Fifteen years after a Hezbollah ambush began the Second Lebanon War, the consensus about who won is shifting. For years, most believed Israel had lost. Forty-nine Israeli civilians and 121 soldiers were dead, with another 1,384 civilians and 1,244 soldiers wounded. Hezbollah’s guerillas made the frequently out-maneuvered IDF look poorly-provisioned and overly-bureaucratic.
Yet Israel has enjoyed an unfamiliar sound on its northern border for 15 years: quiet. It’s not like the volatile border with Gaza, since Israel withdrew hoping for peace in 2005.
Beyond teaching the historical lesson to beware premature pronouncements, Israelis’ overly-pessimistic conclusion reflects just how taxing each act of violence is on Israeli society. Similarly, most Israelis deem the Yom Kippur War disastrous because a surprise attack started it and 2,656 soldiers died. Here, too, emphasizing the short-term costs shortchanges the immediate achievement – Israel survived – and the long-term achievement – ending the 25-year Egyptian-Syrian attempt to destroy Israel.
To get a personal perspective on the Second Lebanon War, and honor one of its many heroes, I recently met Mark and Harriet Levin, the parents of Michael Levin, the lone soldier from Pennsylvania killed on August 1, 2006, in Ayta ash Shab. When the war began, this American volunteer was visiting his parents. He flew back immediately to fight with his unit.
I met the Levins at the new Michael Levin Base for Lone Soldiers, outside Jerusalem’s Shuk. The Base serves Lone Soldiers and “bnot sheirut,” female volunteers from abroad, helping them and their parents, before, during, and after their service, with coaching, counseling, social events, meals, Shabbat and holiday experiences, basic supplies – in short, all the magic of home even if parents are thousands of miles away.
“When I speak to the soldiers that fought in the war, the people on the ground, the people in Michael’s unit, they tell me they were very proud of what they accomplished,” Mark Levin told me. “If the war aim was to stop the rockets and diminish the number of sites Hezbollah had then, it worked: It’s been pretty much quiet for 15 years, while Israel has to go into Gaza every two to three years.” And, he added, “when Hezbollah’s leader Hassan Nasrollah says if he knew what Israel was going to do his forces he wouldn’t have started up with Israel, it seems clear he learned his lesson.”
I asked the Levins why Michael moved to Israel in 2002, when there was so little support for Lone Soldiers he slept on a park bench for two nights. “Michael was a passionate Zionist, and he wanted everybody else to feel that way,” Harriet Levin explained. “He was very-Israel oriented. As a child of Holocaust survivors, Israel was also paramount to me – but no one in our family had the passion he had.”
“Michael came out that way,” Mark added. “Hashem – God — gave him his Zionist-Jewish Nishama – soul — as a seed at birth. All Harriet and I did was water it and watch it grow.” Mark added that Michael “spent a lot of time talking” to Harriet’s father, who survived 26 months in Auschwitz.
I suggested their parenting helped – but they insisted it ran deeper. “You can teach them manners and to be polite,” they argued – “but ultimately it comes from them.”
Just as the Levins were humble enough and wise enough to let Michael be Michael, they are humble enough and wise enough to respect other families’ dynamics around these issues. “I do a lot of public speaking,” Harriet said, “and before COVID, kids who wanted to be Lone Soldiers would ask me to talk to their parents for them. The answer was always ‘no.’” It’s the family’s decision. Of course, “if the decision is made, I will encourage them to be supportive,” she said – as he added: “I always say you should be very proud of your son or daughter.”
The Levins politely but pointedly critiqued that classic American-Jewish mixed message, warning it’s not fair when parents “raise their kids to be Jewish but then insist ‘not too Jewish’ – stop there!”
The Levins’ generous support for Lone Soldiers flowed from their weekly, pre-Shabbat conversations with Michael. He often mentioned not knowing who could help him solve various problems. “After about a year, Michael had this epiphany and connected those 52 weekly dots,” his father recalls. “’If I have these problems, I guess others do too,’ he said. ‘We need a base, a center.’”
Refusing to be demoralized or immobilized by their 22-year-old son’s death, the Levins remembered Michael’s idea – and brought it alive. Mobilizing hundreds of donors and volunteers, they helped publicize the Lone Soldier phenomenon – boosting awareness, inspiring thousands to serve, and helping those who serve in multiple ways.
Characteristically, these heroes deflected my compliments. “The hero in our family is not us, it’s Michael,” they said. “What we are doing is fulfilling Michael’s dream.”
The Lone Soldier phenomenon is another Second Lebanon War triumph. The greater achievement, of course, resonates through the Levins’ story, Israel’s story, our story. We are no longer Auschwitz Jews. Michael Levin’s grandparents’ resilience was deliciously contagious, flowing from generation to generation.
On this 15th anniversary, we mourn the loss of 170 everyday heroes, including Michael Levin. While toasting the quiet up North, let’s toast the creative, chaotic, noise we all make in this country, living, building, dreaming, generating: guaranteeing that Israel is not only a country worth dying for – but a country worth living in.
Recently designated one of Algemeiner’s J-100, one of the top 100 people “positively influencing Jewish life,” Gil Troy is the author of the newly-released The Zionist Ideas , an update and expansion of Arthur Hertzberg’s classic anthology The Zionist Idea, published by the Jewish Publication Society and a 2019 National Jewish Book Award Finalist.. A Distinguished Scholar of North American History at McGill University,and the author of nine books on American History, his book, Never Alone: Prison, Politics and My People, co-authored with Natan Sharansky was just published by PublicAffairs of Hachette.