Maj. Arye Sharuz Shalicar, a German-born Persian Jew who spent his teenage years in gold chains and gangster garb fighting for his life in a Muslim-dominated suburb of Berlin, now works for the man. He has been, for the past four years, the European voice of the Israeli army. As such, he is required to toe the party line, sweeten the message, defend the system. This required no arm-twisting — Shalicar believes in the IDF — but the path he took, which generated a German-language memoir and appears now to be spawning a movie, was unexpected, even to him.
Shalicar’s job, as an official spokesman of the Israeli army, is difficult. In order to get a sense of what it entails it may be useful to think of the IDF as an island encircled by a wall. The walls are guarded by troops, but the gates, for reporters seeking permission to enter, are manned by the sentries of the IDF Spokesperson’s Unit. For soldiers, speaking to the press without approval is a punishable offense. For reporters, access is often problematic.
There is one sentry for the Israeli military reporters, one for general interest Israeli reporters, one for Russia, one for the Arabic-speaking countries, one for Latin America and Asia, one for North America and, finally, one for Europe and Australia. The crowd outside the Europe-Australia gate, over which Shalicar presides, is frequently large and often politely ornery.
On the other side of the gate, on the island, the troops can be equally rowdy. Combat officers sleep little and see their families rarely. Many age fast and die young. Many distrust even the local media, occasionally viewing them as disloyal and nearly always as clueless. [Think Jack Nicholson’s Col. Jessup and the famous you’re-damn-right-I-ordered-the-Code-Red speech.] All are indoctrinated toward secrecy and discretion. In acquiescing to an Israeli media request, they know their neighbors may see them on TV or in the papers. Convincing an officer to speak in a foreign language, exposing himself to the media of a country that has perhaps only recently barred his former commanding officer from entry, is an even more challenging task.
Shalicar, since November 2009, has stood at the gate and fielded questions and requests, delivering word from within and facilitating the entry of reporters. The questions require, from the IDF’s perspective, a truthful, timely and advantageous response. In the past, those were slow in coming. Recently, the IDF has made drastic improvements. Officers in the field understand that, in the age of uploaded war footage, immediacy and accuracy are strategically important assets. Every brigade and command has at least one IDF spokesperson and the messages travel swiftly through the system and out into the world. Rarely will the IDF offer the sort of reliable boilerplate of years past: the IDF is aware of the incident and is looking into it.
The entry requests present a more significant challenge. Should a German reporter be allowed on a submarine, Israel’s most expensive and confidential tool of war, knowing that the $500 million vessel was built in, and heavily funded by, Germany? What about the Givati Brigade soldiers who were captured on camera in July arresting 5-year-old stone thrower Wa’adi Maswada – do you push for access to those soldiers, hoping that time spent with them in the field will enable a reporter to accurately sketch the complexity of the deployment in the city, or do you forgo making a sincere effort because the chances are that the interviews, even if they present the soldiers’ side of the story, will be marginalized and merely lend an air of impartiality to a severely biased report?
Former White House press secretary Ari Fleischer, who had the difficult task of speaking for President George W. Bush in 2001-2003, told Shalicar’s predecessor, the head of the Europe desk during the 2008-9 Operation Cast Lead, that his job was harder than his old White House gig.
European reporters who work with Shalicar have praised his performance. One wire service reporter called him “very hard-working, very sincere and good about getting back to you – even when he has nothing.”
A veteran correspondent for the Süddeutsche Zeitung newspaper, Peter Münch, said he was “very impressed with him” – with his command of eight languages and his understanding of the German public’s news tastes. He added that Shalicar’s German accent, which he called “street,” is a humorous and unique link between his polished exterior and his gritty past.
“In the area where I grew up, back then, if you would have said to me that I’d work for the police or the military” – the most hated institutions among his friends – “I would have said never. Never. Never even a consideration,” he said.
Shalicar, 36, was born in Göttingen, Germany. His parents were both natives of Babol, a city of 200,000 in northern Iran, near the Caspian Sea. His mother, Rose, left as a child with her family and relocated to Tehran. Her son, whose memoir was entitled “A Wet Dog is Better Than a Dry Jew,” called it “a modern society. The Tehran of the sixties: miniskirts, open hair, beautiful, very modern.” All of her friends were Muslim and her Jewishness was not an issue. His father, David, remained in Babol, where the anti-Semitism was so severe, Shalicar said, that a Jew could not so much as put money in a vendor’s hand or touch a piece of fruit in the market for fear of contamination.
