I Refused to join the Israeli Defense Forces
Moriel Rothman doesn’t sound bitter when he reflects on the contradictions that formed his childhood identity and eventual political outlook. In fact, he sounds more saddened, if anything. “On the one hand, my heroes were Israeli commandos, and on the other they were the young Jewish American Freedom Riders [Jewish civil rights activists in 1960s America]. I held these two together without fully coming to terms with the fact that there might be a contradiction.”
That contradiction, if you hadn’t picked up on it, stems from the fact that while the Freedom Riders were fighting for the rights of America’s persecuted minorities, Israeli commandos were systematically crushing the rights of their persecuted Palestinian neighbors.
Moriel is a 23-year-old American-Israeli who was born in Jerusalem, spent most of his life in the US, and is now back in the city of his birth. “I think we’re brought up to talk on a universal level about values of justice, standing up to inequality, breaking the law when the law is unjust, and standing up for the oppressed,” he continued. “But not when it comes to our own context—not when it comes to Israel and not when it comes to standing up for Palestine.”
Late last year, Moriel spent time in a military prison for refusing to live out the first part of his childhood dream: the military commando. Military service in Israel is mandatory by law for Jewish youth and young people from the Druze religious minority, however, only around half of those eligible enlist and many more leave during their service.
Dancing Idiots, Candy Floss, and Rubber Bullets: Passover in Hebron, Palestine
The city of Hebron in the occupied West Bank is a pretty bizarre place at the best of times. But the recent Passover festival held by Jewish settlers living on the Palestinian land was easily among the most surreal things I’ve seen in a region that seems to thrive on weird shit.
The collective psychosis in Hebron stems from a centuries-old ownership dispute over the Tomb of the Patriarchs, known as the Ibrahimi Mosque to Muslims and the Cave of Machpela to Jews. The tomb is the supposed burial place of Abraham/Avraham/Ibrahim, the founding father of Islam, Judaism, and, therefore, Christianity. I don’t subscribe to any of those, but—despite the fact that the founder of three of the world’s largest religions surely has enough love to go around—I guess it’s understandable to fight over access to your spiritual father’s grave.
Hebron’s current state of madness, however, has less to do with religious craziness and more to do with ethnic segregation. Hebron is the only place in the West Bank where Israeli settlers live directly inside a Palestinian city. To deal with the minor awkwardness that presents, it’s been divided into two sectors—one controlled by the Israeli military, the other by the Palestinian Authority (PA).
The proportions of settlers, Palestinians and Israeli soldiers in the Israeli-controlled old city are totally unbelievable, in the sense that I probably wouldn’t believe it if I hadn’t seen it for myself. There are around 500 Israeli settlers and 30,000 Palestinians, with 2,000 Israeli soldiers milling about to keep them in line.
The Tomb of the Patriarchs itself is also divided into a Muslim half and a Jewish half, because, as you might expect, there are those who refuse to play nice. In 1994, an American settler named Baruch Goldstein decided to play spectacularly un-nice and is now immortalized on Murderpedia for his massacre of 29 Palestinians in the Muslim side of the tomb. That, plus the Second Intifada, set the stage for the head-spinning clusterfuck that is today’s Hebron.
One Young Druz vs. the Israeli Military
Every able-bodied Israeli has to serve in the military when they turn 18. Exceptions are made for Arab citizens and ultra–Orthodox Jews, but not for the country’s 125,000 Druze, an Arabic-speaking ethnic and religious minority that is primarily based in the north of the country. Last October, a 17-year-old Druze from Galilee named Omar Saad took a stand against Israel’s mandatory military service when he refused to appear at the recruitment office for a medical examination. In Omar’s widely circulated open letter to the government, he wrote, “Many of our Druze men served in the Israeli army… But what did we get out of this? We are discriminated against on all levels. Our villages are the poorest, our land has been confiscated, there is no urban planning or industrial areas…” Omar hasn’t backed down in the months since his letter went public, and with his graduation approaching I thought I’d call him up and see how things were going.
