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Israel's Toy Soldiers

by Chris Hedges

If you are a young Muslim American and head off to the Middle East for a spell in a fundamentalist "madrassa," or religious school, Homeland Security will probably greet you at the airport when you return. But if you are an American Jew and you join hundreds of teenagers from Europe and Mexico for an eight-week training course run by the Israel Defense Forces, you can post your picture wearing an Israeli army uniform and holding an automatic weapon on MySpace.

The Marva program, part summer camp part indoctrination, was launched in Israel in 1981. It allows participants, who must be Jewish and between the ages of 18 and 28, to fire weapons, live in military barracks in the Negev desert and saunter around in an Israeli military uniform saluting and taking long hikes with military packs. The Youth and Education Corps of the Israel Defense Forces run four 120-strong training sessions a year.

"Upon arrival, the participants experience an abrupt change into army life: wearing uniforms, accepting army discipline, and learning the programs and lessons integral to the program," the Let Israelis Show You Israel Web site reads. "The program includes military content such as: navigation, field training, weapons training, shooting ranges, marches and more, as well as educational content such as: Zionism, Jewish Identity, history and knowledge of the land of Israel. All of this is taught in Hebrew in an intensive eight weeks."

"The participants finish the program after completing a short, intensive, exhilarating military experience that allows them to taste Israel in a way that they never could before-as part of the Israel Defense Forces," the site reads. "They leave the program with a feeling of belonging and a strong connection to Israel, and many return to Israel to continue the connection that was created in the framework of the Marva course."

There are, of course, gushing testimonials about the program.

"I spent the first few days of Marva doubting my decision, wondering why I had come, wondering if there was any way out. With all of the running, yelling orders, discipline and Hebrew, I felt horribly out of place," writes Canadian David Roth of his summer. "It was a completely different world from the one I was used to. All that changed, though, by the end of the first week. We had our first 'Masa' (Hike). It was very hard, but at the end, we all knew, our M16s were waiting for us at the 'tekes' (Ceremony). We got through the 8 kilometers and had our 'tekes' and got our guns. It felt amazing, and from that point on Marva was incredible."

How have we reacted when we discovered that American Muslims were being taught in a foreign country to fire machine guns at paper figures and simulate military maneuvers? And what about the summer schools in Gaza organized by Islamic Jihad designed to train young Palestinians in the basics of military life? These Gaza camps, uncovered in 2001, were widely denounced by Israel as proof that the Palestinians were teaching their children to hate and kill.

The argument in favor of camps in Israel, as opposed to camps in Pakistan, is that these young men and women are not going to come back and use what they have learned to harm Americans. They are not terrorists. Muslims, however, have not cornered the market on terrorism and violence. Radical Jews have also been involved in terrorist attacks in Israel and the United States.

I discovered an American in Israel in 1989 named Robert Manning. A huge, burly man, Manning was living in the West Bank Jewish settlement of Kiyrat Arba. When I found him he was carrying a pistol, a large knife strapped to his leg and an M-16 assault rifle. He was part of a Jewish terrorist group called Committee for Protection and Safety of the Highways that set up ad hoc roadblocks and pulled Palestinians from cars to beat and often shoot them. He was a follower of Meir Kahane, the leader of the Jewish Defense League, who was implicated in terrorist attacks in the United States and Israel. Manning served as a reservist in the Israel Defense Forces in the West Bank.

Manning was wanted in California for murder. He had been charged in a 1980 mail-bomb killing as part of his involvement in the Jewish Defense League. The bomb was intended for the owner of a local computer firm, but the package holding the device was opened by the firm's secretary, Patricia Wilkerson, who was killed instantly by the blast.

Manning, full of bluster and a bitter racism toward Arabs, used as his pseudonym the name of the FBI agent in charge of his case, a bit of humor that backfired on him by confirming my suspicion of his identify. I obtained the picture from his California driver's license and showed it to his neighbors at Kiyrat Arba. They identified him from the photo. I wrote an article affirming that Manning, heavily armed and an active member of the Israeli army, was living in a Jewish settlement. The Israeli government, until that moment, said it had no information about his location. He was extradited in 1993 and sentenced the next year to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole for 30 years. He is in a maximum-security prison in Florence, Colo.

Those who go through the Marva summer program are indoctrinated as thoroughly as Muslims who go overseas and are told they are part of a greater jihad for Islam. The results, given Israel's close alliance with the United States, may not be negative for those in power in the United States, but it may be very negative for those Americans defined as the enemy, especially Muslims, should we suffer another 9/11. The program inculcates hatred and a belief in the efficacy of violence to solve the problems in the Middle East. It identifies Israel with militarism. It feeds the idea that a Jew born in Brooklyn has a birthright to settle in Israel that is denied to an American of Palestinian descent.

Jerusalem, aside from being one of the most beautiful cities in the world, is one of the most literate, creative and intellectual. Do these young men and women really know the best of Israel by spending eight weeks playing soldier and glorifying the military? Is the cause of Israel advanced by mirroring the twisted militarism of Islamic fundamentalists?

Terrorists arise in all cultures, all nations and all religions. We have produced more than our share. Ask the people of Vietnam or Iraq. The danger of a military program such as these is that it solidifies a mind-set of us and them. It romanticizes violence. It widens the divide that leads to conflict. It makes dialogue impossible. There are great Israeli institutions, from the newspaper Haaretz to the courageous Israeli human rights organization B'Tselem to Peace Now. A summer working for them, rather than wearing an army uniform, unleashing bursts of automatic fire in the desert and singing Israeli patriotic songs, might actually help.

Chris Hedges, who graduated from Harvard Divinity School and was for nearly two decades a foreign correspondent for The New York Times, is the author of "American Fascists: The Christian Right and the War on America."

© 2007 Truthdig, L.L.C.

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