I was her

Before exploring ‘life after leaving,’ I want to revisit my time in Israel in the early 70s as an officer in the Israeli army. Our highly trained unit was stationed in a tremendously overcrowded, poverty-stricken, and polluted refugee camp in the occupied Gaza Strip. The camp consisted of thousands of single-story houses jammed full with multiple generations in families, and often chickens and ducks as well! The narrow streets—actually muddy alleyways—emitted the foul stink of urine and excrement from donkeys, mules, chickens, ducks and… humans.

As assigned, I led a squad of eight soldiers on patrol throughout the filthy, narrow alleyways of the camp with no specific mission other than to establish the Israeli army’s presence and affirm its dominance in the camp. We were wandering aimlessly, but in high-alert ready to fire on a milli-second’s notice, when I heard a tall young thin Arab woman, fully covered by a burqa, standing on top of a shattered concrete piece, screaming and gesticulating wildly. She held a tiny baby on her hip and had two malnourished, frightened young boys by her side.

She yelled and cursed from the bottom of her heart at the heavily armed Israeli soldiers who stood silently and motionlessly beside the huge yellow bulldozer that had just demolished her home. The dust from the demolition was still settling among piles of broken pieces of wood, mud and rock, covering her and her three children with thin sticky layers of dust. It was horrifying to observe these figures, covered with dust, standing on what was used to be the roof of their home.

As we approached the horrific scene, she turned to us and screamed at me and my soldiers. We too stood motionless and speechless.

Not knowing the language, I did not understand most of her yelling and screaming in Arabic, but somewhere I understood each and every word she yelled and spit at us.

The second I realized that she was standing on the roof of her own demolished house, I resonated with her rage, fury and despair. I readily imagined what it was like for her to see her house, her shelter, the roof over her babies’ heads, so brutally and definitively flattened by a giant bulldozer – her very life all but erased.

According to the Israeli military ‘standard’ ‘occupier’s cliché’, the so-called ‘crime’ that led to the leveling of her house was that she hid or shared a living space with a ‘suspicious’ Arab man, who was nowhere to be seen. It was clear that she did not do anything to harm any Israeli soldier. She was simply living here in the squalid conditions of this refugee camp, where she was probably born, desperately trying to survive and raise three malnourished children.

I was overtaken by the urge to go stand by her, to scream alongside her, to add my own outraged voice to hers and help her be heard. I wanted to help her penetrate the shields of the steely masked faces of the soldiers who had obliterated her home, and installed a lifelong hatred and rage against the occupying Israeli forces in her children.

Obviously, I was part of the occupying forces at the camp, and part of the military operation that flattened her house. I was not just a soldier in the Israeli Defense Forces—I was an officer and commander. While this defied our supposed ‘occupier logic,’ her fury evoked my sense of guilt and culpability. I felt magnetized towards her, my attention and spirit almost drowned in her outcries. I badly wanted to tell her that her rage was justified, and that I resonated with her outrage, despair and helplessness.

Continued

I despised myself for not protecting this woman and her children, for not standing in front of the Israeli bulldozer the way the heroic ‘Tank-Man’ stood in front of the tanks in Tianaman square in China.

I wanted to tell her not only that she was right to rage, but that, while I definitely have always believed, and still do, in Israel’s right to exist, I do not know why I had joined the occupying forces, why I aimlessly patrolled the camp, why I did not try to get the Israeli army out of the refugee camp, why I did not stop the demolition, and why I was such a cowardly passive bystander. I wanted to tell her that we, the Israeli army and its evil bulldozers, should not have been there in the first place.

I was ashamed of ‘my army’, which was not mine, but was. I did not sign up to demolish houses and leave women and children homelessly alone, standing on the roofs of their erased homes. But I did not act to stop this from happening.

I had betrayed her, myself, and the values I had been raised with. I had committed crimes against her and simultaneously against myself and my conscience. I admired her unbounded expression of fury and hated my own collusion with the occupation, my passive enabling of the destruction of her home. Defeated, deflated, and steeped in self-loathing I retreated to our camp which was bizarrely situated not far from her former home.

Two days later, a top general of the Israeli Military Southern Command and a big entourage of top-ranking officers came to our small camp. The general and his ranks stood tall before us, looming over our 80-men seated unit. He lit into us for not being ‘tough enough’ on the refugees, for not installing enough fear and horror in them. It was clear his intent was to shame us for not ‘generating’ more homeless, desperate women and children like the ones I had encountered a day earlier. He then ordered us to immediately evacuate the camp, two days ahead of schedule, to emphasize his rebuke.

