunday – 28th Day

Arrived back. Several soldiers came to my room immediately when I got off duty. Again, they asked many questions. So, I began discussing the Bible with half a dozen of them.

Then something interesting happened. When a new person would come in and offer a different opinion, those who had been there in past days would argue against him, using the Scriptures I had given them in discussions. I saw a genuine change in their hearts, and I could see they were all very hungry for God and His Word.

Knowing I’d be asked for some, I had brought several of our new books which we had translated into Hebrew and passed them out. They were gone in about three minutes. (Oh, why didn’t I bring 50 with me?)

When we ended this evening, they asked if I would sing one of the praise songs they had previously heard me sing.

I thanked the Lord that He has answered my prayer of last week and is changing the hearts of the soldiers.

Last Day of Passover

Holiday guard duty, so not much base activity. By this time the news was pretty much out concerning my faith in the Messiah. Many soldiers came and visited me while I was on duty. Some would awkwardly strike up a conversation, not knowing exactly how to lead into the subject.

One young fellow, a regular soldier with a timid face, walked up to me and blurted out, “I don’t believe in God, do you?”

Another fellow—more mature, over 40, from South America, according to his accent—looked me straight in the eye and in excellent Hebrew said, “Do you think Yeshua is the Messiah?” I said, “Not only do I believe it, but this is why.” And for the next hour the Lord opened his understanding. When we finished he said for the first time he saw how he could possibly have a relationship with God and how it made sense to him. This was not just religion, it was real. I continued my guard duty, but I was rejoicing inside.

Tuesday – 30th Day

Water patrol and guard.

That evening as I returned to my room, there were several guys already there. As soon as I sat down, the conversation shifted to the Bible. A new fellow came in. He said it wasn’t worth believing in anything these days because the religious people were all hypocrites. I told him how when God was really involved with people, He could change people’s hearts. As I related these things to him, God quickened to me that He had already changed the attitude of this other fellow I had been praying for.

I turned around and said, “I’m not a famous rabbi or teacher. I don’t have all the great words of wisdom. But God’s Word is powerful. It affects the lives of those who hear. For example, when we began to speak here together about God and His Messiah some days ago, I said I would pray that God would change the hearts of those I was speaking to. I’ll ask everybody here—isn’t your attitude different from a week ago?” And everyone responded, “Yes!”

Then I looked straight at Shaul whom I had told I would pray for and I said, “Hasn’t your heart changed, and don’t you have a new desire to search the Word of God, to find out who is Messiah and what is His New Covenant and how it affects you?” And he said, “Yes.” I continued, “Hasn’t God shown you that you need to look to His Word first before you listen to men or rabbis, no matter how smart they are?” He said, “Yes, I’ve changed.”

Thursday – 32nd Day

Packing—going home. Soldiers coming from everywhere—asking for my address and asking for books.

One soldier named Abraham, a family man, came and said, “I believe what you are saying is true, but what can I do, one man against many? I’m not learned and don’t have a lot of authority.” I told him to pray to God with all his heart that God would give him the strength and courage and the learning he needed.

When we were discharged from the Israeli base, I felt the warmth of all the handshakes and goodbyes. I reflected that in these 32 days, I had absolutely no conflict with anyone over my faith. Only an open door to give witness of the King of Israel!

I am left with many phone numbers and addresses and invitations for visits all over the country. Seeds were planted, but there is much follow-up work.

Surely books which clearly explain God’s truths will play a great part in the solution for Israel’s lost. They need Bibles and books that will help them understand the scriptures. We will print books as fast as we are able.

After Word

Ari never experienced any opposition to sharing his faith, and he only discussed it when someone initiated the conversation, as that was military policy.  However, a year or so later, Yad L’Achim, the anti-freedom of religion organization, read the above article we published in the Maoz Israel Report and complained to Yitzhak Rabin who was Minister of Defense at the time, that Ari was proselytizing.  Rabin signed an order for Ari to be removed from his position in his unit.

Ari only heard about the accusation when a friend called and said he had watched the Knesset debating his case on TV.  Meretz (a far-left political party) had objected to the order after finding that neither Rabin nor his staff had inquired of Ari before signing the papers.  A member of Meretz called Ari and asked if he would like them to represent him in court. But Ari felt he shouldn’t have a political party represent him at that time.

The case did go to court, but Yad L’Achim could not produce any witnesses, so the court dismissed the case.  Ari heard nothing else, but was never again called up for reserve duty. Upon reaching the age of retirement from the army, he received the standard honorable discharge.

Israel’s culture has come a long way in the last 40 years. Today the military and other government offices recognize the loyal, high-integrity and hard-working nature of Israeli Messianic Jews. Many are now commanders and officers, holding important positions.

Interestingly enough, as we were preparing this article about Ari’s time in Lebanon, Israel announced a renewed interest in that war (which until today does not have an official name) and made two fascinating decisions. First, it was decided that IDF soldiers (including Ari) who fought in the Lebanon War (1982-2000) would receive a special medal honoring their service. Second, just a few weeks ago, Israel dedicated a monument in honor of the fallen soldiers of the South Lebanon Army, Israel’s allies, and committed to investing in the Lebanese soldiers and their families who fled Lebanon decades ago and settled in northern Israel.

This article originally appeared in Maoz Israel Report, August 2021, and reposted with permission.