Why I Refuse: On God/love, nonviolence and the occupation
My name is Moriel Zachariah Rothman. I am 23 years old and live in Jerusalem. I lived for most of my life in the United States, but I was born in Jerusalem (and am Jewish) and have thus been an Israeli citizen since birth. As such, I am, like [most] other Israeli Jews, expected to serve in the IDF. I moved back to Jerusalem last year, and I recently received a draft notice from the IDF. After much thinking, wrestling and searching, and drawing inspiration from my community and from many who have made the same choice before me, I have decided to refuse to serve in the army.
Before explaining my decision, I want to acknowledge both my privilege and the fact that I am here by choice. As for the former, I am deeply aware of the privileges I have as compared to many other Israelis- privileges of education, of financial security, of light skin, of circumstance- and I thus want to make clear that I do not see my decision to refuse as making me somehow “more moral” or otherwise superior to my Israeli peers who chose to serve. In many if not most cases, the decision to serve was barely a choice, and was more of a product of 18 years of upbringing, societal pressure, propaganda, the threat of jail or punishment and the perhaps more devastating threat of stigmatization and metaphorical/spiritual exile. While I have immense admiration for those 18 year olds who did indeed refuse, despite all of the aforementioned, it is clear to me that if I had been here when I was 18, I would have served in the army, and likely in a combat unit, and thus likely in the occupied territories, despite the reservations and internal conflicts (which I certainly had then, but which have grown and intensified over the past five years, thanks to academic study, direct exposure to different narratives, spiritual contemplation, community influences and many other products of my privilege). I thus want to make it clear that my decision to refuse was intricately connected to privilege and circumstance, and thus that it is an act of protest against what I see as an unjust and evil system, and not against individuals. All of that said, I certainly hope that my action can be an example for others (including other immigrants from the US who have similar privileges and opportunities), that it will take away a bit of the fear and stigma surrounding the idea of refusal, and that others will, indeed, follow in the same path, just as I am following in the path of those who have refused to serve in the military before me, here and elsewhere in the world.
And a word on my choice to be here: I moved here, to Israel-Palestine, like millions of other Jews over the last century, because I feel a connection to the people and to the land. I chose to be here. I chose to throw my lot in with the Jewish people, in the place on earth in which Jewish decisions- for better and for worse- have the most impact. I want to be a part of this society, and I want to make my contribution to this society’s safety, with the hope that we can break free from the cycle of violence into which the Jewish people was collectively launched, and to live up to the ethical ideals carved into our holy books and our historical memories.
Instead of adding one more drop to the already frothing, overflowing pool of violence here, I will do my best to obey the biblical commandment that appears more times than any other, and seek to love and do justice with the stranger (eg. Deut. 10:18; Zach. 7:10). That is how I want to spend my life, and I want to do it in the land in which biblical values of justice first took root.
So why am I refusing?
In short, the reasons are as follows: God/Love, Nonviolence, and Israel’s Military Occupation of the Palestinian Territories.
In long, read on.
Humanity was created in God’s image (Gen. 1:27). To take a person’s life is to destroy part of God and to diminish the Oneness that is Humanity. To bound and gag other people- or other peoples- is to desecrate God. To violate human dignity is to lessen God’s holiness. The only way to truly uplift God is through love of others. I constantly seek, and constantly fail, and constantly continue to seek to live a life with God/others-love at its center. I do love others: although this love is not manifested in all of my actions, and maybe not even in all of my days, it exists somewhere deep inside of me, as I think that it does in everyone. I love their laughter, and their songs, and the softness of their eyes. I am often overwhelmed by others, blown away by how Godly and how human all humans are, by how confused we all are, by how tiny. David Foster Wallace, in his speech to the graduating class of Kenyon College in 2005, made the case for empathy based on shared humanity and fundamental un-knowing of others’ lives:
“You can choose to look differently at this fat, dead-eyed, over-made-up lady who just screamed at her kid in the checkout line. Maybe she’s not usually like this. Maybe she’s been up three straight nights holding the hand of a husband who is dying of bone cancer. Or maybe this very lady is the low-wage clerk at the motor vehicle department, who just yesterday helped your spouse resolve a horrific, infuriating, red-tape problem through some small act of bureaucratic kindness. Of course, none of this is likely, but it’s also not impossible. It just depends what you want to consider.”
