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Flying Two Flags

American veterans of the Israeli army face alienation from their peers in both countries. A group called Aluf Stone gives them a place to belong.

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At first glance, there was nothing extraordinary about the group of veterans who gathered at the House of Brews in Midtown Manhattan a few weeks ago, draining beers and picking at a jumble of sub-par nachos while they talked. Now lawyers, accountants, and financial analysts—with political and religious orientations as diverse as their stories and their places of birth—the casually dressed former soldiers exchanged business cards and dispensed career advice between sips of Stella Artois.

But this was no ordinary group of vets: They were all Americans who had served in combat in the Israeli army. And they were all members of Aluf Stone, an organization for Diaspora-born soldiers who have served in the Israel Defense Forces, dual citizens and volunteers who’ve fought in battles from the War of Independence in 1948 to Operation Cast Lead in Gaza just three winters ago.

“It’s such a specific and meaningful shared experience,” Marc Leibowitz, one of the group’s founders, said of service in the IDF. “Deeper than an alumni group or a fraternity, which people are fanatical about.”

Aluf Stone was created in 2008 to give non-Israeli-born IDF veterans a place to gather. While the group’s hub seems to be New York, where most of its members live, Leibowitz explained that Aluf Stone boasts members from across North America, Europe, and even Asia. The group also carries an affiliation with the American Veterans of Israel, an earlier organization with a now-dwindling number of veterans exclusively from Israel’s War of Independence and Aliyah Bet—the Mandate-era illegal immigration campaign.

The name Aluf Stone comes from Brooklyn-born Mickey Marcus, a West Point grad whose nom de guerre was Michael Stone, who served as the first general (or aluf) of Israel since the ancient Maccabees rebelled against the Seleucids. The group meets monthly, recounting their times as keepers of a rare tradition of Diaspora Jews who go to Israel to serve. Like Marcus—whose military exploits were famously depicted by Kirk Douglas in the film Cast a Giant Shadow—some of the members served in both the American and Israeli armies.

Lilit Marcus, Mickey’s great-grandniece and a fixture at Aluf Stone events—and the only woman at the February gathering, although the group does have more female members—also sees the group as a social corrective for the isolation that many of the veterans feel: loyal to both Israel and the United States, yet with an experience that’s foreign to most other people in both countries.

“Aluf Stone occupies an interesting middle ground in the U.S. They don’t belong in U.S. veterans’ groups and networks, as they didn’t [all] serve in the American military,” she explained. “But when they interact with other Jews in the United States, they can’t necessarily share their experiences without the stories being seen as politically charged. Several of the men who attend Aluf Stone meetings have told me that they have shared stories with each other that they can’t even share with their own families.”

Some of the members also interact with Israeli-born IDF veterans who have since moved stateside—but again, their experiences are not exactly the same, and native-born Israelis sometimes look askance at these vets. A common phrase used by Israelis to describe the foreign soldiers who came to join the IDF is the Yiddish slur “freier,” which is somewhere between a fool and a sucker. While each man says the respect eventually came, the broader sense of integration often didn’t. In this way, Aluf Stone deals with the consequences of dual loyalty—of not truly belonging in either place.

“Some people aren’t sure why we’re in the States at all,” said Matthew Ronen, 30, another of the group’s founders—an Ohio native now living in New York City after his IDF stint. Some in the group say that Americans shun them for leaving home to serve abroad; others note that Israelis shun them for leaving Israel after their service. “If you served in the IDF, people wonder why you came back,” Ronen said. “Sometimes there’s a sense of failure there.”

Aluf Stone currently has hundreds of members around the world, but Leibowitz believes there’s room to grow. The group has grown slowly by word of mouth and social media sites, since information about other non-native-born Israeli veterans of the IDF has been hard to come by. Official statistics are scarce, but Leibowitz estimates that there are thousands in the New York area alone. He’d like to increase the group’s involvement in the greater Jewish community, but he admits that other organizations are wary about associating too closely. “No organization wants to be seen as if they are encouraging Americans to fight in a foreign army,” Leibowitz says. “Even though, that’s not what we’re promoting either.”

