Navigate to Israel & The Middle East section

An Open Letter to Mori Rothman

I have a lot in common with the conscientious objector. So, why can’t I stomach his decision to avoid IDF service?

Yoav Schaefer
November 07, 2012
Yoav Hass, a member of Yesh Gvul, offers a supportive handshake to Moriel Rothman as he prepares to report to his draft location at Ammunition Hill, and refuse to participate in the Israeli military, Oct. 24, 2012.(Ryan Rodrick Beiler/ActiveStills)
Yoav Hass, a member of Yesh Gvul, offers a supportive handshake to Moriel Rothman as he prepares to report to his draft location at Ammunition Hill, and refuse to participate in the Israeli military, Oct. 24, 2012.(Ryan Rodrick Beiler/ActiveStills)

Dear Mori,

For weeks now, I have been closely following the discussion in Israel, and in the wider Jewish community, about your public refusal to serve in the Israel Defense Forces.

I, like you, care deeply about Israel. We come from similar backgrounds—you were born in Israel, but attended college in the U.S.; I was born in the U.S., but made aliyah to volunteer for the IDF. We share similar values and have both engaged in efforts to build a more peaceful future for Israelis and Palestinians. But now, as you sit in an undisclosed military prison, I feel compelled to write you. I want to tell you that, despite my respect for your political views, I find your decision to turn the personal choice of conscientious objection into a public campaign delegitimizing the IDF deeply upsetting. It is an implicit assault upon every Israeli soldier—especially those who served in the West Bank—and it reduces Israel and the IDF to the occupation alone, which is just as irresponsible as ignoring it altogether.

Let’s start with our points of clear agreement. I share many of your sentiments about the situation in the West Bank. Whenever I talk about the territories, I use the word occupation, fully aware of its implications and controversies, especially in the Israeli context. I simply don’t know any other way to describe the daily difficulties Palestinians endure. I challenge those I know who somehow believe that occupying another people can coexist with the values of liberalism and democracy in the long term. I remind them of the late Israeli philosopher Yeshayahu Leibowitz, who warned that occupation will inevitably “undermine the social structure we have created and cause the corruption of individuals, both Jew and Arab,” and of the late Israeli politician Pinchas Sapir, who prophesied that “if we continue to hold the territories, at the end they will hold us.” As someone who believes that the fundamental purpose of Zionism is to enable Jews to determine their own future by being the subjects of their own history rather than the objects of somebody else’s, I can’t help but understand the occupation as undermining that power by placing the keys to our collective fate in the hands of the Palestinians as well as a marginal group of territorial maximalists in Israel. It impedes Israel’s ability to actualize its potential as the collective embodiment of the values and aspirations of the Jewish people.

But the actions of a particular government don’t represent the beliefs of an entire people. And the purpose of compulsory military or national service is to protect the country and advance the needs of its citizens—not those of any government. Woven into your refusal to serve is the implicit claim that Israel does not have the right to defend itself; that because Israel’s occupation of the Palestinians is illegitimate, so too is its right to self-defense. The most fundamental obligation of a state is to defend its citizens. A liberal state, obligated by the social contract, is never justified in surrendering its duty to protect its citizens.

You argue that violence is unconditionally wrong and that nonviolence is the only way to end violence. But in some situations, pacifism is naive at best and suicidal at worst. In response to a letter from Mahatma Gandhi urging German Jews to use nonviolent resistance in the face of Nazism as was used against the British in India, Martin Buber wrote: “I’m not sure I can take your advice. You are dealing with English gentlemen. We are dealing with monsters.”

I am in no way comparing Israel’s situation to that faced by Jews under the Nazis. But make no mistake: The Jewish state faces significant threats to its national security. Not having a military is a luxury that Israelis can’t afford; our lives depend upon the strength of our army. You, like me, object to Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and the military’s role in enforcing it. But that proposition cannot be extended to deny Israel’s legitimate right to self-defense.

I think that coercing anyone to violate his or her ethical code is wrong. But I fail to understand how fulfilling the basic requirement of national service—by volunteering in a hospital, working at a humanitarian organization, or teaching Israeli Arabs—as other Israeli pacifists do, is contributing, either directly or indirectly, to the occupation. You moved to Israel in order to, in your own words, “throw my lot in with the Jewish people.” Rejecting military service on moral grounds is one thing, but rejecting the collective obligation, shared by Israeli citizens, to ensure the country’s prosperity and to work toward its betterment—especially given that you chose to move to Israel and, by virtue of living there, benefit from its existence—is a decision I cannot understand.

It is easy to maintain moral purity by removing oneself from the world. But in my view, the essence of Jewish values has always been to sanctify this world through one’s actions in it. We Israelis have a historic opportunity to translate Jewish values onto a global stage and confront the questions of justice and morality that are the inevitable realpolitik considerations facing a young nation. And so, the way forward would pointedly seem not to disengage from the state, but rather to transform Israeli society and its institutions from within. That is ultimately why I decided to serve in the army despite my own opposition to the occupation.

In fact, many of my fellow soldiers, commanders, and officers were deeply conflicted about the situation in the West Bank and the measures required to enforce it. My years in the army were defined by the tension between my love for my country and my commitment to my values. I hated the time I spent in the West Bank, and I am only now, almost four years later, beginning to grapple with much of my experience there. But I am not ashamed of my service. I am proud to have served with outstanding soldiers. We did our best to uphold the values of integrity and respect in extremely difficult situations, and I was encouraged to question morally ambiguous orders. That’s why my heroes are people like Amos Oz, David Grossman, and Yariv Oppenheimer, people who served in the army and continue to struggle with—and tirelessly challenge—the actions of the state. It is because they have lived in and fought to defend Israel that they can communicate to an Israeli public, traumatized by violent conflict, the importance of peace. Having sacrificed for my country, I too feel that I have the credibility to critique it.

The moral challenge of our generation is to shape and secure Israel’s identity and future. To do so, we must end this conflict. It is our duty to demand exceptionalism from Israel, just as it is our duty to actively work to bring it about.

I eagerly await your reply.




Like this article? Sign up for our Daily Digest to get Tablet Magazine’s new content in your inbox each morning.

Yoav Schaefer, a former IDF soldier, is the director of the Avi Schaefer Fund and a student at Harvard University.

Yoav Schaefer, a former IDF soldier, is the director of the Avi Schaefer Fund and a student at Harvard University.