Growing up in Berlin’s rough and tumble neighborhood of Wedding, Arye Sharuz Shalicar never considered himself a religious or political person.
In fact, he spent his teen years as a wannabe gangster, rarely leaving his house without a gas pistol, knife and brass knuckles.
But in a dramatic transformation, Mr. Shalicar eventually left his life of petty crime in Germany to discover his Jewish heritage and become the spokesman for the Israel Defense Forces.
“People always harassed me when I was 13 years old because I was Jewish,” the now 36-year-old Mr. Shalicar said. “And now it is the same thing. People hate us because we are a Jewish state.”
During his childhood in Germany, Mr. Shalicar went by the Iranian name his parents gave him, Sharuz. At home, they spoke Farsi and had regular family meals with Persian dishes, he said. Only later, when he moved to Israel and embraced Jewish culture and religion, did he give himself the Jewish name Arye.
“We never went to the Synagogue and I did not have a bar mitzvah,” Mr. Shalicar said. “And when I visited an exhibition about (Nazi victim) Anne Frank during the 6th grade, I didn’t feel anything.”
Mr. Shalicar said at first he grew up in an environment where the religion and politics of the Middle East conflict did not play a role at all. He did not care what was going on in Israel or the rest of the world.
This is why it came as a surprise to him, when he got attacked at the age of 14 in Berlin. He was hanging out with a Turkish friend near a metro station in the multicultural district of Wedding, where he had just moved to with his family. A group of Palestinian teenagers came by and started to call him anti-Semitic names and one of them forced strawberries into his mouth with the words: “Take that, Jew!”
“I think this was the moment when it all changed for Sharuz,” said Sinan Corban, his Turkish friend who witnessed the attack.
“I pulled my knife and pushed it into my victim’s upper thigh and into his back”
What happened next is the sad, but not uncommon way of immigrant teenagers in Berlin taking the wrong turn in life. Mr. Shalicar started to become more aggressive and willing to defend himself against other kids that were making fun of him. He started dealing marijuana, became a graffiti sprayer and even participated in robberies.
Ethnic gangs are fairly common in the Wedding district, which appears to be an endless sea of kebab shops, discount stores and tanning studios. Teenagers often hang out on the street and spray their gang signs and names on houses and stores to demonstrate their presence and dominance.
Mr. Shalicar became a member of a gang that respected him and stopped mocking him for being Jewish after he established himself as a tough guy not shying away from violence. At one point, his gang was following a Turkish kid who previously provoked one of their members. They caught him and started to beat him up.
“I pulled my knife and pushed it into my victim’s upper thigh and into his back,” Mr. Shalicar said.
After he completed his compulsory military service in Germany, he decided he was “fed up” with Berlin and started looking for a change. He signed up for a five-week residency at a Kibbutz in Israel, where he was hoping to come to terms with his roots and visit his Israeli relatives.
This was the first time Mr. Shalicar said he felt accepted and at home.
“I wanted to return to Israel as soon as possible,” he said after his stay there.
While in Israel, there was nobody who mocked him about being Jewish. And just as he did in Berlin, when he changed to become accepted and a member of one of the street gangs, he changed again to assimilate with the local lifestyle and habits in Israel. He started to eat kosher, honored the Sabbath and started to look for a Jewish girlfriend.
Mr. Shalicar is now married with two children – a two-year-old son and a two-month-old daughter.
After the Kibbutz, he decided to move to Israel for good and in 2001 at the age of 23, Mr. Shalicar took a plane to Tel Aviv and joined an Israeli paratrooper unit. Later, he studied politics in Jerusalem and took classes in Hebrew.
“He has changed a lot,” said his old friend Mr. Corban, who met him a couple of months ago when he was visiting Berlin. Mr. Shalicar is now the spokesperson of the Israeli Defense Forces, responsible for European and Asian coverage as the conflict in the Gaza Strip grinds on.
He now wears an Israeli uniform and appears on BBC and CNN on a regular basis, attempting to explain what the IDF is doing in its offensive against Hamas. Comfortable switching between several languages, he is no longer the little thug with a chip on his shoulder. But not everyone is convinced he’s completely left his Berlin days behind him.
“When I see him on TV, I still see little Arye,” said Mr. Corban. “And sometimes, I recognize that expression in his face, when I just know, he wants to beat the other guy’s face.”