An exception to this isolation from other Jewish organizations came last summer, when the group was invited by the Friends of the IDF to speak at a synagogue in New York and share their stories with an audience composed of family members of IDF soldiers from the States.

“We told them about our own experiences,” said Tzvi Bar-Shai, 63, a member who fought in the Yom Kippur War. “We wanted to let them know that we had been through it and were there to tell the story.”

Within this story is one of the few threads that link all members of Aluf Stone: Each of them is a veteran of a combat unit. Another weighty common point is that all of the members eventually left Israel. Among the reasons given for going back to the United States were the opportunities for jobs and education as well as the strong American economy and the proximity of family. Others speak of their time in the IDF as its own isolating experience; native Israelis never understood why Diaspora Jews would give up their comfortable lives to submit to the most Israeli of all rites of passage. These are the unique shared experiences that keep the members coming back each month.

“Each guy’s got war stories,” Bar-Shai said. “When they were thrown in jail, when they were shot at. Where else are they gonna talk about that?”

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Actually Marcus was born David Marcus and was known as Mickey.

Mike Shapiro says:

This seems to be a new, creative area. I “ran into” my first American born IDF vet in a book, this week.

LA detective, Asher Levine, in Miles Corwin’s “Kind of Blue.” His experiences in the IDF certainly added to his back story, as the book progressed.

Just an interesting note.

Binyamin in O says:

U.S. law (8 U.S.C. 1448) requires an immigrant applying for citizenship to swear, inter alia, the following oath:

“I hereby renounce and abjure absolutely and entirely all allegiance and fidelity to any foreign prince, potentate, state, or sovereignty of whom or which I was before a subject or citizen.”
http://www.law.cornell.edu/uscode/html/uscode08/usc_sec_08_00001448—-000-.html.

Is it not true that each and every former IDF soldier-immigrant from Israel has perjured himself when becoming a U.S. citizen?

Adam Chandler says:

Binyamin, would that not be true of any soldier or immigrant from another country who became a U.S. citizen?

Shirl Lehoski says:

Binyamin, U.S. Law is segmented by areas of jurisdiction. Dual citizenship is recognized by U.S. Law. The Highest Court always rules in favor of Israel and those who love Israel. Thank you, Marc Leibowitz serving in IDF and living as part of the very needed ‘problem solvers’ in the US.

Binyamin in O says:

To Adam Chandler: I doubt it. Other immigrants usually come to this country because they are dissatisfied with their own. I think most (not all) Jewish Israelis who immigrate here continue to deeply and passionately love Israel and would return to fight in the IDF, even in a war against the U.S.

BTW, I agree with the Israeli critics of Aluf Stone. Rather than drinking second rate beer in Manhattan, they should make aliyah.

Dave Carlson says:

Used to teach with an M.D. who was born in the Ukraine and returned to Isreal. He then immigrated to the U.S. as a physician. Leonid Daykhovsky, as I remember, remained a Major in the I.D.F. At the start of the first Gulf war we were in Minnesota teaching and If I am correct he was put on alert to return to Isreal if needed. He would appreciate Aluf Stone. Although I am sure he would appreciate a neat vodka rather than Stella Artois. Hope he is well as haven’t spoken with him since 1994. Thanks for a wonderful article

Michael says:

Better yet benny, you should come live with us. What’s so great about Israel anyways? It’s hot, it’s dry, there’s sand everywhere, and you’re surrounded by angry brown people. A good chunk of Israelis have German ancestry, so there’s automatic citizenship for them. The rest of you can come to the US. The only brown people here mow your lawn.

Dave Carlson says:

Used to teach with an M.D. by the name of Leonid Daykhovsky. He was born in the Ukraine then went to Israel. If I remember correctly he was a Major in the I.D.F. He came to the U.S. with his family to seek more training. We were teaching in Minnesota for the weekend when the first gulf war started and he was on alert to return if needed. He would appreciate Aluf Stone although I believe he would prefer a neat vodka rather than a Stella Artois as he told his many stories. Thank you for the article

jason green says:

What is a “sub par nacho” , how is this relevant to IDF vets?

“American veterans of the Israeli army face alienation from their peers in both countries”, –Not at all the case!

