To Serve or Not to Serve: A Dialogue Between Me and Myself on the Question of My Service in the IDF (2010-2011)

Forward: There seems to be a bizarre conception among many non-Leftists that we Leftists were born with a Megaphone in hand and developed our critical views of Zionism and militarism in the crib. This view has been expressed over the last few days, following my letter, in various forms: “You need to learn more about this place,” or “You only see one side of things,” or “Why have you never considered joining and being a moral soldier?”

This idea of Leftist-From-Birth, at least in my case, and in the case of most of my Leftist friends, is not the case. I have been wrestling with these issues seriously for a bit over a decade at this point, there were points in my life in which I fully identified with a ”pro-Army” stance, and I have given extensive thought to the idea of ”being a moral soldier.” Since my assertion of such might not suffice for some, I have decided to publish a document I wrote of the course of a year, 2010-2011, on the question of whether or not I would serve in the Israeli military. Many of my views have changed since writing the piece- especially since 2010, but also since the ”conclusion” in 2011- but for the sake of honesty-of-process, I will leave the documented unedited, as I think it will be interesting for some to read the internal process that led me to my recent decision.  It also should be an enjoyable read. Sort of bonkers, very non-academic, and amusing 

To Serve or Not to Serve

A Dialogue Between Me and Myself on the Question of My Service in the Israeli Army

Note: Any irreverence found in this piece should not be taken to mean that I take this subject lightly, by any means, but rather the opposite: this subject is so heavy for me that I would be unable to write about it without a substantial amount of irreverence.

The Cast:
Mori: Generally opposed to serving in the Israeli military. American based, liberal, humanistic.

Moriel: Generally for serving in the Israeli military, more inclined to “be Israeli,” make change from within.

Scene I (Summer 2010, in Jerusalem): To Be A Part of Israel, or To Be Apart from Israel

Mori: Hey.
Moriel: What up.
Mori: Oh, you know.
Moriel: I do indeed.
Mori: This is weird, talking to you.
Moriel: Whatever. It’s like having an imaginary friend. Who happens to be yourself… Anyway. Yalla. Let’s talk.
Mori: Word. So. You want to join the Israeli army?
Moriel: Do I want to? No. Not really. Actually, really not. At least, I don’t want to join the army in and of itself. I am pretty opposed to idea of armies, of organized groups of people whose basic purpose is to kill other people, of violence. Actually, I’d probably say I am almost a pacifist. Almost.
Mori: Hey, me too. What do you know?
Moriel: Hilarious.
Mori: That’s me. Anyways. If you’re generally opposed to the armies, then why would you voluntarily join one? Yes, I know, you’re being drafted, but you could choose not to go back to Israel and spend the rest of your life working for peace in the Middle East from America, so it is a choice…stop grinning at me, you dweeb. Of course I’m going to ask you loaded questions that are phrased such that they answer themselves- I’m you. Fine, fine, how about this: You could wait until you are 27, and then you could get out of serving no problem. So you are choosing to do this. Why?
Moriel: Well, Mori, it’s simple.

{Music cue: high snare, low snare, cymbal}

Moriel: Thanks for that, narrator. Let’s call you… mzrothma. Right, so it’s not simple [hey- in Arabic pronounciation –bronounciation, if you will- the word “simple” reads like “cymbal” {high snare, low snare, simple}]. Which is why we-
Mori: Stop. “We” is crossing the line. It sounds like shmeagol.
Moriel: Agreed. Passive voice OK, then?
Mori: Fine by me. I generally feel good about things that have been written in passive voice.

Moriel: Right. So, because this question is so far from simple, this dialogue was divided into different scenes. This scene, as may have been noted, is about being a part of or apart from Israel- God, I love words.

Mori: Word.

Moriel: This motivation, this desire to be a part of Israel- and a full, realized part- is the central and most important part of my decision, but it also breaks down into a lot of separate parts. First, let me start by saying that I fully respect those Israelis who elect not to serve on the basis of moral convictions- although I might disagree with some of their tactics, and I definitely am uncomfortable with the way some of the international community lionizes them in a way that implicitly says “these are the only good people in Israel, and everyone who decides to serve is evil” which is wrong on so many counts, and grossly simplistic, and part of the world’s incontrovertibly existent double standard for Israel (which I also hold, but that is a nuance which we will return to much later). I also want to say now that I recognize the immensely problematic nature of Israeli militarism and-

Mori: [singing] “Excuse me while I light my spliff (spliiff!).”
Moriel: What? Not only does that have zero relevance to what I was saying, but why are you singing in the middle of me trying to make an important point? Are you even listening to me?

Mori: Yes, of course I’m listening. I multitask. You know me. Anyway, it is kind of relevant. Check it out: I realized, as you were starting to wax all polisci and philosophical, that I am the spliff-loving, Bob Marley/Hippy culture emulating one out of the two of us. I’m the one who believes in the values of peace and love and drugs.
Moriel: You believe in drugs?
Mori: Mmm… no, not really. I guess not. But the rest of it.
Moriel: I’m not sure if that is a fair claim for you to make. I would actually argue that I might be the one who believes in peace more.
Mori: Are you kidding me? You’re talking about joining the army, Moriel.
Moriel: To reference a wise man, known commonly as Old Carey D, “Yeah, but still.”
Mori: [laughing] Fine. Well played. We’ll discuss the peace loving question later, in the scene about peace. You were saying…
Moriel: Right. Umm… Yes. So. While I feel that Israeli obsession with its military is a huge problem, my calling in life is not to fight that aspect of Israeli culture, at least not directly. First, I really do believe that Israel needs a strong military. Discussions of historical justice aside (for now) the people who live in Israel now -the kids, the old people, the grocers, the piano players- they have real, hateful and violent enemies—watch a Hizbullah rally on youtube, Mori, and then give me that look again…
Mori: You’re right. Sorry. I do agree that Israel has enemies, but that language worries me, because it is exactly that mentality, the “Israel has bloodthirsty enemies waiting to pounce the moment we show any sign of military weakness” mentality, that has allowed us to justify stepping on –crushing, really- the Palestinians’ rights and dignity. I just really have trouble with the mindset of “we must be strong in the face of our myriad of existential threats, from Hizbullah to Hitler…”
Moriel: I did not say that. I would never use the Nazi argument. You know that.
Mori: Never? I feel like I sometimes see the link. Not between Nazis and Hizbullah, per se, but this kind of pervasive international anti-Semitism… It is clear that Jews were used as a scapegoat for corrupt regimes who wanted to give their seething masses something else on which to pour out their wrath, if you will. So, did anti-Semitism just… stop, disappear, evaporate when the Holocaust ended? Of course Hizbullah members are not Nazis, and their grievances against Jews have at least some logical basis, but they still harbor grievances against Jews. If Israel was to make peace with the Palestinians today, would Hizbullah just lay down their arms? Unlikely. I would frankly be pretty terrified to “see what would happen” if Israel’s military didn’t have deterrent capabilities.

