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The Moment When An Israeli Soldier Saw Himself Through A Palestinian Child's Eyes


Let's meet some people who seem rare in this polarized age.


It's a time of fierce political partisanship.

INSKEEP: And a time of extremism. Just think of today's explosions in Brussels.

GREENE: The Israeli-Palestinian conflict has divided opinion for generations, which makes it all too easy to overlook this reality.

INSKEEP: Many Israelis and Palestinians actually do change their views over time. NPR's Emily Harris reports some of their stories this week and begins with a former Israeli soldier.

EMILY HARRIS, BYLINE: Noam Chayut was taught from a very young age about the horrors Jewish people suffered during the Holocaust - the concentration camps, the gas chambers.

NOAM CHAYUT: We grew up about - learning about the uniqueness of the Holocaust. And one of these unique things is that we are unique victims.

HARRIS: Most of his extended family were among the 6 million Jews killed. Chayut absorbed community stories of sorrow, victimhood and isolation in a world that let the Holocaust happen. He learned his role was to never let it happen again.

CHAYUT: In 10th grade, we went to Poland - all the class - and to the concentration camps. And I saw where they gassed my father's family and then, a few days later, where they gassed my mother's side. As I was - I was trumpet player. In every concentration camp, we would do a ceremony. And then I'd play the "Hatikvah" - the national anthem.

HARRIS: He plays the Israeli anthem for me now.

CHAYUT: (Playing trumpet).

So that would be my - my revenge against the Nazi enemy, playing the anthem - the Israeli anthem - on their land.

HARRIS: Chayut could hardly wait to swap that trumpet for a gun in Israel's mandatory military service, defending Jews.

CHAYUT: I knew I was going to join my military, I guess, the day that I knew that the water come out of the faucet. I knew I would be an officer. I knew I would fight the enemy. When I was young - then, the enemy could be Nazis, Arabs, Palestinians. It was a mixture of evil.

HARRIS: Chayut served from 1998 to 2003. He patrolled the West Bank during the second Palestinian intifada, or uprising. A thousand Israelis and over 3,000 Palestinians were killed. Palestinians blew up buses and cafes in Israeli cities. Israel responded with force to stop the attacks. Chayut was among troops sent to capture Palestinian towns.

CHAYUT: Most of the missions were arrest operations. So we would go to a town, a village, a city - an area in the city - and arrest, sometimes a very specific arrest of a person with a name and sometimes just bring all the men from that neighborhood to interrogations of secret services or whatever. I mean, we'd send a family to one room. We'd search. If I would confiscate things, I would do it very, you know, by-the-rules. I wouldn't take anything to myself. I mean, if I count these arrest operations in Ramallah and Jardin, then much more than a thousand houses that I invaded with my soldiers.

HARRIS: Faces and situations mostly blurred into routine - a mix of boredom and fear. But one moment lodged in his memory. He was running after a suspected Palestinian militant. Instead, he came across a young Palestinian girl. He remembers.

CHAYUT: So we were leaving the Jeep, running on a dirt road between the edge of a village and an olive orchard, entering the village. And just at the entrance, there she was, playing. And I smiled. And my soul expected a smile back. Instead, she freezed (ph), looked at me, terrified, became pale and turned around and ran away.

HARRIS: At the time, that was that. He carried on with his duties with no inkling of the impact scaring that girl would eventually have on him. Chayut's last military mission was a speaking tour in the United States, raising support and funds for Israel. He was hailed as a hero. But after his discharge, another former soldier asked him to share some memories for a new and very different collection of soldiers' stories - anonymous stories, stories that chronicled aspects of the occupation that Chayut had never considered worth telling.

CHAYUT: So he asked me on the phone, did you impose curfews? And I said, of course I imposed curfews. Did you shut doors of shops and send people home? I said, of course - daily. Did you stop Palestinians from harvesting the olives? And I said, what are these questions? Of course I stopped Palestinians from harvesting. So he said, maybe we can talk and I just record you. And, you know, if you want, you'll join. And just let's talk about it.

HARRIS: This was the start of a group called Breaking the Silence - former soldiers who say they tell blunt stories of their experience so Israelis can know precisely what the military is doing in their name. The group would go on to become famous - or notorious - called traitors by some. Israel is investigating allegations it gathers classified information. For Chayut, becoming involved with Breaking the Silence nurtured a sense of unease with what he'd done as a soldier. That sense grew over time.

CHAYUT: So five or six years later, I'm out of the army. I don't know what to do with my life. And I take a long vacation in India.

HARRIS: One morning in a guesthouse in Rajasthan, a moment of clarity - the memory of that Palestinian girl returned crystal-clear, the warm, still village air, her young face, her fear.

CHAYUT: And this is the moment when this incident becomes important, or even a turning point, for me in my life because this is - this incident puts the things together for me to understand that I was a victim of the Holocaust - of my Holocaust. And a victim is a good guy. So I was one of the good guys. The moment she didn't smile back to me, I became an occupier - a victimizer - of a 9, 7-year-old kid, terrified.

HARRIS: In that moment of memory, Chayut realized he had changed. He could no longer claim to be just a victim. He saw himself and the conflict differently now. With no real plan, he started to write. Scribbled memories became a book titled, in English, "The Girl Who Stole My Holocaust".

CHAYUT: I guess I used to believe that we're the good guys. And they - whoever they are - are the bad guys. And I no longer believe it.

HARRIS: Chayut doesn't see his old army buddies anymore. And he's rethinking how he'll teach his two young children about the Holocaust someday. Emily Harris, NPR News, Haifa. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

International Correspondent Emily Harris is based in Jerusalem as part of NPR's Mideast team. Her post covers news related to Israel, the West Bank and Gaza Strip. She began this role in March of 2013.
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