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In Israel, Rothman chooses peace

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For millions of young Israelis bar mitzvahs and bat mitzvahs are rights of passage. But when it comes to military service, it’s compulsory. In a country that’s been engrossed in more than a dozen wars and military operations since its inception in 1947, many Israelis believe a strong army is the linchpin to their nation’s survival.

Over the past 65 years, Israelis have made huge sacrifices to support their military. According to information gathered from Wikipedia, The Economist and the Israel Defense Forces, or IDF, website, as a percentage of gross domestic product, Israel — a nation of 7 million and about the size of New Jersey — ranks third in the world in military expenditures. And in terms of percentage of household income, it ranks second to the United States. In 2000, the IDF had approximately 175,000 active personnel. An additional 3 million men and women between the ages of 17 and 49 were considered fit for military service.

Nevertheless, a significant number of young Israelis refuse to serve in the military. Many of them are ultra-orthodox Jews who argue that military service violates their religious beliefs. Some are members of Ometz LeSarev (Courage to Refuse), an organization made up of Israeli soldiers who have defied orders to serve in the country’s occupied territories. Others are part of a group known as Yesh Gvul (There is a Limit) that was founded by combat veterans in defiance of Israel’s 1982 invasion of Lebanon.

And some, like Yellow Springs’ Mori Rothman, refuse to serve as a matter of conscience.

On Oct. 24, Rothman, a former Yellow Springs resident, was jailed for refusing to serve in the IDF. Rothman served two consecutive 10-day prison terms and was released on Nov. 14.

Rothman was born in Israel and raised in Yellow Springs, graduating from Yellow Springs High School in 2007 and then Middlebury College in 2011. He currently lives in Jerusalem, where his parents Jay and Randi Rothman also live and work.

Below are excerpts from Rothman’s blog, “The Leftern Wall,” in which he describes through poetry, humor and essay, his reasons for refusing and the experiences that resulted from his decision. His story and some of his work have been published in the Haaretz, Israel’s main newspaper, and online magazines such as The Tablet and The Daily Beast’s “Open Zion” blog.

Following the excerpts is a Q and A with Rothman, conducted by email on Nov. 25 after his release.

Oct. 14. And a word on my choice to be here: I moved here, to Israel-Palestine, like millions of other Jews over the last century, because I feel a connection to the people and to the land. I chose to be here. I chose to throw my lot in with the Jewish people, in the place on earth in which Jewish decisions — for better and for worse — have the most impact. I want to be a part of this society, and I want to make my contribution to this society’s safety, with the hope that we can break free from the cycle of violence into which the Jewish people was collectively launched, and to live up to the ethical ideals carved into our holy books and our historical memories…
So why am I refusing? In short, the reasons are as follows: God/Love, Nonviolence, and Israel’s Military Occupation of the Palestinian Territories…
Humanity was created in God’s image (Gen. 1:27). To take a person’s life is to destroy part of God and to diminish the Oneness that is Humanity. To bound and gag other people — or other peoples — is to desecrate God. To violate human dignity is to lessen God’s holiness. The only way to truly uplift God is through love of others…
True nonviolence, based on morally-intuited educated guesses [by] its proponents about what is Right, must be accompanied by humility. Martin Luther King Jr., in his reflections on his visit to India, wrote about the need to embrace “realistic pacifism,” a pacifism that does not frame nonviolence as “sinless,” but rather as “the lesser evil in the circumstances.” Indeed whether I refuse or not, people will continue to kill other people- especially those who are sure that they are Right… I have come to believe, as have many before me, both here and elsewhere, that committed nonviolence is the only way to end the cycle of the violence that has brutalized and continues to destroy our world, this region and humanity. In other words, only nonviolence can end violence…
The Occupation is the primary task of the IDF, and it is made possible by support for the IDF and its actions by Israeli and [the] world — Jewish conservatives and liberals alike…The Occupation is cruelty and injustice manifest.
The Occupation is anti-God, anti-Love and staggeringly, constantly violent.
The Occupation is based on a system of racial/ethnic separation that does, in fact, resemble South African Apartheid and segregation in the Southern United States until the 1960s.
And this “temporary” Occupation is not “on its way out,” but is rather growing in strength every single day…
So I refuse. I refuse to serve in the army, to put on a uniform, to pick up a gun. I refuse to contribute to the cycle of violence and dehumanization that plagues this place that I love…I refuse in solidarity with Palestinians living under occupation, [ ] in hope that the ripples of my action will reach the hearts of some members of my Israeli Jewish and American Jewish societies. I refuse to hate those who have chosen differently, and I hope that the refusal to hate will be reciprocated by those who disagree with my decision.