Moriel: What the fuck, Mori? Way to completely blur the line between the two of us. That sounded like something I should have said.
Mori: Well, technically, you did…
Moriel: Shut up. You are the embodiment of updog.

Mori: What’s updog?
Moriel: Not too much, what’s up with you? Thanks for indulging me on that one. I like arguing with you. It’s like you really… get me. Aha. Ha.
Mori: Well, that’s the thing. We’re not really arguing. This is a dialogue. That’s why I’m allowed to challenge you when you say you would “never” draw any kind of link between the Nazis and Hizbullah.
Moriel: Word. But I really don’t think I ever would draw that link, especially when talking about reasons I am thinking about serving in the Israeli army.
Mori: In the spirit of dialogue, I’m going to push you farther on this one: I don’t think it’s possible to fully separate between Israeli issues and the legacy of the Nazis- they’re so intertwined. Right? It’s fair to say that Israeli society as a whole is still traumatized by the Holocaust. Isn’t the entire Jewish people still traumatized? I mean, fuck, I am probably traumatized in some way by the Holocaust.
Moriel: Ok. Jewish peoplehood is totally an issue we’re going to need to get into at some point. Noted, Rothman? Good. So, I would disagree with your last point: I don’t think you are traumatized by the Holocaust. Ok, maybe to a degree, but for the most part the Holocaust’s legacy is active in your life only in spurring you and pushing you to obsess about these questions of justice and human rights and morality… Which I guess could be labeled some sort of trauma. We could have been such a successful corporate lawyer…
Mori: We also could have taken the ring from the Hobbitses, precious.
Moriel: Right, sorry. Not we. You. Me. One of us.
Mori: Yeah right. You can’t even walk by a piece of trash without feeling almost cripplingly guilty. Try defending racist, materialist, elitist schmucks who exploit poor people in a court of law.
Moriel: You’re elitist, too. And you like things. And you probably have some racist tendencies, despite the white privilege workshop you took with Karen Guttentag J-Term of your freshman year. And your privilege is based in a lot of ways on societal exploitation of poor people.
Mori: Yeah, but at least I feel bad about being all of those things. [laughs]. No, but on a serious note, that privilege is a big part of why I am talking to you and you are talking to me, right? Schweitzer says that “a man is only truly ethical when he obeys the compulsion to help all life which he is able to assist,” and isn’t that what’s being discussed here? How Moriel Rothman can best obey the compulsion to help all life which he is able to assist? We both –and here the we is necessary- we both feel compelled to focus our energies on ending the Israeli-Palestinian conflicts, on working for peace and justice for Israelis and Palestinians. That is pretty certain, at least for now. Those are the lives that we are most equipped and able to assist, from the angle of language skills –where else can I make my Arabic, Hebrew and English useful? And from the angle of knowledge, and from the angle of personal experience and connection to one of the communities –although the American Jewish Community Versus Israel Jewish Community Question (AJCVIJCQ) is a huge one, to be tabled as well for now. Like Jesse wrote from Namibia, about feeling like the only place he could really make change is at home, in a place that he knows, remember how much that resonated? The question is: what is the best way to make that change and to bring peace?

Moriel: Let me bring it back a bit. You went off. I need to draw a clear and complete distinction between Nazi anti-Semitism and Hizbullah anti-Semitism, because I am fully aware of the dangerous potential of putting the face of Nazism on all of our enemies. So yes, for me, there is no connection between Nazi anti-Semitism and Israel’s current enemies. My joining the Israeli army would have nothing to do with fighting Nazi-ish anti-Semitic enemies. The Holocaust would, in a very roundabout way, have an effect on why I would join the Israeli army, but only in the way you highlighted, as a force that compels me to seek peace and to struggle for justice. And maybe also as a force that ties me to my community, but it is impossible for me to analyze to what degree my portion of the collective memory of the Holocaust played a role in shaping my connection to the Jewish people and to Israel originally, so as much as I can guide my thoughts, the Holocaust and Nazism and defensive fear all have no connection to my decision to join the Israeli army. That point actually segues nicely into the next point I want to make, which is this: My joining the Israel military would have very little to do with combating Israel’s military enemies, as least in the literal sense.

