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I’m an American Living in Israel, and I’m Going to Jail Rather Than Join the Israeli Defense Forces

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By Moriel Zachariah Rothman on October 24, 2012


Editor’s note: I’ve known Mori since we were children; we grew up together in the village of Yellow Springs, Ohio. When I read this blog post on his site, The Leftern Wall, I asked if I could republish it in full, accompanied by an interview. We think his story is truly fascinating, and we’re sure you’ll agree — regardless of where you stand politically. —Cooper Fleishman

* * *


Moriel Rothman gets a small pre-draft sendoff. Photo: Ryan Rodrick Beiler/The Leftern Wall

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 U.S. 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.

God/Love. 

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.

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