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Why I Refuse: On God/love, nonviolence and the occupation

‘The Occupation is anti-God, anti-Love and staggeringly, constantly violent.’ Why I refuse to serve in the IDF.

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 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.

A Palestinian woman shows her ID to an Israeli Border Police officer at Qalandiya checkpoint. (photo: Oren Ziv/ Activestills.org)

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.

Nonviolence. 

There is a chance in every moment that all of us are completely and entirely Wrong. That, as my friend Sarah once said to me, is part of why we must choose nonviolence. As we grapple with the knowledge that we may be Wrong about everything we “know” or believe - including this letter and my act of refusal itself - at least we can be certain that we are not actively eliminating from the world those who might actually be Right, as measured by God, justice, history or some other force, or half Right, or together with whom we could find some measure of Right.

True nonviolence, based on morally-intuited educated guesses by its proponents about what is Right, must be accompanied by humility. Martin Luther King Jr., in his reflections on his visit to India, wrote about the need to embrace “realistic pacifism,” a pacifism that does not frame nonviolence as “sinless,” but rather as “the lesser evil in the circumstances.” Indeed, whether I refuse or not, people will continue to kill other people – especially those who are sure that they are Right. Israeli society will remain plagued by militarism, by fear, and by the structural violence rampant throughout all Western societies. I do not acquit myself from any of these injustices or “clean my hands” simply by refusing to serve one of the manifestations of societal violence. Even the Pacifist has blood on his or her hands. As the early Jewish – and Zionist, albeit in a very different way than the racist and hyper-nationalistic forms of Zionism that take center stage today – philosopher Martin Buber wrote, in a 1932 essay entitled And if not now, when?, “there can be no life without injustice.” Thus, Buber continues, the imperative to do no more injustice than we must. This applies both on the individual level and on the communal level, as “what is wrong for the individual cannot be right for the community.”

I have come to believe, as have many before me, both here and elsewhere, that committed nonviolence is the only way to end the cycle of the violence that has brutalized and continues to destroy our world, this region and humanity. In other words, only nonviolence can end violence. This statement sounds simple and un-dangerous, yet it echoes in many ears as threatening and subversive, leads some people to call me horrific names and tell me that I have no place in this society. Throughout history and across the planet, holding fast to nonviolence has often come with a price, from physical pain or danger to societal estrangement, from employment issues to the loss of certain freedoms and jail time.

Again though: the fact that I have arrived at a point in which I am willing to pay a certain personal price (and it is a relatively small price compared to what such a decision would entail throughout much of the world, the worst likely scenario being a short period of time in Israeli military jail) for my beliefs does not make me “more moral” than my peers, and, it must be noted, is in a certain way informed by my Ego and aggrandized conception of self, which certainly clashes with the humility which leads me to believe in nonviolence, which is a contradiction that I have not yet resolved and do not know how to resolve – if this were purely about humility, I might refuse silently, and yet, if I refused silently, the action would surely have no affect on others, and would thus be a purely self-oriented decision, which then would also render it a selfish act. And so. I leave this contradiction unresolved for now, but acknowledged.

To return to nonviolence: my ideas about and admiration for nonviolence were deeply influenced by my childhood admiration for the American Civil Rights Movement (an admiration fostered and nurtured, interestingly, by the established Jewish community, as well as by my incredible family and Ohio hometown). My childhood admiration of the movement melted into an adolescent textual exploration which, like many before me, led me to the works of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., as well as other, slightly less famous but equally inspiring figures like Bob Moses, Fannie Lou Hamer, Vernon Dahmer, Diane Nash and the thousands upon thousands of unremembered heroes, and also the Jewish activists who made up a disproportionate portion of the non-Black freedom riders and civil rights figures. King, who functioned as a sort of mouthpiece for the movement, wrote in his book on the Montgomery Bus Boycotts, that true nonviolence “avoids not only external physical violence but also internal violence of the spirit. The nonviolent resister not only refuses to shoot his opponent but he also refuses to hate him.” Mickey Schwerner, one of the Jewish activists murdered in Mississippi in 1964 by members of the KKK was recorded as saying, right before he was shot by a member of the Klan, “Sir, I know just how you feel.”

I will assert explicitly, if this had not already been made clear, that I do not hate soldiers, nor do I hate settlers. I hate many of their actions, I hate the system they support and are supported by, I hate oppression and racism and separation and the fact that Israel’s regime today looks, in many ways, devastatingly similar to the United States in the 1950s and 1960s. And I hate, with all of my soul, the worst manifestation of my society’s racism, violence, and oppression, the IDF’s main venture and purpose, today, in 2012: Israel’s military occupation of the Palestinian Territories. My refusal is not “selective.” I would similarly refuse to serve in the United States military, or the Turkish military, or the Palestinian military, if ever there becomes such a thing. That said, it was through witnessing of the violence of the IDF’s actions in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, both physical and structural, that my principled opposition to systematic violence was forged and cemented, and it was the occupation that led me to my belief that armies are not only formed in order to enact violence, but indeed, when placed in a tense situation, themselves create, initiate and necessitate violence.

Israel’s Military Occupation of the Palestinian Territories

I chose to write about this factor in my decision last not because it is somehow less important to me – on the contrary, it is far more urgent and less theoretical than the other two – but because there has been created, within much of the Israeli and world Jewish communities, whom I see as my main conversation partners in this action and in general, a culture of radical denial, of a knee-jerk closing of the ear and heart to most discussions of Israel’s occupation, and even to the word itself, which seems, to me, the word “occupation” does, to be a rather tame and sterile way to describe the situation today in the West Bank and East Jerusalem (and Gaza. Although it is a different case than the former two areas, Gaza is still occupied by air and by water, is economically stifled and dependent, and the Palestinians living in Gaza collectively suffer the constant threat of devastating violence, most horrifically illustrated by “Operation Cast Lead” in 2009. All of that said, I have never been to Gaza, and thus my understanding of the Occupation is largely informed by my experiences in the West Bank and East Jerusalem and the following discussion will focus there). The Occupation is the primary task of the IDF, and it is made possible by support for the IDF and its actions by Israeli and world-Jewish conservatives and liberals alike.