David Shalicar served in the Iranian army, in a Jewish brigade, and soon after his discharge he followed his best friend, Bijan, to Germany. Several years later, at a wedding in Iran, he met Rose, fell in love, and married her. “Back in the day you could close the deal quickly,” his son remarked.
Shalicar’s mother assumed they would live in Göttingen until her husband graduated from university and then move back to Iran. But two years after Arye Sharuz was born, the masses dethroned the Shah and Iran became an intensely inhospitable place for Jews. David Shalicar got a job at Karstadt, a large department store, and moved the family to West Berlin. They lived in a middle class suburb called Spandau, spoke Persian at home, ate Persian food, listened to Persian music and kept a strictly secular home. “Rosh Hashanah – no. Hanukkah – no. Kosher – no. Shabbos – no,” Shalicar said. “No interest in that. Nothing.”
In sixth grade, during a class trip, he first heard about the Holocaust. The topic was Anne Frank. After trudging through an exhibit for a few minutes, he and a Turkish Muslim friend skipped out of the lecture and went off play to soccer. “There was a good sun out,” he said, and the issue at hand “was boring.” His teacher, a German, scolded him, telling him he didn’t know how important the lesson was and how morally corrupt it was to leave, but Shalicar “didn’t give a damn.”
Several years later, when he was 13, his parents moved to Wedding – a neighborhood that was only nine minutes north of Ku’damm Ave, the central shopping district of Berlin, and offered cheaper rent than Spandau did. His mother, having raised him and his brother and sister to school age, wanted to start a seamstress business. “They didn’t think, and they didn’t know, who lives in this area,” he said. “They felt they were improving their lives.”
In fact, the family had moved from the culturally sensitive heart of Germany to a Berlin neighborhood that, more than anything else, resembled the Middle East. Turks, Kurds, Lebanese, Palestinians, Sunnis, Shiites and Christian Arabs lived in the neighborhood, united and divided by the shared shades of brown skin and the entrenched borders of ethnic and inter-clan strife. As opposed to the suburbs surrounding Paris, there were no Jews in Wedding. At first, Shalicar fit in. He looked just like everyone else. He went by the name Sharuz, which means king of the day in Persian. And he did not exhibit his Judaism in any way. This changed, slightly but pivotally, after a trip to Israel.
The making of a gangsta
“After the bar mitzvah I didn’t have,” Shalicar said, “I went to visit my grandmother in Ashdod.” The woman was shocked by her German-born grandson, who had never heard of the Six Day War and found it strangely annoying that his grandmother followed him around the kitchen, barring him from buttering his salami sandwiches. The trip did not spark a Jewish awakening in Shalicar. But he took home a gold chain with a Star of David that his grandmother had gotten him as a gift. “Everyone is walking around with the silver and gold. They love the bling-bling,” he said. “I wanted it too. And I liked the symbol.”
On his first day back in Germany, he wore the necklace. On the train, three Palestinian men, in their late teens and twenties, began staring at him overtly, and after crowding around him and leaning over him, they took turns miming spitting on the pendant. No one moved to help.
Shalicar shelved the necklace and carried on with life. Several months later, his ninth grade literature class was asked to discuss a scene featuring a Jewish girl during the Second World War. As the class discussed the text, Shalicar’s best friend, an Indian Muslim named Mahavir, mumbled “Jews should be killed” and “Jews are our enemies.” Shalicar turned to him and said, “What do you mean? I’m a Jew.” Mahavir laughed, and despite Shalicar’s insistence, he remained adamant that such a revelation could not be true. “One,” he said, “I recognize Jews. And two, you’re my friend, so you cannot be a Jew,” Shalicar recalled.
The next day, offering proof to his friend, Shalicar came into school with the Star of David. Mahavir never spoke with him again.
From that moment on, Shalicar, the only Jew in the neighborhood, was a marked man. Shortly after revealing his identity – one he hardly cared about at the time – he suffered what he termed “a very ugly humiliation” at the Pankstrasse metro station in the heart of Wedding. While sitting near the train station with a Turkish friend, a group of Palestinians from a gang that was known as the PLO Gang, sauntered over to him. The leader of the group was carrying a basket of strawberries. “Jew, open your mouth,” he ordered. Shalicar complied, slowly, and the gang leader, after forcing him to open up ever wider, crammed the berries into his mouth. Someone pummeled him from behind. “Jew, get the fuck out of our neighborhood,” they said.
