The son of a Zionist family, Ari Miller immigrated to Israel dreaming of combat tours in the IDF, followed by a political or diplomatic career in the service of his new homeland. Today, his life couldn’t be farther away from those fantasies. A personal journey
By Ari Miller | Photos from the author’s personal album
I stood there, with my unit, all of us with an M-16 in hand. A man in green with one red shoulder barked at us that, in a few weeks, we would have the opportunity to kill or be killed. We were about a month into basic training in the IDF’s 101st paratroopers division. I was living my lifelong dream of aliyah and service in the Jewish army. I was 24 years old, surrounded by 18 year-olds.
As a child, a button hung in my suburban Philadelphia bedroom. On it was written, “We are all Zionists.” A gift from my father. I didn’t know what it meant but I wanted to make him proud. So I was a Zionist. First by default, then by active participation.
During the year, I attended a religious day school. Some summers were spent in Israel with the synagogue youth group. Others were spent as a counselor at a Jewish overnight camp; an Israeli flag hung over my bed, a symbol of where I’d rather be. My first year of university was spent half at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, and the other half on a religious kibbutz near Gaza. I served as the Hillel president in my junior and senior years at Clark University. Israel advocacy was my primary agenda. When Norman Finkelstein came to speak on campus, I cut classes to prepare and hand out pro-Israel/anti-Finkelstein material at the entrance to the lecture hall he’d be occupying.
I had only learned who he was that morning, when I saw the signs for a lecture on Israel, the speaker invited by someone other than me. I was top Jew on campus and someone was stepping on my toes.
No one will dare step on my toes once I’ve got on green, red and black – the colors of the uniform, beret and weapon of the Israeli paratrooper – and also, ironically enough, the colors of the Palestinian flag. The army makes you a man Jew, more than a bar mitzvah ever could. Combat would instill in me the strength and discipline of studying for a thousand Haftorah portions. And there was danger and adventure, just like in the advertisements I’d seen for the US Army. But an “army of one” (the recruitment slogan at the time) was not for me. I was looking for an army of minyan.
Zionism was the core of my identity. Judaism the structure of my life. I made no secret of my intention to move to Israel following my graduation form university. My plan: join the paratroopers, become an officer and then get into politics. My dreams reached far and wide to include becoming Prime Minister or Israel’s ambassador to the US – or any other country for that matter. Hell, I’m still open to the possibility.
“What a holy thing you’re doing”
When I arrived for my draft notice I had been in the country less than a year. I reported to the Haifa induction office. When evaluated for my linguistic proficiency the clerk either ignored or was too daft to notice that I was texting the Hebrew words I was being asked to define to my girlfriend-at-the-time, a fellow American sitting in her Ulpan class in far away Tel Aviv. I came out of the room from my physical clutching my groin, my face artificially contorted in pain, just to mess with the 16 year olds waiting their turn.
Technically, I was required to serve only three months in a program called Shlav Bet. I could have opted to simply be trained for some non-essential task and then worked into the reserves. Realistically, I probably could have even gotten out of that. But I had come for the “real deal” and volunteered for an 18-month service.
Two people advised me against serving, arguing that Israel is in need of intellectual contribution much more so than additional fingers on the trigger. Call it stubbornness or stupidity, but my mind was made up as to the path I would pursue. I much preferred listening to comments like, “What a holy thing you’re doing.” That one was offered to me by Morton A. Klein, who was and still is the president of the far-right wing Zionist Organization of America (ZOA).
It began with a course for new immigrants entering combat units. Of the four divisions, three were comprised entirely of those who’d arrived from the FSU (Former Soviet Union) and the fourth was “other” – which included me.
Most of our course commanders were from elite units, sent to train us as a sort of army vacation away from active duty. One of them, from Duvdevan (a unit that specializes in undercover missions to arrest and/or kill wanted militants identified by the IDF), spent much time selling me on the finer points of becoming an assassin. All I had to do, he assured me, was finish the physical exam and I was in. As I sat opposite some officer sent to interview us about placement requests, the Duvdevan guy was waving his red beret in the window I faced, over the shoulder of the interviewing officer, who remained unaware of the action behind him.