Mori: What do you mean?
Moriel: I mean that I know that my service- or non-service- will have an incredibly miniscule effect on the Israeli military’s military capacity one way or another. I am not under the illusion that I will be contributing hugely to Israeli society by serving in Israel’s military –again, at least directly- in fact, I think Israeli society would do well to have a few less soldiers.
Mori: Fuck, Rothman. If you weren’t me, I think you would have lost me. So you think that Israel needs less soldiers, you’re not joining to protect Israel from its enemies –yeah, yeah, I know, at least in the literal, direct sense- and you don’t think that your service would contribute much to Israeli society. Does that mean your decision to join would not be motivated by patriotism or Zionism?
Moriel: No, it would be, in part. But in a very different way. My Zionism pushes me to serve –I think, although for good measure we should, later, add the question of Zionism versus Non- Zionism in the logic of my decision, and whether it would make a difference- but not to the service itself, but rather to what the service would allow me to do and be, a point I was trying to make earlier, but never got to finish, because you started singing Bob Marley and then you made that face at me when I started talking about Israel’s enemies.
Mori: Man, you are obsessed with the past. Let it go. What are you, a party to the Israeli- Palestinian conflict? Aha. Ha.
Moriel: Hey-yo. That was good. So. The point I’ve been getting to, when boiled down, is this: Israeli militarism and military obsession is a big problem, but it’s also a fact, and as such I have really come to the conclusion that it is impossible to be a full, functioning [male] member of Israeli society, especially as someone who wants to deal with politics and peacemaking, if you have not served. So that is the beginning. I want to serve so as to be a full part of Israeli society, if I so choose. I will always be an American, and will always be able to see things from the eyes of an outsider, but without serving in the army, I truly believe that I would forgo my capacity to speak with the voice of a full Israeli- and I say this both in terms of how others would perceive me, but also how I would perceive myself. I deeply respect the choice of those who do not serve based on moral reasons, but they are neither a movement strong enough to make a significant impact at this point, nor are they my community within the Israeli community- I consider myself part of the “national left,” and even I myself, as left as I am, see the views of someone who has served in the army and is then critical of Israeli policy as far more poignant than the views of someone who refused to serve. But that’s a point we will need to get back to. Israeliness, for now. My capacity to “become” a full Israeli is partially based on circumstantial luck, like my being born here (which is also another element of this question, the fact that I would be fulfilling a mandatory service obligation and not volunteering, although practically I could stay in American and have a nice life, et cetera), and even more seemingly small but practically huge, my ability to speak Hebrew well and with a very good accent really is hugely important. The question that arises next, I think, is this: why do I want to be a part of Israeli society? And here is where we drop off the clickety rollercoaster hill of buildup and terrifying suspense into the hills and corkscrews and loops of philosophy and politics and identity and purpose and religion and spirit and more. Cute metaphor, the rollercoaster, yeah?

Scene II (Summer 2010, in Jerusalem): Means and Ends- Justice and Injustice and Nonjustice.

Mori: The cutest. But I think your little monologue just now begs a lot of questions, and I am not ready to let you seal that point, that you want to be a part of Israeli society, yet. That has a huge amount of complications, both practical and moral. First, allow me to preempt your usage of Martin Buber and cite his writings myself. It sounds like you are saying that service in the Israeli army would essentially be a means to the end of being part of Israeli society, and (although you haven’t said this yet, somehow, strangely, I know you will) ultimately being a part of Israeli society is yet another sort of means to the end of changing Israeli society, of making peace, of doing good for your people, for the Palestinian people, for the world, et cetera.

Moriel: I’m not sure that being a part of Israeli society is a means, in the same way…
Mori: But you would be coming here, in essence, because you want to make peace and work to make this place better, and you think that your capacity to do so would be increased by being a full member of the society, right? I mean, even if you don’t serve, you can always come here to visit, and probably to live at a later point in life, when you are no longer of interest to the army, and then you can do your work to make peace here from the outside, which is incredibly important as we both know only America can make peace happen here in terms of ending the occupation.
Moriel: I wouldn’t see myself as part of Israeli society, no matter how many years I waited to come here. Bradley Burston and Gershom Gorenberg, two Americans who made aliya and who I admire deeply because of there insightful, nuanced work for peace here, both served, and knowing that made me respect them more.
Mori: Times were different then. Service didn’t necessarily mean serving the Occupation. You would be voluntarily serving to protect something you believe is ultimately harming Israel’s security and something you believe in morally repulsive. But we have to put Gershom and Bradley and even Occupation on hold for a second, kiddo. This is getting way too tangential. I still haven’t even made my point about Buber.
Moriel: Yalla. Do it.
Mori: Ok. Buber writes that it is never acceptable to justify unjust means with the possibility of just ends- a very compelling (for me at least) complete reversal of Machiavellianism. He says, moreover, that if your means are unjust, then your ends will never be turn out to be just. It is all about process. And you know that well. Where is the guarantee that you will achieve peace, or even succeed in making any positive change at all, based on the fact that you served or even regardless? There is none, but we both agree that there is immense value in struggle and process. So from Buber’s perspective, as your favorite Zionist philosopher, and as a huge influential moral, ethical, political, religious and spiritual thinker for you, isn’t that it? Discussion over? Moriel: No. Fantastic point, but no. That reminds me a lot of the conversation I had with Hamutal- who had refused, and was incredibly thoughtful and compelling about her reasons for having done so- in the summer of 2010, in her Tel Aviv apartment. The answer to your question of “isn’t that it?” is yes, unless one of two things. One: I disagree with Buber, which I am not inclined to do, especially on this specific point. I think, at most, he may be a bit overstated here, and that there is more gray than he allows for (a la Obama’s courting Ben Neslon to pass health care?). Or Two: That I decide that service in the Israeli army is not an unjust means to a just end, but rather that it can in some way be a just means, despite all of the injustice that the army is currently perpetrating against the Palestinians, and injustice of most army actions, period. This is an insanely difficult and extremely important point, and I am going to try to build up to it from a few angles.

Mori: Yalla. Do it.
Moriel: Ok. Angle 1: The “more moral” soldier. I would be a soldier who would treat Palestinians very differently than a settler-soldier who despises Arabs to begin with, or even an indifferent mainstream Israeli soldier who has no concrete notions about Occupation or justice and has bought into the bullshit that we will be wiped out unless we continue to keep the Arabs down with a heavy hand. I am not like them. I speak Arabic, and I see the Occupation as basically horrible. I think that there is a chance that I could be a different type of soldier, and that my effects on the Palestinians I interact with, and also on the other Israelis in my unit, could be positive. This is an extremely tenuous argument, but also could have a lot of truth to it. Tenuous because the army doesn’t allow much room for humanistic views and nice people and-
Mori: Also tenuous because what difference does it make to a Palestinian if you are a friendly occupier or an unfriendly occupier: either way you are an occupier.
Moriel: That is one of the most central points, here. But I think that your stating it like that is way too black and white. I think it does make a difference if I try my hardest to be decent to the Palestinians I meet, rather than hitting them or humiliating them. Or even better: If I use my position of power to ensure, as much as is possible (which frankly I have no fucking idea. I have no fucking about most of this. I don’t know what the army is like. I don’t even really know what the Occupation is like. I mostly disagree with Israelis who tell me I can’t understand what’s going on because of my outsider’s perspective, my “mabat chitzonti,” but there is a part of me that has to wonder if, to some extent, they are right. Not about the biggest facts, like kicking Palestinians out of there homes in East Jerusalem is wrong, period, but about the smaller facts, like my friend ”D,” who is now in Nachal, who told me that most of what Israeli soldiers are doing in the West Bank these days is protecting Palestinians from settlers. Is that true? I have not idea. But that is what I was going to say before I opened this verbal parentheses:) that the settlers are stopped from hurting the Palestinians, and are punished for violent actions.
Mori: You won’t be able to. What influence will you have? You’re a pawn there.
Moriel: Maybe. Probably. But also maybe not.
Mori: That’s it? So you’d be willing to go into the army on that maybe?
Moriel: No, there’s more. It is true that the army is a huge part of Israeli society, and that the Occupation is a huge part of what the Israeli army is doing right now. (Inshallah, when it becomes time for me to make this decision, there will be the beginnings of unwinding the Occupation). I am against the Occupation, pretty simply, and the thought of helping it makes me sick. But there is still gray. Would I beat a Palestinian kid up so as to go back to Israeli society and say that it is wrong to beat Palestinian kids up? Absolutely not.

