In our humble defense, we were new to America. My family was not used to dealing with homeless people and war veterans. There are no homeless on a kibbutz (small intentional community) and, if a soldier is wounded physically or mentally in Israel, s/he receives the best possible help. It is a given, no one questions it.
So you can understand that my then 7 and 3 year olds and I noticed every homeless person, especially those who were war veterans.
As we approached the entrance to the San Francisco Zoo, we saw a homeless man, clearly a war veteran, selling small American flags for a dollar each. He was smiling and greeting everyone, including those who did not purchase flags from him.
I impulsively gave my eldest son a $5 dollar bill but told him and his little brother to only take one flag each. After cheerfully chatting with my boys, the man took the bank note and went to give them change.
When my eldest said he didn’t want change, the man looked at me to confirm and I nodded. He then tried to give us three more flags and when we declined, he got upset. We had insulted him.
This proud veteran was not asking for charity. He was selling flags as a business. We have offended his self-respect.
It was an unfortunate incident and I was very sad for hurting him. That night, I sat pouring over the Internet, reading issues of war vets, homelessness, and P.T.S.D.
Sometime after midnight, my wife having given up on getting me to come sleep, I typed the following words: Unwanted Heroes, Chapter One.
Alon Shalev is the author of three social justice-themed novels: Unwanted Heroes, The Accidental Activist and A Gardener’s Tale. He is the Executive Director of the San Francisco Hillel Jewish Student Center, a non-profit that provides spiritual and social justice opportunities to Jewish students in the Bay Area. More on Alon Shalev at http://www.alonshalev.com and on Twitter (@alonshalevsf).