VICE: What’s your situation right now? Are you getting a lot of heat for the letter?
Omar Saad: I was sent three messages to go and do the required medical tests before enlisting in the army. The last letter they sent me said that if I didn’t go by this specific date, a police officer could arrest me and take me over to the station to do the medical exam. This isn’t usually sent to 17-year-olds who don’t have an enlisting order. I don’t have an enlisting order because I’m not 18 yet.
Why are you refusing to join the army?
I am a Palestinian, and I cannot fight my own people. It’s against the way my parents raised me. Many years ago, my two brothers and I agreed that we would not serve in the army. Last year it began to be more of a reality when I received my first letter from the authorities.
What are you going to do after graduation?
I can’t do anything. I can’t travel. I can’t even go to university. I am trapped inside my land. I think I am going to spend some time in prison, and after prison, I really want to continue my studying of music—maybe abroad. I’m a musician, and my friends and I play for peace and to end the occupation.
Are you scared of being imprisoned?
I’m nervous. Every student in my class thinks about continuing their lives normally—maybe going straight to college or having fun for a year. Because I am studying in Nazareth, my siblings and I are the only Druze in our school. I’m thinking, I’m going to end up in prison. That’s not a place for a normal guy to be.
Read more from our Grievous Sins issue:
New Roma Ghettos
Meet the Last Lykovs
Let’s Get Physical
Dizengoff Center, 1:00 PM. Rosi Star was Austrian, originally. She was having a Wiener schnitzel after meeting a friend, and before meeting another. She was fed up with her grandchildren because they were calling here almost every day. “What do they think? Do I have that much free time for them?”
(Source: Vice Magazine)
Just over 100 years ago, Tel Aviv was inhabited by a huge number of people from Europe and the Middle East. These people, only ten percent of whom were actually born in Israel, now make up the oldest section of the population.
Most of these immigrants had very particular lives growing up in Tel Aviv: their youth wasn’t all about being carefree, their adulthood was punctuated by continuous wars, and they were constantly adapting to new cultural environments. They speak the common language, Hebrew, with different accents, but although they identify as Israelis, their strains of German, Yemeni, Slovak, and Hungarian heritage are still hugely important to them.
The “Tel Aviv Grannies” photo series shows this elderly segment of Israeli society. During a six-month stay in Israel, I decided to seek them out and follow them as they went about their everyday lives. I walked the streets, visited the beaches, and joined them in their play and sports activities in order to capture them on film.
The American Student Planning a Palestinian-Israeli Music Festival
Andrew Roseman, like thousands of American students, visited Israel last year to experience the country’s culture and history. But unlike some young tourists, who spend their days getting drunk and tan in Tel Aviv orsecretly pleasuring each other in tents in the desert, the junior from Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine, embarked on a project to bring Israelis and Palestinians together, at least for a day. Since spending four months in Jerusalem, he’s been working to create a festival (called Man of a Thousand Teas) that would feature musicians from both sides of the Green Line. I haven’t heard of anyone trying anything like that before, so I called Andrew to see how it was going.
VICE: What inspired you to try to organize a festival in Israel?
Andrew Roseman: Well, I was in the process of trying to book a [music] show in Jerusalem and I was talking to my [Palestinian] friends, and I was like, “Hey, I’m going to be playing in Jerusalem in a couple of weeks.” And they couldn’t come, obviously, because people from the Palestinian territories aren’t allowed to just enter Jerusalem without a special pass, and it’s very difficult to get. And on the other side, when I was booking shows in Bethlehem, my Israeli friends said, “Oh, I can’t go because I’m not allowed in Palestinian territory.” After a while, we were like, “You know, it would be kind of sweet if we could start a music festival that would bring together Palestinians and Israelis in a politically neutral area that both Israelis and Palestinians have access to.” There aren’t many places like that, but there are a few and with my friends’ help we were able to find a spot that you don’t need a pass or any sort of form to access—a Bedouin area in the Jerusalem wilderness, basically in the Judean desert. Little by little, it’s coming together, and I’m pretty excited about it.
