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A Warrior and an Educator: A Conversation with General Nechemia Dagan

By Craig von Buseck Contributing Writer

CBN.comA note from Craig von Buseck: During my travels in Israel, I had the opportunity to spend some time with Israeli Defense Forces ex-Brigadier General Nechemia Dagan. The General served for more than 30 years in the air force, as one of Israel's first helicopter pilots, then as the commander of the nation's first helicopter base. His final post in the Israeli military was as Chief Education Officer. He is now a part of a company called ISRAM (Israeli/American Tourist Group) that works to bring Americans to the Holy Land. He was instrumental in organizing my tour. I sat down with General Dagan to get a perspective on the political and cultural situation in Israel in these difficult times.

CRAIG VON BUSECK: This has been a wonderful experience for me, and I want to thank you for all the hard work you have put into this. Your love for this country is also very obvious. I wonder if you could tell that story of when you traveled to Germany as a young pilot in the Israeli army.

GENERAL NECHEMIAH DAGAN: I was a pilot in the Israeli air force, flying helicopters for more than 15 years. Today I'm retired, in the reserves, but my last position was chief education officer, which is something totally different from what I did as a pilot. Many people asked me why I took this position. Knowing that I was an operational officer, a pilot, and commander, why would I want to become an educator? Why did I take this post? And what built my personality to be what I am? And my answer is that I don't know. You know, your personality comes from your parents, your background, your village, and from the leadership of the country. But I can detect one milestone; learning to fly helicopters in Germany.

I was a young pilot at the age of 23, and at that time we didn't have a school for helicopters in Israel. The decision was made to send us to learn to fly helicopters in Germany. And in one beautiful, blue-sky December day that we have in the middle of the winter in Israel, we went up in an airplane to fly to Europe. Because of bad weather we landed in the south of France and we traveled the rest of the way in a train. We arrived in Germany in the middle of the night, and it was very foggy.

Now trains and Jewish people and Germany, it's a very miserable combination that brought back memories from only a few years earlier at that time.

We went out from the train to a foggy night and we walked into the terminal. And from the dark appeared a German officer who came to escort us. He was blond with blue eyes, the typical nazi proto-type of Hitler, wearing the same uniform of the German soldier from 1940 to 1945. And even for me, an Israeli, born in Israel to parents who came from Bulgaria, it was a shock.

He took us to our base for the next eight months, it was the base of Hermann Goering, deputy of Hitler and the commander of the S.A. The day after, he introduced me to my flight instructor, who was a pilot in the Second World War, and we took off. For eight months our flight area was over Bergen-Belsen.

Now Bergen-Belsen was not a death camp -- it was a concentration camp -- but the pictures that you see, the movies that you see of bulldozers dropping corpses into big graves are from there. Today it's a beautiful park with a small sign. I was flying over Bergen-Belsen only 18 years after the Holocaust. I looked down and said to myself, "If the Jewish people that died here only 18 years ago could dream in their wildest dreams that 18 years after, a Jewish pilot would fly over Bergen-Belsen, and a Nazi pilot would salute him and call him 'sir'"

Of Bergen-Belsen I said to myself, "If this kind of a dramatic change could happen, everything can happen." So the fact that we have a state; the state of the Jews here in Israel, the only state we have, is a fact that has to be kept. It's not carved in stone.

Yes, we trust in many, many things to help us - we trust God, we trust everybody. But we have to do something ourselves. You have to do it by yourself. And I said to myself, "Don't be like many other people who see what has to be done and say, 'why me? I'm busy. I have a lot to do.'" I said to myself, "If something has to be done, do it because nobody else will do it."

So this is the milestone that I remember that gave me the direction to be who I became. Many people ask me, why don't I go into politics. But I don't want to go into politics. Almost everybody in this country knows me, and I'm on television, and on the radio from time to time, just doing the duties of my office. And what I'm doing is observed by people. I can give leadership by myself doing these things. This is my leadership.

All my life I was on the frontline of the activities of this country. During the wars I was a leading helicopter pilot in Israel, the frontline helicopters. Today I'm on the frontline of education, and art, and culture. And I joined the ISRAM (the Israeli/American Tourist Group) because I believe that one of the most important things today is to bring people to visit Israel.

That's the message that I want to send to you. Come to visit Israel. If Israel means something to you, come to visit Israel. The fact that people are not visiting us is translated by the Arabs, by the Palestinians, as a lack of support for the Jewish state. And because of that, they will be more rigid, and less flexible in negotiations. They will think that the world has left Israel; that the world does not support Israel. And I know that's not the truth, but some people don't understand it.