My hope is that those who made it this far in the letter will realize, at least on some level, that my opposition to the occupation and the IDF’s central role in the occupation stems directly from my Jewish and universal values, and will thus have a bit more openness in their hearts when reading this final section of this letter.

But it cannot be said lightly, the time has long passed for gentle language and “hear-able” rhetoric: The Occupation is cruelty and injustice manifest.

The Occupation is anti-God, anti-Love and staggeringly, constantly violent.

The Occupation is based on a system of racial/ethnic separation that does, in fact, resemble South African Apartheid and segregation in the Southern United States until the 1960s.

And this “temporary” Occupation is not “on its way out,” but is rather growing in strength every single day.

There is almost zero political will within Israel’s government to end it, and the Israeli public has largely accepted the status quo, in which the occupation is basically a theoretical question, and one of which many have grown tired. But the occupation can only be theoretical if you are not occupied, and thus my refusal to support the occupation by serving in the IDF is also an act of solidarity with Palestinians living under occupation, whose lives and suffering I cannot truly understand, coming from the privilege I come from (if/when I go to jail, it will be a fundamentally less frightening, more privileged, more predictable, and all around easier experience than the experiences of the thousands and thousands of Palestinians, among them children and innocents, who have spent time in Israeli prisons), and whose forms of nonviolent resistance to Occupation have amazed and inspired me, whether through protests, or through hunger strikes, or through community development and art and culture, or through the basic act of maintaining dignity and beauty in the face of the historical injustice and suffering Palestinians have faced, continually, since the Nakba of 1948, and especially since the Occupation beginning in 1967.

I do not intend to write in depth about the specifics of Occupation in this letter (for my specific and in depth thoughts on the Occupation, see my blog, The Leftern Wall, and other articles and poems I have written). I do not imagine that this letter, however lengthy and detailed, could single-handedly shift the views of someone who does not see the Occupation as desperately, crushingly evil or of someone who believes that the IDF’s actions in the Palestinian territories are justified or “necessary.” But I do believe that it may plant a seed of questioning in a few hearts and a few souls. As such, I will simply tell a story, the power of which, I think, is far greater than overused academic or intellectual arguments, and give a few recommendations of reading/viewing materials that had profound impacts on me.

This past winter, in the village of Silwan in East Jerusalem, I met a fourteen year-old boy named “S.” “S”  is of medium height, and has short dark hair and almond-colored eyes. He is bit shy and has a soft smile and should have been finishing his ninth grade year. But when I met “S”,  he had just been released from 30 days in Israeli prison, where he had been physically and emotionally tortured and abused, separated from his parents and family, threatened with a knife and with “electric means,” at times kept in solitary confinement. Fourteen years old. When he was released, he was immediately put under house arrest, and when I met him, he was missing the end of the school year. He was excited to meet me, “S,” and asked if I could help him tell his story, and maybe help him return to school, and if we could take a picture together on his cellphone.

And then comes the question: But what did he do?

And the answer: it does not matter. Only in a system overflowing with discrimination and violence, like the occupation, could a boy – who is not even a citizen of Israel – be held in such awful conditions. Only under occupation could such a story be not only believable for Palestinians and those who work with them, but in fact unsurprising.

For those who have not had the privilege/burden of witnessing this reality first hand, though, such stories are hard to swallow. Many times I have told this story, and the reaction has been: “I don’t believe this,” or “this is not true.” Would that it were not true.

It is. As are thousands and thousands of stories like it, told and untold. The occupation, which is based on unequal treatment, and subjugating the entire Palestinian population by force, not only allows such acts of cruelty as arresting and abusing a 14-year-old boy and then barring him from returning to school: it needs them. It needs to crush Palestinians into submission, to keep them in a constant state of fear and uncertainty, to treat them as if they are somehow less human, as if they are less deserving of rights and dignity and security. This is the primary task of the IDF in the Occupied Territories (and thus the primary task of the IDF period): to keep Palestinians in a constant state of fear, “sh’lo yarimu rosh,” that they not be allowed to lift their heads up, to maintain a constant threat of violence and punishment against the entire population.

I refuse to support a system that treats any children as if they are not human.

Part of my task is that readers for whom even parts of this letter resonate take the time to learn more about the occupation, to challenge their views on the IDF (and of armies and violence in general) and its role in perpetrating injustice. I believe that the best way to learn about the Occupation is to witness it, and I underwent one of my most fundamental change after tours of occupied East Jerusalem and occupied Hebron (both, interestingly, given by former combat soldiers). There were also a few books and movies that truly cracked me open and gave me the ability to hear a narrative so different than the one I had heard from mainstream Israeli and Jewish sources as a child, among them Martin Buber’s “A Land of Two Peoples,” (edited by Paul Mendes-Flohr), S. Yizhar’s “Khirbet Khizeh,” Edward Said’s “A Question of Palestine,” the films “Budrus” by JustVision and “The Law in These Parts” by Ra’anan Alexandrovich and many poems by Mahmoud Darwish, especially, in this context, “A Soldier Dreams of White Lilies:”

 I want a smiling child in this day

not an issue of the war-machine.

I came here because I thought a sun

was approaching its zenith not setting.

