Nathan Hersh

Silence of the doves: An IDF reservist on the price of passivity

In late November I hitchhiked north to Tel Aviv from the Negev. The driver was a combat reservist and his girlfriend, in the passenger seat, was an officer in an intelligence unit. Both were in their late twenties, already several years separated from their compulsory army services. Next to me, in the back seat, was another combat reservist from the same unit as the driver, but much younger. Operation Pillar of Defense, which had ended the night before, was his first time at reserve duty.

The young reservist was visibly frustrated and told the rest of us that Bibi was a coward for calling off the ground invasion of Gaza. He talked about the need to be strong in the face of Palestinian and Arab aggression; about the need to destroy Gaza so that the Palestinians would learn what it meant to send thousands of rockets into southern Israel.

The driver and his girlfriend glanced at each other every so often, and lightly questioned the angry young soldier about what next: when does that line of thinking end? The young man shrugged and said that it would end when the Arabs recognized the Jewish right to this land. “Don’t you know they hate us?”

The couple in front was not satisfied with that answer, but they apparently didn’t have the strength to argue the point any further. And neither did I.

I had been released from active duty fifteen months earlier. I spent the year in-between my release and Operation Pillar of Defense at Tel Aviv University, studying conflict resolution and reinterpreting my experience as a combat soldier. Unlike native-born Israelis, I was drafted at age twenty-four, after making Aliyah.

My experience in the army was, therefore, different from most Israelis’ in many ways. I had been studying Israel, Zionism and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict at university in the US before gaining experience as a player in those subjects. For Israelis, education about national narratives and the conflict begins, naturally, at childhood and their draft.

But my experience was the same in many ways, too. I broke my body and mind to complete basic, and then advanced combat training. I lost absurd weight, achieved permanent sunburn and ate a lifetime’s supply of canned tuna in under two years. I experienced the jaded attitude toward everything that sets in after weeks on an army base. And like many soldiers that question Israel’s behavior in the occupation after serving in that occupation, I retreated into a state of passive resistance to any political stance after my release.

That freedom from concern is not everyone’s experience. I know soldiers from my unit who became more militant in their views as a result of their service. But those soldiers whom I spoke with that did question the occupation at some level and had – despite their training – become averse to the violence of the army were, like me, silent about it when they returned to civilian society.

My own post-army political indifference lasted until Operation Pillar of Defense. Until the operation I did my best to stay out of political conversations about the conflict. The freedom to stay out of the discussion, after my unavoidable participation in it for my entire service was very comforting. Finally I did not have to address the cognitive dissonance that exists in the conscious soldier’s head.

Unfortunately, that formlessness is not sustainable in Israel. Sitting on an army base preparing for war will quickly erase any semblance of disinterest in a person. When a person is forced to reconcile his opposition to violence with the command to fight or die, his silence becomes apathy. And that apathy will keep this conflict in its current state for generations longer if we let it continue.

The result so far is the silence of voices that are crucial to a full understanding of the conflict and the occupation. And this silence stands in the way of a healthy debate about the people that we Israelis want to be: a culture of conflict or something else.

The ride north last November was devoid of any real discussion, if for no other reason than the feeling of gratitude among most of us for the end of the operation. There is no feeling better than being a reservist when the war ends.

Unfortunately, though, the only voice in the car was the one that justifies continued occupation as an intelligent response to the occupied people’s hatred of us. And when this type of circular reasoning is not responded to, future generations of Israelis (not to mention Palestinians) suffer the consequences.

What is needed is a real discussion, among Israeli veterans, of our behavior in this conflict. The justifications for violence that remain unchallenged – as they did in that car, and often do in Israeli society – have become the doctrine of our country simply because those who oppose them do not challenge them.

In the end, this will not build our historical narrative, it will protract the conflict even further.

About the Author
Nathan Hersh is the Managing Director of Partners for Progressive Israel, a nonprofit devoted to civil rights and social justice in Israel and the Occupied Territories. He served in a combat unit of the IDF from 2009 to 2011, and holds an MA in Conflict Resolution and Mediation from Tel Aviv University.