At this, I was seized with an enormous upwelling of rage. Not fully aware of my actions, I stood up tall, the way the woman had stood on her flattened rooftop, and proceeded to allow her voice to pour out of my mouth. I didn’t think about what I was saying nor try to be logical or measured. Instead, I fiercely shouted her truth… I became her.

Her rage streamed out of me towards those generals standing grimly in front of us, just as her rage had streamed out towards us, the soldiers standing silently before her. Using her voice, spirit, power, powerlessness and fury, I fiercely questioned the high ranking generals, demanding to be told what was the purpose of establishing Israeli military presence in the refugee camp.

I then blasted the question, “What are we doing erasing refugees’ homes and leaving innocent women and children homeless and stripped from human dignity?!!!” Being her, the rage kept rushing out of me. When she had yelled her piece, no one had responded. And likewise, when I spoke, all were silent.

The general of the Southern Command or any of his highly ranked officers could have easily had my house erased the way the woman’s had been. Any one of them could have rendered me imprisoned with a simple wag of a finger. Instead, the high general and his entourage did not say a word. They simply climbed back into their jeeps and left. The same way the soldiers who destroyed her home left without saying a word. The same way I had.

The officers’ houses like my soldiers’ and my own home stood intact. Our children were neither starving nor homeless. Nevertheless, like her, I felt defeated, enraged, helpless, hopeless and alone. I also despised myself and my uniform. I hated my power, my country, my army, and my gun. I was her – I was her destroyer – I was my own destroyer.

The Fourth Choice: On Leaving Israel

During a return visit to Israel in 1990, I was interviewed by the editor of “Chotam”, an Israeli newsletter, to discuss my culturally unpopular decision (at that time) to leave the country I loved (and still do), Israel. I mapped for him the three options I had if I were to have stayed and thus, however indirectly, have been party to the Israeli occupation of the West Bank: 1. As the Dissonance Theory predicts, I would have gradually become more right wing in order to justify my actions and my country’s immoral occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. 2. I would have become more politically involved in order to fight the occupation and promote peace and non-violent co-existence between Israel and its neighboring Arab countries, similar to what my sister did as part of Women in Black3. While keep hoping for peace, I would create and live in a bubble, not attending to the whole peace/war/occupation issue altogether… 4. None of these options were acceptable, so I chose a fourth option… to leave.

In other words, leaving Israel was partly related to my interest in avoiding acting like a “passive bystander” (i.e., bystander effect) in regard to the immoral Israeli occupation of the West Bank.

Monkey & Me: Respect For & Identification With the Enemy

After a few days of cautiously moving towards enemy lines in the 1973 war, our military unit became the target of artillery shells. Some fell to the left of us, some to the right, some in front of us where we were headed, and some behind us, where we had been an hour ago. In a curious, fascinating, and yet terrifying pattern, the shells began to gradually close in on us in a perfect lethal circle, closer and closer on all sides. As our unit paused under a grove of high palm trees, the shells began falling so close to our group that it became obvious that the artillery weapons were being systematically directed by someone or something that was aware of our location. Was there an unseen aircraft tracking us, a satellite, or an eye in the sky?

As we frantically tried to figure out who/what was doing this we peered at the sky through the fronds of the palm trees above and suddenly spotted what in some military jargon is called a “monkey” — a perfectly camouflaged Egyptian soldier sitting atop one of the trees, trying to blend in with the thick canopy. We instantly realized that he was the one providing his fellow artillery soldiers miles away with the exact location of our unit. Within a milli-second, about 20 to 30 solders aimed and rapidly shot their M-16’s automatic guns at him. By the time he hit the ground he had several hundred bullet holes in him. Needless to say, he did not suffer much. A couple of distressed, frightened and enraged soldiers even shot a few more rounds into the lifeless bleeding body.

I looked at this bullet-ridden corpse and experienced an upwelling of admiration, respect, and even awe, for this man who had directed his artillery on our unit… and in the end, on himself. I considered how he had been deliberately and consciously ready to face death in defense of his country, just as I had been a couple of days prior while crossing the bridge of fire. My feelings of identification and admiration were not shared by my fellow soldiers. In fact, a fellow officer rushed toward the body and took the bayonet off his gun, both as memorabilia and as an attempt to humiliate the enemy. I was unexpectedly overcome with rage and hatred towards this man’s lack of acknowledgement of the bravery of the monkey. I instinctively wanted to protect his body, and at the bare minimum, have our unit spend a few seconds around it to honor the complex relationship that we had with our enemy. I did feel hatred towards the threat he had posed to myself and my soldiers, yet I also was touched by his sacrifice and courage. I was very aware that I could have been the one to be riddled with bullets just a couple of days earlier on the bridge.

