Recently, the press has presented the pros and cons of leaving middle seats empty for virus protection. I’m not thinking about traveling soon, but I am reminded of the last time I was in a middle seat. It’s never a desirable seat, but on that flight, it was cause for anxiety, then hope.
The flight in January 2019 was from Tel Aviv to Toronto and lasted about twelve hours. I fly often and am never nervous about it, but prior to this flight, I was somewhat worried. I was returning home from sixteen days in Israel and Palestine, with a small group led by a Jewish couple who had visited there often. I had the advantage of their experience and thus visited with several NGO’s, had dinner with a Palestinian family in their home, had tea with Bedouins in their cave, watched a concert at Aida refuge camp, and hitchhiked — for the first time ever in my life, on the road beside the Dead Sea. Although I have spoken about these things, I haven’t yet written those stories.
Our group’s leader, Steve, had given us careful instructions for our return flights. I had stayed an extra few days on my own, so was traveling alone, that is, without friends, so yes, did feel a little nervous. Let me tell you why.
Steve had strongly suggested that anything we had bought from Palestinians be packed in the middle of our luggage, so that any quick checks by Israeli soldiers would not disclose any items they might confiscate. This included books and clothing. I had one particular shirt that I was determined to wear home — it was a soft, black cotton, long-sleeved shirt with beautiful Arabic script that meant ‘the promise of freedom.’ I decided to board wearing it inside out, intending to visit the restroom in mid-flight to turn it right-side out.
I’d gotten through customs successfully, with my other contraband items safely concealed. I boarded and found my seat, a middle seat between a young man and a woman. I loved knowing about the secret message on the inside of my shirt!
Shortly after take-off, the young man to my left chatted with me briefly and I learned that he had been an Israeli soldier. My heart sunk. My experiences during those past two weeks included watching soldiers harass school children as they passed through checkpoints on their way to school and having some soldiers point their machine guns at us, as they stopped us from driving onto a Palestinian road where we had planned lunch with some Palestinian schoolteachers. No, there would be no casual conversation on this flight.
But, somehow, we talked. After my initial disappointment that he had been a soldier, I returned to my more typical frame-of-mind, wanting an open discussion. I asked if he remembered how he felt prior to his duty, anticipating it. He said that, because it wasn’t a choice, he didn’t think about it; he just had to do it. I described the mental turmoil that many U.S. students as seniors feel as they choose their college.
Then this soldier told me that he had relocated to Toronto after completing his required two years of duty and was returning home now, after visiting his ailing father, who still lived in Jerusalem. Then, he surprised me by saying that, after his required tour-of-duty ended, he had been asked back on two occasions to participate in government studies investigating reported PTSD.
What followed was the most amazing conversation. So, I asked him, did soldiers really have freedom to describe events that may have caused PTSD? The setup was that soldiers from the same platoon (that may not be the right word) were invited back for a weekend, then again six months later, for a weeklong discussion of their experiences. The reasoning was that soldiers who had served together would have similar shared experiences.
He described to me the story he shared with his soldier group and assigned therapists. His platoon’s assignment was to remove Palestinian families from their homes, to enable the houses to become part of an Israeli settlement. In one house, the Palestinian dad refused to leave. As a result, the soldier experienced anguish and actually brought food to this man, an act forbidden by the government.
I’ve forgotten the details of the story, but clearly remember how it affected this soldier. So, when he described it to me and its telling to his commanders, I asked about the response. The response was that other soldiers told similar stories and they were heard; their stories were listened to.
From the middle seat of the plane, I was beginning to get a stiff neck and finally asked if we could take a break from talking, watch a movie, then go back to talking. My new friend agreed and we took a break.
When we started talking again, he described how the commanders were learning how harmful this was to their own soldiers, as many soldiers shared similar disheartening experiences. I visited the restroom and turned my shirt right-side out. When I returned to my seat, my new soldier-friend smiled. We continued to talk, even crying together, and the twelve-hour flight ended too soon.
When I left Israel, I didn’t have much hope for future peace there, but after twelve hours in the middle seat, by the time I landed in Toronto, my hope was starting to bud.
Copyright 2021, Carole Rein