What a relief it would be to dwell in [faith] communities where we acknowledge our shadows in a healthy acceptance of ourselves as containers of all the opposites! It may prove beneficial to be forced to face, daily, the humiliating fact that some of us are no less violent than those whose policies we oppose.
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—Walter Wink, Engaging the Powers
I AM A conscientious objector, and I am drawn to violence. My attraction to violence is both innate and learned. When something frightens me, my hands clench into fists. When something angers me, I want to inflict pain upon that thing. But a person cannot inflict pain upon a thing, so I seek out those whom I deem responsible for said thing and my desire to inflict pain upon a thing morphs into a desire to do violence to another person. Since I was a child, I have fantasized about using violence to stop what I see as bad and thereby become good.
It is from this point—from these fantasies of righteous violence—that I begin this essay on my journey to principled nonviolence and conscientious objection. This is a story of change and choice, but it is not a story of transformation: I am who I have always been.
In fall 2012, I spent three weeks in Israeli military prison for refusing to enlist in the Israel Defense Forces. (Every Israeli citizen, except for the ultra-Orthodox and Palestinian citizens of Israel, must serve in the military.) My sentence was brief, but the process that brought me to the prison’s gates took almost a decade.
THE STORY BEGINS: I am 12 years old. I live in a small town in Southwest Ohio. I am Israeli-born and Jewish and embrace both identities fiercely. On my bookshelf are copies of Leon Uris’ Mila 18, a fictionalized account of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, and Rich Cohen’s The Avengers, a stark biography of Abba Kovner, the Lithuanian-Jewish partisan who battled the Nazis during WWII and helped lay plans to poison German citizens and POWs after the war.
I am in a field with several other boys. It is snowing. We are fighting.
“Stop!” Devon yells. “Stop, stop, stop!” His lips are quivering and his wide brown eyes are wet like his face, glossed with tears and melted snow. He is three years younger than we are, and slender. He is imploring Karl to stop throwing snow into his face, but Karl does not stop. Karl is older, heavier, and something of an outcast. I see this and think: This is wrong. Karl is bigger, Devon is smaller. Karl is white, Devon is black. Karl is bad, Devon is good. I run over and leap onto Karl’s back, pulling him into a headlock and backward onto the ground. We fall, and then Karl turns over, raises his fist, and punches me in the mouth. My friends rush over and begin kicking Karl in the side. He gets up and runs off. He makes a sound that may be described as whimpering.
I am not very strong, and especially after the fight with Karl, not very brave. I want to be brave, though, and I want to be strong, and I want to be heroic, and I want to be good. On my bookshelf next to Uris and Cohen is a book of letters by Yonatan Netanyahu (brother of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu), who was killed as he led a raid on the Entebbe airport to rescue a hijacked plane filled with Israelis from Idi Amin’s grasp. On my wall is an Israeli flag. On my Discman is an Israeli rapper named Subliminal, whose lyrics glance over heavy beats and between exhortations to dance and forceful declarations of nationalism. On my life’s to-do list: Enlist in the IDF.
This “to-do” item, while perhaps somewhat unique in its intensity, did not arise in a vacuum: From Zionist summer camps to Jewish federations, from NGOs such as Friends of the IDF to Birthright trips, the Israeli military is revered by much of the established American Jewish community—as well as by many segments of the American Christian community. Israeli army service is often portrayed as the ultimate way to contribute to the Jewish people’s wellbeing.
THE STORY CONTINUES: I am 17 years old. I live in a small town in the north of Israel. I am completing 12th grade in a kibbutz high school. I have latched onto the beginnings of a political identity. My Israeli friends fondly call me “The Leftist” (which means I am critical of the occupation and believe that the Palestinians have a right to a state of their own; the “Right,” when it acknowledges that there is an occupation, does not view it as a high priority, emphasizing instead the need for absolute security and a Jewish state). These friends are all preparing to enlist in the army. I am faced with a decision afforded by the privilege of my dual Israeli-American citizenship and upbringing: Do I remain in Israel when I turn 18 and get drafted, or do I return to the U.S. for college?
I want to be a peacemaker. I also want to be a soldier. I want to be brave. I also want to be a hero. Maybe I can be all: I imagine myself writing a book: Memoirs of a Soldier, Memoirs for Peace. I also want to go to college, though, and through a series of decisions largely unideological in nature (parental encouragement, curiosity about academia, romance, and social pulls), I decide to delay my army service. I enroll in a small school in Vermont, sign up for the Arabic program and courses on Middle East history, and begin a process of learning that will last four years, spanning two summers spent in a Palestinian village inside of Israel, Israel’s 2008-09 massive bombing campaign of Gaza witnessed via computer screen (a campaign launched with the stated aim of stopping Hamas from firing rockets into Israel, but resulting in mass destruction and more than 1,400 Palestinian deaths that to me crossed over lines of proportionality and defense and into the realm of collective punishment and careless cruelty), hundreds of books, various forms of student activism, and an eventual decision to return to Israel-Palestine.
