Peace & Justice in Mother’s Milk

I was born in Israel in 1950 to pioneer parents. My mother, a German Jew, was an intellectually rigorous psychologist. My father, an Hungarian Jew, was gentle and poetic but also a labor organizer and engineer.Both had lost most of their families in the Holocaust. Together, they were a visionary, optimistic, determined, and idealistic pair who mirrored the exciting tenor of the times in Israel as the new nation was born from the ashes of the Holocaust. It was only natural that concerns with justice, peace, integrity, compassion, and fairness were discussed daily around our dinner table with lively discussions about social justice, peaceful co-existence with neighboring Arab countries, and the rights of women, Jewish immigrants from Arab countries, and Israeli Arabs.

Questioning Authority: The Early Years

The years passed and I grew to be a young man. I had a very close group of friends in the youth movement (Hashomer Hatzair) and was close to my older sister. I loved sports, hiking, backpacking, swimming, and basketball, but was also a keen reader of many subjects. In the course of absorbing so much new information and so many new ideas, I soon found I had a passion for critical thinking and its natural consequence: a desire to improve the society I lived in and to question existing ‘truths’ and unquestioned/given assumptions. Alongside my family and friends, I was politically active in promoting peaceful co-existence between Israelis and Palestinians and in opposing religious oppression and manipulation by the extremist religious Jews….and it all began at our dinner table where Martin BuberRollo May, and other existentialists were part of the menu.

Encounter with Phosphorous Grenade at Age 10

At age 10, during a Purim holiday celebration (similar to Mardi Gras) where thousands of Israelis gathered in the center of Tel-Aviv to celebrate, an Israeli soldier mistakenly launched a phosphorous grenade into the crowd while intending to throw a colorful and harmless smoke grenade. The burning phosphorous struck both my legs and my hair, turning me into living torch. Due to the nature of phosphorous, which sticks to the skin and can burn without oxygen, it was hard to put the fire out and I ended up with third degree burns on my legs and a scar on my hairline and spent a month in the hospital. (For the rest of my life I could always resonate with the famous Vietnamese Napalm-Girl, who was photographed in 1972 screaming in torturous pain, after U.S. air-force reprehensibly, inhumanly and immorally dropped napalm on her village.) Oddly enough, my most vivid memories of this ordeal were having fun in the hospital riding a wheelchair on two wheels and spending time with my mother who had also received burns from the same grenade and was in the next hospital room.

Justifying One’s Existence by Doing Good (Daily)

Family times were precious and certainly have had a lifelong effect on both my sister (four years older) and me. I am an amalgam (powwow) of my parents: my mother’s rigorous intellect and my father’s gentle soul and both their devotion to social justice and to ‘doing good’. My name also reflects these complementary polarities within me. “Ofer” means fawn in Hebrew, a creature that is gentle and tender, while “Zur” (or “Tsur” or “Tsoor” in Hebrew) means hard rock and represents firmness and rigorousness. At dinner time we often would be asked about any good deeds we had done that day or about any worries or feelings. As a result, for many years, I felt I had to ‘justify my existence’ by doing a daily good deed. I remember one example of a family discussion just after my bicycle had been stolen. Obviously, I was furious, but my parents reminded me of how privileged (not wealthy) we were and that the boy who stole my bicycle probably has come from a poor or deprived home.

Stepping into the Void – On Being a Paratrooper

The Israeli army is a rite of passage for almost all young Israelis and during my service I faced barriers and boundaries that I had never before encountered. I was a paratrooper and I will forever remember the first time I stood at the launch door of an airplane, thousands of feet above the earth – poised at a fundamental boundary between the real and the ethereal – and stepped forward into the void. It was a transforming experience, fraught with suspense and fear but also imbued with joy and the instant dawning of a new perspective. Floating, falling, what a metaphor for Life! – but also entrusting my life to a slip of silk, certain that the canopy would open, trusting to the unknown.

Looking at Death Straight in the Eyes: An Encounter w/ Death

Soon after, as a lieutenant and combat officer, just 19 years old, viewing life as a prism of possibilities, I found myself at the greatest boundary of all, that of life and death. For the first time, I held a soldier’s dead body in my arms. Simplicity and innocence vanished and once again a new perspective opened before me, a new consciousness. I felt so profoundly the preciousness, the fragility of life and the importance of living each day fully, with care and integrity, as if it were my last day on earth. To this day, I try to live that way.

Shooting the Light Bulb – How Dumb is That?