So I refuse. I refuse to serve in the army, to put on a uniform, to pick up a gun. I refuse to contribute to the cycle of violence and dehumanization that plagues this place that I love. I refuse because I love, and because I believe in the possibility of a better reality, and because I believe in God and in humanity and in nonviolence and and because, as R. Heschel teaches, to despair is the most selfish thing one can do, to say “this is hard for me,” or “it seems to me that the situation will never change,” and to thus be unable to serve God by serving others. I believe that the situation can change. I believe that my refusal is a tiny, tiny, tiny contribution to a reality in which violence is less normal, less prevalent, less accepted. I seek to refuse with the most humility that I can muster, because I do not know, about this or about anything. I refuse in solidarity with Palestinians living under occupation, and in hope that the ripples of my action will reach the hearts of some members of my Israeli Jewish and American Jewish societies. I refuse to hate those who have chosen differently, and I hope that the refusal to hate will be reciprocated by those who disagree with my decision.

In hope, sadness, some fear, and love,

Moriel Zachariah Rothman.

Moriel Rothman is an American-Israeli writer and activist. He is based in Jerusalem and is active with the Solidarity Movement. This post was originally published on his blog

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  • COMMENTS

    1. shaun

      The same God whose verses you claim are against violence teachers me the exact opposite.
      Kill, “with the edge of the sword.” Exodus 17:13 (referring to those who would attack Israel without provocation)
      Send his fear before the Israelites…and Israel will kill everyone that they encounter when they enter the promised land. Exodus 23:27
      Israel will take the land of Sichon the Amorite, king of Heshbon, and his land and begin to possess it, and defeat with him in battle.” Deuteronomy 2:24
      Kill all the men, women, and children of every city. Deuteronomy 3:3-6
      I could keep going but I think that I have made my point…

      Reply to Comment
    2. Moriel Rothman

      Shaun,

      I think that one can interpret verses from holy books in a thousand different ways. One can read the “Rodef” section of the talmud either as justifying preemptive killing, as Yigal Amir chose to read it, or as advocating near-pacifism (unless it is clear to you as the sun that the thief has come to kill you, you are not permitted to kill him- and we know that another person’s motives can never be clear to us like the sun). I do not think one reading is more accurate than others- but I choose a reading that uplifts peace and anti-violence. I am very sorry to hear that you choose otherwise, but I think it is important to acknowledge that both interpretations can be textually backed up and validated- and thus we must look to something deeper than just the text itself, to the truth of shared humanity, of all humanity being created in G-d’s image, and to the narrowness -narrowness that exists in all of us, I think- that allows us to advocate killing other human beings.

      Reply to Comment
      • Pawel

        If you are against violence – why do u live in Israel? Israel – rather does not have choice – or to keep and train army for a war time – or DELETE Israel, right? Also why there are so many prophesies about end-time war and Israeli (ultimate) victory, if it was wrong to fight for Israel (since you mentioned G-d)? I am only asking – if You could answer.

        Reply to Comment
    3. Noam

      A beautiful message. Solidarity and Respect from a secular Israeli.

      Reply to Comment
    4. shaun

      Moriel. I agree with the first part of your statements. When I said I believe “I believe..” I should have said that Biblical verse can oral religious tradition can be interpreted in various ways.
      That was the point I was trying to make.
      Using text to justify one point or another about non-violence can easily be refuted by texts that encourage violence.
      At the same time verses that speak of mutual humanity can also be countered with verses that speak of infidels and savages who can be killed because of their beliefs.
      Its nice that you feel that all human beings are created in the warm and fuzzy image of God.
      But God is also war-like, jealous and vindictive. Human beings rape, pillage and molest innocent children…is this also in the image of God?

      Reply to Comment
    5. Moriel Rothman

      I would argue that true God or Godliness is not war-like and jealous, and that when human beings destroy and violate other human beings, they are acting from places controlled by their ”yetzer ha-ra,” their evil inclination, and not from places of Godliness.

      Reply to Comment
    6. RJ

      Moriel, you were publicly accused of intimate partner violence in July, and to the best of my knowledge, still have not responded meaningfully or publicly to these accusations.

      In light of your affirmed commitment to the principles of non-violence, I was wondering if you could comment on this matter.

      Reply to Comment
      • Charles

        What a disgusting thing to do – suggest in the comments that someone has done something despicable. Ew, gross, and blech. Are there not other forums for such things, IRL and elsewhere? I think the moderators should delete that comment.
        Whitening someone’s face in public is akin to spilling their blood.

        Reply to Comment
    7. shaun

      “true God or Godliness is not war-like and jealous…”
      10 commandments Both Shmot and Devarim versions : I am your God I am a jealous God.
      Az Yashir (Shmot 15) God is a man of War…
      I would say that war and Jealousy are a bit more than bad human inclinations, They are Ztelem Elohim…

      Reply to Comment
    8. Moriel Rothman

      RJ- I chose not to respond to those accusations publicly as it struck me as a deeply inappropriate forum. I am more than happy to discuss that story in a private forum, with you or with anyone. I will say that I found the accusations to be completely untrue, and based off of an interpretation of reality that I neither agree with nor completely comprehend. The ways I acted during the relationship with my ex-partner –while not to her liking, as is very true vice versa, and in most ex-relationships– were not in any way violent.

      Reply to Comment
      • The Torah must be sundered; it cannot stand as a coherent whole, nor can the Qur’an. By making God omnipotent you have chained Him to all text. One cannot weasel out of this: some texts must be sundered. You do it anyway in your silence over some but not others. Do you really think religion can advance without admitting this, and the fear it evokes?

        Reply to Comment
    9. George

      Beautiful text. Thank you for your words and for your inspiration. Keep us updated.

