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Pick Your Battle

Rachel Ginsberg

Reb Gedalia Becker spent a year in the swamps of Vietnam. Discovering Torah and raising a family in Eretz Yisrael was a balm to his battered spirit

Wednesday, December 06, 2017

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Just before shipping out for active duty in June 1967, Mike was sitting with a friend watching the Boston Red Sox on television, when the game was interrupted by a news flash — Israel was at war with her Arab neighbors. Suddenly, he felt a cloud of dread, telling his friend, “Heck, I hope I didn’t join the wrong war” (Photos: Shlomi Cohen, Family archives)

I t was the heat of the first Palestinian Intifada in 1988, and Reb Gedalia Becker — a former helicopter gunship pilot in Vietnam — was driving along the narrow desert road in eastern Gush Etzion on his way home to the religious settlement of Maale Amos. For the past few volatile months, Arabs had been attacking Jewish drivers from an olive grove that bordered the road, and after numerous unanswered requests to the authorities to at least cut back the first row of olive trees, Becker bought a couple of pruning saws and cut the trees down himself, destroying the Arab cover. But the young terrorists just shifted position, taking their slingshots and Molotov cocktails to a cliff overlooking a dangerous turn in the road instead, where they continued to hit private cars and even firebombed a school bus full of children.

As the late afternoon winter sun was about to set, Becker slowed down his white Subaru station wagon, fingered the pistol at his side, and peeked up at the overhang where he’d been ambushed three times in recent weeks. Sure enough, his peripheral vision caught a glimpse of two shadowy figures, as a flaming bottle sailed overhead and crashed on the road right in front of his car. He slammed on the brakes and got out, lifted his gun with both hands and — with a bit of the G.I. Joe still in him — fixed on the moving targets and shot off an entire clip. Both of them went down.

As the shots faded into the desert, a racing army jeep pulled up with a screeching halt. An officer jumped out in shock, looked at Becker and his smoking gun, let out a string of expletives under his breath, and then sped away to check on the casualties. It turned out that the Israeli army had finally decided to do something about the Arab attacks, and sent undercover Israeli soldiers into the area dressed as Arabs in order to catch the perpetrators in the act.

It took Reb Gedalia Becker many years to rediscover the goodness, trust, and truth he thought was lost after returning from Vietnam. Putting it all down in a manuscript was the beginning of the healing

Becker was on the TV news that night, and later visited the two wounded soldiers in the hospital and apologized; one lost a kidney; the other had a leg wound. Actually, the soldiers were pretty impressed that Becker managed to hit them from that distance, and they also knew it was an IDF mess-up: Since many Israeli civilians are legally armed, the army was supposed to warn anyone entering the ambush zone that there were undercover friendlies in the area.

But for Becker, the IDF botch-up made it all start flashing back: Suddenly, it was Vietnam, 1968. It was the humid, mosquito-infested Mekong Delta from where tens of thousands of fresh-faced patriotic soldiers never returned. It was young US infantrymen — “grunts” — slogging through the mud on orders of some newly minted officer to capture an enemy Viet Cong hideout, only to discover that it had long been abandoned.

It was piloting a gunship with bullets whizzing by as door gunners were shooting into the tree line and rockets were slamming into the ground covering for the grunts, with just seconds to evacuate. It was blasting away jungle in the middle of a raging firefight so Medivac choppers could reach wounded comrades. (Excerpted from Mishpacha, Issue 688)

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