[This piece was originally published in Vice Magazine]
I Refused to Join the Israeli Defense Forces
By Alon Aviram
Young members of the Israeli Defense Force. (Image via.)
Moriel Rothman doesn’t sound bitter when he reflects on the contradictions that formed his childhood identity and eventual political outlook. In fact, he sounds more saddened, if anything. “On the one hand, my heroes were Israeli commandos, and on the other they were the young Jewish American Freedom Riders [Jewish civil rights activists in 1960s America]. I held these two together without fully coming to terms with the fact that there might be a contradiction.”
That contradiction, if you hadn’t picked up on it, stems from the fact that while the Freedom Riders were fighting for the rights of America’s persecuted minorities, Israeli commandos were systematically crushing the rights of their persecuted Palestinian neighbors.
Moriel is a 23-year-old American-Israeli who was born in Jerusalem, spent most of his life in the US, and is now back in the city of his birth. “I think we’re brought up to talk on a universal level about values of justice, standing up to inequality, breaking the law when the law is unjust, and standing up for the oppressed,” he continued. “But not when it comes to our own context—not when it comes to Israel and not when it comes to standing up for Palestine.”
Late last year, Moriel spent time in a military prison for refusing to live out the first part of his childhood dream: the military commando. Military service in Israel is mandatory by law for Jewish youth and young people from the Druze religious minority, however, only around half of those eligible enlist and many more leave during their service.
New Profile, a self-declared movement for the demilitarization of Israeli society, cites many reasons for why people may choose not to serve in the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF), including “economic, political, ideological, religious, and medical reasons, as well as a refusal to join an oppressive, chauvinistic, and violent program”.
Nonetheless, the military holds a unique position in Israeli society—one invested with an almost sacrosanct air of authority. Military rank instils pride among peers and grants social status; a sure incentive for many in Israel, particularly those who find themselves stuck on the lower rung of what is an increasingly unequal society. Military service is an accepted, often eagerly-awaited rite of passage. It shapes your character, language, friendships, and perception of the world, all under the grand narrative of national responsibility.
“It’s glorified, almost worshipped, which is frightening for me as someone who cares so deeply about the Jewish people and about the Jewish religion and this place,” Moriel continued. “The idea of a society becomes more and more centered around the army as an almost essential and sacred value is a frightening idea.”