What’s your perspective on how Palestinian and Israeli youth feel about the conflict between the two sides?
I was there when the most recent Gaza conflict was happening and the rockets were going back and forth. There were a bunch of protests and during one, you had Israelis on one side waving Israeli flags and shouting, “Get Hamas out of Gaza,” and then on the other side you had Palestinians waving Palestinian flags and yelling something—I don’t speak Arabic—about the Intifada. Those are two very different messages. I think young people from this part of this world just kind of grow into their context and they don’t necessarily get many chances to intermingle with each other and actually chill. Most of the people I’ve spoken to have really good intentions—at times, it appears that the issue is too complex and people are dug in too deep for anyone to make any sort of difference—but with that attitude we’ll never get anything done.
Let My People Go (Party)
There are plenty of spring break packages available for kids who want to get drunk, break out in gross blisters from spending too many hours in the sun, and dry-hump each other in exotic foreign locales. There are very few, however, that offer you the chance to train with Israeli Defense Force soldiers in between club hopping. But a company called Israel Under 30 has quickly filled this void in the market: For as little as $110 per day, you can forget your worries about Hamas and Hezbollah coming to get you and live it up with, as IU30’s website says, “2,000 smoking hot Israeli girls partying on the shores of the magestic [sic] Red Sea.” You can also receive gun training on a private range and get schooled by “Israel’s most elite soldiers.” Intrigued, I called the company’s cofounder Eugene Gershman to ask him about his weird business.
VICE: Hey, Eugene. What was the impetus for founding IU30?
Eugene Gershman: I’m a New Yorker, and I saw 9/11 with my own eyes, so it was very important for me to go and do counterterrorism in the place that does it best, which is Israel. After college I served in an IDF counterterrorism unit from 2006 to 2009. When I finished, my partner and I came up with this really cool idea of showing kids from all over the world that Israel wasn’t just about the war and the politics—that it was a really cool country.
What kinds of people go on these trips, and do they have to apply?
The screening process is actually fairly simple. The applicant submits three paragraphs that explain who they are, what they’re about, what they enjoy in life. After that, we do a very intensive Facebook search on who these people are, and additionally, the guys who work with us all have intelligence backgrounds, so we get permission from applicants to do background searches on them. Then we have a phone or Skype interview.
Could you tell me a bit more about the Army Action Trip?
We basically take the entire process of forming a Special Forces soldier—from the hand-to-hand combat to the shooting to the navigation, all the cool stuff—and put it into three days and give them a tiny taste of what it would be like to be a soldier. Every group has a dedicated host and hostess. The hostesses are hot, super cool Israeli chicks, who actually have military backgrounds.
How do you deal with all the political turmoil that’s going on in the country?
We stay out of it. We very rarely get questions, unfortunately, from the kids who come here for spring break. They don’t care. Any questions they have about stuff they hear on the news are answered very simply: Look around you. Tell me if you think this is a war zone.
More from our Spring Break issue:
Welcome to the Twin Zone
Blacking Out Is the Other Universal Language
In There Like Swimwear
THE MYSTERIOUS AND DEPRESSING CASE OF PRISONER X
The grave of Ben Zygier, Israel’s “Prisoner X”
On Tuesday morning, the Australian news network ABC broadcast a story revealing the identity of the mysterious “Prisoner X,” who died in solitary confinement in an Israeli prison in 2010. In fact, “Prisoner X” was the subject of a case so secret that ABC claimed even the guards inside the Ayalon prison didn’t know his identity, and that he “lived hermetically sealed from the outside world.” His arrest and detention have been described as a “disappearance,” setting alarm bells ringing for bodies such as the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, who argued that the idea of individuals simply vanishing from society is not a characteristic of a democratic state.
