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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.

Adam Chandler
March 16, 2012
(Margarita Korol)
(Margarita Korol)

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?”

Adam Chandler was previously a staff writer at Tablet. His work has appeared in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Atlantic, Slate, Esquire, New York, and elsewhere. He tweets @allmychandler.

Adam Chandler was previously a staff writer at Tablet. His work has appeared in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Atlantic, Slate, Esquire, New York, and elsewhere. He tweets @allmychandler.