      Reply to Comment
    10. csb

      to me, the content of this issue is complicated. when i voiced a realization to a friend last year that i don’t believe in violence, he responded by laughing. kindly, but laughing all the same. and i get why–whether or not i personally believe in violence, we inhabit a world in which violence is a powerful tool. and given that reality, it seems necessary to me that a country have an army to defend itself, especially one that has plenty of enemies. israel certainly continues to act on policies that are incredibly problematic and painful.
      what i want to focus on more though is the unbelievable strength it must take for an individual to stick to a path of integrity. by this i mean that despite threats, stepping out of the accepted norm, and many other obstacles, moriel shows us an example of what it could mean to truly internalize our values and then to act on them every step of the way.
      whether or not you agree with mori’s reasoning, his beliefs, his values, or his actions, i think we all have a tremendous amount to learn from his willingness to act on what he believes.
      imagine what this world would look like if each of us had such strength and integrity.

      Reply to Comment
    11. Chloe Zelkha

      I’m so inspired and humbled by this piece. Your work is deeply important, and as a Jew, I’m grateful to have people like you actively engaged against the Occupation. Also, I’ve never connected God’s otherness directly to nonviolence before, but your link between divine unknowability and humility is illuminating.

      Reply to Comment
    12. George

      One more thought. The question that you raise, Moriel, of actions that require no context is an interesting one. You say that the context of S.’s imprisonment and abuse are irrelevant. Is this a principle that you think holds true for all situations of violence? If something is violent does it require no context to understand it? Or is it only that there are some situations so horrendous that they render all contextualization irrelevant (i.e. the torture of children)?

      Again, thank you for doing what you do and for sharing this writing and thought process with us.

      Reply to Comment
    13. Yaniv Mazor

      this is more or less the exact same thoughts that passed through my head as I was refusing to do reserve duty 4 months ago. For now, they will imprison you and many people will try to tell you you are doing the wrong thing, for you personally and for the nation. Don’t buy it (I know you won’t). You are doing the right thing. And hopefully it will inspire others to think more about their choices and reconsider their service. Now it’s just you, but when there’s 50 objectors in prison, the people, the state and the army won’t be able to ignore us anymore.

      Reply to Comment
    14. The Trespasser

      Interestingly none of these “peace activists” won’t go and make the civil service, which efficiently proves that they “anti-war” agenda in merely a cheap lie.

      Reply to Comment
    15. Dorit Price-Levine

      Moriel I am so inspired by your choices to both refuse and to go public . I especially appreciated your discussion in this piece of the ego vs. humility dichotomy, which you so aptly left “unresolved but acknowledged.” Really powerful stuff. Kol Hakavod.

      Reply to Comment
    16. Jacob

      I think what inspires me most about this piece is the way that you think about privilege and humility throughout, and the patient approach you take towards the individuals who are involved in a system you disagree. Whether or not we can see ourselves making this same decision, to offer us a little slice of your honest thought-process is really a gift.

      Reply to Comment
    17. Zach

      Moriel,
      Thank you so much for sharing this letter. The content is challenging for me in both senses of the word—challenging in that I find it difficult, and challenging in that it forced me to stretch myself and my ideas. This is the first refusal letter I have read that succeeds in simultaneously coming from a humble place AND presenting a forceful argument. As a result I was able to let my guard down when I read it. I think others will be able to also. So I guess what I’m saying is that this letter really adds to the conversation that you yourself said you want to be a part of, and I really appreciate that.
      —zach

      Reply to Comment
    18. Salam m

      As a Palestinian, your letter have touched me deeply. Best wishes

      Reply to Comment
    19. yitz

      I fully expect you to leave Israel as it is the army that you abhor who make it possible for you to be here. Every step you take is drenched in the supposed blood that they have spilt.

      The pacifist logic of those who live in la-la-land where violence is not needed in order to survive is absurd; it may be an ideal to which we must all aim but the fact is today it has not been reached.

      What you need to do is very simple. Stop your dreaming and consider the actual practical, on the ground facts today: terrorists are trying to kill israelies; you have a duty, as an israeli to physically stop them. That is all. Whilst you are doing this you can consider the best way to solve the middle east crisis but until that happens, welcome to reality.

      Reply to Comment
      • In this letter Moriel mentions his contact with a fourteen-year-old child who had been tortured in prison. This is ‘the reality’ you talk about, and most Israelis will never get as far as reading an account of it, let alone actually talking to an affected child. His decision seems pretty solidly grounded.

        Reply to Comment
        • ish yehudi

          @vicky- don’t you think that be being a soldier with consciounse and humanity Moriel would have much more agency to do something within the army? Because lets face it- you can’t wipe away the constant and serious threats that there are on Jewish lives here by parading the abuses and problems with our system. Do people really think that we yearn to go to the army? thats really what we want our 18 year olds to be doing? So of course a culture has built up around it and the militarism etc.- but there are still people shooting rockets (perhaps right now) at towns and farms across our south and that’s not going to disappear.
          The great fault (and who can blame them on a certain level) of the left is the illusion that we’re living already in the time redemption. With all of Moriels attention to nuance– there’s a certain elephant in the room that this piece failed to address. (i’ll reread now :)

          Reply to Comment
          • RichardL

            @Ish Yehudi
            I don’t think Israelis want to go into the army. They are brainwashed by the Israeli education system to think that there is a constant existential threat to the state and therefore they must go in the army or perish. If there are people shooting rockets right now at southern Israel you have only the government of Israel to blame because it broke the ceasefire in 2008 and has been routinely bombing Gaza ever since with very sophisticated and often illegal weapons. Just quit claiming to be the eternal victim and face reality. In Gaza Israel shoots up fishermen and vandalizes their boats and equipment; it shoots farmers trying to work their crops; it destroys crops and farmland with bulldozers and tanks; it ensures there is never enough food, medical supplies, fuel, and education supplies; it refuses to allow spare parts and equipment to arrive for Gaza’s power station and its sewage treatment plant and it does everything it can to make life intolerable for the 1.6 million people that it keeps in the concentration camp that is the Gaza Strip. That’s why there are Mickey Mouse rockets fired periodlically out of Gaza. Moriel would not have more “agency to do something within the army”. That is the pathetic line that every refusnik is proferred by army officers keen to stifle any resistance to the military culture of the Zionist state. You don’t protest Israel’s crimes by wearing a uniform and carrying an M16. You protest them by having the moral courage and integrity to say they are wrong and refuse to be corrupted by any association with them. It’s that simple.