Mori: But what if you are ordered to beat that kid up, or do something else that you, I, we feel is extremely wrong? Then what, you say “no” and go to jail?
Moriel: Yes.
Mori: But how will you know? It’s not going to be that simple. Your commander is not going to approach you and say “Shalom, Rothman, please go and beat up that innocent Palestinian child.” It’ll be more gray, and you may not have the time, or the capacity, or the strength to really check yourself, and check what you are doing and say no. You may end up justifying those kind of things with the idea of “experiencing.” Are you willing to do that?

Moriel: It boils down to a question of trusting myself. Trusting my ability to be what I believe I am. Trusting my values that have been instilled with me since I was little, and that I have cultivated and worked on and honed throughout my time in college. I have three bullet points to go with here: Tim O’Brien. Clean Hands. Medic. First Tim O’Brien. The author of “The Things They Carried,” one of the most powerful anti-war books I have ever read. He went into the US Army, during the Vietnam War, despite his anti-war beliefs. The most powerful anti-war voices, both in America and in Israel, are the ex-soldiers. I’m not going to become a soldier just to then become an ex-solider, but I think it is important to note the power of ex-warrior’s anti-war voices, like Breakng the Silence or Combatants for Peace, or the leaders of Shalom Achshav, or Rabin, or even our tour guide in East Jerusalem, Eran, from Ir Amim.

Mori: But isn’t the point of Tim O’Brien’s book and of Breaking the Silence’s work basically that people like you will say, whoa, hey, war is pretty fucked up, I don’t want to do it. Aren’t you just perpetuating the cycle of violence by giving into the conclusion that army is an integral part of Israel society?

Moriel: I don’t know. I don’t know what Tim O’Brien’s whole point is. I don’t really know anything. I’ve read a lot of books, and seen some movies, and written some analyses, but I’ve basically kept my hands clean. So an Ethiopian immigrant comes to Israel, and he has no choice but to serve, whereas I, the privileged American, can choose to stay away, to let the Ethiopian do the unpleasant work of Occupation while I write articles and drink coffee?

Mori: That is not a fair generalization to make about American peace activists.
Moriel: It’s not about American peace activists, and it’s not a generalization. It’s about me, about how I feel, and about how I see myself in Israeli society and in the world. A huge question that arises, and I realize that we have gotten pretty tangential, is whether my service would help the Occupation more, or would help me end the Occupation more?
Mori: I think that it’s so dangerous to think so highly of yourself, that you would be able to be a decent person in terrible conditions, that you would be able to go to jail rather than do something truly unjust, that you will be able to use your service to make peace.
Moriel: And I think that it’s dangerous to not think so highly of yourself. I will not live a life of cautious mediocrity.
Mori: That is not fair, and that is not what I am suggesting.
Moriel: Fine. It may be overstated. But I think that I believe in who I am. I believe that I can do something to turn Non-Just- and note that I am not saying unjust- circumstances into more just circumstances, and that I can refuse to perpetrate complete injustice. And here is where being a medic becomes such an important part of my decision.

Scene III (December, 2010, New York City). Back At It.

Mori: Hello again.
Moriel: Yo.
Mori: How have you been?
Moriel: Well. Good, for the most part. This question, our question, this play’s question has actually been somewhat dormant—although I haven’t been dormant. Work with J Street U has kept me feeling immensely connected to Israel, and to the conflict. I’ve actually been more actively engaged in the issue than ever before: I’ve published a few op-eds for the Huffington Post, been interviewed on the front page of the New York Jewish Week, helped organize a protest/demonstration against our good friends at the Hebron Fund in New York, organized, met, phone called, emailed. And I am proud of what I am doing.
Mori: Word to that. So where did we leave off? Actually, you know what, let’s not worry about where we left off, and let’s go from where we are now.
Moriel: Word to that. So I think, before starting, we need to recognize something that we both recognize- In Israel, I become the dominant perspective, and in America, the opposite is true.

Mori: Right. I can remember cognitively how I feel when I am over there, but being surrounded by people who think Americanliberally makes me think, well, Americanliberally. And being surrounded by people who think Israelily doesn’t fully shift things, because my Americanliberalism has been the core of much more of my life than any Israeli perspective, but still, being in Israel gives you voice.
Moriel: And so, who is more right? A few things happened over the last few days that brought this issue back up to the forefront of my thought arena. First, I was out to dinner with Kristen, Toren, Taryn, Tamara and Rachel-
Mori: Amazing dinner, by the way, incredibly beautiful, fun, rich, connected. “Humans interacting well,” as I put it.
Moriel: Agreed. So, we were talking about what we wanted to do when we grew up, in dream world, and I said I wanted to run a coexistence, activisty bagel café, in which I held meetings and cultural events and speakers and did community organizing. And then Taryn asked me where this café would be, and without missing a beat I said:
Mori: Israel.
Moriel: Right. So doesn’t that mean that my voice should carry more weight, that trying to decide this question while still in the states has some element of disingenuousness to it?
Mori: Not necessarily. Because maybe in dream world you want to have your bagel place there, but you also have dream worlds of… grad school in New York…
Moriel: Stop it. Grad school in New York. Don’t think so grandiosely. Oh man. I can’t sit still the thought strikes me as so original and thrilling.
Mori: Fuck you. You know what I mean.
Moriel: Sure, but I also realize, we realize, that right now, when you were trying to think of a counterexample to my Israel bagel café dream, you couldn’t, and grad school in New York was the only really exciting thing you could imagine doing in America. Get of here. This country is nice, it has a lot to offer a lot of people, and I imagine you’ll spend a lot of your life here, but is this really where you dream of being?
Mori: Fine, let’s say, arguendo-
Moriel: Don’t use that word in conversation. You’re such a tool.