I realize it might seem like I’m going off on a tangent by quoting that passage in a letter on refusal, but I will exploit yet another privilege I have (ie. a Politically Relevant and Highly Controversial subject which is perhaps P.R. & H. C. enough to convince some of you to read all of these seven pages) and ask that you stay with me: I think there is a sort of logic to it all, a thread –of love, perhaps, or of Godliness, or just humanity, depending on how one chooses to put words to this thing that is- that connects the woman in the checkout line to the solider at the checkpoint, and that leads me to a determined refusal to hate any individual soldier or human part of the system even as I refuse to become a solider and part of a system that I hate. Truly: I do not know.
I do not know.
Another element of my belief in God is unknowability. The only God that I know is God that is almost entirely unknowable, mysterious, God perhaps somehow manifested in Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel’s concept of “radical amazement” at the stunning unknowableness of every moment and “wonder” at the very fact that we are able to wonder. As God is unknowable, a deep humility is demanded of us as we try to walk in what we think/feel/sense/believe is God’s path. This unknowability connects directly to the second reason I am refusing, which is a commitment to nonviolence.
There is a chance in every moment that all of us are completely and entirely Wrong. That, as my friend Sarah once said to me, is part of why we must choose nonviolence. As we grapple with the knowledge that we may be Wrong about everything we “know” or believe- including this letter and my act of refusal itself- at least we can be certain that we are not actively eliminating from the world those who might actually be Right, as measured by God, justice, history or some other force, or half Right, or together with whom we could find some measure of Right.
True nonviolence, based on morally-intuited educated guesses its proponents about what is Right, must be accompanied by humility. Martin Luther King Jr., in his reflections on his visit to India, wrote about the need to embrace “realistic pacifism,” a pacifism that does not frame nonviolence as “sinless,” but rather as “the lesser evil in the circumstances.” Indeed whether I refuse or not, people will continue to kill other people- especially those who are sure that they are Right. Israeli society will remain plagued by militarism, by fear, and by the structural violence rampant throughout all Western societies. I do not acquit myself from any of these injustices or “clean my hands” simply by refusing to serve one of the manifestations of societal violence. Even the Pacifist has blood on his or her hands. As the early Jewish – and Zionist, albeit in a very different way than the racist and hyper-nationalistic forms of Zionism that take center stage today- philosopher Martin Buber wrote, in a 1932 essay entitled And if not now, when?, “there can be no life without injustice.” Thus, Buber continues, the imperative to do no more injustice than we must. This applies both on the individual level and on the communal level, as “what is wrong for the individual cannot be right for the community.”
I have come to believe, as have many before me, both here and elsewhere, that committed nonviolence is the only way to end the cycle of the violence that has brutalized and continues to destroy our world, this region and humanity. In other words, only nonviolence can end violence. This statement sounds simple and un-dangerous, yet it echoes in many ears as threatening and subversive, leads some people to call me horrific names and tell me that I have no place in this society. Throughout history and across the planet, holding fast to nonviolence has often come with a price, from physical pain or danger to societal estrangement, from employment issues to the loss of certain freedoms and jailtime.
Again though: the fact that I have arrived at a point in which I am willing to pay a certain personal price (and it is a relatively small price compared to what such a decision would entail throughout much of the world, the worst likely-scenario being a short period of time in Israeli military jail) for my beliefs does not make me “more moral” than my peers, and, it must be noted, is in a certain way informed by my Ego and aggrandized conception of self, which certainly clashes with the humility which leads me to believe in nonviolence, which is a contradiction that I have not yet resolved and do not know how to resolve- if this were purely about humility, I might refuse silently, and yet, if I refused silently, the action would surely have no affect on others, and would thus be a purely-self-oriented decision, which then would also render it a selfish act. And so. I leave this contradiction unresolved for now, but acknowledged.
To return to nonviolence: my ideas about and admiration for nonviolence were deeply influenced by my childhood admiration for the American Civil Rights Movement (an admiration fostered and nurtured, interestingly, by the established Jewish community, as well as by my incredible family and Ohio hometown). My childhood admiration of the movement melted into an adolescent textual exploration which, like many before me, led me to the works of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., as well as other, slightly less famous but equally inspiring figures like Bob Moses, Fannie Lou Hamer, Vernon Dahmer, Diane Nash and the thousands upon thousands of unremembered heroes and, also, the Jewish activists who made up a disproportionate amount of the non-Black freedom riders and civil rights figures. King, who functioned as a sort of mouthpiece for the movement, wrote in his book on the Montgomery Bus Boycotts, that true nonviolence “avoids not only external physical violence but also internal violence of the spirit. The nonviolent resister not only refuses to shoot his opponent but he also refuses to hate him.” Mickey Schwerner, one of the Jewish activists murdered in Mississippi in 1964 by members of the KKK was recorded as saying, right before he was shot by a member of the Klan, “Sir, I know just how you feel.”