If the case already sounded like a bizarre 21st century combination of a Cold War spy thriller and The Man in the Iron Mask, things only got murkier when it was revealed that Prisoner X was found hanged in a cell that was under 24-hour surveillance, yet his incarceration was not officially recognized by either the Israeli Prison Service or the government. The Sydney Morning Herald also revealed on Wednesday that he was being watched by the Australian Security Intelligence Organization (ASIO), and that he had traveled to Iran, Syria, and Lebanon—all places that bar entry to people who’ve visited “the Zionist entity.” Israel forbids its citizens from traveling to these places for “security reasons,” so it was reported that Zygier, along with at least two others, had used their Australian passports. It’s been suggested often before that Australians are favored for spy missions because they don’t attract suspicion.
One thing ABC was clear about from the start was his identity—he was an Australian national named Ben Zygier, who had moved to Israel ten years before his death and changed his name to Ben Alon, before marrying an Israeli woman with whom he had two children. It seems likely that Zygier spent time working as a spy for the infamous Israeli secret service agency the Mossad before being jailed without an open trial and dying in his cell. ABC stated that his body was flown to Melbourne in December 2010 for burial, but the Australian government wasn’t informed of his death. This constitutes a violation of fairly basic international law, something that Israel is admittedly no stranger to.
Ayalon prison, where Zygier was detained
This is where it all started to become a problem for the Israeli government. Israeli media outlets usually manage to bypass the military censor for high profile stories by quoting foreign media sources and, initially, the local Israeli press jumped on ABC’s revelation. However, it seems that the Prisoner X case is shrouded in even more secrecy than the strikes Israel recently carried out in Syria and the country’s incursion into Lebanese airspace. Ha’aretz later reported that:
“The Prime Minister’s Office called on Tuesday an emergency meeting of the Israeli Editors Committee, an informal forum comprised of the editors and owners of major Israeli media outlets, to ask its members to cooperate with the government and withhold publication of information pertaining to an incident that is very embarrassing to a certain government agency.”
The Director of The Gatekeepers Talks About Israel’s Terrifying Security State
The Academy Awards are mostly known for their bloated, hideous ceremony and nominating Famous White People Put on Accents and Pretend to Be from Another Historical Era for everything. But go down the ballot to the Documentary Feature category and you’ll find that the Academy isn’t completely allergic to nominating controversial films about present-day subjects—like Dror Moreh’s The Gatekeepers, which tells the story of the Shin Bet, Israel’s brutal, secretive internal security force. Dror interviewed six former heads of the agency, recreated top-secret locations using CGI, and ended up criticizing Israel’s religious right pretty harshly. The film was shown in festivals to widespread acclaim last year but hasn’t been widely available in the US until this month, so I thought it would be a good time to talk to Dror about his film, the settlers, and Israel’s best hopes for peace.
VICE: First off, congratulations on the Oscar nomination.
Dror Moreh: Thank you. When you start to do a movie, you never think about those things. But when you hear that kind of praise, it’s really heartwarming. Not a lot of documentaries get big attention.
How did this movie come together? Did six of the former heads of the Shin Bet decide they were going to talk and call you up?
It started with an interview that I read in an Israeli newspaper in 2003, in which four former heads of the Shin Bet said that if the policies of Ariel Sharon continued, it would lead Israel into catastrophe. Later, when I interviewed Sharon [for 2008’s Sharon], his chief of staff told me that Sharon was deeply moved by the article because it came from the center of his defense establishment. It wasn’t coming from left-wingers crying for peace, it came from his closest advisors, his security system. And when I did that interview, it resonated with me. If Sharon was moved, maybe I could create something that would speak to the Israeli-Palestinain conflict as a whole. When I approached the former heads of the Shin Bet in the beginning of 2009, they were concerned about the beginnings of Netanyahu’s government, and about what kind of future lay ahead if Israel continued the same policies. They wanted to speak up.
Do these men routinely speak out against Israeli policies?
One of them [Jacob Perry] has moved into politics. He was elected as a member of the Knesset, and I think he will be a minister in the next government. Some of them, like Yuval Diskin, have never spoken out before, and Avraham Shalom continues not to speak… They’re not one group.
