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 Black. 3. 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.
I was living in Jerusalem studying chemistry and oceanography at the Hebrew University, towards my B.Sc. degree in 1973. My home was situated in the beautiful old compound of the Coptic Church on the tiny, historical Ethiopian Street in West Jerusalem. Riki (not her real name) was a delightful, energetic, intelligent, and life embracing cousin whom I met for the first time when we both were 23/24 years old. As we got to know each other, we became aware of plenty of musical, social, moral and political shared interests as well as a budding mutual sexual attraction.
Being biological cousins brought up an interesting moral wonder: Were we engaging in committing forbidden incest by having sex? And beside the intimate and fun sexuality we experienced, were we right, appropriate, moral, medically dangerous, or even ‘sinful’? These quandaries led us to interesting and insightful exploration of the idea and construct of the Incest Taboo.
The (pre Wikipedia) encyclopedia, at the time, stated: “An incest taboo is a cultural rule or norm that prohibits sexual relationships between certain members of the same family, mainly between individuals related by blood.”
As Riki and I explored the construct of incest further we realized that, indeed, most human cultures have some rules or norms that forbid close or blood relatives from engaging in sex or marriage, making such relationships a taboo. The Incest Taboo is often framed in a ‘nature or nurture’ debate, wherein a cultural application to the taboo explains biological preference for partners who do not share genes. Another explanation for the taboo is an inborn aversion to genetic effects of inbreeding, like congenital birth defects. The incest taboo also seems to exist to prevent social role confusion or conflicts (and abuse) within a family, particularly regarding parent-child and sibling relationships.
Riki and I spent in depth time studying the historical, cultural and, of course, medical and biological aspects of the incest taboo, while at the same time, enjoying playful intellectual as well as sexual interactions. The rebels we were, found it disappointing and somewhat sad 🥲 when we discovered that, while being officially and legitimately cousins, we were (are) not biologically related as we share no DNA. The incest taboo did not apply to us. We regretfully 🙃 were not crossing any established lines or violating any medical or moral codes. It would have probably made it that much sweeter and fun if we were…
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.’
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)
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.
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.
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.