Dusk was falling on a January Saturday night in Jerusalem on a day on which I hadn’t yet eaten, but the restaurants in my neighborhood were clearly not going to open. I finally found a pizza joint some blocks away. I was the first customer, and the young waiter/delivery man had to turn a table over to give me a place to sit. We began to talk, and it turned out he was an IDF aircraft engineer who had serviced planes during Operation Protective Edge. He was on leave to earn money to support his mother, who was bedridden with no means of support. His noncombatant IDF salary of 300 shekels didn’t go very far to meet his family responsibilities, so the IDF arranged for him to have time off to earn more, an agreement the US Secretary of Defense himself no doubt could not have negotiated in my own country. Snow was on the way, and this young man was the only person I met who was looking forward to it. He was adept at driving on icy roads and expected to earn a lot delivering pizzas to people unwilling to go out in the snow. In the US one hears frequent complaints about the special benefits given to Israeli veterans. Learning about this engineer’s IDF compensation put those benefits in a different light.
It is basically impossible to avoid meeting young soldiers or recent veterans in Israel. In the US you meet them only if you are poor, you are part of a military community, or you live near a military base. The US volunteer army has become largely class-based, an option for the poor, something that unfortunately makes war less controversial. But in Israel young men and women in service and veterans are everywhere and part of every family. That means that parents in the professions are engaged with the meaning of military service in ways comparable US families largely are not. Americans were engaged that way during the Vietnam War draft, but no longer.
I talked with one parent whose son had served on the West Bank and was now in the reserves. Like all West Bank veterans or family members I met, the experience was psychologically and politically transformative. Some found their hearts hardened toward Palestinians, while many others migrated to the left, adopted the terminology of occupation, and urged either a rapid settlement of the issues or unilateral withdrawal. But the less complex pride that remains an enduring aftereffect of much conventional military service in Israel seemed available to no one who had served on the West Bank. The father in question reported long conversations with his son about the son’s inner debate about whether to refuse to report for active duty as a protest against West Bank policy. That caused the father considerable anguish, though he came in time to respect the son’s moral seriousness and dedication to principle. For now, the son went when called, but the conflict has changed all involved.
A trip to Hebron with a private guide from Breaking the Silence, himself a veteran whose leg was crushed by a Humvee and who saw a friend beside him killed, highlighted perhaps the single most vexed WB settlement, 750 Jews in a fragmented settlement in the midst of the largest WB Palestinian city. There IDF soldiers have the task of protecting settlers living atop the remains of a Biblical home where they are no longer welcome. The motivation for living there is largely religious, testimony to an ancient heritage whose material revival is unremittingly bleak. The Jewish homes are Spartan, the restraints on Palestinian movement necessary to ensure the settlers’ safety oppressive. Abandoned Arab markets now scrawled with threats and obscenities are spread beneath homes protected with heavy wire mesh. Anger boils over everywhere. My reaction was simple: the Jews should leave. Yet others assured me there would be no more controversial settlement to abandon, and that the left could not hope to reach resolution with conservative religious Jews unless it found a way to honor what was culturally at stake in Hebron. The Jews who first returned illegally after ’67, ecstatic to be living on Abraham’s territory, were oblivious to what had become Palestinian facts on the ground in the intervening years. Now they clung to what seemed a living miracle. Abandoning the Hebron settlement without honoring the loss would, I was finally convinced, be either politically costly or impossible. Yet I remained convinced there was no other course. Surely access to the Tomb of the Patriarchs could be sustained without a settlement to justify an IDF presence. What was clear from these conversations was that that there was no way forward unless the left and the right in Israel find a way of respecting each other’s values and passions. A deeply divided electorate cannot shape the future simply by winning.
The discussions I had among Israeli veterans about the general West Bank problem in fact demonstrated repeatedly that the Israeli right and left do not map reliably onto American expectations. A far left faculty member objected to a unilateral withdrawal from the WB because it would be yet one more political imposition on Palestinians, made without their formal consent. Veterans on the left who urged a staged unilateral WB withdrawal commonly regretted that the political leadership had not chosen a rapid wholesale assault on Hamas in July, arguing that the agreement that would eventually be necessary could never be negotiated unless Palestinians first suffered a decisive military defeat. That is an example of realpolitik reasoning of a sort one that blends left and right in ways quite unexpected by Americans. By and large, far more nuanced discussions of these issues are possible in Israel than elsewhere in the world.
Cary Nelson is Jubilee Professor of Liberal Arts & Sciences at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and the coeditor of The Case Against Academic Boycotts of Israel, published this January. He spent a month in Israel from December to January, lecturing at Israeli universities and elsewhere, with the support of Jewish organizations in the US.