It’s a quarter to 11 on a Thursday night and I’m locking my office after a tiring day. Because I’m spending the weekend on base, I decide to head to bed early and wake up on Friday to finish looking over my platoon’s bank statements.
The weeks leading up to Passover are the busiest of the entire year. As the price of food soars, so too does the number of hungry families, and along with my co-social workers, I am tasked with making sure each and every one of my soldiers and their loved ones have food on their table come seder night.
Ping. My phone lights up as I return from brushing my teeth.
“So I’m at an Idan Raichel concert,” my friend — an NYU student — writes.
“WHAT IS THAT?” I type back.
“And of course there are protestors standing outside…”
“OH MY GOD!”
“And there you are, starring on the front page of a BDS pamphlet.”
At a loss for words, I start laughing.
Me? On a BDS pamphlet?
Me? The enemy?
Me? The face of the occupation?
The flyer sports the “Israel Apartheid Week” logo and a black-and-white image of my face is plastered on the reverse.
I laugh the incident off as I share the pictures with my parents and friends. I laugh at the irony, I marvel at the feeling of misplacement, of misunderstanding. I feel as though I’ve discovered a meme about my own life that I didn’t know existed. I laugh and laugh.
And then I choke.
It was January 2016, a few days before I was due to enlist, when I phoned my sister to tell her about my afternoon — I’d just finished volunteering at an afterschool program for Palestinian Bedouin girls. Located in the valley adjacent to Ma’ale Adumim, this program is the only alternative these girls have to wandering the streets in the poorly resourced village that they call home. I had spent the visit drawing with students between the ages of 4 and 15, while we taught each other the English and Arabic names for colors. We hummed tunes to songs neither of us really knew, had a monkey-bar competition, and held a photo-shoot, all the while getting to know one another without the aid of a common language.
As the sun began to set, we waved goodbye to the girls who had hosted us and drove back to the familiarity of Jerusalem.
“That went way better than last week,” one of the volunteers suggested. “What happened then?” I asked.
She told me that the previous session they had brought Israeli newspapers in an effort to keep the space clean during a painting activity. She described the way the girls had laughed at the printed pictures of Israeli soldiers, and proceeded to stab each and every one of the images with their safety scissors.
“And how did that make you feel? You know, about your decision to enlist?” my sister probes as I recount the experience to her later that night.
How do you express to someone else that you believe in what you’re doing when you have yet to stomach the thought yourself?
Where are personal beliefs, purity, and morals placed in a factory that imports children and exports soldiers?
And when they stitch our uniforms, are they careful to weave in the threads of humanity?
Unlike many of my lone soldier peers, I’ve never dreamed of protecting Israel at its borders and checkpoints. I joined the army because I believe that in order to be a citizen of this country — in order to reap the benefits of being Israeli — I am morally obligated to stand in uniform next to my native friends. With nine months left of my service, I still hold this belief, and will until military enlistment is no longer compulsory.
But it’s complicated.
A year and three months into my service, the issue has only become more stirring, and though I believe in what I am doing — though I know that without the army this country would cease to exist — I remain torn. Walking through the streets of a politically-united, yet culturally-divided city in olive green is an experience I have yet to come to terms with, and I often catch myself thinking back to those Bedouin girls, pondering how they would see me now. I reminisce on their smiles, hear their laughter, and question where personal choice and character exist — or cease to — in uniform. In a world where politics, and consequentially, educational institutions, mold children before they can form their own opinion, I am unwillingly bound to the system that transforms a multi-cultural, politically diverse, and colorful military into black and white.
And so, I question how to serve my country while remaining true to myself.
I question the filters and influences within my own education — my own upbringing — that have molded my perspective.
I question the authenticity of my experiences both in relation to and in contrast with the history of these nations.
I question those Bedouin girls’ truth, and I question my own.
I question if they would have recognized an image of me in the paper, or if they would have been blinded by my uniform.
I question how quickly they would have raised their scissors, piercing the paper where an image of my own head appeared.
It’s Saturday night and I’m marching through the center of Jerusalem in a sea of people who believe in peace. Children, elderly, black, white, Jewish, and Muslim protesters join me in waving picket signs.
Shtei birot l’shnei amim. Two capitols for two nations.
Araviot v’Yehudiot l’shalom. Arab women and Jewish women for peace.
Ohavim et Israel, mitnagdim la’kibush. Love Israel, oppose the occupation.
I march because while my uniform is a part of me, it does not define me. I march because this is a multi-layered conflict, and because the questions that live within me have no simple answers. I march because both true oppression and true co-existence live and breathe not in the words of growling politicians but rather in the checkout line at MaxStock. I march because pursuing justice is a part of my identity. I march because plastering my face on a BDS pamphlet is an act of ignorance. I march because ignorance is the most powerful perpetrator of evil.
I raise my eyes to the walls of the Old City – our final destination – and gaze at the Palestinian and Israeli flags waving side-by-side. It’s a braid of opposing colors. It’s an ocean of intertwining truths, of pain, of sorrow.
The wind is picking up and I shiver as we head home, our shadows illuminated by the dim light of hope.