In effect, this is what we soldiers are about: walking the tightrope of potential sacrifice while defending our country as heroes. Yet, I suspected that the monkey, like me, had not viewed his defiance of death and willingness to sacrifice as particularly brave or heroic. Rather, his act was a way to embrace life in its fullest. Ironically, saying ‘Yes to life’ meant also saying ‘Yes to death.’

The Crater Dilemma: Instinct vs. rational & impulse vs. logics

Another memory from the 1973 Yom Kippur war: we are deep in the desert and artillery shells, with their lethal downpour, were raining down all around us. Each exploding shell created a crater in the sand. I was standing at the edge of one of these craters, covered with dust from the latest explosion. Obviously, my instinct told me to run for my life, to run as fast as I could away from that crater before the next shell struck, but my military training repeatedly ran through my head telling me that ‘two bombs never fall in the same place.’

Accepting that premise meant that this new crater was the safest place around and therefore I should jump into it, against all my instinct. In the confusion of life and death, it was the fight between intuition and the brain – instinct vs. rationality. I jumped into the crater, which probably saved my life. I have, since that day, always wondered how many times in life we stand at the edge of craters needing to weigh our instinct against our rational inclination; our impulse against the logical choice. Indeed, life presents us with situations where a crater may even sink us into the earth, but where the seeds of creativity may flourish. (Listen to an audio recording, describing this junction)

Occupation of West Bank & Gaza: Being Sane in an Insane Place

Thinking back to my early years, I can see that encounters with death during my military service, testing boundaries, questioning commonly held beliefs, seeking the truth, questioning authority, and searching for ways to choose between intuition and logic were all inherent parts of who I was. I loved to learn by examining what I or others thought was right or wrong. I did not do it alone; for example, there was an incident where some soldiers did not come back from an R&R furlough to the base in the Gaza Strip, but instead admitted themselves to a mental institution [to avoid returning to the base in Gaza]. This meant that I could not give a much needed break to other soldiers in our unit and I was furious. I expressed my outrage to my mother on the phone. In a soft voice, my mother responded to my anger by saying, “Perhaps those who admitted themselves to the mental institution rather than coming back to the camp were the sane ones”. I was speechless. In that one, short sentence, she forced me to question the whole notion and definition of sanity. In my own way, I continue this path.

Running Water & Destroying the Village’s Heart

During my time in East Africa I also helped develop a running water system in order to improve the quality of sanitation and eradicate malaria. With the help of a wise old man of the tribe, I came to realize, to my chagrin, that this project, however well intentioned, also destroyed one of the most important institutions of the village . . . the Well, which forever had been the heart and gathering place of the community. It was painfully ironic.

Confirming Israel’s Moral Amnesia

On my 2019 return trip to Israel, observing its political-moral scene was a painful reminder of why I left the country 40 years prior. Back then, I knew I had to leave, as it was clear to me that staying in Israel and bearing witness to the immoral occupation would corrupt me as well. This was a consequence I refused to pay. As Dissonance Theory explains, when there is an inconsistency or discrepancy in people’s minds between attitudes and behaviors it is most likely that the attitude will change to accommodate the behavior. People tend to adjust their ideology to their behavior and not vice versa. Sadly enough, this is, indeed, what seems to take place in Israel today.

A tragic example is of an Israeli teenager girl who was brutally murdered in August 2019 by a homemade bomb that exploded at a natural spring. She was visiting this spring not far from her home in a settlement in the West Bank. Government officials declared it an act of terrorism. A local rabbi, declared her “a martyr,” calling on God “to avenge her death.” There was barely any mention of the greater context. The fact that the young woman was part of the occupation, living in a settlement built on military-conquered Palestinian land in the occupied territory of the West bank was barely uttered.

I decided to conduct an experiment, asking people first what they thought about “the girl who was recently murdered in the West Bank” and asking others (a second group in the ‘experiment’) for their thoughts about “the settler-girl who was recently murdered in the West Bank”. Almost unanimously, people in the second group objected to my referring to her as a settler, accusing me of “justifying her murder.” I definitely did not justify the murder; all I was doing was simply putting the murder in context. I think that sadly enough, most Israelis, even the ones that lean to the left, after 50 years of occupation (as predicted by the dissonance theory) have lost track of the context—the oppressive, inhuman, murderous immoral occupation of the West Bank.

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