He met me there at the airport holding his yellow CBS bag. His English was faltering, and my modern Israeli Hebrew even less good, yet we immediately we made human contact. There was something poignant about him. He was young, almost a baby face, and yet there was a hardness to him despite his sweet smile. Though he enjoyed flirting with the CBS correspondent who was doing our interviews for the Christmas show, this seemed like bravado covering what was brooding beneath the surface. But what could it be? For a week Etan drove us around Israel, and we had fun together--- ate together, laughed together, worked hard together. And we enjoyed watching his vociferous arguments with his fellow Israeli Zohar, which were often much ado about nothing-- just for the heck of it.
But as the week wore on and we got to know Etan a bit a little bit of what was beneath the surface bubbled to the top. I should have recognized the signs before. Etan had pointed out where the tank museum was on the way into Jerusalem from Tel Aviv, but only later I figured out after getting beyond the jet lag that Etan had already served considerable time in the Israeli army--- and it had left a big mark, indeed I would say a scar on this young man. He was not bitter, but there was a sadness about him, and he had had to grow up much too fast.
You see Etan had seen the worst of the worst at Jenin. If you do not know your modern history of Israel you should look up the story of what happened there. Etan had fought at Jenin. Quietly, and with no vainglory at all, he told of the day that he was attacking a particular Palestinian house thought to harbor Hamas radicals. He had pulled out a grenade, and had pulled the pin almost entirely out when he remembered he had a duty to yell that there was an incoming explosive, in case there were innocents within who deserved a chance to get out of the way. He told me "but we had been fighting hard, and yet something made me put that pin back in the grenade and look inside the house first." Inside the house he found nothing but women and children who had been locked into the house by their own people so that they could claim the Israeli's had commited a horrible atrocity at Jenin. It made him physically sick, and yet he was so thankful that something had stopped him from throwing that grenade. I had no doubt that "something" was God. Then he asked--- what kind of people would do this to their own families in order to shame us before the world? It was a very good question and shows that the whole Israeli-Palestinian conflict has always been complex with evil and good on both sides.
Later when Etan had gathered himself, he said to me-- "I love my country and this is why I fight, but honestly, if someone would tell me there was a place for us Jews in the middle of a desert where everyone would leave us alone and no one else would claim the territory and we wouldn't have to hurt anyone by mistake, I would move there today. It is not about living on this piece of dirt for me. It is about shalom."
I was deeply moved by his testimony. He had grown up fast and hard as a teen in the Israeli army, and he had seen the worst that humanity can do, and yet there was still a little hopefulness left in him. The human spirit, created in God's image is resilient, and I am thankful that Etan listened to that still small voice on that crucial day in Jenin. He said "If I had not stopped and looked on that day, I would never have slept again." It's a hard thing to be a soldier with an actual conscience because all war is hell, and yet this story shows what a difference it can make in a case by case basis.
Pray for the peace of Jerusalem, and pray for my new friend Etan.