The beautiful Israeli

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Amir Drori was my hero and my friend. Since I met him 10 years ago, Amir had been a rock of stability for me, as he was for anyone who was lucky enough to be close to him. Just knowing he was here, in Israel, on this planet, helped maintain my faith in the justice of the universe.

And so it was with shock and a sense of irretrievable loss that I received the news on Saturday night that he had died suddenly, at the age of 68, of a heart attack after spending the day hiking through the Negev with his wife, Tzila, and friends.


Amir Drori was a rock for me because of what his life symbolized. Amir was the personification of the iconic Israeli. It was the notion that people like Amir existed that made me decide, as a young girl in Chicago, that the only thing I wanted to be when I grew up was an Israeli.


I first met Amir in 1995. At the time, I was a captain in the army serving as negotiations coordinator in the Office of the Coordinator of Government Activities in Judea, Samaria and Gaza. We were then leading the talks for the transfer of civil authorities in Judea and Samaria to the PLO.


The generals whom I served with were mainly disappointments for me. It seemed often that they measured themselves not by how they were protecting the country, but by how many hours of face time they had with Yitzhak Rabin or Shimon Peres or Yasser Arafat. Their self-important self-absorption was destroying my naive idealism.


And then one day Amir walked through the door. Amir, the founder and director of the Israel Antiquities Authority, was the former IDF deputy chief of staff. In the Six Day War he had been a battalion commander in the Golani Infantry Brigade. In the Yom Kippur War he commanded Golani. And in Operation Peace for the Galilee, as a major general he commanded the Northern Command. He was a living legend.


As Amir entered the room, his self-important former underlings stopped their mindless squawking. They stared at him with the expectant eyes of young officers trying to make a good impression on their revered commander. Their tone of voice changed. Amir's mere presence sufficed to transform – if only for a moment – these wannabe globetrotters and prima donnas into salty warriors and guardians of Israel.


Amir didn't notice the commotion he had caused. He was so modest that even when I later pointed it out to him, he refused to accept that people revered him for who he was. It had never occurred to him to try to make a good impression on anyone. He just concentrated on results. And he always brought results.


As the director of the IAA, he led the negotiations on the transfer of responsibility over archeological sites to the Palestinians. Once, when the talks were being held in Eilat, I called him up in the middle of the night. "Amir," I said, "We have a problem here. It seems that the representative from the Ministry of Religious Affairs handed the Palestinians control of Samuel's Tomb."


This was a major calamity. Not only is Samuel's Tomb one of the most significant religious sites for Jews in the country, it is located on a hilltop that controls the highway approaches to Jerusalem.


"Okay," he responded, "I'll be right there."


As I staggered around the office at 6 a.m. the next day, Amir walked through the door. He had driven all night long. That afternoon, he sat down across from Arafat. The terrorist's lip and hand shook incessantly as he peered at Amir. He recognized him as the man who threw him out of Lebanon. In a famous picture taken in Beirut, Amir had Arafat's head in his rifle scope. After 90 minutes, the session was over. Amir restored Samuel's Tomb to full Israeli control and gave nothing in exchange.


I went to work with Amir after I left the army at the end of 1996. Amir, who had taken a leave of absence from the IDF in the early 1960s to study archeology and participate in Yigal Yadin's excavations of Masada, had been an amateur archeologist throughout his military career. After he retired in 1987 he turned his hobby into his profession as he took over the Antiquities Department in the Ministry of Education.


What he found there broke his heart. Israel, with over 18,000 declared archeological sites, has the highest density of ancient artifacts in the world. Yet when he arrived, robbery of antiquities and the destruction of precious archeological sites through piratical excavations and building and development activities were rampant.


Amir convinced the government that one of Israel's most important resources – our past – was being systematically destroyed. He oversaw the legislation of the Antiquities Law that established the Israel Antiquities Authority as a statutory body tasked with safeguarding and overseeing all archeological activities in the country. He organized a special department to prevent piratical digs and theft. He ensured that all building activities on archeological sites became contingent on the carrying out of salvage digs to rescue the antiquities beneath the ground that would otherwise be lost forever.


The best part of my work with Amir was accompanying him on his weekly visits to ongoing excavations. Once, as we drove past Yokneam, Amir pointed at the rolling hills and began to tell me all the treasures of the ages hidden beneath the surface.


I looked at him in amazement. "I feel blind next to you. I stare at the hills and see the grass and the wildflowers. You look at an otherwise innocent landscape and see the entire archeological history of the spot as if you were staring at an already completed dig."


Amir smiled sheepishly, as he sucked on his ubiquitous pipe, and then mumbled shyly, "Well, it's not just antiquities I see. I see the defensive lines and the battles as well."


"Back to 1947?" I asked.


"No, back to the time of the cavemen," he smiled.


Amir's death is a terrible blow. But for me, there is some comfort in the way he died – walking with his beloved wife in his beloved desert, still uncovering, until his dying breath, yet more of the inexhaustible secrets of the Land of Israel which he loved and defended with all his strength and heart.


Like his buried treasures, Amir too was a national treasure – proof positive that in spite of the mediocrity of many, the beautiful Israeli is not a myth. All we need to do to make our ideals reality is slip on a pair of hiking boots and a hat, fill a canteen and go and discover the beauty of our land, knowing that we are following in Amir Drori's deep footsteps.


Originally published in The Jerusalem Post.

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