While some boundaries are physical, existential, or spiritual, others are developmental, metaphorical, or metaphysical. I remember a time, during my military service, when three of us, all officers, were housed in a cement bunker. Late one night, we were all very tired and had turned in for a good night’s sleep. I was already in bed and, instead of doing the obvious of getting up and turning off the light switch, I reached for my handgun and shot out the single light bulb hanging from the ceiling. While I accurately hit the bulb, which effectively turned the light off, the bullet ricocheted wildly around the cement walls for what seemed like a very long time, seriously endangered the life of all three of us. On my list of boundaries, this would easily rank as a highly reckless, stupid, and an utterly irresponsible way of pushing boundaries – and fate.

True Freedom: Riding Motorcycles & Jeeps in the Desert

One of my many assignments in the army was patrolling the Arava and the Negev desert from the Dead Sea in the north to the resort town of Eilat in the south, situated at the northern tip of the Red Sea. I loved the desert; I always did. There is something in its vastness, dryness and mysteriousness that have always drawn, enticed and soothed me. Backpacking and riding motorcycles or jeeps in the desert have been a big draw in my life and probably will always be. There were times when we finished our patrol in Eilat. As we arrived, tired and dust-coated from a long, rough day often with searing desert winds, we pointed our jeep straight for the beach. What a joy it was to plunge into the pure, cool, blue waters of the Red Sea. That sensation as I dove deep was a kind of ecstasy.

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.

Out-Of-Body Experience & Its Life-Long Meaning

Then, as a 20 year old, still in the army, I was serving in the occupied Gaza Strip when I found myself, with eight of my soldiers, surrounded by a rapidly advancing, rock throwing crowd of young Gazans. For a split second, I had an out-of-body experience where I saw the scene from high above. In that mystified and astounding instant, I realized the two fateful/calamitous choices I had were to either save our lives by shooting at the young Gazans closing in on us, or to be harmed or even killed by them. Either way lay tragedy. Clearly neither choice seemed right. Thankfully, we were rescued by our troops at the last second; no shots were fired and no one was hurt. At that very moment, I knew that in order not to be confronted with such a situation (which is inherent part of an occupation) ever again, I would have to leave the country I loved, Israel. That day did not come for almost a decade when I went to the US to study.

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.

Sheriff of Tiran Island – Reversing Day & Night

Thinking back to my growing-up years, and including my military service, I can clearly trace the emergence of my fascination with all kinds of boundaries. A striking early example was when, as a young officer, I served on the remote, barren, but intriguing, Tiran Island, a strategic ‘bare giant rock’ in the Red Sea. My soldiers often referred to me as the “Sheriff of Tiran,” a title they painted on my small wooden ‘home.’ Besides taking care of the basic military duties, I spent much of my time wandering alone around this lifeless speck in the sea with my bare feet, a diving knife strips to my calf and a bathing suit and diving with friendly sharks and huge sea turtles. I found the island to have a profound and complex, spiritual nature. At that time, I was musing about the boundaries between day and night and wondered whether the distinct extreme separation of day and night is an artificial construct created by humans and their ancient cultures, or is it an inherent part of human nature. To satisfy my curiosity – and to the profound dismay of my soldiers – I experimented with inverting day and night by reversing our daily routines and the customary way of life of most humans and many animals living currently on the planet by ordering my soldiers (I was the only officer and highest ranking soldier on the island) to sleep during the day, eat breakfast at sunset, lunch at midnight and dinner at sunrise. While I was quite engrossed by my unorthodox research and the exploration of the nature of Man, I also noticed the resistance and outrage of my soldiers who perceived the experiment as seriously deviant. While not always popular, my questioning ‘common knowledge’ and our immemorial ways of living has been large part of my life story.

In the Merchant Marine – 2nd Out-Of-Body Experience

After my land-bound military service, I embarked on the life of a sailor aboard a commercial freighter. Joining the Merchant Marine as a cadet, I learned the ways of the sea, the ancient art of navigating by the stars, and the many skills, rites and rituals of seamanship. The ship dropped anchor in such European ports as London and Antwerp – all of them blessedly far from military camps and battlefields! Besides learning the officers’ roles and responsibilities, I found it a most interesting anthropological journey into the life of sailors. On my last trip back to the port of Haifa, a long-simmering, mutual antipathy between the boatswain and me erupted into a ferocious fist fight on an enclosure resembling a boxing ring on the very front deck. As we fought, I had my second out-of-body experience; a part of me seemed to rise up and up to the level of the distant wheelhouse. From there, far below and ahead, I saw these two, tiny figures, like stick figures in a cartoon, ferociously, brutally and meaninglessly fighting each other, with the soft, calm sea around us. It was a singularly odd experience to be simultaneously engaging in the violent, physical fight and also observing the scene from high above, in all its utter senseless stupidity. In that instant, philosophy aside, I realized the two choices I had were to either determinedly defend myself or be thrown overboard, with a good likelihood of drowning. The fight resulted in a broken nose for me and swollen-shut, black eye for him. The senselessness and absurdity of the fight and the out-of-body observing-self stayed with me for a long time. Nonetheless, that sailing experience touched my fate, igniting an abiding interest in the sea which brought me to the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, where received B.Sc. in chemistry and, more significantly, completed few graduate courses in oceanography, which became my next career.