By not coming here, this is the hidden message that they send to the Palestinians. And you see, I'm not speaking about economy. I'm speaking only about coming here and supporting Israel. The economy is the second thing, yes, but this is the first thing. And this is why I'm doing it. That's why I helped to prepare this itinerary. That's why I joined ISRAM, and that's why I call to every Jew and Christian in America, that if Israel means something to them, to come.

CRAIG: You talked today about the importance of maintaining an aspect of civilization even on the military base.


CRAIG: Can you talk about how you as a leader are working to insure that, not only in the military, but across the nation, that this country doesn't become a militaristic state -- that it still maintains the human elements?

GENERAL DAGAN: Well first of all, I'm on television and radio spreading this message. I'm not officially a commentator, but just a week or so ago there was something on television about Israelis who were conscientious objectors, and they called me to do a television interview. I am on the radio and I am on television. This Friday I'm in the Jerusalem Post. There's an article that I'm a major part of it on it. This is a small country, and people say to me, 'you are in the media all the time.' And this message of maintaining civility comes very loud, and clear, and strong to the mind of the people. It goes so far that Knesset members are telling me, "I will help you in the parliament."

I participate in many forums and dialogues. I'm a speaker. I give lectures to the flight academy, to the officers' corps, and to the advanced officers' corps. I'm part of the curriculum. And I want to leave a heritage. You saw the sculptures garden at the military base. I'm the one who built that sculpture garden. I wrote to one of the famous sculptors in Israel and asked him to bring the sculpture into the squadron. On my base I gave three acres towards building the sculpture garden. After that, commanders all across Israel decided to do the same.

As communications officer I initiated two main projects. One I called "Sunday Morning Culture," and it started in a very sweet way. In Israel, on Saturdays soldiers go back to their homes for the weekend. Sunday they come back to their unit. How do they come? They come to places like Tel Aviv and Jerusalem to catch the buses to take them back to their bases. So I saw these dozens of people waiting and buying different things. And I went as a communications officer to check and see if the food that they sell them was good food, because you know, they've got all the junk served to the soldiers there. So I went to check it because I think education is more than reading and writing, education is, you know, the messages that we send.

And then I said to myself, you know what, on Sunday mornings while they are here, why not give them a theater performance or a concert. So I went to a friend of mine, an American, and he gave me $100,000 to help. This was almost 35 years ago. And I built performances, music, concerts, and theater for Sundays. The name is "Sunday Morning Culture." Sundays, the soldiers are coming to these places and instead of waiting outside they go to the theater. Thousands and thousands of soldiers, every Sunday morning, go to performances that are special for them. And, you know, normally the artists are people that send the message of hope and of better morals. So this is another heritage that I left.

The second project was for the gifted musicians. I took all the Israeli gifted musicians under my command. For the three years that they have to be in the military, they served as musicians. We have pianists, a chamber orchestra, quartets, and quintets all over Israel, and they play for the soldiers. The ticket master for the Philharmonic Orchestra told me that after we started doing this the amount of ticket buyers went up.

So these are things that in the past I did that are now continuing. Every Sunday morning the message is going out.

Now, I told you that I give many lectures to cadets, and the topic is "what you can do to make a difference." My message is that many Israelis, who are very good people, are trying to find the switch that they can switch for a new life. But there is no such switch. There are many, many small switches. My message is, find your switch, your private switch, and switch it on. Switching it on is not something big. Sometimes it is just helping somebody. Sometimes it is doing a small thing.

My hope is that each person who listens to me will decide that this will be their message, too. Switch your small switch. These people are all small lights who will light the big light of Israel. When I call everyone from the president to the prime minister, they will come because they know that this is my message of idealism, that's all. Not because of my blue eyes. Not because I'm something. I'm not rich. It's because they know that what I'm doing is for this country, for the existence and the future of this country.

It's amazing how people are coming to me today. Almost every week I meet someone who said, "you remember when you said," and they quote me. So you can understand now how powerful the words are, especially in the army. It is so important to think what you are doing and what you are saying, and to set an example.

CRAIG: Tell me a little bit about your history. You started out as just a typical pilot and you worked your way up?

