Interview'The real front lines are the college campuses'

One-armed IDF sharpshooter still fights on the front lines — from the US

Published March 20, Izzy Ezagui’s memoir ‘Disarmed’ charts the American-born IDF vet’s battle for Israel — and himself

Renee Ghert-Zand is a reporter and feature writer for The Times of Israel.

Izzy Ezagui, center, and fellow reserve soldiers in 2014 (Courtesy of Izzy Ezagui)
Izzy Ezagui, center, and fellow reserve soldiers in 2014 (Courtesy of Izzy Ezagui)

American-born IDF soldier Izzy Ezagui lost his dominant arm in a direct mortar hit during Operation Cast Lead in January 2009. Six months later, Ezagui took himself off heavy painkillers for phantom limb pain, got back into shape, and convinced the IDF to allow him to reenlist in a combat unit.

With determination and ingenuity, he passed all the required tests, including shooting, reloading guns, unjamming rifles, throwing grenades, charging hills, climbing ropes, and doing pushups. He continued on to commanders’ school and completed his military service with high distinction.

‘Disarmed’ author Izzy Ezagui (Courtesy)

Now Ezagui, 29, has penned a new memoir charting his journey. Titled, “Disarmed: Unconventional Lessons from the World’s Only One-Armed Special Forces Sharpshooter,” it is a candid glimpse inside Ezagui’s mind as he deals with his devastating injury.

Just as the author’s physical, mental and spiritual recoveries are non-linear, so too is the memoir’s narrative. It constantly zigzags back and forth in time and place — not just during Ezagui’s military service, but also throughout his entire life. This choppy chronology and Ezagui’s stream-of-consciousness writing style will not suit some readers. Nonetheless, his honesty and humor shine through.

Ezagui has worked for the last six years as a motivational speaker and unofficial goodwill ambassador for Israel. He’s helped to raise millions of dollars for hospitals, rehabilitation programs, and other charities, and partnered with amputee organizations, schools, universities, and major corporations.

Although his parents and younger sisters, members of the Chabad Lubavitch community, live in Jerusalem, Ezagui moved to the US shortly after his military service. No longer religiously observant, he moved from New York to Los Angeles last year to pursue an acting and screenwriting career. He recently completed shooting an original short film.

Izzy Ezagui (left) during shooting of his short film, ‘Pull Yourself Together.’ (Courtesy)

Ezagui still answers calls to speak on behalf of Israel, but is happy to now have another professional focus and be around people who are unaware of his past.

“I’ve enjoyed telling and writing about my own story, but there is only so long you can do that before you can go insane. Now I want to tell other people’s stories and inspire in other ways,” he said.

In advance of his book’s publication, The Times of Israel spoke with Ezagui about deciding to pursue writing, leave Israel, and avoid exposing a sensitive family issue — until now.

Why did you decide to write this memoir?

I thought people would be interested in reading my story. I didn’t think I could do it myself, so I initially hired a ghostwriter. She and I finished a draft, but it didn’t feel or sound like me. I didn’t get a sense of my own voice in it, and I decided to throw the whole thing out. Then I spent a couple of years sitting in cafés doing a lot of reading. I also wrote short fiction and blogged for The Times of Israel. Eventually I got a sense for what I needed to do if I wanted to write my own story, and felt I could do it. I was fortunate to find an editor who helped me piece it together structurally. I am so much happier that I waited and did it this way.

‘Disarmed’ by Izzy Ezagui (Prometheus Books)

Was there a particular inspiration for the book’s non-linear structure?

I was in the Far East after the military and I had a very long train ride from somewhere in Thailand to Laos, and I was reading “127 Hours” [the 2004 autobiography by American rock climber Aron Ralston who amputated his own right arm after being trapped in a Utah desert canyon]. Ralston alternated between the background of how he became a rock climber and those poignant moments where he’s dealing with the injury while he’s stuck there and deciding what to do about his arm. That formula of using the more exciting moments to hold the reader’s attention for stuff that’s happened in the past is genius. I wanted to use that model to make my memoir interesting.

Do you still return to Israel for military reserve duty?

Yes. I go back often. I’m pretty sure I’m missing reserve duty this month because of the book launch, but I haven’t missed many reserve duty call-ups. It’s usually twice a year. I go to most of them. My unit was not called up for the 2014 Gaza War. I would, of course, go if my unit was called up during any future conflict.

If this is so, then why do you no longer live in Israel?

I’m not tough enough to live in Israel. I’m tough enough to serve in the military and face the enemy, but to live amongst Israelis — that takes a toughness that I just don’t have. I’m a sensitive dude. Israel’s a tough place to live. You have to bargain for your cable bundle and argue with every taxi driver which street to take, and I’m not about that.

I’m less effective in Israel. When I was serving, I was doing something good for the country. When I finished my service and I was living there, there was no calling left. I was able to continue that calling by moving back to the US and doing hasbara [public diplomacy for Israel] and writing this book. I’ve done corporate events in front of 400 people who have never met a Jew before, and I’m telling them stories about Israel in a positive light. That’s more important than my reserve duty and my fighting in a war. The real front lines are the college campuses. That’s where the real battle lies, and I can’t fight it from Israel.

Izzy Ezagui (standing) in IDF during command school training. (Courtesy)

What audience did you have in mind for “Disarmed” as you wrote it?

First and foremost, I wrote it for me. Beyond that, I wrote it for everyone outside of the base, everyone who will not be reading this article. It will be nice if pro-Israel people read it, but they are not the intended audience. I’ve seen so many books that target specifically their own demographic, preach to the choir. There’s nothing wrong with it, but what are you accomplishing beyond bolstering, reminding and inspiring people? I wrote this book to reach people who don’t know anything about Israel, or who dislike Israel. I don’t want the reader to feel that I am trying to sell something. I just want to tell a story, and I hope that by osmosis people will feel the love I feel for Israel.

In your memoir, you disclose for the first time that during your IDF service your father served a prison sentence for masterminding a massive mortgage fraud scheme. That’s a significant thing to have omitted from interviews and speeches you’ve given over the past six years.

It didn’t come up because there was never any context for it. But now there’s a book and people can read how I feel about it, and if they want to know the actual story, they can read about it. Having brought it up before would have only done harm. In my book, I am able to share my thoughts on it.

I feel very strongly about my father and what a good man he is. He is one of the best people I know. The strength that I had to go back to the military despite such a hobbling disability is something I learned from him. As the judge who gave him below the minimum sentence knew, he may have done something that was illegal, but he did not do it with ill-intent or for self-gain. The Rebbe gave him a blessing and he did it to help the community.

Izzy Ezagui plays a young man who digs his amputated arm up out of a backyard grave and reattaches it with tape in his new short film, ‘Pull Yourself Together’ (Courtesy)

What is your short film about?

It’s called “Pull Yourself Together,” and it’s about a one-armed guy who is having a very, very bad day. I was playing with the idea of somebody who lost his arm in non-heroic circumstances, and instead of everyone calling him a hero and praising what happened, he’s a monster for what he did. He drove drunk and got into a car accident. I wanted to play with the other side of what can happen. I made the film with 30 people. It’s a pretty high-level production. It’s a real little movie with a real budget. We’re about to launch Kickstarter campaign for it.

Is writing a cathartic experience for you?

I write some really weird stuff. The short film that we just made is very strange. The character I play literally digs his arm up out of a backyard grave and reattaches it with tape. There was a moment as we shot this scene when I thought to myself, “Why did I write this? Why am I putting myself through this?” But during the writing stages I managed to stay away from these questions. I don’t dig too deep emotionally — or I fool myself into thinking that I don’t — so I can get the job done.

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