I honestly believe you want the best for this country, but if you care about the Israeli society, there are other ways to make a difference. Joining the IDF only perpetuates the status quo — one that is bad for Israel and much worse for Palestinians.
By Ido Liven
Congratulations. You are 18 years old today. We don’t know each other but your birthday is especially important to me. Let me explain. When you were born, I joined the IDF. I shouldn’t have.
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Don’t get me wrong — it was a truly life changing experience. I met some of my best friends during my army service and have had some positive experiences. I even learned how to cook in some godforsaken outpost on the border with Jordan. And, ultimately, this crucial period of my life has undoubtedly influenced the person I am today — the person who now would have preferred not to be there.
I was told I was helping to protect my country. And I believed it. But it would be a lie to say that my participation in the occupation — or my service as a combatant in a Multiple Launch Rocket System unit, a weapon whose cluster munition has been banned by an international treaty since August 2010 — have made anyone safer.
Lies I told myself
I still would like to think I have made a difference, that someone else in my place would have done a much worse job; that I positively influenced my friends, maybe even my commanders, and helped prevent even worse things from happening; that perhaps I made life easier for some Palestinians. From the perspective of those days, it is possible. But all of this is completely insignificant in the broader picture, not only the army’s, but of my own service.
Yes, I lied to myself. Trying to bring about change from within in order to help end the occupation, at least in the army, is not possible even if you are the chief of staff. After all, the IDF is an executive body that carries out government policies (and in practice also perpetuate the justification for its existence), and the system is designed to co-opt each and every member.
So, yes, I would like to think that I have done some positive things as a soldier, but focusing on them in retrospect would be nothing more than cleaning my conscience. In fact, whatever justice I may have took part in was not just dwarfed by my overall role, it practically camouflaged the other injustices I partook in. Because being an IDF soldier — even if an ethical one — has at the very least made me a witness, and in practice I became complicit in repressing another people.
I was in a base overlooking Ramallah when the Second Intifada broke out. Back then I vowed never to put a human being between the crosshairs of my rifle. Today I am proud to say that I stuck to this vow, or at least I am glad I was never in many situations that forced me to test it.
It might be a cliché, but when you were born, when I joined the army, your mother also probably wished you would never have to enlist. Just like my own mother — just like many other Israeli mothers.
Yet 18 years later the wishes of Israeli parents are not the only thing that remained constant. Fifty years later the Israeli occupation is still here, and publishing these words was — and still is — seen as nothing short of treason by many.
Paying the price and making a change
But here’s the thing: there are alternatives. There are a number of excellent organizations that support the choice of young people at the point in their life when they begin to consider a different course than the one we have all been told is the right one to take. I have met some of them, and I know that the people involved in these organizations care about the Israeli society – its moral character, not just its image – no less than any other Israeli. I dare say that their commitment for a better future for Israelis and Palestinians supersedes that of many others.
If you are reading this, I honestly believe you want the best for this country. And if you care about the Israeli society, there are other ways to make a difference. At this point, joining the IDF would only help perpetuate the status quo, one that is bad for Israel and much worse for Palestinians.
It doesn’t mean there is no price to pay. I know this is far from being an easy decision, and given the consequences, I sincerely wish people will never have to face such a choice. But in the current state of affairs, for an individual who wishes to participate in creating a better future for Israeli society, opting to refuse to serve in the army carries a vastly larger potential to actually make a difference. At the very least, choosing to go against the flow, not to conform, would necessarily make the people around you — those who appreciate and care about you — think honestly with themselves about this dilemma.
I don’t remember considering refusing when I was about to join the army. It wasn’t just that I was a scared, obedient youngster, I probably just did not want to be different from my peers. A conformist. Maybe I didn’t have the guts to claim I was a pacifist (which I wasn’t) or go to the mental health officer to get an exemption. I know others who did. I just was not aware of what serving in the IDF actually means.
On the day you were born I joined the IDF. I had no doubt that I was doing the right thing, and I genuinely believed that the challenges to come are the way for me, for every caring citizen, to somehow contribute to my country. I was wrong.
Today you are 18 years old and are likely about to join the army. But try to think about it again. Try to think about the baby who was just born today – will you be able to say that by joining the IDF you helped improve Israel for her or him?
Ido Liven is an environmental activist and a former journalist. This article was first published in Hebrew on Local Call. Read it here.