Lee Hiromoto, a reform Jew and Japanese American from Hawaii, shared his experience as an openly gay member of the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) with students gathered to hear him speak on Sunday.
Hiromoto obtained his undergraduate degree from Yale and during his time there converted to Judaism. His “first contact with the idea of Israel was in high school in AP U.S. History,” he said. Learning about the tragedy of the Holocaust and the millions of Jewish people killed because of their religion struck a chord with Hiromoto. He also found the story of the Six-Day War of 1967 inspiring, hearing about “these people who could go from being downtrodden [to] being able to stand up for [themselves],” Hiromoto said.
His first friend at Yale in 2001 was coincidentally Jewish and took Hiromoto to a Rosh Hashanah event just a few days after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Hiromoto said he “found the wishing of a good new year a sign of hope.” He converted to Judaism in December 2003, a short time before Hanukkah of that year. Hiromoto went on a Birthright trip to Israel, an experience which proved to be educational and eye-opening. There he learned about the Palestinian situation and the migrant workers in Israel who were not Jewish.
Hiromoto attained dual citizenship and was then obligated to serve in the IDF beginning in May 2008. “All Jewish citizens are drafted for a certain amount of time,” Hiromoto said. “Compulsory service [allows soldiers to] get to know each other as citizens of this country.” For the first two months of service, he was in basic training which was “mostly conducted by 18-year-old women,” he said. “It was pretty cool [that] this was how we indoctrinate our soldiers.”
During his time in the IDF, Hiromoto was openly gay. Aware of the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy in the U.S. military, Hiromoto “wondered how it would be in the IDF.” However, his homosexuality did not prove to be problematic: “I was out there, everyone knew, but everyone was uninhibited,” he said. His only encounter with homophobia was when he was told he could not serve on the same night shift as another openly gay soldier. However, “necessity was the controlling factor,” Hirimoto said: He and the other openly gay soldier eventually “had to do several night shifts together out of need.”
While in the IDF, Hiromoto served as the coordinator for government activity in the territories, the agency of the Ministry of Defense that is responsible for liaising with the Palestinian Authority. Hiromoto’s unit was especially responsible for transporting people to hospitals. Hiromoto visited hospitals in Jerusalem where Palestinian children were able to receive critical dialysis treatments several times a week. He was especially impressed by a Jewish Israeli surgeon who also served as an Apache pilot in the IDF. This surgeon treated Palestinian, Iraqi and African children alike in the intensive care unit. “This was a level of coexistence the world doesn’t always recognize,” he said.
Hiromoto talked about how “behind the times” the IDF was with the Internet and his help in catching them up to speed by creating a blog, Twitter and YouTube channel for the IDF. “It was a powerful tool for reaching out to people,” he said. In this way, he helped to build bridges between the military and the media.
During the Q&A, a student asked about Hiromoto’s reaction to the shooting at a support group for gay teens in Tel Aviv during August of 2009. The gunman killed three people and wounded 10 others. It was “very sobering for Israel. Right-wing [Benjamin] Netanyahu condemned the attack. Various leaders came out and said, ‘This is not who we are. We did not found this country to be like this,’” Hiromoto said.
Additionally, Hiromoto was not afraid to express that he believed Israel should leave the West Bank. It is “not good for Israel in the long run [and Israel] should leave at some point,” he said. “Israel should disengage from this enterprise of occupation.”
Hiromoto said that his intentions in coming to speak at the College and in other communities was to “help [us] think about a very important issue of our day and our people” and consider Israelis as “people who are diverse, complex and just as conflicted as other people around the world.” When asked what he would do if he had unlimited means and funds to promote Israel’s image, Hiromoto simply suggested everyone had to “go to Israel and experience the good, the bad and the ugly [because] you define Israel for yourself.”