I Couchsurfed with Settlers in the Holy Land
A couple of months ago, my friend was on a rant (albeit, a very coherent one) about how CouchSurfing’s website supports Zionism by allowing settlers in the West Bank to list their location as “Judea and Samaria”—the Israeli name for most of the disputed West Bank. She was trying to make a point about how CouchSurfing is supporting Israel’s colonialist project of erasing Palestinian identity. But what I took away from it was: ‘Wait, you can CouchSurf in the settlements?’
And yes, as it turns out, you can CouchSurf in the settlements. I sent out requests to everyone I could find under “Judea and Samaria,” omitting the fact that I’m currently living in Palestine. I quickly received several replies and set about making preparations. With my first CouchSurfing trip approaching, I experienced a steep uptick in my anxiety level. After all, these are the people who descend on Palestinian villages firing assault rifles wildly at anything that moves.
Almost every story I’ve ever heard about settlers sounds like someone describing a nightmarish mescaline trip coordinated by the lovechild of Charlie Manson and Timothy Leary. Like, for example, the time a band of settlers rode into town on horseback and set fire to 1,500 olive trees in a single attack. Or the time a settler woman grabbed a ten-year-old Palestinian kid, stuffed rocks in his mouth and then forced his mouth closed, breaking his teeth, all while fighting off an Israeli soldier who was trying to intervene.
Just a little glimpse of some land in Gush Etzion.
Picture a heavily-armed, modern-day KKK that doesn’t even bother to conceal their identities with stupid costumes and that’s pretty much my impression of what settlers are. Of course, not all settlers are blood-thirsty racist thugs. Those are just the ones that get the most media attention, for obvious reasons. Most people living in settlements move there because they’re heavily subsidised by the Israeli government. It’s a pretty sweet deal if you’re an upper-middle-class Israeli: you get super-cheap housing in a newly-constructed, upscale neighborhood, and since regional councils usually have approval over who can move into the settlement, you won’t have to worry about any Arabs setting up shop next door.
When I met Shaul, from the settlement of Gvaot, my nervousness about this whole plan swiftly decreased. From the moment he came to pick me up in Jerusalem, it was apparent that he was a really nice guy. And I don’t mean he was a really nice guy compared to what I expected from a settler—I mean he was a really nice guy by any conceivable standard of such things. Shaul and his wife, Lea, were incredibly gracious and hospitable the entire time I was in Gvaot. Besides opening their home to a complete stranger from an alien culture with no experience of their way of life, they cooked for me, fed me chocolate and coffee, introduced me to their family, and were incredibly pleasant people for the duration of my stay.
They doted on their one-month-old daughter and their African gray parrot, clearly proud of both. And they may have been living on stolen land, but their reasons for doing so seriously complicated my feelings about the entire situation. Gvaot, you see, is a small community of 17 families inside the large Gush Etzion settlement cluster. (The Israeli Defence Ministry apparently just authorized the construction of 523 new housing units in Gvaot, which I can’t imagine anyone in Gvaot thinking is a good thing.)
A garden in Gvaot.
The people of Gvaot live in mobile homes in similar conditions to those you find in any trailer park—that is to say, they weren’t exactly living the high life. Shaul commutes every day to Jerusalem, where he studies documentary filmmaking at the university there. They moved to Gvaot to be close to Lea’s workplace: a school for children with Down’s Syndrome. Now, in my book, teaching children with Down’s Syndrome is an incredibly noble way to spend your life. I saw Shaul and Lea interact with some of the children from the school, many of whom also live in Gvaot, and I could tell the kids were genuinely happy to see them.
More impressive still were the wedding photos. When Shaul and Lea were married, they threw a big wedding ceremony somewhere in northern Israel. They brought all their friends and family, of course, but they also brought the kids from the school, and in the photos it was obvious the kids were having the time of their lives. The problem is, they’re still on stolen land. According to the UN’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, 33 acres of land were seized from the Palestinian village of Nahhalin in order to make room for the settlers of Gvaot.
Shaul pointed out Nahhalin to me on the car ride in to Gvaot, telling me “We get along with them. They are good people.” I realized what he meant by this the next day, when I saw some Palestinian guys doing landscaping outside one of the trailers. The more I talked to Shaul and Lea, the more odd details of their worldview popped into focus. For example, during dinner on my first night in Gvaot, Shaul started talking aboutMonty Python and the Holy Grail, pontificating on the historical accuracy of the film.
