An American Jew who served in the Israel Defense Forces described fighting in Syria against the Islamic State group as “the craziest time of my life” in an interview aired Saturday on Israeli television.
Jonathan Leibovits, who was born in Israel but grew up in Los Angeles, said he decided to volunteer to fight against the jihadist group following the the 2015 terror attack in San Bernardino that left 14 dead.
“There was an attack in San Bernadino, which is only about half an hour away from where my family lives,” Leibovits told Channel 10 news. “So it is kind of on a personal level me, you know, they’re coming to my home.
“I am very capable. I know what I’m doing, so I’m going to their home,” he added.
In 2016, Leibovitz traveled to Iraq, where he hid for several days in a safe house before being smuggled across the border into Syria.
During the six months he fought alongside the Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), Leibovits said he did not attempt to hide his American or Jewish identity.
Islamic state “do have a hit out on every foreign fighter that joins the YPG. I think it starts out at 100,000 or something like that and then goes up to 200,000, 500,000,” he said. “I would bring out a little Hebrew here and there and [YPG fighters] would be like ‘Israel?’… and I would be like ‘uh-huh.’”
“To be honest I wasn’t in Syria to spread Israeli politics. I wasn’t there to spread an American agenda. I wasn’t there for those reasons. I was there purely because it was the right thing to do — to help as much I can all the innocent children, women and elderly that are being killed on a daily basis,” Leibovits added.
The YPG “asked me what my previous training was and I told them I served in the IDF, so they said okay.”
Leibovits said the most harrowing experience in Syria was rescuing two Yadizi girls he and another volunteer fighter discovered in a cage inside the home of a jihadist.
“We go in… and there is a cage where you would could keep a Siberian husky or something… and there are a couple of girls in there under the age of 12,” he said. “I think that is the only time over there that I cried except for when I lost friends. That a human being would do that to someone — it broke my heart.”
Leibovits said the girls were so traumatized they initially didn’t want to leave the cage.
“They didn’t know who we were. I’m a white guy and there’s a French guy next to me… That instance really showed me how bad some people in this world really have it.”
‘Craziest days of my life’
Leibovits, who moved from LA to Israel in 2012 to join the IDF, told Channel 10 the training he received while serving in the Givati Brigade was invaluable in the YPG’s battles to re-take the Syrian city of Manbij from IS fighters.
“It is all urban fighting, you know, building to building, so [the training] definitely helped a lot.
“It was just a meat grinder,” he said of the fighting for the key northern city. “It was the craziest 76 days of my life.”
Leibovits was injured in the fighting for Manbij, and said he still has pieces of shrapnel in his head, shoulder and chest.
But it wasn’t until his friend was killed that Leibovits decided it was time to return home to California.
“It was time for us to go home,” he said. “We all needed a little rest mentally, and physically just couldn’t move.”
“It was the craziest time of my life… it really changed me,” he added.
Leibovits said the first six months back home were “really rough,” and though his time in Syria still haunts him, he does not regret volunteering to fight against jihadists.
“If I could go back and do it again I would it all over again in a heartbeat,” he said. “I know that what I did there and the people I helped, you know that is something for a lifetime.”