Oct. 24. What up. Draftee Rothman here, Soldier Number 1234OccupationNoMore. I’m feeling good. Zen. Sneaky. Blobbing straight from the belly of the beast. Who woulda thunk.
I had an amazing send off at Ammunition Hill from 15 or 20 friends, activists, former refuseniks and family members — and then I was called on in. I have to admit that despite everything over the last few months, I was still a bit astonished to see that they actually had a file on me. Me? Little tiny Mori? Ok, if you insist…
Then we arrive at the Baku”m bum bum bummmmmm. A grumpy looking soldier opens the gate, topped with barbed wire, for the bus. So this is a military base. Mreep…
Me: Hello. I refuse to enlist.
Clerk: Why don’t you want to go to the army?
Me: Because I am against the occupation.
Clerk: You’re against the occupation, so what are you for?
Me: I’m for nonviolence and peace.
The clerk mumbles something about peace shmeace, and then says: It’s clear to you that you’re going to jail, correct?…

Update [later that day]: I’ve been sentenced to 10 days for refusing the order to enlist, in jail 6 near Atlit, in the north. Things are generally fine, chill. The feeling of being locked in a cell is not a pleasant one, but the other folks here are friendly and my mood is generally positive.
I did have one moment of panic where, right before entering, I heard a bunch of people chanting:
“smolanim! Smolanim!” (leftists! Leftists!) and I was like:
Ok I’m definitely done for. And then I realized they were chanting:
“smol, yamin! Smol, yamin!” (left, right! Left, right!) as they marched.

Nov. 14. I am free.
My body has followed, now, to where I sought to keep my soul throughout this process, and I am free.
After being sentenced to my second jail term, and recognizing that I would never be granted a Conscience Committee or even an explanation, I decided surely that it was time to begin the processes of getting released in the way that virtually all refuseniks here throughout the decades have been released: on psychological/mental health grounds, or a Profile of 21…
I wanted to quickly thank everyone who supported me throughout this process…I also wanted to reaffirm my commitment to nonviolence and anti-militarism, my unbending opposition to the ongoing Occupation of the Palestinian Territories and people…

Nov. 21. I was walking in Jerusalem yesterday afternoon a few hours after the siren went off in our city. I saw a small kid run out of his house. I waved to him. He looked at me, blinked, and then laughed and waved his arms in the air. I looked back at his mother who had walked out of her house after her son. She smiled. I nearly burst into tears in the middle of a central Jerusalem street. It was a moment of entirely non-theoretical and non-intellectual and non-academic internalization of what it means that 34 children have been killed in Gaza over the last week. For nothing. Probably more now than 24. We talk about this war as if it is a concept. More then 250 other children in Gaza, as well as few in the South of Israel, have been burned or hit by debris and we speak of this war as if it is a concept…

