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The IDF's Iraqi Arabic Instructor

 

What is an Arabic speaking Iraqi woman doing in the Israeli Defense Forces? Read this incredible story of one Jewish family’s escape from Iraq to find out:

Throughout the history of the Israel Defense Forces, the IDF has frequently drawn on the services of new immigrants to Israel. Many have been called to the colors before they were fully acclimated to the country or even spoke fluent Hebrew. Like so many others, Command Sgt. Maj. V. was still a new arrival when she was called on to serve, but unlike most, she received the call precisely because of her knowledge and experience from her previous life in the Diaspora.

Command Sgt. Maj. V. serves as an Arabic instructor in the IDF's Intelligence Corps. She is responsible for teaching Arab culture and mentality as well as the Arabic language to intelligence personnel, for whom the knowledge is vital.

According to what her comrades in her unit say, V. has become something of a legend, not only because she is admired as a teacher or because she spent a long time in an operational unit, but mostly because of her personal story. Her family was one of the last Jewish families in Iraq and finally made aliyah after years of living in fear.

Israel Hayom meets with V. on an IDF base in central Israel. She arrives in uniform and as we sit down, she takes me through her incredible story, step by step.

V. was born to a Jewish family in Iraq. At the time, Iraq's Jewish community was a shell of its former glory and only a few thousand out of a community that once numbered 120,000 remained in the country.

The Iraqi Ba'ath regime persecuted the Jews who remained and saw them as spies. A few were even hanged to death on suspicion of espionage. The authorities' behavior convinced the Jews that it was time to leave – including V.'s family. But then the ax fell.

"Saddam Hussein's regime announced that my father was a spy for Israel, and he was trying to flee the country. Of course, it was a lie, but while my parents and I were at the airport and the Mukhabarat, the intelligence service, detained us for questioning, my brother and grandmother managed to make it onto the plane. My brother was seven years old. My parents and I didn't see him again for 24 years."

So V., who was four at the time, and her family were labeled as traitors in a hostile nation where only a tiny Jewish community remained.

"My father was put in prison and subjected to horrible torture. For years, he was in and out of prison. My mother would fast twice a week for him. But my father wasn't the only one who suffered from the brutality of Saddam's regime. My brother, who was only five, was also taken for questioning and abused, which left him disabled."

Even when her father was released from prison, the harassment didn't stop.

"The Mukhabarat never stopped following us, following our daily lives. My father started to work as a treasurer for the Jewish community because it was the only thing he could do. His bank account had been frozen, and no one would hire him."

The family decided not to forgo their Jewish identity, but for their own safety, they chose to hide it as much as possible. One of V.'s first childhood memories was drawing shapes on a piece of paper. One was a Star of David. Her family panicked and made her promise never to do it again.

V.'s first encounter with the Hebrew language was also scary.

"I remember one time I was sitting at home with my dad and he was looking for something to listen to on the radio. Suddenly, we heard a broadcast in a language I couldn't identify and sounded very strange to me. My dad looked at me in total silence and changed the station."

"I noticed what station it was and he saw me looking. And he whispered, 'Don't you dare to look for it later. That's Hebrew. It's illegal. If they catch us, we're done for."

V. falls silent.

"You have to understand. We didn't show anyone that we were Jews. We weren't taught the language, the religion, or the customs. From age four I knew what I could say to those around me and what I couldn't. I knew we were Jewish, but I didn't really understand what that meant at that age. I only knew I wasn't a regular kid."

Leading a double life from such a young age came at a price, which was declaring loyalty to the regime. When she started elementary school, V. was recruited for the scouts, the youth movement of the Saddam regime.

Unlike youth movements in Israel, the Iraqi scouts was actual military training. V. was given a uniform, a gun, and a hefty dose of Ba'ath party propaganda.

Israel was always the enemy. "I realized that I had to prove that I was more loyal to Iraq than anyone else. That I was the most Iraqi anyone could be," V. says.

Her school studies only increased her exposure to the propaganda of the regime and put V. into a permanent dilemma.

"The brainwashing was absolute. In school, in the media, the message was always the same. If there is a situation of war or danger, our loyalty was first and foremost to Saddam and the regime. I was confused between my identity at home and the one I adopted when I was with friends at school and in the youth movement."

When V. reached high school, things only got more complicated.

"I finished elementary school without any of my childhood friends knowing I was Jewish. When I got to junior high and high school, I encountered difficulties being accepted because of the lessons in religion. It was the first time I talked with my mom about religion. I asked her to stop hiding so I could show myself for who I was. She scolded me and once again there was the threat and the stories about what my father had been put through."

