I sometimes write here, and often post links on Facebook, in criticism of Israel’s government or military. I know what response to expect from most fellow Israelis. Very often, like the other day (when I posted this link), discussion almost immediately includes some old friend throwing in a personal attack on me, either in lieu of an actual argument or in addition to it.
This last attack on Facebook is a true classic; to summarize the gist of my friend’s argument: “you didn’t serve in the army so you can’t judge those who do; you haven’t experienced what they have”. This stuff gets me worked up, but rarely hurts me anymore. The comments are predictable and repetitive and repetitive, and every time I post, I quietly brace myself for them. Saying something bad about the IDF is spitting on a holy cow, as far as almost all Israelis are concerned, and criticism of the government is often taken as an attack on the existence of the state.
I haven’t always been this vocal. After I moved away (2007), for over a year I avoided reading any news from Israel and, even more, avoided making any comment on the situation there. At the time it seemed nothing ever changed, and reading about it would be painful and useless.
My attitude changed in a process of reflection. I thought a lot: about why I told the IDF I didn’t want to be a soldier1 and later left, about my attitude towards Israel, and about the way I expressed that attitude on the rare occasions that I did. It became clear to me that although I left for mostly childish and wrong reasons, the small part of me that left in protest was kind of right. Things in Israel actually are changing, for the worse, and the many people I love who live there are affected by it.
At the same time, I came to appreciate what an amazing country Israel is, and what a great place to live. I really don’t blame anyone who lives there for loving it so and refusing to let go. I want to live there again as well. Unfortunately, to really enjoy it to the fullest, one has to keep their eyes and ears selectively shut, and one had best check their concern for human rights and justice at the airport. There are government-issued narratives to soothe the conscience, for those who can swallow them.
Sadly, I’m really bad at those things.
Nonetheless, and despite always having felt a little odd and out of place growing up in Israel, it also became clear to me that I am Israeli. Really, really Israeli. Even though in Israel I often felt kind of American and was called American or German by my peers, out in Germany I realized that those were just labels. I may not be considered normal in Israel, but it’s where I was born, where I grew up, where I was formed. Israel is the fabric from which I am cut, and an inseparable part of who I am.
And so the feelings behind my concern for, and criticism of Israel, are mixed. I’m a little embarrassed that I actually left. I feel a bit lost outside of the society I come from. I am terrified of what my homeland is becoming. I long to return. I am dismayed at seeing my country doing unto others what we so lament others having done unto our ancestors.2 I am alarmed at how many Israelis are not alarmed. I am disgusted at the zealous militarism, which makes almost any honest discussion of policy in the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem pointless, if not impossible. And I know that if I moved back, I would be consumed by arguments and by fighting over these issues (and I doubt that would be good for me).
It’s sadly common in Israel to label any dissent as foreign influence, as if asking questions and examining things weren’t a part of our cultural history (oh, that Abraham, such a good ol’ conformist! Ah, Einstein, paragon of traditional thinking!) But my dissent has little to do with foreign influence. I rarely read or watch any foreign coverage of Israel, I’ve almost never watched German television, and by way of conversation most Germans are more interested in hearing from an Israeli than expressing some opinion about the conflict. My strong feelings and opinions on these matters are a combination of the values I learned from my parents and my schools and information and opinions I’ve read on Israeli blogs and news sources. They are also tempered by living in a country in which people really pay attention to human and civil rights and the environment (in recent decades, that is).
Growing up in Israel, existential threats were just a part of life. It was especially scary when the second Intifada started, but I’ve always been aware that my country faces real danger. I also understand completely why people eagerly go to the army to protect the country and defend everything they know, and I think it’s basically noble of them.
Although I think there was some miscalculation involved in the way the state of Israel was founded, I do not for a second think that Israel should not exist as a state today. The past is the past, our families live there now, we’ve established quite a country and it’s not going to go away. We have the right to lead our lives in the country we consider our home, and we also happen to have the military might to defend that right.