Shalicar, for the next two years, felt alone and hated solely “for what you are.” Two Turkish Sunni friends stayed close to him, and remain so to this day, but life seemed so cheap and the neighborhood suddenly so dangerous, that he felt it was only a matter of time until he was murdered.
For two years he planned his route home from school every day, calibrating the risks at each train station, on each corner and along each bus route. Then he met a man he referred to as Husseyn. Lebanese, Kurdish, and Muslim, Husseyn was tall, friendly and a leader of the largest and strongest clan in Wedding. “The ruling family of the Arabs,” Shalicar said.
Shalicar told him upfront that he was Jewish and that it would probably be best not to be his friend – “so that he wouldn’t find out later and then come and smack me down” – but Husseyn said he didn’t care. “His friendship was like a shield,” Shalicar said. Suddenly he was protected. People came up to him and sought his friendship. “But on the other hand, once you start hanging out with these people, you start becoming one of them.”
Today, Shalicar is reluctant to detail his actions. “I was involved in crime, involved in gang life,” he said. “All sorts of things. What usually gangs do. If you write that, people might understand.” His mother cried every night. His father threw him out of the house on several occasions. He said to him, “You’re not my son anymore.”
Accepted to a Turkish and Kurdish gang called the Black Panthers, Shalicar, who went on to found Berlin’s largest graffiti gang — Berlin Crime — felt he had to be especially loud and provocative. The margin between being killed and having to kill someone, he said, became frighteningly slim.
On one occasion, his Turkish Muslim friends, in a sort of mirroring of the geo-political alliances in the Middle East at the time, pulled a gun on an Arab gang member who called him a dirty Jew and pressed it to his temple, telling him “it’s not a very nice thing to say.” Shalicar remains eternally grateful to the Turkish friends who stuck with him and is in touch with some of them, but he credits a Catholic Croat girl named Janica, his girlfriend from age 17-21, with saving his life.
Without her love, he said, he would likely have committed the sort of crimes that can put one in jail for a long period of time. And though she understood why he needed the protection of a gang — she too was harassed, for dating a Jew — she pushed him to stay in school. “I did the matriculation exams on the sly,” Shalicar said. “The people in the gangs didn’t know I went to school…and she always said, it seems like you know what you’re doing, do whatever you have to do, but stay with school.”
The matriculation exams were Shalicar’s escape hatch. After high school he was drafted into the German army for a year and sent to a paramedic course along with other college-bound soldiers. “On the first day I said I am Jewish, and it was fine,” he recalled.
In 1999, after one year of studying Jewish Studies, Islamic Studies and Political Science, along with Russian and Turkish language classes, at a university in Berlin, he came to Israel for six months, to Kibbutz Palmahim, and for the first time in his life made Jewish friends. And though he worked at the kibbutz factory, making large concrete stones, he said that, “for the first time in 10 years, I felt free.”
The book ends several years later, after Shalicar spent some time in Paris and the US, and decided, in 2001, to leave his aunt’s house in Brentwood and move to Israel. That is one place to end. But in truth he continued to struggle even after arrival in Israel. Having turned down his aunt’s generous offer to support his studies in California, he went to the Israeli army for a year, serving in an air supply unit, and emerged with no money, no degree, no command of Hebrew, no serious girlfriend and no close family in Israel. For work, he pulled 12-hour shifts as a security guard at the Hebrew University. In 2004, he said, he sat alone on the roof of the education faculty pulling an all-night shift on Passover eve, having not been invited anywhere, feeling entirely alone.
Doggedly, he worked through a BA and received an MA with honors in European Studies with a focus on Islam in Europe. He began working for German public TV broadcaster ARD’s Mideast bureau and for the Jewish Agency and, in 2009, when an Argentinian man he played soccer with told him about an opening at the IDF Spokesperson’s Unit, he applied for the position and got it. “When I came here, I closed the door behind me,” he said. “I said under no circumstance will I leave. I won’t live anywhere else. I will struggle, make a living in Israel. Do everything I can to make a living in Israel. And today,” he remarked in his elegant but clipped English, “happy. Very happy.”