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          • Leen

            Not to mention, many times Hamas has offered a 10 year truce, but Israel, of course, refused.

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          • Leen

            Thank you Morial for sharing your letter, deeply touching and maybe it will plant a seed of doubt into others.

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          • Ish, I think a lot of people have the idea that they can go to the Territories and be the ‘good soldier’. But they’re entering an institution that places huge importance on obedience to orders, and where peer pressure is also strong – and this doesn’t leave much room for personal agency. You’re given orders to seal off the road and obstruct everyone’s passage. You don’t know why, you just have to do it. And of course the local residents are upset with you; they can’t get to school, to work, to the grocery store. So what do you do? Smile apologetically, tell them you’re sorry about this, offer them a carton of Chocomilk? How much agency do you actually have in that situation? Under the occupation, it is possible to detain people indefinitely without giving them access to a lawyer, a trial, or even a reason for their detention. This is not an arbitrary abuse perpetrated by individual soldiers; it’s part of the system. Again, how is some eighteen-year-old conscript going to make that better?

            I think one enormous elephant in the room is that the majority of Palestinians in the West Bank have no contact with Israeli Jews except through the army. I’ve mentioned in another comment thread how a headteacher in Hebron brought an Israeli Jewish couple into her school because she wanted her students to understand that not all Israelis carry guns. The visit was going well, and then one little girl burst out, “But you aren’t real Israelis! Where are your Israeli clothes?” She meant the uniform. It worries me that people in Israeli society do not seem to register the danger of this.

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    20. RichardL

      You clearly knew what you were doing when you volunteered to start this fight and in Mickey Schwerner you sure chose a tough role model. So I wish you fortitude, and I hope your example encourages others to act against the insanity and evil that blights any chance of normal relations in the whole region. Bon courage.

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    21. Debi

      Moriel, thank you so much fot sharing this letter. I am amazed and inspired by your courage to refuse service in the army as well as making your choice public! A really inspiring and touching piece!

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    22. csb

      I already commented, but just had to add that I echo every word that both Jacob and Zach said. Thanks for sharing of yourself.

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    23. “if this were purely about humility, I might refuse silently, and yet, if I refused silently, the action would surely have no affect on others, and would thus be a purely self-oriented decision, which then would also render it a selfish act”: if you had not spoken, the possibility of new paths would be less, while those advocating the occupation as a nationalist necessity would still be speaking. Humble resolve comes from accepting the coming payback; it will be harder than you now see, and last in some ways for many years. You have taken control of your life in a land which tells you not to; that in itself will surge reply.

      Nonviolence is not about erradicating all violence, for as Buber notes, life to live makes injustice. What nonviolence does is create a place to stand where alternative paths to the present can emerge. This you are doing by speaking out your decision. It is up to others to keep your voice aloft after speaking. I’d say that’s a humble place to be.

      Reply to Comment
    24. Aaron the Fascist Troll

      Nice article. Your friend’s basing her pacifism on lack of knowledge was especially interesting. I’ve never seen that justification before.

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    25. Jenny

      you are amazing. thank you.

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    26. Mitchell Cohen

      The IDF is FAR from perfect. I say that as someone who is hardly one to share most posters/columnists views on this site. My question is though, what would happen if all the soldiers in the IDF were sent home for this coming Shabbat? Would “peace and quiet magically” reign?

      The bottom line is that for EVERY 18 year old who refuses to serve, someone else will have to carry that much more weight. And that someone else might be one who would be less likely to treat the Palestinians as humanly as possible than you or more likely.

      I understand that no small number of posters on this site think the “bi-national, one state of all her citizens, etc.” is what awaits us. I will not debate, at the moment, on whether or not this is inevitable and/or desirable. The bottom line is what do we do before that “solution” is reached (I am playing the game for now). The fact is that there are millions of Israelis who were born here, know no other country, have no other passport (and in many cases, speak no other language) who are not going to disappear tomorrow (much as posters like “Palestinian” claim they will). Who will protect them until the so-called “one state solution” comes to be and then the objective and unbiased peace keeping force (LOL) arrives and takes over?

      Like it or not, we need an army here and if Moriel doesn’t serve, I am sure there are many Shaloms (972′s favorite soldier) who would love to take his place. I am sure that would make you all happy.

      Reply to Comment
      • RichardL

        Why ask an absurd question? You make no point at all by suggesting we imagine that all the soldiers are sent home. It ain’t going to happen, it is not practically possible to wave a magic wand to make it happen, and there is no way of knowing the consequences (so don’t pretend you do.)

        Refusing to join the military means not being in any way associated with the organization’s criminal activities and not being in any way involved in the abuse of Palestinians. I suggest that this would probably be the option that most Palestinians would prefer (since you pretend to have some concern for their welfare). In Moriel’s case he also makes a public statement, which is probably the last thing the military would want him to do. That sort of public challenge only encourages more people to consider their conscience along with the state’s requirement for them to be implicated in a war crime.