Mori: It is a dope word and you damn well know it.
Moriel: Mmm… fine. Agreed. We are agreeing a lot this evening. Oh, before I forget, the second thing I wanted to tell about was sitting tonight in the Hummus Place with Kristen and Abeo and my dad, and talking to the Israeli guys there, about nothing, and ordering a Goldstar and the intense sense of longing –ga’aguim (b’aiyin kaved, kamuvan b’yamim elu, yaa yehudi arabi sh’kamocha)- of wanting to be back there, and of sadness at the thought of forcing myself into a year of exile just so I could maybe, two years from graduation, have a guaranteed shorter service in the military, if I even decide to do the military then.
Mori: But can you really let this huge of a decision be made on the basis of emotional, whimsical feelings, rather then thoughts, that have been worked out and tossed around and pounded and wrestled with, thoughts that you’ve spent the past three and a half years trying to cultivate and hone? My arguendo was going to be, let’s say, arguendo, that Israel is where Moriel Zachariah Rothman needs to end up. That doesn’t mean that the army is where he needs to end up. A big reason that my voice is so important in this debate, that the idea of “go back to Israel and allow the Israeli perspective to soak in, and then see” doesn’t full cut it, is that I can see one thing a hell of a lot better than you can when you’re in Israel.
Moriel: The Palestinians.
Mori: Yeah. The Palestinians. And we both know that there is no formula of Israelism that can make wrong, for you, any sense of deep, true empathy with the Palestinians. Because you are not you, I are not I, if you are not defined by your belief that every person on this earth is completely equal and at their core, and that everyone on this earth has a spark of God in them, and that us- versus-themism may be necessary at some point, but it is never right. As Buber said, by living, and especially by living as Jews in Israel (then Palestine) we are inherently perpetrating injustice. So it is thus upon us to make sure that we make that injustice as minimal as possible. And is enlisting in the army really making that injustice as minimal as possible?
Moriel: Well, here is what I have come to over the past few months, with a lot of nudging from my experiences at Building Bridges for Peace. And we agree on this point. It is not possible to be a moral soldier in the Occupation. But it is possible to be a soldier who is not in the Occupation, who does not refuse to serve but refuses unequivocally to serve in the Occupation, like Uri, who is kind of my hero. And then, the question of morality rearises, and I think has a fighting chance, excuse that double meaning. (As Uri would say, “Language joke!”)
Mori: Right, but then I come at you with the argument (which I am not sure if I buy) of you still being a soldier in an Occupying army, supporting the greater infrastructure of Occupation, another cog in the machine of Occupation.
Moriel: And then you sound the boycotters. Which is bullshit. It is understandable, especially for Palestinians, but is it ultimately bullshit and you know that. Especially for you.
Mori: Maybe it’s not, though, maybe we’re on the wrong side for someone trying so desperately to be right. And I don’t mean right as in correct, really, rather right as in… right. Tzodek. Tzedek. Rodef that shit, man. Is putting on a uniform and listening to powertripping nutjobs foam at the mouth about victimhood and evil Arabs really rodefing tzedek?
Moriel: A. I don’t think that you think that right side and wrong side really has any chance of withstanding scrutiny-
Mori: Haha- now you’re talking con law speak too. Imagine, arguendo, that you’re also a total tool-

Moriel: And B. do you really think any of that simplistic self-righteousness will help make things better, will bring more peace and more justice and more equality and more safety and more happiness to more people?
Mori: Do you think that being in the army will?

Moriel: No. But that’s not the point. I don’t think that being in the army itself will be the most conducive to my pursuit of justice, but it may ultimately help my greater pursuit of justice…

Mori: Really? Do you really believe that, or do you just want to serve so that you can feel like more of a man when some tall, strong Israeli dude asked you if you served or not, or even some American girl gets all fascinated by how mysterious and troubled you are?

Moriel: You know that’s not a primary motivation at all. It may exist in the back of my mind, as a doubt, which is why it now exists on this paper, which, after all, is all stemming from the same mind, but it cannot be and is not any kind of central factor. Which is why I am comfortable saying decisively that Kravi, which is really the most and the only gever-gever position in the army, is not on the agenda. Period. I won’t kill for societal glory, I won’t boss a Palestinian around so I can hold my own in a rhetorical battle on the streets of Tel Aviv.

Mori: So then what’s the point? Why serve at all? Why not just skip that step and do what you really want to do in Israel- make peace, make justice, make bagels.
Moriel: I don’t know how to make bagels.
Mori: You’ll learn.

Moriel: Maybe. But why not do all that? I don’t know. Maybe I will. But maybe I’ll be so severely limited my capacity to function as a full member of society, and thus as someone who can really make peace and justice (I guess an outsider could make bagels fine). Then it comes down, again to reference the Supreme Court, to a question of balancing. Balancing the potential benefits that could come from having served a short stint in the army, and the potential evils that could come from the same stint.

