Original Article Published On The Jerusalem Post
Our small group of campers from the Tikvah (“Hope”) Program of Camp Ramah in New England had planned a 12-day trip up and down Israel and the imminent war with Iraq wasn’t going to stop us. I thought it ironic that the lead story in the Hebrew papers distributed on our flight to Israel in February reported on the panic in America and on the advisories to stock up on duct tape and bottled water.
The three brave young men with special needs, ages 19 and 20, didn’t care much about the war. They were more focused on the 20 upbeat Korean Christians on our overbooked flight and the 30 sixtysomethings from Texas and Oklahoma later at dinner. Their unstinting stare was the beginning of my seeing Israel through straightforward, painfully honest Tikvah eyes.
Jeremy, Jason and Jake – who have a range of developmental disabilities, including neurological impairments, learning disorders and Down syndrome – loved walking down the 1,200 or so stairs at the Bahai Gardens in Haifa, mostly because we were a few paces ahead of 40 young soldiers with guns. They understood that Israelis their age are drafted and were curious to know everything they could about the army. Their questions started off simply: “What did you do in the army?” they asked our two female guides and our various male guards, wondering as well whether Warid, our Israeli Arab driver, also served.
Then their questions became more poignant. “Would people like us, people with disabilities, be able to serve in the army?” Jeremy asked. Our guides told them they might be able to do many of the jobs in the army that are similar to those they do at camp and in their vocational training programs at school: food preparation, mail delivery, supply room worker. But they also learned that many people with special needs, even those with certain food allergies, are ultimately exempted from service.
At dinner one evening, at the home of Dahlia, who has worked at our camp for many summers, Jason asked, “Did you serve in the Israel Defense Forces?” Dahlia is a Little Person, and the Tikvah guys had their doubts.
She hesitated, then said she hadn’t.
“Why not?” asked Jeremy.
“Because I’m short,” Dahlia replied.
“What does that have to do with anything?” asked Jason.
“Isn’t that discrimination?” Jeremy added, remembering all he’d been taught about the Americans with Disabilities Act and a similar education act.
“Yes,” Dahlia confirmed.
“Did you fight against it?” asked Jason. “No.”
The group persisted.
“Because I was 18. I was small and the army was very big and strong. But I should have.”
Finally, Jason asked, “Wouldn’t being short be an advantage in the army, like in a tank? It wouldn’t be so cramped in there.”
Straightforward eyes. Good point.