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An Open Letter to Mori Rothman

I have a lot in common with the conscientious objector. So, why can’t I stomach his decision to avoid IDF service?

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Yoav Hass, a member of Yesh Gvul, offers a supportive handshake to Moriel Rothman as he prepares to report to his draft location at Ammunition Hill, and refuse to participate in the Israeli military, Oct. 24, 2012. (Ryan Rodrick Beiler/ActiveStills)

Dear Mori,

For weeks now, I have been closely following the discussion in Israel, and in the wider Jewish community, about your public refusal to serve in the Israel Defense Forces.

I, like you, care deeply about Israel. We come from similar backgrounds—you were born in Israel, but attended college in the U.S.; I was born in the U.S., but made aliyah to volunteer for the IDF. We share similar values and have both engaged in efforts to build a more peaceful future for Israelis and Palestinians. But now, as you sit in an undisclosed military prison, I feel compelled to write you. I want to tell you that, despite my respect for your political views, I find your decision to turn the personal choice of conscientious objection into a public campaign delegitimizing the IDF deeply upsetting. It is an implicit assault upon every Israeli soldier—especially those who served in the West Bank—and it reduces Israel and the IDF to the occupation alone, which is just as irresponsible as ignoring it altogether.

Let’s start with our points of clear agreement. I share many of your sentiments about the situation in the West Bank. Whenever I talk about the territories, I use the word occupation, fully aware of its implications and controversies, especially in the Israeli context. I simply don’t know any other way to describe the daily difficulties Palestinians endure. I challenge those I know who somehow believe that occupying another people can coexist with the values of liberalism and democracy in the long term. I remind them of the late Israeli philosopher Yeshayahu Leibowitz, who warned that occupation will inevitably “undermine the social structure we have created and cause the corruption of individuals, both Jew and Arab,” and of the late Israeli politician Pinchas Sapir, who prophesied that “if we continue to hold the territories, at the end they will hold us.” As someone who believes that the fundamental purpose of Zionism is to enable Jews to determine their own future by being the subjects of their own history rather than the objects of somebody else’s, I can’t help but understand the occupation as undermining that power by placing the keys to our collective fate in the hands of the Palestinians as well as a marginal group of territorial maximalists in Israel. It impedes Israel’s ability to actualize its potential as the collective embodiment of the values and aspirations of the Jewish people.

But the actions of a particular government don’t represent the beliefs of an entire people. And the purpose of compulsory military or national service is to protect the country and advance the needs of its citizens—not those of any government. Woven into your refusal to serve is the implicit claim that Israel does not have the right to defend itself; that because Israel’s occupation of the Palestinians is illegitimate, so too is its right to self-defense. The most fundamental obligation of a state is to defend its citizens. A liberal state, obligated by the social contract, is never justified in surrendering its duty to protect its citizens.

You argue that violence is unconditionally wrong and that nonviolence is the only way to end violence. But in some situations, pacifism is naive at best and suicidal at worst. In response to a letter from Mahatma Gandhi urging German Jews to use nonviolent resistance in the face of Nazism as was used against the British in India, Martin Buber wrote: “I’m not sure I can take your advice. You are dealing with English gentlemen. We are dealing with monsters.”

I am in no way comparing Israel’s situation to that faced by Jews under the Nazis. But make no mistake: The Jewish state faces significant threats to its national security. Not having a military is a luxury that Israelis can’t afford; our lives depend upon the strength of our army. You, like me, object to Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and the military’s role in enforcing it. But that proposition cannot be extended to deny Israel’s legitimate right to self-defense.

I think that coercing anyone to violate his or her ethical code is wrong. But I fail to understand how fulfilling the basic requirement of national service—by volunteering in a hospital, working at a humanitarian organization, or teaching Israeli Arabs—as other Israeli pacifists do, is contributing, either directly or indirectly, to the occupation. You moved to Israel in order to, in your own words, “throw my lot in with the Jewish people.” Rejecting military service on moral grounds is one thing, but rejecting the collective obligation, shared by Israeli citizens, to ensure the country’s prosperity and to work toward its betterment—especially given that you chose to move to Israel and, by virtue of living there, benefit from its existence—is a decision I cannot understand.

It is easy to maintain moral purity by removing oneself from the world. But in my view, the essence of Jewish values has always been to sanctify this world through one’s actions in it. We Israelis have a historic opportunity to translate Jewish values onto a global stage and confront the questions of justice and morality that are the inevitable realpolitik considerations facing a young nation. And so, the way forward would pointedly seem not to disengage from the state, but rather to transform Israeli society and its institutions from within. That is ultimately why I decided to serve in the army despite my own opposition to the occupation.

In fact, many of my fellow soldiers, commanders, and officers were deeply conflicted about the situation in the West Bank and the measures required to enforce it. My years in the army were defined by the tension between my love for my country and my commitment to my values. I hated the time I spent in the West Bank, and I am only now, almost four years later, beginning to grapple with much of my experience there. But I am not ashamed of my service. I am proud to have served with outstanding soldiers. We did our best to uphold the values of integrity and respect in extremely difficult situations, and I was encouraged to question morally ambiguous orders. That’s why my heroes are people like Amos Oz, David Grossman, and Yariv Oppenheimer, people who served in the army and continue to struggle with—and tirelessly challenge—the actions of the state. It is because they have lived in and fought to defend Israel that they can communicate to an Israeli public, traumatized by violent conflict, the importance of peace. Having sacrificed for my country, I too feel that I have the credibility to critique it.

The moral challenge of our generation is to shape and secure Israel’s identity and future. To do so, we must end this conflict. It is our duty to demand exceptionalism from Israel, just as it is our duty to actively work to bring it about.

I eagerly await your reply.