Mori: Which is why I want to be cautious, to take that year to travel, and go to Nepal-
Moriel: -on that somewhat ambiguous Israeli service program which may or may not be great or bullshit, you wouldn’t know, because your research was so shoddy in your effort to find something that wasn’t Israel to do for that year.
Mori: Fine. Maybe. Yeah. But could you really see yourself serving a long period of time in the military- the military, Rothman, where they idealize violence and dehumanize the other and treat you like a fucking number? No one in the military gives a fuck about all of your lovely emotions. Moriel: I don’t know. I don’t know if going back now is going to make the service longer, I don’t know if I’ll be able to swing protectziot, I don’t know if I’ll regret whatever I end up doing, but if I feel so drawn to be in Israel, shouldn’t I just go be in Israel and take things as the come- smartly, with help, with advice, with planning, but… there?
Mori: Is waiting a year really such a hard thing?
Moriel: Kind of. Yeah. That whole year will just be more wondering and struggling and questioning, rather than doing. As Murray Dry posited, in Con. Law, once again (wow. Seems to have been a pretty dope class after all): “Maybe the world of thought and the world of action are fundamentally in conflict?” Shouldn’t I just do?
Mori: I don’t know. Not if doing rashly, hastily, is going to end up making you do something you really don’t want to or can’t do, be that army for two years or jail or whatever else…

Moriel: Well, productive talk.
Mori: Shut up. This whole deal is not about getting to an easy answer.
Moriel: But rather about putting out the hardest questions, I know. I’m tired.

Mori: Whaddya know, me too.
Moriel: And scene. Actually, not scene yet. I wanted to go back to a point you made earlier, about how you are able to “see” the Palestinians better from America. I would agree that that is mostly true- Israel’s wall is much higher than the eighteen or whatever feet of horrifying cement wall-
Mori: Speaking of that wall. Just wanted to remind you for a second of how you felt when you saw that scene in Budrus, the one where the Palestinians have cut the barbed wire fence and are climbing over it into the sunset…
Moriel: Yeah. That was horrifying.
Mori: Yeah.
Moriel: But, nonetheless, I wouldn’t be the soldier shutting down nonviolent protests.
Mori: But you’d still be part of the same basic structure.
Moriel: But imagine how much more powerful my voice of protest would be if I had served and then could still say the same things…
Mori: But they already have those. There are the Mikhaels, and the Breaking the Silences, and the Combatants for Peace and all of the other Israelis who have served and are now critical. They don’t need more of those. They need something new.
Moriel: But they don’t have it in American form. Right? If my role in Israel or on this issue is going to be to influence American Jews, it would be something new to have an American Jew who had served, and was able to both remain connected to the issue, and to remain so entirely pro-peace and justice.
Mori: But wouldn’t it be also new to have an American Jew refuse to serve in the army after making aliyah? Ani misarev KI ani Tzioni?
Moriel: But that position doesn’t stand up to scrutiny either, on a personal or a political level. If I refuse to serve in the army entirely, that is saying that I don’t believe that Israel needs an army-

Mori: Not necessarily.
Moriel: Come on. That is what it is saying if I refuse publicly, dramatically, statement-ly. You know it is. You know what that community, the refusnik community is like. They are not a Zionist community; they are not your community let alone mine.
Mori: What about the refusniks from Yesh Gvul? Like Zohar Milchgrub, who happens to be both an awesome dude and your third or fourth cousin?
Moriel: Right. But they didn’t refuse to serve in the army, they are only refusing now to do reserve duty in the Occupied Territories.
Mori: Not true, some of them are refusing to do reserve duty at all.
Moriel: True. But they still had served in the past.
Mori: You remember what Zohar said though, on the phone, about how no one he met on the street gave a fuck that he had served in the past, the fact that he was handing out this literature made him a despicable leftist just like any other despicable leftist who hadn’t served.
Moriel: That’s from the nutjobs, though. I don’t care about them. I am not going to make any decisions based on them. I want you to remember something.
Mori: What’s that?
Moriel: The fact that you yourself had- and maybe still have- this internal reaction when you met leftwing Israelis that went something like “I hope they served in the army,” and if they had, they could almost say anything and you would be hard pressed to disagree. You also bought into the army worship to a certain degree, even if you sought out the ex-soldiers whose political leanings were like yours. You were able to listen the most, and to finally swing to where you are the most, thanks to people like Eran Tzidkiyahu and Mikhael Manekin, and their tours this past summer in East Jerusalem and Hebron. Both of them were former combat soldiers. So if even you(/me) were like that, don’t you think the pattern holds for less leftist- but still ultimately rational, and soul-endowed- young American Jews?

Mori: That’s a really good point. But I have a win coming up. Weren’t you going to say something about Palestinians?
Moriel: What? Oh. Yeah. I was going to say that while you can usually see Palestinians better than I can, that doesn’t apply when I am living in Deir al-Assad. Or at Sheikh Jarrah.

Mori: OK. So when you are living in Deir al-Assad, Moriel, are you feeling compelled to join the army then? Isn’t it more accurate to say that its me who has gone to live in Deir al-Assad? Interestingly, that’s the only place in Israel I generally introduce myself as Mori.
Moriel: That’s just cause Moriel is too hard in Arabic.

Mori: Is it? Or is it because it’s too Israeli?
Moriel: I…
Mori: When you are in Deir al-Assad, I would posit that that is when you feel least compelled to join the army. Think about how horrible it would be to run into Rihan and his kids on a bus or on the street- wa inta labis thiyab jaish al-ihtilaal- wearing the uniform of the army of Occupation.

Moriel: Yes. That would be horrible horrible. At the same time, maybe there is something wrong with the fact that I can just be an American and go about my merry way while in Deir al-Assad. Isn’t the whole point of the project to increase tolerance and coexistence and learn about the other side and change and be changed?
Mori: Livnot and lihibanot, kilu?
Moriel: Chalas, habibi. Enough tziniut.
Mori: Fair. Go on.
Moriel: It’s great that you can prance over to Deir al-Assad and be accepted and live together with Arabs- bas isma’- you know it and I know it: This is not a conflict between Jews and Arabs. That’s why you didn’t go to Egypt. That’s why Abraham’s Vision was predicated on such a faulty formula. This conflict is a conflict between Israeli Jews and Arabs.
Mori: So you’re saying you want to be in Deir al-Assad as an Israeli and not as an American. What are you going to do, walk in there in uniform? Do you really think people would trust you the same way if you told them you’d been in the army?
Moriel: Maybe. I’d still have made the same amount of effort to learn Arabic and memorize Darwish and respect their culture. But… No. You’re right. It wouldn’t be the same. It’d be harder. But maybe that harder is a necessary leap. And anyway, think about how powerful a gesture it’d be to other Israelis to say that “I’ve served and I lived in Deir al-Assad.”
Mori: Again, though, your focus seems to be on other Israelis.
Moriel: Yes. I believe that I can make the most change in my own community, and I see my community as an extension of myself.
Mori: Really? Even the psycho-fascists in Sheikh Jarrah? Those punk kids who accosted you and Jesse and Ben Alter laughing and saying death to Arabs?
Moriel: Yes. I think. Yes. I mean, remember sitting down that night for Shabbat, and making Kiddush, and then thinking, fuck, they are making the same Kiddush over there in Sheikh Jarrah. We are part of a community. That kind of fascism is a cancer on our community’s soul. But you can’t cure cancer by running away from it. You have to engage it, rip it out.
Mori: Is that how cancer treatment works, Mr. doctor sir?