–actually most vets are thought of quite highly by both Americans and Israelis. Most Veterans of most armies have a common bond.

— as far as duality, there is none, except perhaps in the comments of binyamin above.

Robert says:

The article does not tell us how many U.S. citizens currently serve in the IDF: why not?

I am an American Jew who will be serving as an officer in the US military. At my orthodox shul, I am often irked when the first question people ask me is why I didn’t “choose” the IDF. Sometimes people’s dismissal of my choice to serve in the US strikes me as quite offensive. I think it is important to remind Jews in this country of our people’s long history of service in the US military, as well as the opportunities that are still available to be leaders in the US military. In any case, I commend all veterans of the US military and all veterans of the IDF for their choices to serve. I think Mickey Marcus’ legacy of service in both forces represents the special relationship that the US and Israel possess.

Scott says:

SDBG, I agree with you 100%. Though I am an American IDF combat vet, I would never advocate to join the Israeli military over that of the U.S. The decision to forgo one army in exchange for the other is entirely personal and must be weighed accordingly.

Jeffrey D? Urbach says:

“IDF is the Yiddish slur “freier,” which is somewhere between a fool and a sucker.”

I don’t think the above comment is representative of the majority of Israelis. I’ve done five stints as a volunteer on high risk combat bases in Israel thru Sar-E l (also known as VFI – Volunteers for Israel. )

I did my first stint at age 58 and yes, some of the kids couldn’t believe (or even attempt to understand) why I would give up 3 weeks of a comfortable middle class life to place myself in harms way, sleep in a room for 2 with 8 guys, flies , no A/C, and bad food. Most Israelis gave me a genuine “Kol HaCavod” when they learned what I was doing .

Kol HaCavod to all AlufStone members. Israel and those of us who love her, would love to see you speaking on American campuses where the fight against the deligitamization of Israel movement could use some help. שלומ .

Indeed, most Israelis have a very positive feeling about the diaspora Jews who come to volunteer in the IDF. Only the leftwing Tel Avivis will call them “freiers”.

Jeffrey D? Urbach says:

One anecdote:
Once on weekend leave I went shopping for supplies for our base. Although my hotel was just a short walk, wiith the bundles I had , a taxi was needed. The man in charge of assigning folks to taxis tried to tell me the charge was 70 sheks. I knew it should have been 20.

I immediately snapped into my best street Hebrew and asked him if he thought I was a frier tourist. Told him I was a mitnadev, followed by some other choice Arabic words.

The drivers were flummoxed , and the cabdriver was so apologetic and embarrassed by his boss, he offered the ride for free. I declined ,paid him, and added a nice tip.

Jerry Blaz says:

Is there a branch of Aluf Stone around Los Angeles? I’m an American veteran who served eight years in the IDF including the Sinai Campaign. Not even the benefit of exchanging stories do I have.

meyerheim says:

To all my lone soldier buddies who served in the IDF from Israels birth until today. Regardless of if you stayed in Israel or returned to you home or other countries.
I live in Israel and work with our present day lone soldiers trying to make their service in the IDF as well as there time in Israel a positive experience. Recently I was present at a ceremony of one of the combat units, and as the outstanding soldiers were called forward for recognition a high ranking officer standing next to me pointed out that the majority of those called were in fact lone soldiers from different countries. He asked why this was. I leaned over and put my hand on his shoulder and explained…that is because these young soldiers, lone soldiers, have chosen to be here and are proud to be serving in the IDF, and understand there mission. He looked at me and said “I understand”. He then went to each of these young warriors one at a time and thanked them for there service and choosing to be in Israel at this time.
To all of us I raise a glass and say that each one of you played a part in Israels history and future of Israel. Yesterday, as I sat with a young soldier from California who is days from finishing his service I asured him that his time as a combat soldier in the Nachal unit is greatly appriciated, and honored.
To all the members of Aluf Stone “L’chaim”. I look forward to my next visit to New York to raise a glass with all of you!

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Flying Two Flags

American veterans of the Israeli army face alienation from their peers in both countries. A group called Aluf Stone gives them a place to belong.

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