Haitham, a Bedouin, joined the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) out of a sense of obligation to the country he grew up in and to which he feels a strong connection.
Karen was born in Israel, spent most of her childhood in East Brunswick, but returned to the country of her birth at age 16 and served in the IDF like generations of her family had done before her.
On Oct. 29, the two spoke to volunteers at Jewish Federation in the Heart of NJ’s Super Sunday fund-raising event. As part of their tour of the Northeast on behalf of the pro-Israel organization StandWithUs, the speakers made a presentation at West Point; locally they also spoke at East Brunswick Jewish Center, where Karen’s family once belonged, and at Temple B’nai Shalom in East Brunswick, during the Shabbat kiddush.
In remarks sent to NJJN by StandWithUs, and in an in-person interview before their Super Sunday appearance at federation’s South River offices, Haitham and Karen spoke of the pride they felt in defending their homeland. (For security reasons, last names of the former soldiers are not used).
“While most Israelis are obligated to do military service, Bedouins are not required to serve, but many of us do anyway because we feel a sense of duty toward our country,” said Haitham, who is also known as Tom. “This is not new. Bedouins have been fighting along with Jews even before the establishment of Israel.”
He said his anglicized nickname was given to him by his uncle when he was born with blond hair and blue eyes; both have darkened in the years since, but the nickname stuck.
Karen was born in the town of Barkan in Israel, but moved to East Brunswick at age 2 when her parents came for a job opportunity. She moved back to Israel on her own at age 16 to live with her grandmother. Her parents followed six months later.
“Although I liked America, I still considered Israel very much my home,” she said. “A huge part of my decision to return to Israel was wanting to be a soldier in the Israel Defense Forces to defend my country.”
The 24-year-old resident of Herzliya, currently majoring in political science and Middle Eastern studies at Ben-Gurion University, noted that all four of her grandparents are Holocaust survivors and that her uncle died fighting in the Yom Kippur War.
That family background has made Karen want to ensure that “Israel is a haven for Jews from all over the world and is something our community is determined to defend, especially when so many people don’t want it to exist or, just as bad, prefer that we remain powerless.”
She said that in eighth grade in East Brunswick, two of her friends pulled her out of class to show her a swastika that had been drawn on a locker, just one of what she said were many acts of anti-Semitism she encountered in her American public-school days.
Tom, 30, who is studying law and government at Sha’arei Mishpat College in Hod HaSharon, is from Bir al-Maksour, the largest Bedouin village in northern Israel. He also works training youth for military service in a program called Acharai.
“In my village most people feel connected to Israeli society,” he said. His father was a police officer for 30 years, a brother was a combat engineering officer, and his mother was a nurse in his village’s clinic. He himself served in an Israeli Air Force unit operating an installation of the Iron Dome, a defense system protecting Israel from missile attacks.
Stationed in the West Bank, Tom said, he and his fellow soldiers often encountered people throwing stones and Molotov cocktails at the Israelis.
He told of an incident when he was sent to arrest a Palestinian man who was threatening to kill Jews. Tom found him sitting in a basement, swords and knives arrayed on a table in front of him.
As they left, the Palestinian’s tearful mother called out after him to be safe. When Tom questioned him in Arabic about why he would take actions that so obviously brought pain to his mother, the reply astonished him. The prisoner told him that as an Israeli, Tom was free and had a decent life, but that the Palestinian Authority (PA) had little concern for its people. By going to jail, the man said, he would be a hero and his family would get a larger stipend from the PA than he could make working.
Tom quashed any notion that Israeli soldiers mistreat Palestinians.
“There were times we faced danger because they were throwing stones and we were ordered to stand still because there were small children around,” he said. “We were told not to act and to stand down.”
Karen was originally slated to be a drill sergeant, but was injured in basic training and instead was placed in an elite paratrooper unit as a commander’s assistant. She served at the Israel-Gaza border for six months, often coming under rocket fire from Hamas.
Today, she works with Jewish and Arab youngsters, teaching them to play soccer through a program at the Peres Center for Peace. And, she said, she’s become “the coolest cat lady in Israel” by fostering animals and volunteering at a shelter.
Karen said she would someday like to be an emissary for Israel, fulfilling the goal of promoting Israel, much like the work she was doing on her StandWithUs trip.