Update: First written in January, 2004, I didn’t know then that two of my sons would someday be security guards. As they study (engineering and computer networking), they spend their spare non-study time guarding the local mall. I wrote this after visiting my younger son’s school. To give some perspective, that “child” is now the tallest one in the family and is graduating high school in a few months.
The Israeli Guard
The guard at my third grader’s school can be fearsome. He stops you at the gate and questions you. What is your name? Why have you come to the school? Who is your child? Who have you come to meet? He’s been known to ask for identification and other than students and teachers, no one walks through his gate unless he knows who you are and that you should be where you want to go.
He’s bearded and dark and won’t unlock the gate until you answer his questions. He is bundled in a warm coat, as he sits outside for hours at a time, in a small security booth beside the locked gates of the school. He doesn’t allow children to leave the protected area without a note during school hours and I’ve seen him call to a child running towards him in a costume and mask, demanding that the child stop and reveal his face before approaching.
Recently, I caught him off guard. The man is a fraud. Under the dark and serious image he projects to protect his children, is a smiling man who knows most of our young ones by name. After driving my son to school, I was about to put the car in reverse when I watched his dour face transformed. Gone was the serious man standing by the locked metal bars. I’d never seen him smile before, never laugh.
As a child approached with a soccer ball, the guard faked to the right, moved to the left, and quickly intercepted the ball, kicking it swiftly back to the boy before it could enter the school gate. A goal prevented, a child enthralled. This is clearly not the first time they have played this game. The ball bounced and the child aimed again, and for the briefest of moments, the game continued as the guard let the ball fly past him and the child roared “GOAL”!
The guard laughed and did a “high 5” with the child as he sailed on his way to school, having conquered mountains a full 10 minutes before the school bell. He greeted my son by name, and gently slapped several other boys on the back as they passed. He motioned to the last stragglers to hurry before the bell. He pretended to run in place as the bell rang, signaling to the children that they should hurry. And, after the last child passed through, he locked the gate and returned to his booth.
Yesterday, I had a meeting at the school. I approached the guard booth with a smile, but none was returned. Somber expression on his face, he questioned me as I approached. Who are you? Why have you come? I wanted to tell him I knew his secret. I’d seen him smile and play with the children and he clearly wasn’t as tough as he pretended. But somehow, I was as intimidated as he expected me to be. I answered his questions and entered. I thought about him again later in the evening when I passed the checkpoint to enter our local mall and waited while the security guard opened my glove compartment, asked if I had a weapon, and then searched the trunk of my car.
In Israel, security is an ingrained part of our lives. What would be considered an invasion of our rights in any other place is accepted as normal here. We open our bags, allow guards to run security wands close to our bodies, open our car trunks without a second thought. We slow down at checkpoints, stop and answer questions…all with the hope that our little inconveniences help guarantee the safety of all around us. It’s become so normal for us that we seldom point this out to strangers and so the inconveniences we accept to make our lives more secure are ignored by most of the world.
We’ve gotten so good at this, we look past the guards. They are a brief obstacle on our way to buy milk, a short delay when we enter the mall, the reason we stand in the cold for an extra few seconds before entering a restaurant. They guard our children, protect our schools and yet sometimes, all we hear are the gruff questions. It’s only on rare glimpses that we see that behind the uniform, behind the job, there is a person full of life, full of concerns, full of dreams.
Few of us could describe what a guard looks like moments after we pass by, and yet they stand between us and murder on a daily basis and sadly, sometimes they sacrifice their dreams to save our realities. Haim Smadar was a school guard in Jerusalem. He was 55 years old when an 18-year-old Palestinian woman came to attack the school where he worked. Haim stopped her, protecting the children he had promised to protect, but losing his life in the process. He once promised his wife, “Shoshana, if a suicide bomber ever comes close to my school, he will not get past me. With my own body I would stop him.” And he did.
Alexander Kostyuk was a 23-year-old security guard from Bat Yam. He was killed and another 13 were wounded in a suicide bombing outside the train station in Kfar Sava. There is no question that many more would have died that day, if Alexander hadn’t put himself between innocent civilians waiting for a train during rush hour, and a suicide bomber determined to kill as many as he could.
In March of 2002, a Palestinian terrorist detonated his bomb as he walked into a cafe, crowded with some 50 patrons. Miraculously, the bomb did not go off. The terrorist tried again to detonate himself, but by then the security guard had realized what was happening and stopped the terrorist.
Just two months later, another suicide terrorist targeted a popular Kfar Saba shopping mall. The security guard stopped the terrorist from entering. This prevented more extensive casualties, and yet the guard and one civilian were killed, with another 70 were wounded.
In yet another example of extreme bravery, Staff-Sgt. Noam Apter found himself in the kitchen of a school under attack. The 23-year-old paratrooper was on leave from the army at the time. He was right by the door and could have fled the scene unharmed. Instead, he locked himself into the kitchen with the terrorists, giving dozens of seminary students who were in the midst of their Sabbath meal, the opportunity to flee. Noam was shot in the back, but precious time was saved.
Their sacrifices highlight the dangers so many choose to face each day. What makes them special, beyond the job they do, is the humanity that they continue to show, despite the strain. The security guard at my son’s school is charged with protecting hundreds of children every day. The minute they pass through his gate, he is the only thing that stands between a potential suicide bomber and our children.
He takes this job very seriously, as can be seen by the questions he asks, the way he watches when we approach his position. But he takes the children very seriously as well, and so he learns their names, hurries them along so they won’t be late, takes the time to show them the person behind the uniform, the man behind the job. It is yet another sign that more than four years into this Intifada, with rockets falling daily and the threat of terror still on the horizon, we have not lost our humanity, our ability to care, to smile, to be concerned for each other.