THE STORY REACHES ITS CLIMAX: I am 22 years old. I live in Jerusalem. But I am standing on the cracked and breathless ground of the South Hebron Hills in the Occupied Palestinian Territories. The air is filled with chants and the odd odor of combined sweat, dust, and tear gas. I am on the outskirts of a Palestinian village called Susiya. Susiya has recently received demolition orders from the occupying Israeli authorities—for the whole village. This is because Susiya was built without permits from the Israeli authorities. This is because it is virtually impossible to get building permits from the Israeli authorities if you are Palestinian.
I am angry. Many people at this demonstration are angry. Some of the soldiers with sunglasses covering their eyes may be angry, too. It is hard to tell. I am not thinking much about what they feel. I am angry at them for doing this, for following these orders, for hurting these people. I want to hurt them. I am also angry (and confused and afraid—which may just be another way of saying “angry”) for another reason: A few days earlier, I received a draft notice to enlist in the Israeli military.
And then: a moment. Whether this moment actually occurred, or whether it was a series of moments stretched over days and months, I cannot honestly say. But I remember it as a singular moment: In the front of the protest line, I come face to face with a soldier with short brown hair, one of the few not wearing sunglasses. The French-Jewish philosopher Emmanuel Levinas wrote that the “infinity of [human] transcendence ... [is] stronger than murder” and that when we truly look into the eyes of the Other—the only part of our external bodies that naturally exposes what is inside—we are made aware of our capability to kill the Other, of the Other’s absolute fragility, and of the Other’s infinity. From there we are drawn to love the Other. “[Infinity] from the depths of defenseless eyes rises firm and absolute in its nudity and destitution. The comprehension of this destitution ... establishes the very proximity of the other.”
This soldier’s eyes are watery and deep brown, the left one slightly bigger than the right, and faintly crossed. Sad and afraid and angry, ultimately killable and ultimately infinite. In this moment, I understand in a heavier, sharper way than I ever have before that my anger toward him must become anger for him. I recall Karl’s squeals of pain as my friends kicked his side, and I desperately do not want to hurt this soldier or any soldier or any person. But neither can I sit quietly as soldiers hurt the residents of Susiya, who are also people with eyes that contain equal amounts of staggering infinity.
In this moment, standing across from this young, infinity-eyed soldier, I think of the platform I have been given to express all that I feel—my draft notice. I decide: I will refuse to join the army. I will channel the anger I feel and the violent urges I experience into this struggle. I will do it in a way that humanizes and considers the people of Susiya and of Palestine that suffer from a violent occupation at the hands of the Israeli army, and also the soldiers of Israel who are encouraged and made to do such violence.
THE STORY NEARS ITS END (which is also another beginning): A few months after the moment in Susiya, almost a decade after my fight with Karl and half a decade after my peacemaker-soldier-student dilemma, I publish a letter, “Why I Refuse: On God/Love, Nonviolence, and Israel’s Military Occupation of the Palestinian Territories.” A few weeks after that, I am sentenced to two consecutive 10-day terms in Israeli Military Prison #6. My applications for conscientious objector status are thrice denied, and I am eventually released, like the majority of left-wing refusers, on pro forma mental health grounds. (While technically the IDF offers the option of exemption due to conscientious objection, one cannot object only to Israeli policies but must claim general pacifism. I argued that I would indeed refuse service in any military, but emphasized that the occupation is a particularly unjust manifestation of organized violence; the army declined to even hear my appeal for a “conscience committee.” Getting an exemption from within jail on mental health grounds is the route most political and ideological “refuseniks” eventually take.)
Nonviolence, wrote Walter Wink, is the “the spiritualization of violence, the overcoming of violent desire.” Just as we all have the capacity for violence, so too do we all have the capacity for nonviolence.
A week before completing this article, my partner and I, along with a few others, were arrested in the city of Hebron, where the occupation’s violence is most manifest and severe, for erecting a protest tent and declaring our rejection of the status quo. The action channeled our anger at the situation—perhaps even our desire to hurt those responsible—into an aggressive and loving and contained act of spiritual nonviolence. Through the calm we radiated toward the police officers that took us in, and through our renewed anger at the sight of three Palestinian children blindfolded and handcuffed on the floor of the police station, the story continues.
Moriel Rothman is an American-Israeli activist, writer, and spoken word poet. He blogs at www.thelefternwall.com. All names, except those of authors and scholars, were changed for privacy.