Four years ago, during the intermediate days of Passover, a terrorist broke into the Gavish home in Elon Moreh and killed four members of the family. After analyzing the details of the incident, the army came to the conclusion that it would be a good idea to train women to use the weapons that were issued to their husbands. Soon after Passover the first training session was on offer in our yishuv.
I grew up in a liberal Jewish household in America, and one of the ingrained messages that I received was that GUNS WERE BAD. As children we weren't even allowed a squirt gun (pity my poor brother). Consequently I developed an aversion to the M16 that my husband uses when he performs guard duty on our settlement. If I needed to handle it at all, I would touch it gingerly - as if I was holding a dirty dead thing that I wanted as little physical contact with as possible. So westbankpappa thought that he would have a hard time convincing me to agree to a training session. Imagine his surprise when I told him that I was one of the first women to sign up.
Not long after the terrorist attack some of the details of what happened came out. One particularly harrowing fact was that the wife and daughter-in-law of those killed saved her life and that of her child by hiding under the kitchen table with her hand over her baby's mouth, as she watched the terrorist walk through the kitchen stalking his prey. This searing image was enough to trump whatever aversion I had to guns many times over, so on the appointed day I took the M16 and showed up to learn how to use it.
The day chosen for our first round of training was Yom HaShoah - Holocaust Remembrance Day, which is the anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. The symbolic significance of the day, commemorating another group of Jewish civilians who were forced to take up arms in order to defend themselves, was not lost on any of the twenty women gathered a bit nervously in an empty classroom.
One of the members of our yishuv, whose job it is to train young men for the IDF, was chosen to teach us, and became our "drill sergeant". The first thing we learned that day was how to take apart and put together the weapon in our possession. The only thing I remember from this lesson is that there is a small part of an M16 called in Hebrew a "pin Shabbat". This tiny piece, about the size of my thumb, is called that because, "if you lose it, you have to stay on the base for Shabbat". The next, and probably most important thing we learned, was the concept of "neshek shishim maalot" - "weapons at a 60 degree angle". This injunction meant that we had to place our weapons facing 60 degrees upwards, except when given express permission otherwise. At first this was a polite request, but when one or more of us made the mistake of pointing the M16 at another person it became a shouted order, and we quickly learned the correct Pavlovian response. We then learned how to check the chamber to make sure it was clear, how to cock the rifle, and how to set and unlock the safety. At one point we were told to line up outside in a row, with our weapons at a 60 degree angle of course, and our instructor for the day went down the line, checking us one by one to see if we had mastered these simple skills.
I am usually a calm person, but for some reason as our instructor made his way closer to me I became suddenly nervous that I wouldn't know where the safety was. I gave a quick look on the side of the gun, and was both delighted and relieved to see S-A-F-E-T-Y etched into the black metal. With a heartfelt "G-d Bless America!" uttered under my breath, I passed this small test with flying colors. We then learned the different positions for shooting (lying on our stomachs, kneeling on one knee, and standing upright). We then had to practice shooting (without bullets of course) for a little while, and our first day of training was over.
The second day of our training was scheduled for a Friday afternoon in a wadi (dry river bed) not far from our settlement. The army was notified, of course, and this time a number of men accompanied us, in addition to our instructor. The atmosphere was a bit more relaxed, with the inevitable jokes bandied back and forth. One man quipped that "You have no idea how much this new skill will improve your marriage, ladies!" - which was greatly appreciated by the few men who had gathered to see how their wives did on the improvised firing range.
Receiving a set of ear plugs and a clip with ten bullets for each round of practice firing, we then proceeded to fire at targets from the three positions that we had learned. A last drill consisted of firing from an upright position "b'lachatz" - "under stress." This stress consisted of our drill sergeant screaming near our ears while we were firing. I supressed a smile at this - I am a mother of boys, and trying to concentrate on a task while someone screams nearby is not exactly a new experience! All in all I did much better than I thought I would, and went back home sweaty but satisfied - to my boys' wide-eyed admiration.
If I stopped the post here it could be seen as just a cute "private mamma" post, but there is a more serious denouement to the story that I want to share. It seems that after learning this new skill, I found a strange weight settle on my shoulders. I started looking at my home differently - doors and windows took on an additional dimension, and became entry points for intruders. I found myself imagining all kinds of frightening scenarios and how I would react to them, which basically boiled down to various ways that I could get myself and the gun between the terrorist and my children.
After about a week of this strange experience, something dawned on me - "this is how combat troops think".
I know, I know, the veterans out there are probably thinking, "who the hell does she think she is! She learns to shoot a gun, spends a few "Walter Mitty-like" hours fantasizing about being a heroine, and she thinks that she knows what it is like!"
I fully realize that what I was imagining was only a faint glimmer compared to the reality of what combat troops go through in the line of duty, but this tiny peek into their experience enabled me to perceive something from a completely different perspective - and to change some mistaken impressions that I had picked up in the liberal environment in which I had grown up.
I cringe to admit it now, but when I was young, I thought that most conservatives were just unbelievably paranoid - seeing boogeymen under every bed, and much too eager to go to war. I'm embarrassed to say that I also picked up the arrogant belief (not from my parents, though, who had great respect for the armed forces) that those Americans who volunteered to enlist in the army were macho show-offs who just needed to prove how tough they were.
I didn't need to learn to shoot an M16 twenty years later in order to know that the young liberal I was was wrong and incredibly naive. I had learned on my own that there really were people who wanted to murder my children in their beds (and blow up people on line for pizza and fly planes into office buildings, for that matter). But learning how to shoot the gun, and imagining myself actually using it do defend my loved ones, did teach me something new. I learned that there is absolutely nothing wrong, and in fact everything right, about using your strength, and skills, and courage to protect others who are weaker than you are - and that whatever pride you may feel at this is completely justified. I can now say thank G-d for those "macho show-offs" who became veterans - because without them I may not have had the priveledge to grow up in safety in America and become that naive and ungrateful liberal. I thank G-d for the IDF soldiers who protect the woman I am now - less naive, proud to be a conservative, and profoundly grateful to the veterans of both of the countries that I love.
My "obsessive" thoughts about terrorist intruders gradually faded, and I am happy to report that the doors and windows of my home have reverted to being just doors and windows.
One thing has changed permanently, though. I don't touch the M16 as if it is a dead and dirty thing anymore. I handle it with the respect it deserves - as a very dangerous, but unfortunately necessary, tool.