        But the real problem with your post is you conflate defence with occupation. A real defence policy of withdrawing to Israeli territory coupled with positive diplomacy to win friends and increase trade (just as the Saudi peace initiative proposes) would cut down Israel’s needs for its standing military forces. That would allow for dramatic cuts in the defence budget that could then be spent on social needs. The irony is that Moriel would then be willing to serve, but he would probably not be needed anyway.

        In reality the reason for the large military is the offensive and expansionist policies of the state, which cause serious diplomatic and economic (not to mention environmental) problems in the region.

        Reply to Comment
      • Mitchell, this line of argument reads like an arm-twisting guilt trip. You are basically asking refusers to take personal responsibility for abuses that might get committed in their absence by other people (and in the same breath censuring them for trying to take responsibility for their own choices and actions via refusal). That’s a very heavy load to put on eighteen-year-old shoulders, and it also makes no sense. The military rule that they are conscripted to implement allows, among other things, for detention without charge or trial and the arrest of children. This climate positively invites individual acts of abuse; there’s no way that Moriel’s presence in the army could change that, even if he did resolve to treat Palestinians ‘as humanly as possible’. That phrase itself rings alarm bells, as it makes it sound as though you’re discussing the merits of free-range chicken yards versus factory farming. Implicit in the language is the idea that these people are not really equals, an idea that becomes explicit once you’ve put on uniform and you’re looking at Palestinians from the other end of a Tavor. How could this be anything other than a recipe for abuse?

        Outlining her reasons for refusal, Or Ben-David wrote, “So many people have joined the army and said that they would be the ones to change it from within, but they ended up following the same orders, doing the same horrible things. Because when you are ordered to enter a house or to stop somebody at a checkpoint, it doesn’t matter that much whether you smile at him while doing this, or whether you avoid stepping on their bed with your mud-soiled boots. It’s the fact that you did it that matters…And with all the social pressure and the brainwashing in the military you change.” She makes a good point. You don’t have to be a monster to turn abusive. Sometimes it’s enough to be tired, a bit homesick, nervous, and unsure of your footing – a description that applies to all too many soldiers, especially kids fresh out of high school. It’s even easier to watch your peers commit abuse and say nothing, especially given the pressures young conscripts face. Your own comment illustrates some of those pressures, such as the idea that a refuser is a shirker who makes his peers carry ‘more weight’. Taking your argument further, what happens when a soldier is ordered to arrest a child? Can he refuse then? Or would this be letting the others down, ducking out of the tough stuff? Should he reason to himself that others in his unit might be far more violent with the child, so it’s better that he does it after all? I would lay a substantial amount of money that more than one twenty-year-old in the West Bank has been asking himself questions like this today. It’s sick.

        This thought process is elucidated by Alick Isaacs in the story of his conscript service in Gaza, given as an afterword to his book ‘A Prophetic Peace’. He beat Palestinians on his officer’s order while his officer watched. Isaacs reasoned that there would be less blood this way, having already seen one practical demo on beating from his officer. This particular example of an eighteen-year-old’s attempt to be ‘the good soldier’ and to treat Palestinians ‘as humanly as possible’ (to return to your phrase) left people with broken bones. You think this has ever made anyone any safer?

        Peace and quiet wouldn’t magically descend if the army just evaporated. That’s a hypothetical that could never happen, so it’s not really worth discussion. Refusals increase the likelihood for peace by wedging open a door. A minority action can influence a situation significantly, in this case by gradually showing that relationships between Palestinians and Israelis don’t have to be conducted at gunpoint and, in Ben-David’s words, ‘that things do not have to be the way they are’. Army service for everyone just helps to perpetuate the situation ad infinitum.

        Reply to Comment
    27. AYLA

      you are amazing, Moriel. Thank you for this thoughtful choice and piece, especially the part about how we have to realize that at any point, about anything, we may be wrong, (so at least do no harm). Thank you for your honest leadership. Take care!

      Reply to Comment
    28. shaun

      RichardL:
      You claim that…”A real defence policy of withdrawing to Israeli territory coupled with positive diplomacy to win friends and increase trade…would cut down Israel’s needs for its standing military forces. That would allow for dramatic cuts in the defence budget that could then be spent on social needs. The irony is that Moriel would then be willing to serve, but he would probably not be needed anyway.”
      NOT TRUE!!
      The Israel withdrawal from Lebanon was coupled with intense diplomatic efforts that achieved praise from the EU governments and the US. The party was short lived.
      Soon afterwards Israel was faced with a well armed hostile force that crossed the border at will, attacked and killed Israeli patrols and forced Israel to completely rethink its strategy on the Lebanese border. Today Israeli military deployments on the Lebanon border are at the same levels as they were prior to withdrawal and the defense budget consumed by the Northern command has not decreased.
      The same can be said for Gaza. The removal of 10000 Israeli from Gaza and the short lived praise Israel received from the International community did nothing to alleviate the projectiles lobbed from Gaza, nor did is stop armed groups from their desire to acquire more advanced weaponry used to harm Israeli outside of the designated occupation area.
      Today troop levels around Gaza are as high as they were prior to withdrawal and extra military budget is being spent on defensive weaponry like the iron Dome and trophy systems to protect Israeli armor from sophisticated weaponry.
      In contrast to your claims, Israel with is huge military budget still has better social systems in place for its citizens, has a decent heath care system and is in better financial shape than most countries in the world.

      Reply to Comment
      • RichardL

        You what? In Lebanon Israel dropped 4,600,000 cluster bomb sub munitions, severely damaged the country’s infrastructure, caused the largest ever oil spill in the Mediterranean, forced 1,000,000 people from their homes and targeted vehicles of fleeing civilians with airstrikes. They also used white phosphorus munitions as well as allegedly using depleted uranium weapons, both of which have serious long-term implications for human health and the environment. They then left without so much as saying sorry.

