I was born into a liberal Zionist Ashkenazi family in Tel Aviv under the Israeli cliché that parents tell their children growing up: “By the time that you are 18 you won’t need to go to the army.” My childhood dream was to be a fighter pilot in the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF). At the age of 14 I was probably the youngest subscriber of the Israeli Air Force bi-monthly magazine. But by the time I was supposed to enlist, I just couldn’t serve.
My teenage years overlapped with the Second Intifada. My father is a surgeon and my memories of terror attacks are memories of him rushing out to the hospital regardless of what we were doing. None of my family or friends was ever a victim of a terror attack. I remember feeling a weird mixture of luck and anxiety that our luck would run out.
My parents drilled tolerance, justice, and peace as values in me and my siblings. Although I didn’t feel the occupation in my day-to-day life, and until a later age couldn’t really imagine it, I was always taught that it is an atrocity. That the occupation doesn’t make us safe. That peace and a two state solution is the only way. That the Golan Heights should be returned to Syria and that Gaza and the West Bank should be returned to Palestine, just as Sinai was returned to Egypt. Only that way, there will be peace. But it’s complicated, my parents reminded us. Both sides have to show good faith and have to compromise.
The argument made sense but something about it didn’t feel complete.
I became politically active. I joined the youth group of Hadash/al-Jabha, an Arab-Jewish front of political parties for democracy and equality that is currently a part of the Joint List and volunteered to campaign with them during the 2005 elections, marched against the second Lebanon War of 2006, and began traveling to the West Bank on Fridays to protest the separation barrier. No period of my life was more instrumental to my moral development than that time.
The ethos that I grew up in was that every democratic liberal society has social ailments. That the occupation of Palestine is defined by the ongoing military occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. I started to notice, however, that the occupation is a part of a wider inequity.
At the time I was really into heavy metal. I had long hair and wore black clothes and a chain on my pants and everything! Some might be surprised but Israel actually has a thriving metal music scene. I used to go to concerts at a venue on Jerusalem Boulevard in Jaffa, just a few blocks from what could be considered the border with Tel Aviv. One day when we arrived we found a giant above-the-ground sewer pipe in the middle of the boulevard where we would usually sit to smoke cigarettes and drink beer while waiting for the venue’s doors to open. It was disgusting and humiliating. The municipality said that it was for sewer renovation purposes, but you would never find a sewer pipe in the middle of the chique Rothschild Boulevard in Tel Aviv. The sewer pipe in Jaffa stayed for years. Every time I went to a soccer game in Bloomfield Stadium in Jaffa (Yalla Hapoel!) it was there. Every concert. A reminder that two populations live in Israel, Jews and Arabs, separate and unequal.
I noticed that Israel is not a state that was meant for all of its inhabitants. That the Zionist dream was meant for Jews, and more specifically for white Jews of European descent.
I denounced Zionism as I understood that the occupation is an acute manifestation of a bigger problem. I became more and more convinced that as a first step to combatting racism in Israeli society, Israel must end its active role as an occupier regardless of the actions of anyone else. At that time I also decided that I could not serve in the IDF.
This was not an easy decision. It took a specifically large toll on my relationship with my father. While my family had always been super close, for over a year we couldn’t have a conversation that wouldn’t devolve into a shouting match about my decision to refuse service. Military service is an integral part of the Israeli social contract — you serve your country, and if you disagree you change things from the inside.
After I was dismissed from service I volunteered to serve in national service as a medic for two years. I was shocked by how often people who I had just treated in the back of an ambulance question me about military service, suspicious that I was not serving despite being the proper age. “Are you doing this for army training?” they would ask suspiciously. When I would respond that I was a national service volunteer, they would continue to pry. “Why don’t you serve in the army?” I would say “health reasons” which was my official discharge reason and I hoped would allow us to avoid politics. Even that wasn’t enough for some and they would ask, “what are you sick with?” Sometimes I would name a deadly disease just to see them uncomfortably squirm.
After my national service I volunteered in Haiti where I met an American aid worker who later became my wife. I moved to the US to be with her.
In the US I met many Jews who are passionate about ending the occupation, an atrocity done in their name. However, I was surprised how narrowly they defined occupation and how optimistic they were that a two-state solution would solve all the ailments in Israeli society.
As Jews, our role in the movement to liberate Palestine should be as allies. That includes challenging some of the base ideas of the Israeli ethos.
50 years of active military occupation. 50 years of no right to vote. 50 years of no freedom of movement. 50 years of no self determination. 50 years of water insecurity. We cannot limit our understanding of the conflict to the past 50 years alone, and we cannot let this go on for another 50 years.