Hebrew University in Jerusalem & ‘Pre-Meeting’ my Wife

In parallel with my immersion in my scientific studies, I could not help but be moved by living in the west part of the ancient city of Jerusalem, at the nexus of three major spiritual traditions. I lived in a beautiful old house in the Coptic Church compound. One Christmas Eve, I was mysteriously drawn to my motorcycle and headed out into the still night. Randomly driving through the Judean Hills beneath the stars, I found myself… where else?… but, Bethlehem. Then, neither randomly nor consciously, for the first time I magically ‘met’ my future beloved wife, Jenji, as she was right there (15y.o.), also attending the Christmas Eve Mass with her family at Manger Square in… Bethlehem. We connected the dots on this miraculous and synchronistic chain of events about 20 years later when we ‘met again’ when she (again, non-randomly) was the ballet teacher of my daughter, Azzia, in Sonoma, CA.

Sacredness of Jerusalem – Absorbing the Magic

My time attending Hebrew University in Mount Scopus, Jerusalem (1972-1975), studying chemistry and oceanography, was one of my most profound and powerful spiritual awakenings, as Jerusalem embodied the convergence of three major religions. It was at this time that I experienced one of my most profound and powerful spiritual awakenings. In addition to studying, socializing, and playing college basketball, I drove a taxi on the weekend. This was not only anthropologically fascinating but also helped me discover the beauty, complexities and the multi spiritual nature of Jerusalem.

On Being a Cab-Driver… I Mean a Psychologist

During my undergraduate studies at the Hebrew University, one of the more intriguing and valuable experiences in my life was the exposure that I had to a wealth of human experience while a cab driver in Jerusalem. It was an anthropologist’s dream. Customers waved my cab down and hopped into the back seat of the cab. Once in the cab, many of them (consciously or unconsciously) realized that it was a unique setting where they could fully trust the privacy, confidentiality, and most importantly the anonymity that the cab ride and my attentive, curious ears provided. Knowing that they had only a short time in the cab, they talked fast and revealed and shared a huge spectrum of rich human experience with me. Most of the stories were about lovers who betrayed them, parents who hurt them or friends who violated their trust. Then, some excitedly talked about upcoming weddings, marital affairs, graduations or spectacular adventures. Some tourists were pleased to realize that I spoke English fluently and proceeded to request a tour of old Jerusalem, Masada, the Dead Sea or the Sea of Galilee. I was happy to serve as their tour guide. While most people paid the full fee for the ride and happily added tips, on the rare occasion some flashed a knife or even a hand gun when I gave them the price. Others had unusual requests, such as an ultra-religious man who laid down in the back of the cab in order to avoid being seen, and asked me to take him to a prostitute where all he wanted was to touch her . . . thigh. Without a doubt this rich engagement with people, fantastically prepared me for my career as a psychologist.

Against Medical Advice (AMA)

Over the years, when I have said or done something stupid, someone invariably has replied, “What! Did you hit your head?” Well, yes, actually several times ☺. During my three years of studying in Jerusalem I had the honor of leaving the hospital AMA (Against Medical Advice) several times following emergency hospitalizations, most of which involved motorcycle accidents. I vividly remember one accident when I was coming down from the Mt. Scopus Campus of the Hebrew University on my powerful BMW bike on a Saturday, being knocked backward by a thin, almost invisible, wire that the ultra-orthodox religious Jews (aka. ‘black-hats’) had put across a road that wound down from the Mt. Scopus. The wire, which was strategically placed there to ‘punish’ the ‘non-believers’ who travel on the Sabbath, hit the front of my neck, while the bike continued to go forward, leaving me hanging on the wire by my throat. To this day, I wonder how I survived this accident and how I could leave the hospital against medical advice. (There may be God after all 😃). Similarly, I have been puzzled about how I miraculously survived another accident where I lost my lights on the bike but nevertheless was determined to ride to my ‘not-to-be missed’ basketball practice with my college basketball team. It was dark and rainy and it is no wonder that riding the bike on a narrow, wet road without lights ended up with me being rescued from a deep and flooded ditch by the side of the road at the bottom of one of Jerusalem’s steep slopes. Both incidents, as did some others, ended with AMA departures from the hospital within a few hours of admittance, concussions and all.

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