Moriel: Speaking of Mr. Doctor sir. I do think it would make a difference -and this is a point I’ve been trying to get to for a while- what I did in the army. I could tell them I was not a combat soldier, and I was not an mukhabarrat, a spy. I was a doctor. Kul al-nass yuhibun doctors. Everyone loves doctors. And also- there are Arabs there who served in the army, and people might whisper about them, but as far as I saw, they are still members of the community. Their community is, for better or for worse, one that understands the need to compromise so as to function in society. For worse, I’d say, because their compromise comes from a place of being subjugated. But still, I think they might be more understanding than you’d expect about you serving.

Mori: Oh really? You think they’d like the idea of yet another privileged American Jew coming back to their Palestine and saying this is my home! and picking up a gun to fight for his home! against their cousins?
Moriel: No. They wouldn’t like it. I don’t like it. But they might understand it. And again, if there is to be an American Jew coming to Israel, from their perspective, al-hamdulillah if its me and not Alan Dershowitz Jr., right?

Mori: Why? Because you are more tolerant and speak Arabic and feel bad about what the army does? What does feeling bad really do? A crying soldier at a checkpoint is still a soldier at a checkpoint. He just gets taken advantage of more.
Moriel: But that’s the whole point. I’m not going to be a checkpoint. I’m not going to kill or beat anyone up. I’m going to be a medic, and I will help people be less sick or less hurt, or will just sit around in a stupid office and twiddle my thumbs but at least I will be a medic.

Mori: And what if they don’t let you be a medic?
Moriel: They will. I will figure it out.
Mori: And if they don’t?
Moriel: Then I do something else that’s innocuous. Or I get out of the army. Or I go to jail.

Mori: Really?

Moriel: Really. We shall overcome. Summud, ya’ani. Word.
Mori: What? You can’t use that language.
Moriel: I can use whatever language I want. This is play about me talking to me. I am the benevolent dictator in this little world. I can co-opt Palestinian national sentiment to talk about my plans to l’hitakesh until the army lets me do what I want to do. And on a real note, its not full cooption. Remember that moment talking to Z this summer, at BBfP, when she said that she thought your commitment to serve but not to serve in the Occupied Territories was “very brave?” She meant that, I think. And think about how much the Palestinians at camp trusted and respected Uri. That was real coexistence. Mine is fake. I’m not fully an Israeli.
Mori: How can you buy into that bullshit? Yisraeli amiti lo mishtamtet, kilu? Fuck you.
Moriel: I don’t buy into that. That is bullshit. Dana and Hamutal and Zohar are all real Israelis. But they’ve lived there their whole lives. I haven’t.
Mori: So being in the army would change that? Being a medic in Tel Abib?
Moriel: No. But somewhat, on paper, and in my own mind. I will always be a different case, always very American, and I appreciate that. To quote Marcel the Shell, “I like that about myself.” And anyway, I think that kzat sevel could be good for you; you’ve lived a damned privileged life.
Mori: Oh, right. So sitting miserably in the army for however long will be edifying. Won’t fuck me up so much that I quit this issue of peace entirely cause I no longer yachol.
Moriel: No, I don’t think it will.

Mori: I don’t either, actually. I’m pretty resilient. Although, that said, I’ve never been in the army. Or in a situation for a long period of time that I hated.
Moriel: But maybe you won’t hate it. Maybe it’ll be fun.
Mori: Great. So now you want to enlist because it will be fun?

Moriel: No. The opposite.
Mori: The opposite?
Moriel: No. Not the opposite. But not because it will be fun, but I would like if it were not un- fun. I take back that kzat sevel comment. Stupid thing to say. Im kvar you’re looking for sevel, go volunteer in a third world country, where by suffering, at least you’ll be doing something for someone else.
Mori: Word. Well. Let’s call it a scene now.

Scene IV: The fucking army? (Summer 2011, Ohio)

Mori: So, let’s start out by putting this out there: I am feeling much stronger than you are.

Moriel: Yep.
Mori: Then, let’s get right to it: are you fucking kidding me? Join the army? You must be joking. You had a hard time wearing the same gown as everyone else graduation. Your whole purpose in life is pursuing peace. Reading Jesse’s thesis, you found King’s radical pacifism to be so… right, whereas Niebuhr’s “recognition of the need for power and force, etc,” just sounded so cynical. And I’ve definitely tended left lately, through becoming part of the Slam scene, and doing that poetry and translation project with Professor Huda Fakhreddine. And things going so badly in the larger political scene lately, with Netanyahu’s horrible speech to congress and September looming… And growing my beard out and wearing that bandana. Ha. My new theory: Beards make ideology, not the other way around. Heh.
Moriel: And reading David Grossman’s To The End of the Land-
Mori: Which was the most stunning.
Moriel: Yes. Wow. Anyway, reading it-
Mori: Haha. Isn’t that funny? I even interrupt myself.
Moriel: Shut up. Let me finish a sentence. Reading that book just solidified the stupidity of wars, the horrifying capacity of militaries to brainwash. The situation is so bad. What will I gain or give by getting even more deeply mired in it, getting brainwashed myself?
Mori: But, at the same time, we’re all brainwashed. I’m brainwashed by liberal America, by college, by my friends, my family.
Moriel: But your brainwashed to think that killing and hurting others is [almost] always wrong. That sounds like the most… God-oriented position one can hold, as far as my belief in God goes. That all life deserves to be treated with dignity, and to quote Arthur Green, that all life is actually God. Not just has God in it. Is God. Would there really be any way to uplift God with a gun?