I will assert explicitly, if this had not already been made clear, that I do not hate soldiers, nor do I hate settlers. I hate many of their actions, I hate the system they support and are supported by, I hate oppression and racism and separation and the fact that Israel’s regime today looks, in many ways, devastatingly similar to the United States in the 1950 and 60s. And I hate, with all of my soul, the worst manifestation of my society’s racism, violence, and oppression, the IDF’s main venture and purpose, today, in 2012: Israel’s military occupation of the Palestinian Territories. My refusal is not “selective.” I would similarly refuse to serve in the United States military, or the Turkish military, or the Palestinian military, if ever there becomes such a thing. That said, it was through witnessing of the violence of the IDF’s actions in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, both physical and structural, that my principled opposition to systematic violence was forged and cemented, and it was the occupation that led me to my belief that armies are not only formed in order to enact violence, but indeed, when placed in a tense situation, themselves create, initiate and necessitate violence.
Israel’s Military Occupation of the Palestinian Territories
I chose to write about this factor in my decision last not because it is somehow less important to me- on the contrary, it is far more urgent and less theoretical than the other two- but because there has been created, within much of the Israeli and world Jewish Communities, whom I see as my main conversation partners in this action and in general, a culture of radical denial, of a knee-jerk ear-and-heart closing to most discussions of Israel’s occupation, and even to the word itself, which seems, to me, the word “occupation” does, to be a rather tame and sterile way to describe the situation today West Bank and East Jerusalem (and Gaza. Although it is a different case than the former two areas, Gaza is still occupied by air and by water, is economically stifled and dependent, and the Palestinians living in Gaza collectively suffer the constant threat of devastating violence, most horrifically illustrated by “Operation Cast Lead” in 2009. All of that said, I have never been to Gaza, and thus my understanding of the Occupation is largely informed by my experiences in the West Bank and East Jerusalem and the following discussion will focus there). The Occupation is the primary task of the IDF, and it is made possible by support for the IDF and its actions by Israeli and world-Jewish conservatives and liberals alike.
My hope is that those who made it this far in the letter will realize, at least on some level, that my opposition to the occupation and the IDF’s central role in the occupation stems directly from my Jewish and universal values, and will thus have a bit more openness in their hearts when reading this final section of this letter.
But it cannot be said lightly, the time has long passed for gentle language and “hear-able” rhetoric: The Occupation is cruelty and injustice manifest.
The Occupation is anti-God, anti-Love and staggeringly, constantly violent.
The Occupation is based on a system of racial/ethnic separation that does, in fact, resemble South African Apartheid and segregation in the Southern United States until the 1960s.
And this “temporary” Occupation is not “on its way out,” but is rather growing in strength every single day.
There is almost zero political will within Israel’s government to end it, and the Israeli public has largely accepted the status quo, in which the occupation is basically a theoretical question, and one of which many have grown tired. But the occupation can only be theoretical if you are not occupied, and thus my refusal to support the occupation by serving in the IDF is also an act of solidarity with Palestinians living under occupation, whose lives and suffering I cannot truly understand, coming from the privilege I come from (if/when I go to jail, it will be a fundamentally less frightening, more privileged, more predictable, and all around easier experience than the experiences of the thousands and thousands of Palestinians, among them children and innocents, who have spent time in Israeli prisons), and whose forms of nonviolent resistance to Occupation have amazed and inspired me, whether through protests, or through hunger strikes, or through community development and art and culture, or through the basic act of maintaining dignity and beauty in the face of the historical injustice and suffering Palestinians have faced, continually, since the Nakba of 1948, and especially since the Occupation beginning in 1967.
I do not intend to write in depth about the specifics of Occupation in this letter (for my specific and in depth thoughts on the Occupation, see my blog, The Leftern Wall, and other articles and poems I have written at www.thelefternwall.com). I do not imagine that this letter, however lengthy and detailed, could single-handedly shift the views of someone who does not see the Occupation as desperately, crushingly evil or of someone who believes that the IDF’s actions in the Palestinian territories are justified or “necessary.” But I do believe that it may plant a seed of questioning in a few hearts and a few souls. As such, I will simply tell a story, the power of which, I think, is far greater than overused academic or intellectual arguments, and give a few recommendations of reading/viewing materials that had profound impacts on me.
