After more than 80 tours of the Holy Land over some 30 years, we decided to vary our usual bill of fare over there. We gave our people the opportunity to understand how things go on an average day at an army base.

World publicity has promoted a great deal of misunderstanding concerning the IDF, the Israel Defense Force. These young men and women just out of high school obviously have some grim soldiering to do, but they are not jack-booted thugs or angry young ideologues. They are simply people’s sons and daughters, on hand to help their country on a circulating basis.

My own sister has been a member of the Sar-El Project, which allows Americans to volunteer to replace soldiers during holidays. If an American is willing to come to Israel and do a desk job to enable a soldier to visit his or her home for Passover or the Day of Atonement, the army is very grateful. But every army needs help all the time, and so we were willing to pitch in.

Our day in the army” was a thrill for us. The task at hand would be whatever a specific unit needed on that particular day. It puts me in mind of the time the manager of a kibbutz ran into the dining room, where my small group was having breakfast, and yelled out loud, “My grapefruits are ready. We need grapefruit pickers! Where am I going to find competent grapefruit pickers?” And he looked at me with a wink. I looked at our group, and they all nodded, and I replied, “Why, we’re grapefruit pickers!” Within the hour we had happy tourists on ladders taking down grapefruits the size of volleyballs, and we were allowed to keep any number of “samples.” (Our folks had fresh grapefruit for days afterwards!)

At any rate, Will King, our ministry’s “Man in Jerusalem,” reported on our time at an equipment base just outside of Tel Aviv:

“Jeremy Gimpel, co-owner of thelandofisrael.com and an American who commanded troops in the IDF, spoke to the group the night before the volunteer mission. He said that our duties when volunteering are not important, but rather that our very presence is a morale booster for the troops. When soldiers see foreigners taking time out of their vacation to volunteer with the army, he said, that lifts their spirits. Jeremy said also that happy soldiers make for more alert soldiers, meaning that the Zola group volunteers helped to strengthen those who are on guard for Israel.

“Just like in the army, the volunteers woke up early, put on uniform shirts, and went to work. They were assigned jobs such as laundry duty and sorting tent stakes in the scrap yard and performed their duties with a smile.

“Through their hard work, the Zola group volunteers learned firsthand about what life in the army can be like. While army life isn’t for all, many expressed their willingness to come back and volunteer for a day again next year. For those who wish to volunteer with the IDF for longer than a day, please see the Sar-El project website at www.sar-el.org for further information.”

It was eye opening for our people to rub elbows with the everyday Israeli soldier, usually a youngster, soft-spoken and polite, with no particular political bent. Thus an American who wishes to help with Israel’s defense can be exactly who he or she is, a freethinking person, promoting democracy in this world in some small, but useful way.

I was proud of our people as I am proud of all people who undertake the trip to this wonderful Land, whether by tour group, on their own, or by volunteering in various replace-a-soldier posts.

The Holy Land has been globally maligned by Islamic propaganda and even by certain domestic denominations. Israel badly needs Americans to become familiar with it and turn into its ambassadors. Our tours have gone consistently since my first two in 1973-4, just before and after the Yom Kippur War. We take Holocaust survivors free of charge, door-to-door, on any of our tours, whether or not they’ve come to Jesus. This ministry believes that these people, above all, need to see their Promised Land.

As for me, I’ve been told that less talk about Israel would create a less-controversial ministry message but, frankly, “For Zion’s sake, I cannot keep silent” (Isaiah 62:1).