An officer in the IDF reserves has a novel solution to Israel’s hasbara, or public relations, problem: Enlist Israel’s “lone soldiers” as public relations ambassadors.
Lone soldiers are individuals serving in the Israel Defense Forces with no family in the country. They have no place to go for Shabbat, for holidays, or when they are on leave.
The close to 3,000 lone soldiers now in Israel come from all over the world: 685 from the United States, 472 from Russia, 218 from France, 270 from Ukraine; the rest are from, among other countries, Holland, Hungary, Moldova, Mexico, South Africa, and Sweden. While some have made aliya and plan to stay in Israel, others come just to serve in the IDF and then return to their home countries.
Major General (Res.) Yitzhak “Jerry” Gershon, national director of Friends of the IDF, spearheaded the Lone Soldier program. It provides financial aid, emotional support, quarterly care packages, and adoptive parents and offers guidance to parents of lone soldiers and assistance after discharge from the army.
On Nov. 3, the NJ resident will participate in “Generations of Service, Generations of Giving, Generations of Lone Soldiers,” NJ FIDF’s eighth annual tribute dinner at the Sheraton Meadowland Hotel in East Rutherford. Former IDF Chief of General Staff Lt. Gen. (Res.) Gabi Ashkenazi will be keynote speaker.
The NJ FIDF chapter, also known as the “Lone Soldier” chapter, started in 2005 when three former lone soldiers from the state — Sammy Bar-Or, Mike Gross, and Avi Oren — reunited after their service to provide aid to soldiers serving in Israel without any immediate family in the country. The current acting director of NJ FIDF, Seth Rosenberger, was a lone soldier himself, enlisting in the IDF at the age of 24.
In a recent phone interview, Gershon shared his thoughts on a wide range of subjects, from the Arab Spring to the upcoming American election, to the increasing support he sees for FIDF.
Fund-raising for FIDF has increased dramatically since he came into the position three years ago, rising from a total of $55 million that year to an expected $70 million this year. “People — Jewish and non-Jewish — realize that we are protecting not just Israel’s front line but the last line between us and the most radical fundamentalist Islamic terrorists.” He offered the image of Israel as a “gate between this most radical movement and the rest of the free world.”
His feelings about the Arab Spring are mixed, as he regards it “with hope on the one hand and apprehension on the other hand. We see radicals are winning the conflict. This is why Israel is more important to the free world today than ever before.”
Gershon said he is watching the American presidential election carefully. “It’s not really just an internal election. This election will impact the security and stability of the world and this is why it is so important,” he said.
Asked if he has seen a shift in attitudes toward Israel over the last few years, matching the rising anti-Semitic and anti-Zionist sentiment that has been documented, particularly in Europe, he said, “Israel is not perfect. It’s an asset to the world, no doubt. But sometimes Jews get angry with the policies, with external politics, with internal politics.
“What I have learned in the last four years since I came to this position,” Gershon said, “is that the FIDF and the IDF soldier are above any conflict, because it is not a religious or a political organization. We are dealing with kids as a result of mandatory service who put their lives at risk on the front lines.”
Gershon served as the head of the Israeli Home Front Command during the Second Lebanon War and has fought in several of Israel’s wars, including in Lebanon and Syria.
He thinks that there’s no one better to convey this perspective than those individuals who have served in the Israeli forces and are in a position to challenge those who undermine the status of the IDF.
His approach comes in part from his own experience while studying at the Royal College of Defense in London.
“I had a lecture by a well-known professor who came from the United States. He described the IDF and its soldiers as war criminals. I was shocked. I stood up…and said to the professor, ‘You know, my name is General Yitzchak Gershon. I have commanded Judea and Samaria during the Second Intifada. Where do your facts come from? How do you know what we were doing? When did you last visit the State of Israel?’”
The professor “was in shock,” said Gershon. “People were then understanding it is brainwashing. He put his political agenda on the table and people there cannot check his facts.”
The lone soldiers can help fight such bias. “Here, lone soldiers come to universities — Harvard, Boston, Pennsylvania. Those lone soldiers who do not stay in Israel but come back after their service can raise their voice.”