By Ben Tinsley
TJP Staff Reporter
DALLAS — Israel Defense Forces hero Izzy Ezagui offered an emphatic “Thank You” to Jewish Federation of Greater Dallas backers last week for their support of Taglit-Birthright’s heritage trips to Israel for young adults.
Ezagui has gone on record many times saying his very first trip to Israel, with a Taglit-Birthright group at age 18, was one of the major turning points in his life. It was an important point for Ezagui to make during his Feb. 19 speech at the JFGD’s 2015 Men’s Event.
The 20-something Ezagui said positivity — not a negative event such as a war or tragedy — should always be the driving force behind the not-for-profit educational organization program.
Taglit-Birthright allows young Jews to develop and nurture a love for Israel from a positive place, he added. Since 1999, the Dallas Federation has helped send more than 2,000 of its young adults on Birthright trips.
“We need to help [young adults] get their feet on the ground and help them feel what it means to be Israeli,” Ezagui said. “Each of you is allowing that to happen. Thank you for supporting the Federation, which supports Birthright. I owe you so much.”
Ezagui is famously known as “the one-armed warrior” after losing his arm in combat yet regaining readmittance to the military.
His status as keynote speaker at last week’s Renaissance Dallas Richardson Hotel JFGD event attracted an estimated 600 people. The event was co-chaired by Allen Feltman, Paul Rubin, Steve Schachter and Bob Weinfeld.
And if that sheer audience volume alone wasn’t any indication, the Men’s Event brought in nearly $700,000 with nearly 100 new donor gifts, Bradley Laye, president & CEO, of the Jewish Federation of Greater Dallas confirmed Tuesday.
On average, donors increased their gifts by 15 percent over last year, Laye said.
In all, Annual Campaign has raised more than $6.5 million, he added.
Ultimately, the Men’s Event made “a significant amount of money that will allow us to continue to help build and sustain Jewish life in Dallas, Israel, and around the world,” according to the JFGD webpage.
Ezagui was born and raised in Miami, Florida.
Charged by the positive experience of his Taglit-Birthright trip, Ezagui enthusiastically joined the Israeli military. But, only two weeks after his training was completed, he was hit by a mortar and lost his left — dominant — arm.
Determined to return to combat, Ezagui somehow, almost impossibly, met a general a couple of months later whom he convinced to let him rejoin active duty.
Overcoming his disability to such a great degree won Ezagui worldwide acclaim. In May 2011, Shimon Peres, the president of Israel, awarded him the “Citation Of Excellence,” which is the highest honor a soldier outside the battlefield can receive.
Ezagui now works as a public speaker and blogger for the Times of Israel.
He also remains a reservist attached to Israeli’s special forces. According to Feltman, who introduced Ezagui to last week’s JFGD crowd, the one armed warrior’s job is to protect his commanding officer as a sharpshooter.
During his comments, Ezagui spoke of the anguish he felt a few weeks ago when learning through the impersonal medium of a Facebook post that one of his former officers had been killed while part of a convoy near the border of Lebanon.
“There’s always something to be sad about,” he said.
Ezagui also discussed “Operation Protective Edge,” initiated to stop rocket fire into Israel from Gaza.
On June 12, Israeli teenagers Gilad Shaar, Naftali Fraenkel and Eyal Yifrach were kidnapped and murdered by two Hamas members. An Israeli crackdown on Hamas in the West Bank followed, resulting in the aforementioned increased rocket fire into Israel.
After “Operation Protective Edge” began, seven weeks of war followed — ground fighting, Hamas missile attacks and Israeli airstrikes.
During this conflict, a major objective of Israeli forces was destroying a series of “terror tunnels” beneath Gaza. According to the Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Hamas constructed the tunnels under the Israel-Gaza border for the purpose of terrorist attacks against Israel.
The tunnels were basically used for three purposes, according to reports: smuggling between Gaza and Egypt; weapons storage and defensive command centers inside Gaza; and offensively for cross-border attacks on Israel.
In mid-August, the IDF announced the existence of a new system — essentially a combination of sensors and special transmitters — that could be used to locate underground “terror” tunnels and could possibly even be deployed within the year. But the cost could be as much as $1.5 billion.
Ezagui said he recalls being asked to speak at the Israeli consulate in Manhattan after Gilad Shaar, Naftali Fraenkel and Eyal Yifrach initially went missing. While there, he disagreed with a moment of silence being held on behalf of the missing boys. He felt they might still be alive.
“Then we got the news that the bodies of those three boys had been found and that they were killed when they were abducted — so my gut was lying to me,” he said.
Ezagui said he and his reserve unit were not called up to participate in “Operation Protective Edge,” because it took place in a different corner of Israel than they are charged with protecting. But he wanted to help his comrades and felt frustrated he wasn’t in a position to do so.
“But it is not because I think there is any kind of glory or anything about going to war,” he said.
So Ezagui took to a different battlefield: interviewing on Al-Jazeera.
“If I couldn’t take live fire at ground zero, I could do it in a studio,” he said.
Ezagui’s speech contained a few light moments — one of which was at the very beginning of his speech. He initially faked out the audience with a bogus “Israeli accent.”
“Shalom everyone,” Ezagui said to the initially-puzzled audience. “Eet is a, great — ey — pleazure.”
Ezagui then quickly shifted gears to his American accent, prompting a wave of warm laughter from the audience.
“I know what you’re thinking,” he said with a smile. “‘The speaker said he was from Miami, Florida. Why is he talking in a funny accent?’”