A lone oak in Gush Etzion.
“They burned a lot of women as witches in the medieval times, but most of the time it wasn’t true, just like in the movie,” he tells me, and I had to almost literally bite my tongue to avoid yelling out “Most of the time?” After dinner, we sat on the couch of Shaul’s living room and he started asking me about the US elections, still upcoming at the time I visited. He wanted to know if I liked Obama or Romney. I refuse to vote for anyone who supports a policy of literally endless war, which made the Obama/Romney choice rather irrelevant to me.
My guy was Vermin Supreme, but I wasn’t about to tell Shaul and Lea that, so I gave a noncommittal, “I’m not sure yet.” Shaul said he wasn’t sure either, since he thought Obama was better for America, but Romney was better for Israel. Under Obama, US financial aid to Israel has reached its highest levels ever, but since I was acting ignorant about Israel in order to not arouse suspicion, I didn’t mention that to Shaul. The election discussion led us into talking about the political situation in Israel and opposition to settlements, which seemed to deeply confuse Shaul, who couldn’t understand why anyone would be against Israeli Jews living on the land.
A natural pool in Gush Etzion.
As he was describing a recent settler attack on a Palestinian vehicle, Lea broke in to ask him to change the subject. “We almost never talk about politics here,” Shaul confided. Personally, I would call throwing a Molotov cocktail at a civilian vehicle “terrorism” and not “politics,” but it’s a case of tuh-may-ta, tow-mah-toh, I guess. The next day we ate shakshouka for breakfast and talked about the City of David. The City of David is ahorrible, horrible colonialist project with the twin goals of promoting an exclusively Zionist version of history and wiping out the Palestinian East Jerusalem community of Silwan.
It seemed like everyone in Gvaot had some connection to the City of David. A woman we ate breakfast with was the daughter of the City of David’s director, and Shaul’s dad did some archaeological digging there, supposedly proving that some ruins (presumably under someone’s home in Silwan that had to be demolished to get at this compelling archaeological evidence) came from the exact date of the Biblical reign of King David. Everyone who talked about it made vague references of opposition to the project, but seemed completely baffled as to how anyone could possibly be against forcing people from their homes at gun point and then bulldozing the houses in order to find some rocks from several millennia ago.
Clothes and guns belonging to frolicking Israeli soldiers.
I got a final striking example of the settler capacity for ignoring cognitive dissonance during a mountain bike ride with Shaul down the beautiful rolling hills of Gush Etzion. It was easy to understand why the Israelis want this land—it’s gorgeous, filled with trees and clear, sparkling pools. We stopped at one of these pools and Shaul stripped down to his underwear for an afternoon dip. A couple of guys were playing backgammon and had left their clothes piled up about 40 feet away, along with their automatic weapons. I was pretty shocked to see a few M4s carelessly piled up with the shirts and towels, but Shaul explained the guys were soldiers and therefore required to take their guns with them everywhere.
Then came the cognitive dissonance section of our ride. Shaul was telling me a story about how men sometimes swim naked in the pool: “They ask the women to leave, but sometimes the women say, ‘You do what you want, but I stay here because this place is for everyone.’” Everyone? Really? Well, I asked, what about the Palestinians? Do they ever come here to swim? “No, not very many,” Shaul said. “There is no Arab village close to here.” So that’s how you’re able to steal land from a disenfranchised people under military occupation in order to teach kids with Down’s Syndrome at a special-needs school: because it’s the simplest thing in the world for you to hold two incompatible ideas in your head at the same time.
Everything about your way of life explicitly supports an apartheid regime inching its way toward a genocidal final solution to “the Palestinian question,” but you never talk about politics. You pass Nahhalin every day on your way to the university and claim to “get along with them,” but you also believe that “there is no Arab village close to here.” It’s simple, I guess, once you decide to stop thinking about it and just do it.