This past winter, in the village of Silwan in East Jerusalem, I met a fourteen year-old boy named “S”. “S” is medium height, and has short dark hair and almond-colored eyes. He is bit shy and has a soft smile and should have been finishing his ninth grade year. But when I met “S” , he had just been released from 30 days in Israeli prison, where he had been physically and emotionally tortured and abused, separated from his parents and family, threatened with a knife and with “electric means,” at times kept in solitary confinement. Fourteen years old. When he was released, he was immediately put under house arrest, and when I met him, he was missing the end of the school year. He was excited to meet me, “S”, and asked if I could help him tell his story, and maybe help him return to school, and if we could take a picture together on his cellphone.
And then comes the question: But what did he do?
And the answer: it does not matter. Only in a system overflowing with discrimination and violence, like the occupation, could a boy- who is not even a citizen of Israel- be held in such awful conditions. Only under occupation could such a story be not only believable for Palestinians and those who work with them, but in fact unsurprising.
For those who have not had the privilege/burden of witnessing this reality first hand, though, such stories are hard to swallow. Many times I have told this story, and the reaction has been: “I don’t believe this,” or “this is not true.” Would that it were not true.
It is. As are thousands and thousands of stories like it, told and untold. The occupation, which is based off of unequal treatment, and subjugating the entire Palestinian population by force, not only allows such acts of cruelty as arresting and abusing a 14 year old boy and then barring him from returning to school: it needs them. It needs to crush Palestinians into submission, to keep them in a constant state of fear and uncertainty, to treat them as if they are somehow less human, as if they are less deserving of rights and dignity and security. This is the primary task of the IDF in the Occupied Territories (and thus the primary task of the IDF period): to keep Palestinians in a constant state of fear, “sh’lo yarimu rosh,” that they not be allowed to lift their heads up, to maintain a constant threat of violence and punishment against the entire population.
I refuse to support a system that treats any children as if they are not human.
Part of my ask is that readers for whom even parts of this letter resonate take the time to learn more about the occupation, to challenge their views on the IDF (and of armies and violence in general) and its role in perpetrating injustice. I believe that the best way to learn about the Occupation is to witness it, and I underwent one of my most fundamental change after a tours of occupied East Jerusalem and occupied Hebron (both, interestingly, given by former combat soldiers). There were also a few books and movies that truly cracked me open and gave me the ability to hear a narrative so different than the one I had heard from mainstream Israeli and Jewish sources as a child, among them Martin Buber’s “A Land of Two Peoples,” (edited by Paul Mendes-Flohr), S. Yizhar’s “Khirbet Khizeh,” Edward Said’s “A Question of Palestine,” the films “Budrus” by JustVision and “The Law in These Parts” by Ra’anan Alexandrovich and many poems by Mahmoud Darwish, especially, in this context, “A Soldier Dreams of White Lilies:”
I want a smiling child in this day
not an issue of the war-machine.
I came here because I thought a sun
was approaching its zenith not setting.
So I refuse. I refuse to serve in the army, to put on a uniform, to pick up a gun. I refuse to contribute to the cycle of violence and dehumanization that plagues this place that I love. I refuse because I love, and because I believe in the possibility of a better reality, and because I believe in God and in humanity and in nonviolence and and because, as R. Heschel teaches, to despair is the most selfish thing one can do, to say “this is hard for me,” or “it seems to me that the situation will never change,” and to thus be unable to serve God by serving others. I believe that the situation can change. I believe that my refusal is a tiny, tiny, tiny contribution to a reality in which violence is less normal, less prevalent, less accepted. I seek to refuse with the most humility that I can muster, because I do not know, about this or about anything. I refuse in solidarity with Palestinians living under occupation, in and in hope that the ripples of my action will reach the hearts of some members of my Israeli Jewish and American Jewish societies. I refuse to hate those who have chosen differently, and I hope that the refusal to hate will be reciprocated by those who disagree with my decision.
In hope, sadness, some fear, and love,
Moriel Zachariah Rothman.
Moriel Rothman is an American-Israeli writer and activist. He is based in Jerusalem and is active with the Solidarity Movement. This post was originally published on his blog.
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