        I have already written about Gaza in my post to Ish Yehudi. You call this diplomacy? You must be autistic or something!

        Reply to Comment
        • Shaun

          Thanks for proving my point. Israel withdrew from both Lebanon and Gaza believing as you did that they would never have to go back to war on either place again. Withdrawal worked out badly for everyone. another reason why Israel’s left wing is dead…

          Reply to Comment
          • RichardL

            No diplomatic efforts. Just excessive illegal violence, ongoing in the case of Gaza and blatant threats to Lebanon. Israel has NEVER tried diplomacy.

            Reply to Comment
          • The Trespasser

            “Israel has NEVER tried diplomacy.”
            Richard,
            You are that poorly misinformed or lying intentionally?

            Latest of diplomatic initiatives was broken to pieces by Arafat in Camp David; Oslo agreements were almost 100% Israeli initiative and so on.
            You really have very distorted perception of reality.

            Reply to Comment
          • Yochanan

            Actually the latest peace negotiations were the Annapolis meetings between Erekat and Livni. The documents were leaked last year, and exposed the ‘negotiation process’ as a scam, with Israel unwilling to accede to an agreement that amounted to a TOTAL capitulation by the PA. Israel’s diplomatic initiatives consist of explaining to the Palestinians to what degree they will continue to strangle them.

            Reply to Comment
          • The Trespasser

            “Israel unwilling to accede to an agreement that amounted to a TOTAL capitulation by the PA.”

            PA (and every other Palestinian body) have lost each and every conflict with Israel.

            Losing side never dictates own terms, so Palestinians should accept what is given – or continue to suffer as the only nation which refused statehood 3 times consecutively.

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          • RichardL

            Ah yes, the great Oslo diplomatic scam. That’s working well. Mya Guarnieri reports that two nights ago IDF terrorists forced an entry in the middle of the night into a house in autonomous Area A and illegally abducted an Addameer researcher and threatened his wife and presumably scared the shit out of their four kids of whom the youngest is three years old. Something for you to be proud of TT.

            Reply to Comment
    29. AYLA

      I was actually moved to tears by @Zach’s comment, because whenever anyone–especially in such a seemingly intractable conflict–listens with an open, challenged heart, it moves me. And he was able to do so, as he more or less said, because Moriel wasn’t coming from a place of self-righteousness or judgement. For those of us (not myself currently, but sometimes) who pour a lot of energy into this, or any, conflict or justice venture, let’s all learn from this. Please. I practically beg of us. And @SalamM–thank you for reading with an open heart and bringing as much empathy to your reading as Moriel brought to his writing. This is how we (you) change the world. This is how.

      Reply to Comment
      • The Trespasser

        “because Moriel wasn’t coming from a place of self-righteousness or judgement”
        Well, actually he does.
        One who decides what is anti-God is pretty self-righteous.

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        • ish yehudi

          and those leaders of Islamic Jihad (whom I would wager are even CLOSER to G-d:) and they are pretty sure that “He” is quite happy with war… even heard there are rewards for such things.

          Reply to Comment
        • Talk of God is often a means to social control. The talk of God I see in this piece is different: almost in the tradition of arguing with God, Moriel is willing to accept responsibility if wrong. Nonviolence lets itself be punished.

          Nonviolence is not about converting everyone to a position. It acknowledges violence will always be with us, but offers a new place to pivot to the violence of the day. Moriel can take his position precisely because most won’t. But that does not remove the efficacy of his stand. The light of an alternative path can help form new possibilities even in the paths he will not take. Those who counter “what if everyone did this” do not see that nonviolence assumes diversity will always exist.

          Reply to Comment
          • The Trespasser

            Greg,
            “Moriel Rothman
            Monday
            October 15, 2012

            I would argue that true God or Godliness is not war-like and jealous, and that when human beings destroy and violate other human beings, they are acting from places controlled by their ”yetzer ha-ra,” their evil inclination, and not from places of Godliness.”

            You see, Greg, non-violence is totally strange to the G-d of Abraham, Isaak and Jacob.
            And to many other G-ds as well.

            (To be exact – I’m not aware of any major deity which forbade violence)

            So Moriel here is saying that godliness is not war-like, and all violence comes from the Yetzer Hara.

            But what is Yetzer Hara?
            A small quotation from Wikipedia:
            “In Judaism, yetzer hara refers to the inclination to do evil, by violating the will of God.”
            http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Yetzer_hara

            Basically from Judaistic point of view the violence is bad only if it contradicts the will of G-d, and vice versa – if G-d tells you to kill than you better kill, because if you don’t than it is your yetzer hara tells you not to.
            For example, after Jews came out of the desert they were supposed to conduct complete genocide of few pagan tribes which at time inhabited Canaan.

            Complete genocide in terms of killing all mammals and birds, including humans, cattle and chicken.
            However Jews did not do that properly, which proved distasteful, as Tora says.

            Now of course one don’t have to believe in what is written in that old book, but than one can’t use any of it’s concepts.

            Whatever Moriel saying is extremely kawaii and heart-touching, however it totally lacks any moral basis.

            Reply to Comment
          • “after Jews came out of the desert they were supposed to conduct complete genocide of few pagan tribes which at time inhabited Canaan.” : This is the vanguard settler ideology I fight with my mind. And it is one of the primary reasons why God must be helped out of the prison of the past; the same may be said for some Quranic texts.

            Aaron FT, Gandhi held the same view on bearing attack because he might be wrong, especially so in his public fasts. The assumption of nonviolence is a call to a greater social world, asking if the view of the moment can be defended. If it has merit, people will come to your aid. That’s the logic, as I understand it.

