The young man speaking to me used to be a yeshiva student. He used to live in Great Neck, New York, and he used to be on his way to McGill University. Now First Sgt. Max, having acquired the thick hands of an infantryman, is sitting on an olive-green bench, in a staging area just outside Gaza, telling me about the battle in Shejaiya, outside Gaza City, and the way it came toward the tail end of what had seemed like “the most boring [military] service I could have had.”
Max came to Israel for the first time in 2006, during the Second Lebanon War. At the time, he was celebrating his bar mitzvah. He said he felt a palpable unity and fraternity in the country and he informed his parents that he would like to serve in the Israeli army. From his expression, their response was something like a shrug and nod and a “Yes, son, I’m sure you will play for the Yankees one day if that’s what you really want.”
Like many Modern Orthodox teens, he came to Israel for a year after high school to study in a yeshiva. The gap year affords some visitors a great familiarity with the hookah pipes and sports bars of downtown Jerusalem. Others immerse themselves in the world of Torah study. Max, though, decided during the year that he would join the army through the Machal program — a 14-month service for foreign volunteers.
After asking around, he chose the Golani Brigade, an infantry force that is known for its no-nonsense mentality and its diversity, marking it as perhaps the most beloved of fighting units among the Israeli public. Max said he heard it was the best.
The war caught him with his soldiers in squad leader training. Last month, they were ferried down south along with the rest of the brigade and outfitted and readied for battle. Soldiers loaded clean ammunition in their rifle magazines, prepared every last bit of gear. For four straight days, he said, they were told each day that they were going to invade Gaza, only to have the offensive suspended for 24 hours.
The conventional wisdom, amid these wild surges of adrenalin, was that there would be no ground invasion, he said. The same scenario had played itself out during the eight-day Operation Pillar of Defense. The troops had amassed at the border, ostensibly to invade Gaza, but instead were used to corral Hamas into an unofficial ceasefire agreement.
On Friday night, July 18, the second night of the ground offensive, the brigade was in a combat formation, ready to cross into Gaza, and was yet again delayed. On Saturday night, Col. Ghassan Alian, the brigade’s first Druze commander, led them into battle: “Golani Brigade, this is your commander,” he said over the radio frequency. “The Sabbath has just ended. The people of Israel are behind us, eyes turned to the Golani Brigade, with expectations that we harm Hamas. I am sure that the Golani Brigade will fulfill this mission. Attack. Attack: Over and out.”
Max went into battle as a platoon sergeant. In the US armed forces, a middle-aged man might hold that position. In Israel, it’s filled by teenagers, or soldiers who have served for roughly two years in uniform. Speaking openly and honestly about things like fear and death, he said that he, as a commander, had no time to consider his own emotions. “I didn’t have that moment where I could say ‘I’m going into battle and I might not come back,'” he said, speaking in Hebrew.
The battle was eerie. “We spent a week inside,” he said, “and didn’t see a single person.” They heard the air force strikes ahead of them and the artillery all around. They took fire “from every direction” and barreled out of their armored vehicles when they reached tunnel shafts, but they never saw the enemy’s face.
Friends from his battalion were ambushed in Shejaiya. Staff Sgt. Oron Shaul, the soldier declared missing in action and later pronounced dead, was a friend and a fellow squad member in basic training. Staff Sgt. Max Steinberg, also a lone soldier from the US, was killed alongside Shaul and many thought it was he who had been killed. His own platoon leader was wounded along with several other soldiers and, though Max declined to discuss the circumstances, he did note that in the absence of an officer, he was, as can happen during war, given command of the platoon.
Suddenly, all eyes were on him. He led from the front, like all low-to-mid level Israeli officers, and realized that “every movement I make, everything I do, will impact them in the most significant way.” A twitch of fear, a moment’s hesitation, a tinge of sadness, of self-pity: All would be picked up on immediately by the troops.
Back at the staging ground, enjoying a lull after a week in Gaza and 42 days straight without leave, he said that despite the intensity of the battle in Shejaiya, the most memorable moments of the war were during the reception the soldiers received from the rural communities of Kfar Maimon and Nir Moshe in Israel’s western Negev, near Gaza.
People came from everywhere, carrying home-cooked food and insisting on feeding them. Adults took mops from their hands and cleaned the bathrooms for them. “There’s nothing like that anywhere else in the world,” he said.