YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

Los Angeles

Israeli Officer Obeys a Personal Call to Service

People: USC film student Amotz Zakai will hit the Cannes Film Festival, then rejoin the Israel Defense Forces.


Amotz Zakai is working out a lot these days, running, lifting weights, practicing martial arts.

Zakai is a 28-year-old filmmaker completing his master of fine arts degree at the Peter Stark Producing Program at USC while working as a development executive at a movie production company a block from Venice Beach.

He is also a lieutenant in the Israel Defense Forces, seven years removed from active duty.

In a few weeks, he will return to Jerusalem to don his uniform and rejoin his artillery unit.

"I'm getting back in top physical shape," he says. "I want to be at my peak condition."

Like many among the tens of thousands of Israelis living in Southern California, says Zakai, the developments of the past several months in Israel and the occupied territories have been gnawing at him.

"I feel obliged because of what Israel is going through," says Zakai, a smallish man whose soft looks and demeanor belie his military accomplishments. "I feel guilty that I'm not contributing my share, that other people are doing it and I'm not there."

Zakai notes that reserve duty is required of Israelis living at home but not for those living abroad.

"A lot of my friends and classmates have been drafted into service," he says. "It's important for me to go back and give support to them, and my country."

Living comfortably in America when so much is happening back in Israel has become increasingly difficult, he adds.

"I got this from my mother; she's very patriotic toward Israel," he says.

Immediately, he notes an irony: His mother is from Miami Beach and moved to Israel in the 1960s after becoming disillusioned with America's involvement in Vietnam.

In Israel, she met and married a paratrooper who had been born and raised on a kibbutz on the Mediterranean coast between Tel Aviv and Haifa.

"In essence," he adds, "if the Vietnam War didn't happen, I wouldn't be here today."

As a child in a more peaceful era, Zakai and his family liked to go into East Jerusalem and eat at the Arab restaurants.

"It was one of the most fun things we used to do," Zakai says.

He recalls that his father regularly frequented several restaurants and stores in the Old City and that when the rest of the family accompanied him, the Palestinian proprietors would welcome them.

"We used to make school trips into the Old City too," he says. "It was great. We'd wander around; it was sort of like kids in America going to a mall."

While attending high school in Jerusalem, Zakai used to participate in soccer games with a nearby Palestinian school, he says.

But the athletic events and other attempts to bring the two schools together were often canceled, he recalls.

Like all Israeli men and women, Zakai began his military service right out of high school in 1991.

After boot camp, he joined an artillery battalion and was selected for officers' training.

During the next four years, he spent nearly half that time serving in Lebanon and the occupied territories.

In 1993, he was riding in a jeep near the West Bank town of Jenin--the scene of the worst casualties in the current fighting.

An explosion rocked the vehicle, and his head went through the windshield. He was hospitalized with a severe concussion.

After his military service, Zakai came to America in 1995. He accompanied his father, a professor of early American history at Hebrew University, who was on a yearlong sabbatical at the Center of Theological Inquiry in Princeton, N.J.

After managing a restaurant in Princeton for a year, Zakai enrolled in the filmmaking program at the Rochester Institute of Technology in New York. Two years ago he came to Los Angeles to attend USC's graduate film school.

Seven years of living in America and being a decade older have given him a different perspective on military life, he says.

"There are things I did back then that I wouldn't do now," Zakai says. "Back when I was 20, I never thought I was going to die. I didn't think anything could harm me. But being in America has allowed me to see a more global perspective and see where we are in the scheme of things, because in Israel, it's your entire world."

For instance, one of his best friends in America is an Egyptian. And he has met and discussed "the situation" with many Palestinians.

In retrospect, he says, it concerns him that young soldiers, given the "exuberance of youth" and the authority associated with having a gun in their hands, often get carried away with power. The occupation "becomes a culture of one people having power over another," he says.

And yet, he adds, he supports Israel's military actions as necessary for the nation's self-defense.

While on duty once in the Gaza Strip, Zakai recounts, he "had to burst into a house at 2 in the morning looking for terrorists. I felt bad--I knew it was humiliating for these people. But it wasn't our policy. That wasn't the objective."

Los Angeles Times Articles