Nov. 26. So. I was released from jail a week and a half ago and on the same day, Israel assassinated Ahmad Jabari and war broke out and everything cracked along usual fault lines and people here called for Gaza to be flattened and Hamas tried to send rockets over to grace us in Jerusalem and the Leftists and the pacifists were wracked with guilt and helplessness and Facebook was horrific and the blogosphere nauseous and everything seemed swallowed in gray and I felt stripped of words, and my own traumas from jail were melted into national traumas and then it stopped. Just like that. All back to normal. The dead we don’t know forgotten. The tense turned past. Tumble on.
Admittedly, in my life, too, things basically went back to normal, but for a twinge of sadness here and anger there at the absolute pointlessness of the recent killing — the terms of this cease-fire, or terms very close to them, could have almost definitely been achieved had Israel chosen to dialogue with Hamas’ leadership, rather than assassinate them. That means that this war was for nothing. Which means that the innocent people killed were murdered, by Hamas and by Israel together, working together, a dream team of cynics and exploiters and ideologues and politicians…
This feeling of helplessness in the face of war…led me to a strengthened resolve to publicize the notes I took while in Jail 6 last month…
It’s dark out, still, but the sun is filling in the clouds around us- Jail 6 is partially outside, and in Unit A (Pluga Aleph) we sleep in 20-person tents and are surrounded by pretty, small hills behind the barbed wire fence…
After the ceremony, one guy goes, “Who was Rabin again? That asshole who wanted to return the territories?”
Guy 2 (the same guy who earlier said that he doesn’t much like Arabs, which seems, in this context, to have been more of a ”thing to say” than an actually strongly held ideological hatred): “If he’d done it, bro, all of the soldiers who have died since then wouldn’t have died. The Oslo Accords, brother.”
Guy 1 (who had been in the army for two years already): “Let me tell you something: With Arabs and Jews there will never be peace. They hate us.”
Guy 2: “Oh yeah? [Here he makes a great rhetorical argument that I hadn’t thought of before but will definitely use later]. Do we have peace with Germany? They hated us there, a bit, too, no?”
Guy 1: That’s different. It’s far away. And also there are tons of anti-Semites there still.”
Guy 2: “I was just there last month, man, and I told everyone I was Jewish and no one hated me. It actually helped with the girls.”
Guy 3 joins in: “And we have peace with Egypt and Jordan. They’re Arabs, right?”
Guy 1: “You’re both talking nonsense…”
And the conversation trails off. Of course, the plural of anecdote is not data and maybe I’m trying too hard to to see proofs of what I believe here, as we all tend to, but also maybe not: Guy 1 has been in the military for two years in a combat unit, Guys 2 and 3 have not yet started their service (they are here because they wanted combat tasks but were not given. Hrmm).

News: After having served two prison terms, what is your current status as an Israeli citizen? Are there further consequences for your actions?
Rothman: I am still fully a citizen. There could be potential work/employment consequences down the line, but I don’t believe it’ll have a major negative practical effect on my life.
News: What type of prison were you in? Have you been convicted of a specific crime and has a verdict been rendered?
Rothman: The crime was ‘’refusing an order” (the order being the order to serve in the army). The conditions were fine, it was a military prison so most of the other folks were soldiers who had done some minor infraction (run away from base, punched their commander, et cetera). It was not a pleasant place, but certainly not horrible.
News: Why did you return to Israel knowing that you would be called to serve in the IDF?
Rothman: Because I love this place and care deeply about the people living here, Israelis and Palestinians, and it is important for me to be directly involved in the struggles for a better future — including the struggle against militarism and violence.
News: You once told the News that you felt an obligation as an Israeli citizen to serve with others in the IDF. If that’s correct, what caused you to change your mind?
Rothman: Many many months of thought, study, conversation and reflection. I have come to see the army (and armies in general) as largely a tool of destruction and hurt, and I aspire to a reality in which Israelis can be seen as full members of society without picking up a gun–and if not now, when?
News: Is there a significant number of Israelis who share your views and who are currently being prosecuted for resisting military service?
Rothman: The number of those who outwardly share my views is rather small at the current juncture, but there is a robust and wonderful community of support and many movements and organizations that helped me in my process. Had it not been for the hundreds of Israelis who had taken similar steps over the last decade or two, there is no chance I would have had the courage to refuse.
News: What kind of responses are you getting from your family, friends, and associates about your decision not to serve?
Rothman: A lot of love. Even friends who are more right wing have said they support me even as they oppose my decision. And my associates in the radical left are, of course, supportive.
News: Do you plan on making Israel your permanent home?
Rothman: Yes. Who knows what will happen down the road, but for now, I am here and do not plan on leaving.
News: What is your opinion about the current conflict in the Palestinian territories?
Rothman: The occupation of the Palestinian territories needs to end- first and foremost because it is morally wrong vis-a-vis the Palestinians, and next because it is bad for Israel and for Israeli society. For more of my thoughts on the subject, see my blog,


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