Category: External Press

Interview with The Independent, by Memphis Barker

The Israel Defense Forces is supposed to be the tie that binds Israel but is there trouble in the ranks?

Every year, the IDF recruits 18 year olds for a period of military service. The recruitment policy of ‘the people’s army’ highlights fractures at the heart of the state, says Memphis Barker

Getty Images

“Line up!” On the order, 44 nervous Israeli recruits stepped into formation. One stood still. Shaking slightly, the only person to find himself out of line in a Tel Aviv draft centre then opened his mouth to say the seven words that would lead to an interrogation in the so-called ‘weirdo’ room – the Ta Harigim – “I refuse to serve in the army”. Then, for Moriel Rothman, it would be jail.

Each year the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) conscripts 18 year olds who have finished school for a period of military service. It’s two years’ long for women, three for men, and most, like those either side of Rothman, step forward as expected.

The IDF was founded alongside the Israeli state in 1948 with a double purpose in mind. First, it was meant to keep the country safe from the threat of Arab invasion. Second, as immigrants flooded into former Palestine, the army, it was hoped, would glue together the wildly different peoples – Bulgarian, American, Libyan, German – that made up the new nation. As of 2013, the force is stronger than ever militarily, with nearly 500 aircraft and 3,000 tanks combat-ready. It is that second foundational principle – of the IDF as the ‘Army of the People’ – that now finds itself under threat.

Conscientious objectors like Moriel Rothman form only a minor part of the problem, treated with a mixture of bafflement and disdain by high command. A Conscience Committee exists to hand out exemptions to those deemed true pacifists. At first, Rothman, aged 22, applied to it, but support for the Palestinian cause, he believes, saw his case rejected. As we eat lunch in a café in an Arab area of West Jerusalem, he explains: “I told the Conscience Committee I work against violence and the occupation”. (Rothman works for a documentary-making NGO called Just Vision.) “My theory is the second I said ‘occupation’ they froze up.”

This left the devoutly Jewish young man with two choices: visit a psychiatrist for a sick-note, or refuse publicly and face the consequences.

“I was feeling exhilarated and nervous,” says Rothman of the moment he opted for the latter. “Right after I said ‘I won’t serve’ to the first commander, he marches off to find someone to take me away.” Two stretches in jail followed last autumn, both 10 days long. Though short, these sentences can be brought against refuseniks on repeat (Natan Blanc, a peer of Rothman, served 10 of them, spending 178 days in jail).

Rothman coped well with being inside, despite the loneliness and a worry about how his then-girlfriend might react to more time apart. Being an Israeli in an Israeli jail helped. “The [guards] are being mean, they’re yelling a lot, they’re slamming the doors, and they’re taking away your shoelaces – but I wasn’t afraid they were going to keep me there forever and I wasn’t afraid they were going to hurt me physically.”

If there was a shock for Rothman, it was the prisoners’ uniform, a hand-me-down from the US Marines – logo still intact. The irony didn’t pass him by. Though born in Jerusalem, a Western upbringing and education, including a degree in Arabic and Political Science from Middlebury College in Vermont, helped to land Rothman in Israeli jail.

“If I’d stayed here aged 18,” he says, speaking of a three-month visit, “I would have served. I would have gone down the normal path. It’s astonishing how little the kids here know about what the occupation even is.”

Pausing for mouthfuls of falafel, Rothman gives a blow-by-blow account of overlooked injustices. He cites a legal system that’s biased against Arabs, unfair land distribution, an apparent callousness to civilian deaths in 2008’s Operation Cast Lead – and the wall still under construction that separates Israel from the West Bank, splitting Palestinian villages in its path.

Conscientious objector: Moriel Rothman refused to serve in the armyConscientious objector: Moriel Rothman refused to serve in the army

The tipping point for Rothman came in June 2012, when he joined protesters on the front lines in the village of Susiya, near the Palestinian city of Hebron, fighting against the planned demolition of 50 buildings, and a cluster of German-funded solar panels. His pitch rises as he remembers: “There at the protests you come face-to-face with these kids, these IDF soldiers who are there, whether or not they like it, to protect the bulldozers or to arrest the citizens who try to stop their homes from being demolished.”

Susiya was spared, temporarily. But presented with a plausible vision of his own future, rifle in hand, Rothman decided he couldn’t serve in the IDF. When we meet, five months have passed since the end of November’s jail sentence, and life has slowed down. The threat of more time in prison has passed too, after a certificate confirming Rothman’s sleep troubles was shown to the authorities . Before walking back to work he stresses one final point. “I have nothing but the strongest love for the Israeli people. I was not struggling against anyone, not against settlers and not against soldiers. I was struggling against the occupation.”