I don’t talk about these things much because they seem to me basic, banal, uninteresting. Actually, no; I stay away from these lines of argument because they have been commandeered by Hasbara to excuse the disgusting things our government does, and even the disgusting and illegal things that our citizens do and the state and society let slide. And while Hamas may spit on our right to live in our homeland, and that’s infuriating and scary, it seems almost insignificant compared to how Israel has actively and systematically, over decades, been denying the exact same right of the Palestinians and sometimes even the Bedouins (the latter being tax-paying Israeli citizens, some of whom serve voluntarily in the military).3
I know that if it weren’t for the IDF, I probably would never exist. I know if the IDF were to somehow disappear, people I love would be in grave danger. People remind me of this all the time although I’ve never forgotten it. I have no problem with the existence of the IDF, just with a big portion of what it does and how it does it. I was brought up on the claims that the IDF is a supremely humane and moral army that has always been the defender, never the aggressor. I would honestly like the IDF to be that way, rather than spending so much of the national budget on making sure the Palestinians continue to hate our guts for generations to come. We are a sophisticated society. We should be able to handle our security needs in a way that is as respectful and moral as possible towards our neighbors (few of whom have ever actively been involved in terrorism.)
I’m also well-aware of the self-sacrifice and the terrible price paid by combat soldiers. During the invasion of Gaza, my childhood best friend was sent in, and that was probably the only time anything in the conflict actually hit close enough to home that for days I lost sleep and couldn’t concentrate on classes. It was a huge relief when I got word he was back home safely.
But I don’t think missing the experience of active combat duty — or miraculously not losing anyone to the conflict so far — disqualifies me (or anyone else) from making statements about the army’s conduct or the conflict in general. Perhaps it’s even the other way around. Can we expect people who have personal experience of this conflict — soldiers who saw their friends wounded or killed, Palestinian farmers who have been attacked by settlers or seen soldiers build a wall through their land, shopkeepers or home-owners who’ve seen their stuff destroyed by a terrorist attack or military operation — to be level-headed and think clearly about the greater situation? It seems to me the whole problem with this conflict is that on both sides it’s those with real first-hand experience, trauma, and cause for grievance who are making decisions that perpetuate the violence. Since at this point most Israelis and Palestinians have such experience, well, no wonder things are going so badly. Our policies and decisions are made with hate and rage in the heat of the moment, but they long outlive the emotion that brought them to be.
Someone has to be thinking about this conflict without clinging to personal trauma, pride and hate. Nobody is neutral, of course, but it’s going to take all kinds of thinking to find a way out of the hole we’ve dug ourselves into. Very soon, the international community will likely begin recognizing the Palestinian state. This will place Israel in the position of having to make very hard decisions and concessions.
For now, I’m going to continue expressing and propagating criticism until I get sick of it or lose hope. After all, I’m only expressing my opinion on the stuff that every citizen of a democratic state should be concerned about and involved in — the merits and effects of our government’s policy and decisions, including the use of military force.
People always disagree about these things. That’s why democracy exists. I can’t speak for others, but when I share something critical, I’m inviting everyone who sees it to disagree. There’s very little I’m sure of, and I welcome disagreement because it helps test and shape my world-view. It’s how I learn. And there are traditionally two ways to show someone they are wrong. One way is to present a (logical) argument that contradicts their conclusions; the other way is to present evidence that contradict their assumptions. Personally, I also like well thought-out comparisons with historical situations when they can demonstrate moral value.
On the other hand, personal attacks are just jerkish behavior. They never change anyone’s mind about their opinion. In my case, they only cause me to get annoyed and type really fast. It’s a deep and dangerous anti-democratic trend in Israeli culture that certain groups (non-Jews, avoiders of military service, etc.) are not welcome to criticize Israeli policy and actions. To many in Israel, it may just seem natural, but when you tell someone they’re not one to comment, it’s nothing but a useless personal attack.
- As a result, they decided that I’m mentally unfit to serve due to lack of motivation, which seems like a reasonable assessment since I would have made an awful soldier. I then volunteered for civilian service and spent a year in the reception/recovery area of a large hospital’s main operating room complex. [↩]
- My father always told me, don’t do to others that which you hate to have done to you. (Heb. מה ששנוא עליך, אל תעשה לחבריך) [↩]
- I am aware that some people claim that the Bedouins and even the Palestinians somehow snuck in after the War of Independence (=the nakba). This is a convenient claim, tied with the Zionist fiction of “a land without a people for a people without a land”. Of course, the Mandate of Palestine was hardly an empty land before ’47, nor was it empty of non-Jews after ’48. If you seriously believe that it was, please refer me to some serious source of evidence. For now, I’ll continue to assume the simple truth that our people, under the auspices of the UN, came to a land that was home to other people at the time, and tried to claim it for its own. (I know the Zionists at the time were fine with the UN partition plan, but apparently the other people living there were not, and I don’t think this should have surprised anyone. Besides, it was a plan, not a mutual agreement, and it does nothing to justify the action that Palestinians to this day consider to be their great national catastrophe.) [↩]