The horrible mistake I had made
But I didn’t want to go to Duvdevan. What almost no one knew then, save for a few very close friends, was my realization that I had made a horrible mistake. At that point my thoughts were shifting from getting that red beret to getting out of green all together. The actual reason that I ended up in the Paratroopers’ physical exam, in which they only allowed a small portion of us immigrants to participate, was to avoid spending the night in the field. Those of us accepted to participate were allowed a decent night’s sleep in the barracks. I swear to fake god.
This is not to say that I did not rock the exam. Later on, in basic training, an officer stopped me and asked if I recognized him. I did not. He explained that he administered the physical exam and said I was amazing. He must have been referring to my encouraging a fellow immigrant to keep going, at a moment when we were all running around with heavy sand bags on our shoulders. The kid finished the exam but was not accepted to the Paratroopers. I, on the other hand, was another step forward into my dream-turned-nightmare.
I felt something amiss from the first moment I put on the uniform. But I quickly understood that should I want a successful army career, it was within my grasp. During the immigrant’s course at the platoon commander’s Friday session with the troops, I was asked to stand, along with one other guy, in front of all those assembled. As he had been in the midst of chewing us out for poor performance and lack of discipline, to say I was nervous is to say the least. He instructed everyone to look at us, suggesting that we were the models from which they should take example. I stood there feeling as though I were an impostor.
When we were assigned our weapons, I felt sick in my gut, aware that I may have chosen the wrong life path. Trading in the desk-jockey uniform for that of the paratrooper, I felt myself sinking deeper into a hole that would be very difficult from which to extricate myself. I had this singular dream my entire life and was succeeding in its pursuit. Only, I was coming to discover that the pot at the end of the rainbow was not filled with gold but with blood, hate and destruction.
In my immigrant’s platoon there was a group of about five religious Americans from Brooklyn. When it came time to return our training ammunition, with every bullet they removed from the clip they muttered, “Another Arab I didn’t get to kill.”
I went to my company commander, figuring he’d want to root out any possible festering violence. He told me there was no time to deal with such things in an immigrant’s course; such outbursts would be dealt with once they were placed in their permanent combat units. But my combat unit was not much different. We had a kid from Kiryat Arba—a Jewish settlement bordering Palestinian Hebron—who made it clear that he lived in Judea first and Israel second. First he worshiped his rabbi, second his prime minister. I did not want to be guarding a settlement with this guy.
I started to crumble, emotionally and mentally. My life’s path was misguided. The rainbow itself, I was discovering, was nothing more than a thickly veiled farce.
Failing one’s country
I developed asthma. What started out as a terrible cough plaguing me through the start of basic training, turned out to be a respiratory apparition, a faux-divine blessing to solve my problems. Once diagnosed, my commander privately offered me an inhaler explaining that this could be dealt with without the need to involve doctors any further. I should have been shocked, but there was a kid in my unit who lied about his dyslexia, which should have disqualified him from the Paratroopers. As for me, I had no intention of missing out on this potential release from the combat infrastructure. I refused the inhaler, explaining that, when it came to my health, I would stick with the doctor.
My last Friday session in the unit was complete with a story from the commander about all those guys who couldn’t “take it” in the paratroopers of yore, dropping out and failing their country because they were weak with asthma. Of course, he also recounted the brave tales of those who sucked it up and soldiered on, despite breathing problems. I was pissed off that I still had to be on base for a weekend.
I attempted to arrange a transfer to the IDF’s spokesperson unit, figuring that I could serve in a position that offered me practical experience for life after the army. My main contact there, some dude named Simon, had his head so far up his or someone else’s ass that I came to realize there would be no salvation within the system. I again thank fake-god that I came to realize that I just needed out.
Enter the army psychologist. I was told this option would stigmatize me within Israeli society. This was the insanity with which I was faced: Play by the rules and sacrifice my remaining humanity by staying in uniform to aid and abet an industry of death and destruction or be stamped as someone unwilling to serve his country no matter the personal cost. I’m not talking about the legitimate, defensive needs of a nation state. I’m referring to the blatant racism and violence that is alive and well in the form of an occupational force. This was the dark side that no one ever spoke of – the reality of service in the IDF.