Respectfully,

Yoav

***

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Well the objectors are stepping forth and they have courage for doing so,

Poupic says:

Yuck! I had to stop reading when Territories became occupation. It is interesting to note that none of the leftists remembers that in 1948 John Glubb set up a medieval siege on Jerusalem when he tried to make the newly born Israel un viable by cutting it in two. He failed in this last one. Yet all the Jews in Judea and Samaria including the older part of Jerusalem were cleansed out. “The territories” given to Transjordan as a land grab. Up to that time Jerusalem had been one city that did not have a “east Jerusalem.” Jerusalem at that time had a crushing Jewish majority. The sleepy old city had become too small long ago and building out of the walls spread in all directions. By the way, John Glubb got to be called “Sir” for his dastardly act called a great service to the Queen of England.

Abbas has declared that in the future Palestine no Jew will be allowed to live. While Israel includes 20% Israeli Arabs that are full citizens. (An Arab judge in the Supreme court read the sentence against a President of Israel). Judea and Samaria are the heart land of the Jewish nation and that includes Jerusalem, he eternal capital of the Jews, never an Arab capital, even when Arabs held it for centuries. They want it now because Jews hold it today as they want the rest of Israel. Make no mistake about it. This is the Sharia rule they go with: Any land that once was rued by Sharia must return to be ruled by Sharia. Israeli is the first target, Jerusalem the pre-target. This is followed by Andalous (Spain in Arabic and Sicily…

    You nailed it. I don’t get all the breast beaters who choose to look at Jewish land as occupied just because the Arabs say so. They went to war and lost. What other deterrent to war is there if losing means you get your stuff back? They lost, more than once, and a lot of Jews and Arabs died. There are no rewards for that.

julis123 says:

I also served in the IDF and did many years of reserve duty in both Gaza and the West Bank. Honestly I much preferred being on the Syrian border than dealing with the Palestinians. However, as long as the Palestinians prefer killing Jews to having their own state I had no moral qualms whatsoever about serving there. Everyone is certainly entitled to their opinions but as long as you are not given orders that are clearly illegal it is your duty to serve.

Jacob Udell says:

Yoav,

Thanks for putting this out there. I deeply disagree with how you’ve characterized Mori’s decision to refuse as implying that Israel has no right to defend itself, as well as the general impulses that 1) the occupation is somehow less than both central and systemic to the entire military system in Israel, 2) that only someone who has gone through the army has the credibility to critique Israel, 3) that the moral struggle of individual soldiers has any bearing on the moral calculus of the occupation as a structural phenomenon and 4) that the only acceptable protest is protest ‘from within'; despite that, I appreciate the way you’ve engaged Mori and am excited to see how he responds when he returns from prison.

But because Mori is unable to respond at least for another week, I thought I’d just correct one factual error that you made in your piece. You mention that Mori could have volunteered “in a hospital, working at a humanitarian organization, or teaching Israeli Arabs — as other Israeli pacifists do”, when in fact that was not an option for him at all. In order to for him to be able to do national service of that sort, Mori’s request for a Va’adat Matzpun (A Conscientious Objector Committee) would have had to have been approved. But because it was denied, despite many efforts to prove his pacifism, his choices were either prison or military service in the army as it was assigned to him.

There’s more to say on my end about what I’ve written above, but I wanted to keep it short to make sure readers would have the opportunity to understand that nuance.

All the best,

Jacob Udell

PhillipNagle says:

I can only hope he rots in jail for a very long time.

herbcaen says:

Many Israelis dont serve in the IDF and gain fame and fortune as “refusniks”. What Mori should do if he really had balls would be to give up his Israeli citizenship (since he doesnt believe Israel has the right of self defence) and perhaps move to Iran, where he could be a local celebrity. Israel would be better off with one less 5th columnist and Mori and Ahmadinejad would be happy too. A win-win

genelevit says:

Israel occupies West Bank because she doesn’t have a choice (what choice? Negotiated agreement is not achieved yet. “Unilateral disengagement” was done twice and both times it ended in disaster). Mori most likely is just a coward. However, to serve or not to serve was his personal choice and he took responsibility for it. (This is not just a prison, it is also attitude of his peers after the jail). But the real culprits are scum like this Yoav Hass, who encourage young and naive people to commit crime against their own state, relatives and friends. There must be a prison term for the teachers too.

ShlomoYosef says:

Great letter Yoav!

There is a problem with the whole premise of this article, as soon as you leave off the points of agreement. You say “But I fail to understand how fulfilling the basic requirement of national service—by volunteering in a hospital, working at a humanitarian organization, or teaching Israeli Arabs—as other Israeli pacifists do, is contributing, either directly or indirectly, to the occupation.”
What you fail to understand is that this “but” is a false premise. It is worse than a straw man. Can you show me where Moriel has ever indicated that he does not want to do such service? There is no such option as “doing national service instead of military service.” Once somebody is exempt from military service, they may choose to do national service. But first one needs to get that exemption. That is what Moriel applied for, and his request was rejected.

Looking at the comments here, it’s even worse. Moriel does not say that Israel has no “right” of self-defense. He describes his own moral struggle with a commitment to total non-violence.
And I see that Jacob Udell has already made these points. But I will post this comment anyway. The points bear repeating.

“And so, the way forward would pointedly seem not
to disengage from the state, but rather to transform Israeli society
and its institutions from within. That is ultimately why I decided to
serve in the army despite my own opposition to the occupation.”

Too bad all Israeli soldiers can’t be like Yoav here. With him in charge, the Zionist state – and the occupation for that matter – would be in good hands.

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An Open Letter to Mori Rothman

I have a lot in common with the conscientious objector. So, why can’t I stomach his decision to avoid IDF service?

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