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    30. I just have to let you know in this very public forum of how proud I am of your decision. Though we have disagreed on certain nuances and specifics of regional politics in the past, I have to admit that as I have watched the process you’ve undertaken in the past 2 years, I find it increasingly easier to reclaim my Jewish heritage and participate in the dialogue whereas in the past, I was so upset and dismayed by what is happening, I believed I had no place, no voice. Now, I receive emails from my Mother’s Rabbi, a human rights activist following the work you have been doing, and only a great smile breaks out along my face.

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    31. Thank you Moriel for your impassioned ethical statement. I am proud to be a member with you of a people who refine our ideas and choose behavior based on the sensitivities that you express here. I invite you to expand your perspective on the human condition, on the intersections of great thrusts of history with power and ideas. We have learned from history, and in our current situation – without a doubt, Israel and the Jewish people need an army. Unfortunately, there are those who intend harm and even evil action against us. Since the Maccabees 2 millennia ago, Zionism innovated the defense of the Jewish people – this is an obligation of Israeli citizens. The obligation is not only to serve, but to apply our finest conscience, the deep conviction that you express to one of the most difficult tasks. In the annals of military history, and current military conduct, the IDF sets rigorous world military ethical standards. The occupation did not create the conflict here, nor will the demise of the occupation solve it. There are many ways that we can fulfill our obligations to serve with moral dignity, to infuse our moral character into the army, and throughout the institutions of our society. This is one of the meanings of your return to your homeland – to find in yourself the willingness to engage with your full being in the most difficult challenges that Israel poses to you, and to fulfill your obligations to our people with utmost skill and ever-refining values. Opting out is a return to exile, in body and soul. I welcome you to encounter more about these topics in my new book, ReReading Israel: The Spirit of the Matter.

      Reply to Comment
      • ish yehudi

        THank you Bonna Devora for expressing something so eloquently i couldn’t reach to say… but in reading what you wrote– the return to the land presents our people with the greatest of challenges… Engaging nationalism, building an army, returning to our land to findthe presence of another people challenging both our right to be here, and our moral duties to be just and recognize tzelem elokim in a place of power and anger… It is truly a land that demands faith to walk and dwell within it.. THis Land is also what demands we engage the paradoxes therein by remaining in the question- and not retreating to the cerebral. When I read the piece the first time, what struck me was the similarity in position to our other non-serving community- also out of their inner values to G-d, Torah and a deep sense that the return to the land can’t be through such a muddled and murky way. And prefer to remain a people in mind, but not body where these birth pains are felt. It’s in the muck that we must try to shine.
        What you called to return to exile- to step away from our common goral reminds of the environmentalist whose impassioned ideals leads to a life built away from the pollutions and a “zero waste/ harmonic haven” in the woods.. while the essence of their consciousness is that we are all in this together and only by keeping the engagement with whats most dirty can we move forward as a whole.
        What bothers me in Moriels position is that even if he goes to great lengths to explain why he doesn’t hold a grudge/ judgement against those who serve– if he in truth recognizes the need for an army (which here I’m not sure where he stands) the refusal to serve remains a placing of the individual over the whole… maybe it is a “time to do for G-d- abandoning the Torah…”

        Reply to Comment
        • Ish: “a deep sense that the return to the land can’t be through such a muddled and murky way” : the return to the land, so much as you may have it, needs the consideration of Arab Israeli citizens not as strangers among you but true citizens. Could it not be that God is so powerful (and the Arabs too say they have Him) that secular citizenship is an insulation protecting you all from such power? As for the settlers in the Bank, when you settle there, you make home among strangers, making prior residents strangers in their own land. Which Torah text(s) to use: wipe them out, or remember those in Egypt who lived kindly near you–and some did. Your choices are very difficult. But this strikes me as the way of YHWH.

          Reply to Comment
        • Yes, “It’s in the muck that we must try to shine.”
          There is not much meaning to ethical positions; holding them is easy. When we field test them under challenging conditions, they become meaningful.
          This is also part of the meaning of Zionism – putting Judaism to a field text: in economics, law, politics, business, education, foreign policy. . . . Do read ReReading Israel: The Spirit of the Matter, and please share your responses.

          Reply to Comment
    32. God and nonviolence applies to Palestinians too, yet we both shoot at each other.

      The symmetry breaker you provide is the occupation, which applies to Israel alone.

      The problem with your article is that it focuses on how ugly the occupation is, giving the IMPRESSION that things would look better without it.

      But, if all you look at is how bad Israel is, what then leads you to BELIEVE Israel would be better off without monitoring the WB and Gaza?

      Are you not blindly ASSUMING peace will come as soon as Israel sends its soldiers home, like you go home?

      Are you not blindly ASSUMING Hezbollah, Syria, Iran etc will relax their aggression too?

      What is this ASSUMPTION based on, if all you look at is the Israeli side? When you meet Palestinians, do you discuss Israel, yet again, or do you discuss the Palestinian side as well?

      Your ASSUMPTION that things will automatically be better fails, if you look at the Arab side before 1967 and before 1948. They were not that peaceful back then either, so why do you ASSUME they have changed, unless you discussed it with them?

      If you did discuss it with them, then please tell us something we don’t know. Put Israel and the occupation aside for one moment and talk to us about Palestinians, the hopes of Hamas, and other relevant topics.

      Thank you for that.

      Reply to Comment
    33. Joel

      hey Moriel

      I made Aliyah in the same age as you did. So, just because you have a ת”ז, it doesnt mean that in your heart you are an Israeli. We will never understand, what this really means. And please, dont judge the IDF or the country you are living in.

      Reply to Comment
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