The border of humanity
That’s not true. One person spoke of it. A fellow soldier in the 101st who demanded he be released from combat. A hulking dude, seemingly birthed to fill the paratrooper’s fatigues. I asked him why and he told me that he had been lied too by his country and countrymen. That combat is not some glory-filled service of honor. That it demands a sacrifice not of self but of one’s humanity.
So I pursued losing face in Israel with wild abandon. If this was the true nature of Israeli society, I could not respect it. After all, I couldn’t see how I would respect myself were I to stay, were I to shoot at fellow human beings, were I to make myself a target for my fellow human beings to shoot at me. I had met soldiers who had killed or been close to it. One bloke, a fellow immigrant who cried from joy when we were told of our acceptance into the paratroopers, had been in an operation that left him stranded in a Palestinian village, I was told by a common friend from the course. He grabbed a child, held his rifle to the kid’s head while the kid pissed himself and was thus able to extricate himself from a potential life-and-death situation.
Another guy I met at a Friday night dinner, had killed for the first time that past week. To deal with the trauma, he relied upon copious amounts of alcohol and a prostitute. He told us of his woes in reaction to the father at the table proudly proclaiming that, “he had heard he earned a notch in his belt.” I do not know how I would have reacted in similar circumstance. What I knew was that I had to avoid subjecting myself to such circumstance at all cost.
It’s not that I was unaware of the inherent violence of any and every army. Even in the Swiss army they’ve got cool little knives you can use to open cans, poke holes in leather and cut a throat. I read book after book on the experiences of ‘Anglos’ in the IDF – autobiographies of those who survived to tell the tale and biographies of those who did not. I questioned myself, if I’m willing to kill another person. I answered that I would not be killing people but the enemy.
What I had not considered was that I might come to realize that even “the enemy” is still a person. And once this thought took residence in my brain I could no longer accept be reconciled with kill or be killed. And, as the nationalism I had come to Israel with seeped out from me, I came to see my place, holding a weapon in a combative position as being a mercenary, cleverly disguised with immediate citizenship based upon, to borrow a David Cross line, the religion of my mother’s vagina at the time of my birth.
I stood at the border of humanity knowing that I did not want to cross.
The Promised Land
To end my army career, I was ordered to report to Hebron where I’d be tasked with sitting in a room to watch television screens. I’d be Israeli big brother to the Palestinian little one, with none of the love, respect or trust common of the sibling relationship. I informed the army psychologist that I intended to refuse the order. He told me to come to see him instead. When I arrived at his office he offered his final verdict, “You are no longer in the mindset of being a soldier.” No shit. And, like that, I was out. When I had my release papers signed, I was told that if I wanted to participate in reserve duty I should be in touch after two years. I didn’t ask for the number.
But I stayed in Israel. I moved in with my girlfriend, a graduate student at Tel Aviv University; together, we found a place in a northern Tel Aviv neighborhood. I looked for a job but found nothing. So I took advantage of my aliyah (immigration) rights to a free education. I explored the idea of studying film at Tel Aviv University. But for reasons that I cannot recall I ended up heading south to Beer Sheva, accepted to study Middle East Studies at Ben-Gurion University. In hindsight, I assume that I wanted to get away from my life as it had existed. Whether I knew it at the time or not, I had to reinvent myself, discover new passions, my raison d’être. Turns out that a college campus with lots of those girls they’ve got there was as good a place as any to tackle this task.
As a participant in an international Masters’ degree program, I studied in English with students from all over the globe – Americans, Canadians, Europeans, Israelis and even a Zionist Christian from Indonesia. The bulk of my education was not in the classroom but at the pub and over home-cooked dinners, complete with booze and pot. We’d sit around rehashing the day’s lectures and current events. I got back into writing as the Israel correspondent for New Voices, an independent Jewish student magazine, distributed on campuses across the US.
Through this educational experience and these discussions with friends – Jews, Muslims, Christians and atheists – I began to construct a new personal identity, one that embraced friends and family, liberating me from god and country.
Following my studies, I moved back to Tel Aviv. It never occurred to me to go anywhere else. Here, in the first Hebrew city, I didn’t have to be Jewish or Zionist. I could simply exist – so long as I was comfortable with the average Israeli not understanding that. And, because I was a Jew, according to the State and regardless of how I had come to identity myself, I could navigate here with such luxuries as socialized health care, a vote and access to all things nationalized.