But this time, V. would not be deterred from revealing her true identity to her friends. She was sick of hiding.

"In the end, I decided to tell my friends I was Jewish. I prepared myself for the worst, for anti-Semitism and even violence. There was no violence, but there were anti-Semitic questions… even the blood libel about Passover matzah was brought up. I needed to explain that I was a Jew, not a monster, but in the end it went fine and made me stronger."

Although her high school friends accepted her, V. began to realize that she had no future in Iraq. The family was living in constant fear that the regime would discover that her brother was living in Israel and that her father would be taken in for interrogation again. V. secretly started to dream of making aliyah to Israel, and some Jewish girlfriends helped her.

"From a young age, I had two Jewish friends and we'd play a game that had real meaning," she says.

"We invented all sorts of written codes so in case one of us left Iraq, we could communicate freely in letters. Innocent lines like, 'What's the trendy color there now?' or 'When can you start studying in Holland?' became codes for getting visas to leave Iraq and make aliyah. That funny game eventually helped us a lot at the moment of truth."

Surprisingly, the memory sparks a need for V. to explain that while the Iraq of her childhood was a tough and frightening place, it was not hell on earth.

"It's important for me to say that alongside all the difficult things I experienced in my childhood, there were plenty of opportunities for me to develop as an individual," she says.

"I studied in schools for the upper 10%, both in elementary and high school. I got the best education the country had to offer. I was also involved in youth activities and sports. I learned to swim … from a very young age. I took part in competitions and even won second place in the youth championships."

As V. was dreaming and planning about how she would take her family and move to Israel, life went on and brought the challenges that face every teenager who wants to go onto higher education. But then the country went crazy. V. was forced to write her matriculation exams during the Gulf War, while Iraq was paralyzed by shortages and being bombed daily.

"Saddam decided that life would go on as usual, despite the bombing. I had to find time and strength to study, even when there was no electricity or water and a serious shortage of food. The Americans were bombing at night only, and in the day I had to take care to find my family food and water. So I found myself studying by candlelight, with the booms from the American bombs in the background."

But the bombing wasn't the only distraction. During the war, the regime started to crumble and soldiers would break into homes, rob them, arrest people suspected of espionage, and abuse anyone whose loyalty could be doubted. Many women were raped and there was fear everywhere.

"But the Gulf War also gave me moments of pride," V. says.

"I remember hearing my neighbors looking for radio stations to get true reports, not the regime's lies, about what was happening at the front. The station they were looking for was Israel Radio's Arabic broadcasts. Of course, it was illegal, but people were curious to know what was happening and that was the only way to get updates."

Despite the shortages, the bombing, and the constant fear of being robbed or raped, V. did well on her exams and was accepted to medical school.

"Like all the Iraqi Jews, I went on to learn a profession. The university was in one of the Shiite quarters of the city and I got to know people I had never met before.

"There were a lot of Palestinian students who had gotten scholarships from the Saddam regime. They weren't noted for their sympathy toward Israel or Jews. I had a lot of friends from Lebanon, Yemen, and Morocco and I learned their various dialects so I could show respect for them and speak their language. That was how I discovered a love for studying languages."

However, the move to a different human landscape came at a price. "When they realized I was Jewish, the questions started again. This time, there was also anti-Semitism. There was a group that was planning to lynch me – to kidnap me and sell me as a sex slave," she says, still horrified.

Luckily for V., some friends who heard the group of would-be abductors talking rushed to warn her. She was forced to be careful while on campus.

"I couldn't tell my parents because they'd have forced me to drop out," she says.

After the Gulf War was over, Iraq became much less safe. V. found that she needed to be on her guard not only at university, as a Jew, but also on the streets, as a woman.

"While riding the bus home from university, a group of young guys, mostly from families that had ties to the regime, would be in cars, looking for women on the street and forcing them into their cars. Once, one of those gangs started following me after I got off the bus. They followed me home and I couldn't let them know where I lived, so I hid behind the gate and prayed they hadn't seen me. I walked around with a knife, not that it would have helped, but it helped me feel safer."

As V. was finishing her studies, the situation in Iraq continued to get worse. The combination of terrorism and the regime and total anarchy on the streets convinced her it was time to fulfill her old dream and leave.

That required her to face off against her father, who was still afraid of the regime, but V. had an ace up her sleeve. While she was still a student, intelligence officials contacted her and tried to enlist her as an agent.

"I told my dad we had a week to get out. That people were already following me and if we didn't leave, we would never be rid of them." Her father, shocked, broke down and preparations got underway.

V. reached out to her childhood friends using the same code they had developed as girls. In addition to exit permits from Iraq, she arranged visas to a third country. The regime threw up obstacles at every turn, but V. was determined and completed all the necessary procedures.

