I remember the time when British Hasbara extraordinaire Neil Lazarus showed us a video clip of a girl criticizing Israel on some campus or other, pointing out that she’d been on a Birthright tour. How doesn’t she know better, I remember asking myself. She’s seen Israel with her own eyes; why would she add her voice to the chorus of hate?
I was 17 years old at the time, sitting in a classroom alongside the other ‘Ambassador’ contestants from JFS (the renowned Jews’ Free School) in London, where I was a student in my final year. ‘The Ambassador’ was a programme run annually by several UK Jewish schools, in association with a variety of pro-Israel organisations, whose stated purpose was “to inspire young people to become passionate Israel educators and advocates” and “to prepare students to promote an understanding of Israel to Jews and non-Jews on campuses in the UK”. We were competing for the highly coveted trophy, and for an all-expenses-paid trip to Israel awarded to the finalists, and I was determined to win – not just for the prize, or the prestige, but because I really believed in it. My experience at JFS was just one element of the multi-faceted Israel education I received during my formative years – at the Jewish youth movements in which I was active, at the synagogues in which I prayed, and in my social circles. I grew up in an environment where it was very clear that Israel was our country – even if we weren’t living in it – and to that end, it was our job to defend Israel’s battered reputation, come what may.
I went on to win the JFS Ambassador programme, and it was on the subsequent winners’ trip to Israel that I concluded that if I were truly committed to Israel’s future, making Aliyah would be the best way to express that. It wasn’t long before I found myself donning my IDF uniform.
My political stance today, 10 years later, is a natural progression from where I stood at that moment a decade ago. The same love of the country I’ve called my own since early childhood leads me to be deeply concerned about its future. Israel prides itself on being both a Jewish and democratic state. But it appears that democracy is no longer something to strive for, even nominally. My military service in the West Bank was a defining moment for me because it became impossible to ignore the systematic discrimination designed to maintain a power imbalance whereby Palestinians are always inferior: even ‘second-class citizens’ wouldn’t be an accurate term since Palestinians living under occupation aren’t afforded citizenship.
I served in a unit called the Civil Administration whose purpose is, ostensibly, to coordinate and liaise with the Palestinian Authority. I worked in the District Coordination and Liaison (DCL) centre in the Jenin district, and was tasked with operating the office that awarded entry permits into Israel to eligible Palestinians.
During the training courses I underwent in the army – as an NCO and later as a cadet – my commanders constantly emphasised the idea that the security of Israel’s citizens was directly connected to our unit’s performance: if we were professional and diligent, there was less of a chance that the Palestinians who we dealt with would want to carry out terrorist attacks. It was that simple. We were told that the DCLs which our unit operated were one of the two main places in which Palestinians in the West Bank met Israeli soldiers; the other was at the checkpoints (this of course was not true: West Bank Palestinians are constantly confronted by IDF soldiers – on patrols; during arrests; during night-time ‘mapping’ missions; when their houses are taken over to be used as lookout points and many more – all part of a strategy in which the IDF ‘demonstrates its presence’, thus making the Palestinians feel as if they are constantly being watched). I later understood that, since it was impossible for West Bank Palestinians to live their lives while entirely avoiding either the checkpoints or the Civil Administration, this system of control – at the hands of people they never had the chance to elect and were forbidden from protesting against – had nothing to do with their behaviour, their beliefs or the extent to which they posed a threat. They were forced to live that way, whether they liked it or not, whether they had plans to harm Israelis or not. As an Israeli, that is not something I’ve ever been, or ever expect to be subjected to.
Last summer, in the later stages of my wife’s pregnancy, I spent a lot of time thinking about what it would mean to raise a child in a far-from-perfect society. I couldn’t escape the thought that my child will grow up in a country that sends its young people to enforce military rule over a civilian population. I didn’t expect to be able to fix Israel’s flaws, but I couldn’t justify standing by. I decided to join Breaking the Silence, an organisation of IDF veterans that publishes testimonies of former soldiers who served in the occupied territories with the aim of sparking a candid conversation about the price we are paying – both Israelis and Palestinians – for Israel’s policy of perpetual occupation.
As we mark 53 years since the start of the occupation, we now have a state of affairs whereby most Israelis have never known a reality in which their country was not an occupying power. Israel’s new government has promised to advance annexation legislation as soon as this July, a move that would make it impossible to argue that Israel is not an apartheid state, formalising a situation in which two distinct groups live under two highly disparate systems of law within one state.
Israel has long understood that the conversation about its security policies cannot remain within its own borders; that’s why its government and partner organisations pour their resources into training schoolchildren around the world, like myself, to defend its right to act the way it does. That being the case, it’s time for the Jewish diaspora to stand up and make it clear that Israel cannot expect to receive unconditional support when its actions clearly defy the moral code we expect of modern democratic countries. If world Jewry truly cares for Israel’s future, now is the time to act.