I began waiting tables at a fashionable restaurant named Orna and Ella, where the money was spectacular. I lived in an apartment on the beach. I was writing about music, art, dance and food for The Jerusalem Post’s weekend entertainment guide. The construction of my life was blessed and the city opened up to me in a most intimate way. And I fell in love. With it’s beach, coffee, beer and culture. But, at the end of the day, I was frequently reminded by the locals that I remained an American who left behind the goldene medina.
It seems to be always assumed that there must be something wrong with me. Israelis look at me with wonder for having left behind all that they crave for themselves. They seemed to be saying that a life in Israel is the result of flawed logic. But it’s not, of course. It has its problems – a cult of militarism that includes the tendency to martyr its fallen, social inequalities that go largely unaddressed due to hyped up security concerns and, no doubt, legitimate security concerns.
And I feel that this disbelief, that someone might want to live here – not because of a commitment to god and not because of a commitment to country – is one of the greatest disservices that Israelis hold about their own country, their own existence. But I am saying, with my lone voice, that this is a legitimate place to live.
I am most maddened by the all-to-often offering that I have no right to judge or criticize. Because I was not in Lebanon or Gaza or protecting a settlement with my body. That I can not understand. I am infuriated when I hear Israelis and Jews tell me that it’s okay here because it is worse elsewhere. That Israel is good because it allows gays to be open, African refugees to live and religiosu and secular exist side by side. But this confuses Tel Aviv with the rest of the country. And this city has the power to save the rest of the country.
Living in a bubble
Tel Aviv is where it’s at. We sit around in cafes and get drunk at bars. Our public spaces are covered in street art and there are boutique fashion shops in clusters. We have restaurants aplenty where you can find just about anything you’d like and an urbane, international set that knows just what it’s looking for. And we take shit for this. We’re told we live in a bubble. That’s true. We live in a bubble of normalcy and I offer no apologies for it.
We take shit for our normalcy bubble, as if it’s not normal. That’s true. It isn’t normal to insist upon normalcy when situated smack dab in the middle of abnormality.
During the Second Lebanon War, the rest of the country slammed us for knowing nothing of what it is to suffer. Tel Aviv was the paradigm of people who did not care. I felt nothing highlights the classic lack of Israeli empathy than the insistence upon this notion. Anyone able to take refuge in Tel Aviv came here. At Orna and Ella we were constantly bombarded with “refugees” from the North asking for their solidarity discount. Nasrallah was still just past the border threatening that Tel Aviv was next. And we would go to the beach, smoke a joint, watch the parade of helicopter sorties fly past every few minutes while my Israeli friends would reminisce about the times their dads disappeared for days, months and lives in service of Israel and its politicians.
We did not have to live on the border to understand fear or feel the pain of loss or anger. The hysteria of a nation at war permeates that entire nation. And we’re left to decide between the myriad fear mongers and too fewer prophets. Again, lack of experience on one hand does not mean lack of experience on both. And solutions are oft to be found in the non-violent dialogue between the resulting opinions, the conclusions of different people with different experiences.
Here we are, in our bubble, Tel Aviv, Israel, Middle East grasping tenaciously to whatever little normalcy we can muster in the hopes of keeping sane. We wonder out loud, encouraging one another to be just a little bit louder, as to when the rest of the country will cling to normalcy rather than fear, anger and the march to war. We hold this conversation in our cafes, pubs and salons, on the beaches and sidewalks, in Bauhaus apartments and crumbling rooftops. We ask ourselves and one another what will be when Israel finally figures out its shit – when the nation of Israel will choose love and peace to the point that it will not settle for anything less.
I, an atheist born of a Jewish mother, who arrived to this country a Zionist and remain here for that Tel Aviv bubble of normalcy and represent myself, my voice and my life, am psyched to be part this Zionist experiment. And, the best part is, that the geography of it all is inconsequential. Residence in Tel Aviv is not an exclusive prerequisite for a Tel Aviv state of mind. But feel free to visit: We’ve got a great thing going on here.
Originally published in Hebrew in Blazer Magazine.