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An open letter to a would-be soldier

Congratulations. You are 18 today. We don’t know each other but your birthday is especially important for me. Let me explain. When you were born I joined the IDF. I shouldn’t have.

Don’t get me wrong – it was a truly life changing experience. I have met some of my best friends during my army service and have gone through some positive experiences. Damn, I even learned how to cook in some godforsaken outpost on the border with Jordan. And, ultimately, this crucial period of my life has undoubtedly influenced the person I am today, the person who now would have preferred not to be there.

I was told I was helping to protect my country. And I believed it. But it would be a lie to say that my participation in the occupation – or my service as a combatant in an MLRS unit, a weapon whose cluster munition has been banned by an international treaty since August 2010 – have made anyone safer.

I still would like to think I have made a difference, that someone else in my place would have done a much worse job; that as a ‘big head’ I positively influenced my friends, maybe even my commanders, and helped prevent even worse; that I made it easier for some Palestinians. From the perspective of those days, it is possible. But all of this is completely insignificant in the broader picture, not only the army’s, but of my own service.

Yes, I lied to myself. Changing from within in the sense of helping end the occupation, at least in the army, is not possible even if you are the chief of staff. After all, the IDF is an executive arm, intended to carry out government policies (and in practice also perpetuate itself), and the system is designed to co-opt each and every member.

So, yes, I would like to think that I have done some positive things as a soldier, but retrospectively focusing on them would be nothing more than cleansing my conscience. In fact, these little justices, if there were any, were not just dwarfed by my overall role, they have practically camouflaged the other injustices I partook in. Because being an IDF soldier, even if an ethical one, has at the very least made me a witness, and in practice complicit in repressing another people.

I was in a base overlooking Ramallah when the second intifadah broke. And back at the time I vowed to myself never to put a human being on my rifle’s crosshairs. Today I am proud I had stuck to this vow, or at least glad I wasn’t in many situations that forced me to test it.

It might be a cliché, but when you were born, when I joined the army, I believe your mother also wished you would never have to, just like my own mother, just like many other Israeli mothers.

Yet, 18 years later Israeli parents‘ wishes are not the only thing that remained the same – the Israeli occupation is still here, since 50 years, and publishing these words was, and still is today, seen as nothing short of treason by many Israelis.

But the thing is there are alternatives. There are a number of excellent organisations that support the choice of young people at the point in life where you now are to consider a different course from the one we’ve all been told is the one to take. I have met some of them, and I know that the people involved in these organisation care about the Israeli society – and its moral character, not just its image – no less than any other Israeli. I dare say that their commitment to a better future for Israelis, and Palestinians, tramples that of many others.

If you are reading this, I honestly believe you want the best for this country. And if you care about the Israeli society, there are other ways to make a difference. At this point, joining the IDF would only help perpetuate the status quo, one that is bad for Israel and much worse for Palestinians.

It doesn’t mean there is no price to pay – I know this is far from being an easy decision – and given the consequences I wish people never have to face such a choice. But in the current state of affairs, for an individual who wishes to participate in creating a better future for the Israeli society, opting to refuse carries a vastly larger potential to actually make a difference. At the very least, choosing to go against the flow, not to conform, would necessarily make the people around you, those who appreciate and care about you, to think honestly with themselves about this dilemma.

Frankly, I don’t remember considering refusing when I was about to join the army. I wasn’t just a scared, obedient youngster, but I probably did not want to be different from my peers. A conformist. Maybe I did not have the guts to claim I’m a pacifist, which I wasn’t, or go to the mental health officer simply because I did not want to serve in the army. I know others who did. I just was not aware of what serving in the IDF actually means.

On the day you were born I joined the IDF. I had no doubt that I was doing the right thing, and I genuinely believed that the challenges to come are the way for me, for every caring citizen, to somehow contribute to my country. I was wrong.

Today you are 18 and likely about to join the army. But try to think about it again. Try to think about the baby who was just born today – will you be able to say that by joining the IDF you helped improve Israel for her or him?


גרסה עברית של הפוסט פורסמה בשיחה מקומית


(1) Comment

Avihu Kiselstein
10 months ago ·

I have mix feeling after I read your article.You might say it is a cognitive dissonance.

On one hand the threat of war is getting stronger both from Gaza and Iran empowerment
And on the other side of the coin wars got us to where we are today. Occupying territories that are not ours.
I am confused

Avihu kiselstein

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