After years of hiding and fear, the family got on an old beater bus, headed for the border. Other than $200, a few family photos, and V.'s parents' ketubah, they were carrying only a few small suitcases into an unclear future.

When they reached the border crossing, all the old nightmares came back. The men and the women were separated, and V. was questioned at length by an officer who had an interest in her that went beyond his professional duties.

"I told him I was on my way to meet my fiancé, and it kind of cooled him down," she says.

But that wasn't the end.

"I was brought into an interrogation room for women, where three female officers from the Iraqi intelligence service questioned me. I had my parents' ketubah, and if they'd found it, it would have been the end. Jews were synonymous with spies in the eyes of the Iraqi intelligence. Luckily, they let me undress myself and didn't check [my clothes]."

Exhausted and knees trembling, V. left the border crossing station. She and her mother boarded a bus that was to take them across the border, but slowly she realized that her father and brother were still at the border station. The driver wanted to close the door and leave ("Let them catch the next bus," he spat at V.).

"I pictured a repeat of the separation from my brother. Without thinking, I put my foot on the brakes and told the driver, 'You aren't moving until my dad and brother get here.'"

A few minutes later the men left the border station and the family crossed the Iraqi border into freedom.

The family's arrival at the third country didn't guarantee anything. An influx of refugees was forcing the government to insist on short-term visas and deport many of the new arrivals back to Iraq, even those who entered legally. V. and her family were worried and prepared themselves for the worst. They were in a foreign country, without anything to call their own.

"I contacted my friend who helped us leave Iraq. I told her we had no money and were afraid they would deport us and we had no idea how to get to Israel. She told me not to worry, not about money and not about making it to Israel. She said we should enjoy our 'vacation' and she would take care of everything."

A few days later, the friend contacted V. and told her to come to a certain hotel but explained nothing.

"The man waiting for us was an Israeli, who took us into Israel. I couldn't believe it was such a short trip. It felt like I was on a different planet."

Thus, after two decades of suffering, hiding, and fear, V. found herself in an immigrant absorption center in Mevaseret Zion, outside Jerusalem. Suddenly, she realized that her family's arrival in Israel had been an unusual event.

"The people at the absorption center seemed really excited," she remembers, also moved.

"I didn't understand why – we were just civilians who had arrived from Iraq. It was really lucky I spoke English, so I could talk with everyone there. I turned out we were sort of famous. We were the last Jews to make aliyah from Iraq and it was really exciting for everyone. It turned out they had been waiting for us, and we didn't know it.

V. jumped right in the deep end. She started studying Hebrew even before her formal ulpan classes began, and after a few weeks in ulpan asked her teacher to move her to a more advanced group. She was told it would take her at least three months before she'd be able to speak Hebrew, but V. could speak fluently in less than two.

Not long after, she received a phone call from the IDF's Intelligence Corps, and it frightened her. In Iraq, calls from the intelligence services were not good things, and the painful memories of her father and brother were burned into her consciousness.

"They calmed me down. They told me they wanted to offer me a job." That was how V. found herself teaching Arabic as a civilian employee of the IDF while also working to get her Iraqi university degree recognized in Israel.

After some hesitation, V. decided that the army was the place for her. Not only would she continue to work for the army, she would enlist as a soldier and serve in an operational unit.

After some time with that unit, V. returned to the Intelligence Corps, this time as an NCO. When she speaks about her army service, she seems to be speaking from a deep sense of commitment and pride.

"It makes me happy that I can give the soldiers knowledge of the [Arabic] language as a key to their service," she says. "The soldiers listen to me, they're spellbound, by my personal story as well as the language, the different dialects, the nuances and the culture the language expresses. I'm happy to tell them where I come from, because it's a story that's relevant for them."

Even after many years in Israel, V.'s memories from Iraq still define her sense of mission.

"Because I grew up in a country that treats its people with brutality, especially – but not only – Jews, I understand the importance of our country. I discovered that what I took with me, both in terms of the mentality and my familiarity with the Arab world, is worth a lot. I discovered that I can contribute and offer something that very few other people in Israel can. I am guided by a sense of obligation. I must pass my knowledge onto the soldiers."

If one reads between the lines, it's also possible to sense a smidgen of love for the country, the culture, and the food of her childhood.

"There is something about the essence of Iraq that never leaves me," V. admits. "The wide river, the water, the desert, the alleyways and childhood games, the food. I especially remember the Iraqi grilled fish, the 'samak masgouf,' a river fish that's prepared over an open fire. In spite of everything I went through, I won't forget Iraq. It's still in my blood."