GENERAL DAGAN: First of all I started as a young pilot, then I left the air force for two years. I went to the village because my wife and I, we are kindergarten lovers, we knew each other from the beginning. I went back, we got married and I was the head of the dairy, and then the driver of a heavy truck. Two years afterwards, I decided to leave because of an ideological decision, and I went back to the air force. So then I was in Germany. And coming back from Germany I became a pilot in the squadron of helicopters.

Very soon, there was a decision to go to buy a new helicopter and to establish a new squadron. I was elected by the air force to be one of the four pilots going to France to bring the helicopter back. So we went to France and we got the helicopter and we brought it back. We flew it back from Marseilles to Israel into the Six Day War. The Six Day War was a part of the helicopters' success in Israel.

Then there was the decision to buy a new and bigger helicopter. Again four pilots traveled to America, and now I'm the leader. The helicopter strike force was very small, but we built it up. Now I'm considered to be the father of the helicopters. That's my name in this country. I was in Germany in '63, France in '65, and America in 1969. I brought the big American helicopters to Israel, and I was the first commander. I established that squadron. I left for two years, then I came back to the army headquarters where I established coordination between the headquarters and the ground forces.

Then there was a decision to build a helicopter base, and so I was appointed to build the Palmachim helicopter base. I was given a year. And the minister of defense and the president of Israel, said, "You have a year, okay, go to the academy." I said, "No, no, no, I want to go to the tanks." He said, "You are crazy." I said I know that if I'm going to establish this base, I'm not going to build the gunship strike fight force, I want to learn how to fight against these weapons."

So I went to the tanks and for one year I did tanks, from basic training to commander of the division. I was 40 years old, a commander of soldiers, but I did the training. And it was a very interesting experience to be with the soldiers and to see what they experience. I started applying it, and built the helicopter base after that.

CRAIG: Let's switch gears a little bit and talk about this latest situation between the Israelis and the Palestinians. This has been a tragic week. The other day you were talking about how heavy your heart was, and that you went to the theater to say okay, this is our protest (against the suicide bombings). Tell me, after having done all that you've done for Israel, and your children have served Israel, and your wife is a wonderful artist, how do you look at this situation right now?

GENERAL DAGAN: You know, people think that establishing a state is a snap. It's a long process. But you know what, I, as an Israeli, I want to wake up tomorrow morning to see the Middle East empty of violence. It's a nice dream. So we have to find a way to come to some kind of an agreement. But we are stubborn and they are stubborn.

I've learned in my life that human beings don't learn from the experiences of yesterday. People say that history teaches. History does not teach anything. People have to experience all the hardship before they understand. And we are in this process of hardship and killings, and it's very tragic. But this is part of the development of relations between enemies. And I only hope that people will learn quicker, that people will come to conclusions quicker, and we can shorten the time that people are dying.

But you know it's a process, to establish a state after 2,000 years of the diaspora, it's not easy. So I say well, I'm trying to be optimistic.

CRAIG: Our audience, is primarily a Christian audience. You are familiar with Pat Robertson. We have been, and we are big supporters of Israel. What's the message that you would like to share with our audience, knowing that this is a group of Christians who support Israel and want to see it prosper?

GENERAL DAGAN: The main support of Israel today, I said at first, is to visit Israel, that's number one. To visit for two reasons: first of all for the message to the world that you are with us. It's one thing to say that you are with Israel, or to write it. But it is a different thing to come, to do it. And you can come here. I want to see a thousand people. We can arrange charters at a very good price -- charters to come and make a statement that you are with us, because that's who you are.

The second thing is to go back and to be our speaker in America. Sadly the publicity that Israel gets on the television is very bad publicity. They make it seem like we are slaughtering Arabs. One picture is worth a thousand words. You saw it. One visit is worth a thousand words. Come here and we will show you.

And by the way, the visit here is built between me and you. Because you know the audience, you know what you want. We can build it together. It's not just a visit, we build you an educational tour. Pat Robertson is educational. The president is educational. I'm educational, and we put together something that is a benefit for you.

You come here, and then you go back and you say, "I was there, I know." And I'm not fighting the big media, it's a waste of time. You're not fighting the media. But you can say, "You know what, I saw different things than what you see in the media." You have influence with your media.

So these are the goals: come here and make a statement. If Israel means something to you, and I know that Israel means something to you, then come. And then go back and be our messenger to America. That is my message, and I'm here to help you.

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Craig von BuseckCraig von Buseck is Ministries Director of Send him your comments on this article. More from Craig on

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