December 10, 1998
Soldier of Misfortune
The young Israeli sergeant beaten by a mob of Palestinian students faces a court martial by a 'disgraced' IDF
Lisa Weinmann-Myara, a State University of New York graduate who settled in Jerusalem with her Israeli husband 16 years ago, is waging a vigorous defense of her soldier son, who faces a court martial on charges of disgracing himself and the army by allowing a Palestinian mob to steal his automatic rifle when it stormed the car in which he was hitchhiking through the West Bank.
Sgt. Assaf Myara, 19, whose humiliation was seen on Israeli and international television, is recovering at home from his stoning and beating by Bir Zeit University students, who were demonstrating for the release of Palestinian security prisoners. The civilian driver escaped immediately, but the sergeant was trapped.
The case has become a symbol of a nation that has lost its way and is groping for its identity. At a time when the army's deterrence is being challenged daily in Lebanon, Myara has been savaged by the Israel Defense Forces and the media for failing to open fire when his life was in danger. His M-16 rifle was not even loaded.
A senior officer said: "It is inconceivable that Palestinian demonstrators could reach him so easily, hit him and take his weapon -- and all of this without his doing a thing. It is simply disgraceful."
Ya'acov Erez, editor of the mass-circulation Ma'ariv, asked: "What in God's name is happening to us? Are we a country with a strong army, or are we turning into a wimp state?"
British-born Weinmann-Myara hit back in an interview with this correspondent. "If he had used his gun," the 41-year-old mother insisted, "the kid wouldn't be alive today. They would have lynched him."
Assaf, she claimed, was in shock after a rock came through the window and cut his head. "He was trying to hold his gun close to him so that they wouldn't get it, and to protect his head. He was pulled out and was trapped between the door and the car," she said. "He was on the ground and surrounded by Palestinians.
"He was still trying to protect his head and the rifle. At that point, there was no possibility of a getaway. They were kicking him and beating him on all parts of his body. Assaf realized that what they were really after was his gun. That was something that worried him. He knew the rules. It was taken by force.
"They were holding it up like a prize. The crowd thinned. That gave him a split second to throw off the guy holding him and run away."
Weinmann-Myara, whose younger son, Liad, is due to be drafted next year, confessed that the prospect of a court martial left her torn between logic and maternal emotion.
"My mother's instinct says, 'Lisa, the Zionist ideology that you came here for no longer exists'; that I've given years of my life to this country; that we and our children have attended 20 funerals of friends killed by terrorists over the past 10 years. Enough is enough. It's time to move on," she said.
"That's my gut instinct. But logic says that it doesn't work that way. If everyone was to run away when they were injured, the country would fall to pieces. There'd be nobody left here. It would be like leaving a house empty. Thieves, in this case Yasser Arafat and the terrorist groups, would steal from it and inhabit it. So I can't leave the country."
She will never feel the same about the IDF, however. "My second son," she said, "is a high-flier. He intended to go for the top in the army. He wanted to be in a combat unit, to be an officer, to serve on the front line, to be in Lebanon, to give as much as he could give.
"Today, his attitude has changed. He says if he has to do his three years' compulsory service, he'll do it. But he will not volunteer for a combat unit. He will go for a 9-to-5 job. No glory, no prizes.
"That's not due to what happened to Assaf; it's due to the criticism he received from the army. Liad would say what many, many people have said: 'It appears that the army likes its heroes dead.'"
Weinmann-Myara first came to Israel to study at Hebrew University, but left to take a degree in international marketing at SUNY. It was at the Hebrew University that she met her future husband, Arieh, now an executive at the Jerusalem Hilton.
The family has been reinforced in its conviction that "what Assaf did was the only thing possible" by visits from dozens of Assaf's old school friends and hundreds of sympathetic phone calls. "His close friends are the ones who have kept that guy sane," his mother said. "They've done everything -- washing him, putting ointment on, changing bandages, cleaning his wounds."
Weinmann-Myara, who is disabled by spinal injuries suffered in a road accident 10 years ago, is worried by the long-term effect the attack will have on Assaf.
"He is a very closed personality," she said. "The physical wounds will heal, but he's not a talker. He keeps things to himself. We'll need to give him psychological help to get him over this trauma."
The IDF, it seems, has other plans for him. "The intention," said a senior officer, "is to sentence him to lengthy imprisonment."
It's hard to be a symbol.