Mori: But who is saying anything about a gun? We’ve already established that you aren’t going to be a combat soldier, and you’re not going to serve in the Occupation.
Moriel: So then what’s the point? It’d just be a waste of time. And things are so urgent right now. That time needs to be spent… doing. Living God. Or helping others somehow. How would I be helping anyone else by sitting at some tafkid mizdayen in Tel Aviv?
Mori: And are you really going to look back on this time, in thirty years, and say I wish I’d sat in an office in Tel Aviv doing some tafkid mizdayen to mildly support an army whose primary function these days is Occupation, perpetuation of a semi-apartheid, and doing what armies do best: oppressing.

Moriel: Well don’t you sound like the little radical. I was getting worried for a second—we were starting to sound too similar. But then you starting jabbering semi-self-righteous radical-talk. “Armies are the oppressor, man.” That might be true, but is that the best way to frame it? Especially when talking about a question as complicated as the one we have been talking about?

Mori: I know, I know. I’m sure I’ll tone it down soon, after I get super frustrated with the Anarchists Against the Wall after being with them twenty seconds.

Moriel [grinning]: But what if you don’t? What if you, god forbid, like them?
Mori: Then I like them. And I start wearing my old-middle school anarchy pins and talking about the need for the dismantlement of capitalism. But honestly speaking, forget their economic ideology, and their sometimes capacity to be unable to listen to anyone else, they are doing things that are pretty… similar to what I want to be doing next year. And I do believe that there is a need for a certain degree of radicalism. Radicalism that is strictly STRICTLY non-violent. I have zero admiration or tolerance for any Palestinian group that advocates violence. Let’s go back to your “[almost] always wrong” comment. I think that how I am feeling right now, I am essentially a pacifist. I am not fully a pacifist, because I recognize that there are certain times in life when violence is necessary, but those times are so few, and looking at the Israeli-Palestinian situation right now (not in a greater historical sense, just right now)… I think that I am an Israeli-Palestinian-Conflict-Pacifist.
Moriel: Fine. So let’s play out a quick scenario. I am… Random Friend From Mevuot Iron. You are you.
Mori: Cool. Yalla.
Moriel/RFMI: Let’s call me Rafmi.
Mori: Whatever.
Rafmi: Moriel! So great to see you!
Mori: Hey Rafmi! How are you?
Rafmi: I’m great, just got out of the army, you know. Are you back in Israel for a visit?
Mori: No, I actually moved back for the year!
Rafmi: Wow, that’s so great, what are you doing?
Mori: I’m working for this group called Rabbis for Human Rights (still pending, but let’s say for now).
Rafmi: Hmm. Haven’t heard of them. What do they do?
Mori: Peace work, kilu,
Rafmi: So, like, the guys at the demonstrations against Israel?
Mori: Haha, no… Well, not exactly. Demonstrations against the Israeli Occupation.
Rafmi: The Occupation? Yeah, I also wish it didn’t have to be, but there’s not choice: security.

Mori: Really? I’m not so sure that the Occupation bolsters security, Rafmi…
Rafmi: What do you know? Where you in the army?
Moriel: And pause. So, let’s hit me with the options of what you could say.
Mori: Well, I could say: A. No, I was not in the army. I understand that its complicated, and I’m sure that you know a lot of things that I do not, but there are many Israelis who were in the army who believe the same things that I do, so I don’t think you can write off my position by saying that I wasn’t in the army. Can we sit down and talk about it?
B. No, I was not in the army. But I will be enlisting in the Spring. The country’s security is very important to me. C. No, I was not in the army. I am coming from a different place, and I realize that, but the country’s security is very important to me.

Moriel: Alright, let’s play with C, just for argument’s sake.
Mori: Ok.

Rafmi: So, if the country’s security is so important to you, why don’t you join the army?
Mori: I’m 22, and I believe that my primary work has to be focused on making peace, not perpetuating war. I think that peace and security are fundamentally linked.
Rafmi: But how can you “make peace” if you don’t understand the situation here?
Mori: I do understand many elements of the situation, and yes, there are certain angles I have not seen, based on me not having served, but I think that peace is such a fundamental Jewish and Zionist value that one does not need to serve in the army to believe that peace and justice are important.
Rafmi: What is just about calling soldiers Nazis, like they do at the demonstrations in Bi’lin?

Mori: I would never say that, and I would strongly disagree with anyone who would. But at the same time, I think that some of the things soldiers are being made to do, like in Sheikh Jarrah, or in other parts of Jerusalem, need to be protested. I am not against the army, and I know that soldiers are just following orders, but we are heading in a dangerous direction…
Rafmi: We? What do you mean we? You haven’t lived here, you didn’t give three years of your life to the army. How dare you say we.
Mori: I mean “we” the Jewish people.
Moriel: Ok. Ok. Exercise done. You could have done a bit better, been a bit less aggressive and self-sure at some points, but mostly I think I would have said what you said. Well done, kiddo.

Mori: Thanks?
Moriel: Sure thing. So what would have been different had you said option “B” to him?
Mori: His tone would have been more open. He would have felt less attacked.
Moriel: Which is big. But would it have made a difference? Either way, the only way anyone will ever change is if they see some of the stuff that is going on with their own eyes. Could you have gotten Rafmi to come with you on a tour with Breaking the Silence?
Mori: I think so. I’m a good talker. If Rafmi’s my friend… I dunno, man. Enough of this for now. There’s only so much I can think about this while I’m stateside. I think it’s a decision that’s impossible to make from abroad.
Moriel: But it’s important to talk about from abroad, and think about.
Mori: Right, so I think we know where we stand, from an abroad perspective, that could be changed once we are… broad.
Moriel: Yes. Let’s say it on three, just so it can be in writing.
Mori: 1…
Moriel: 2…
Mori: 3…
Mori + Moriel: No. Not to serve. From stateside, the answer is no. That might change, I cannot predict the future, but as of now, I do not plan on serving in any army.

Epilogue (Fall, 2011. Jerusalem). The decision remains as written. If/when I am drafted, I will figure out a way to refuse. And that question, friends, requires a new document. Only Love, -m.