When Americans Nissim Sean Carmeli and Max Steinberg were killed in the latest Israel-Palestine conflict last Sunday, media reports identified them as “lone soldiers.” The term is common in Israel, identifying men and women in the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) who have left often comfortable lives in places like Fort Lauderdale, London, or Buenos Aires to take up arms in the desert and fight for the State of Israel.
Israeli citizens seem to appreciate this sacrifice. When lone soldier and sharpshooter Max Steinberg was put to rest on Wednesday in Jerusalem, almost 30,000 Israeli mourners attended the service, paying their respects to a man who left his family behind in Woodland Hills, California, United States of America (U.S.).
Approximately 2,000 lone soldiers serve in the IDF from the U.S. Globally, 800 to 1,000 lone soldiers join the IDF each year and, according to the Lone Soldier Center in Memory of Michael Levin, there are about 4,600 foreign lone soldiers currently in active service.
For many, serving in Israel’s military is a way to connect with their roots. Some are recent arrivals to Israel, some are dual citizens, while others speak little to none of the official languages of Israel, Hebrew and Arabic.
Both of the American lone soldiers who died Sunday had a love for Israel which inspired their personal commitment. Max Steinberg’s brother, Jake, said that, upon arrival in Israel, Max felt an immediate connection with the country and “saw that as a place he could live and be successful, and he went for it.”
The other American killed in fighting last weekend, Nissim Sean Carmeli, 21, served in the same brigade as Steinberg, the Golani. He came to Israel from South Padre Island, Texas and is said to have felt a similarly strong connection to the country. The Texan’s funeral, which was in the Israeli port city of Haifa, attracted thousands. A social media post appealed to Israelis to arrive en masse so the lone soldier would be not be alone at his final resting place.
Military enlistment is compulsory in Israel and is felt as a rite of passage in the country’s contemporary culture. Lone soldiers, however, are set aside as something special. The Jewish Journal writes that lone soldiers are “a kind of star in Israel.” Young members of the global Jewish diaspora volunteer for such military service and it is well-known that such lone soldiers redirect their own paths in life to do so. Upon arrival from their home countries, enlistees encounter a hero’s welcome. Fellow soldiers inevitably adopt them as surrogate family members and a lifetime of invitations to Shabbat dinners are guaranteed.
Mike Fishbein, a Los Angeles native, served two years with IDF. After a year studying and volunteering in Israel, he said his desire to do more was deepened. He believes in Israel’s reason for existence “ … so I thought I can’t just go back home to Los Angeles.”
After his enlistment, Fishbein spent a month learning Hebrew alongside other lone soldiers from South Africa, Panama, and Australia. His fellow troops did not understand why he would leave the palm trees and beaches seen in movies for 40-mile overnight marches through the desert. But after a while “they would respect you,” he said, and understand that he was there to protect the same things they were.
For American Adam Harmon, a number of trips to Israel convinced him that he belonged in Israel “and it belonged to me,” he said. He joined the IDF after graduating from college in New Hampshire. This was when Israel was fighting against a quickly growing Hezbollah, a Lebanese Shi’a Islamist militant group. He later wrote about his experiences in the book Lonely Soldier: The Memoir of an American in the Israeli Army.
For David Joel, who grew up in the Atlanta area, the bottom line is that “I’m part of the Jewish people.” During a visit in 2000 to Jerusalem, Joel narrowly missed being killed by a terrorist attack and this inspired him to become more involved. “At the end of the day,” he said, “it’s our nation.”
The image associated with this article is of Milford, Connecticut native Rafe Kaplan and his family. Kaplan served in the IDF from 2012 to 2014.
By Gregory Baskin