Friday, March 16, 2012

Sitting next to a soldier...

Today I sat next to a young Israeli soldier on the bus; more accurately, he sat next to me, gun strapped around his neck the whole time. I was on the bus to Tiberias. He got off in another town and I watched him tenderly hug a man I assume was his father.

I have ridden Israeli buses several times in the last week and have found the pervasive presence of the soldiers unnerving, especially after having witnessed some of them on the job.  The fact that many of them keep their guns strapped to their bodies wherever they go is part of what makes their presence disturbing.

Today as I was boarding the bus, I told myself I'd sit next to a soldier if there were no empty window seats. I made this pledge because I have found myself feeling rather hateful towards soldiers and I thought sitting next to a soldier might help me remember that we're both just people. There was an empty window seat and I was relieved to be off the hook... And then the boy came and sat next to me.

I don't know how old he was, but by my standards, he was most certainly a boy. Yesterday I went on a tour with Breaking the Silence, a group of former Israeli soldiers who are giving testimonies about what they did or saw while serving in the IDF, particularly during the second intifada, but even as recently as 2010, and particularly in Hebron, which I've written about before, though not only there. The ex-soldier who led the tour was 22 and had served in the military from 2006 to 2010, when he was only 16 to 20 years-old. I'd guess the boy sitting next to me was somewhere in that age range.

We didn't speak a word to each other, though I did nudge him when his arm and gun were making their way towards my lap. I thought about talking to him, but I never did. When I've been around soldiers in "normal" life, rather than the more potentially volatile situations, I've been trying my hardest to remember that they, too, are regular people. I was always happy when my students at home had this revelation about homeless people, immigrants, or people in jail. I thought I myself knew that all people are people just like me, but as I try to distance myself from the violence I see and hear about that is carried out by Israel and Israelis, I want to dehumanize them, perhaps in the way some of them dehumanize others, because I don't understand how humans can treat other humans so horribly.  I don't understand how one human (an Israeli settler) can punch another (an international observer) in the nose simply because she is wearing a keffiyeh (a type of scarf that is a symbol of Palestinian sympathies) or how another (an Israeli police officer) can laugh when the victim files the report and tell her she should have known better than to wear a keffiyeh on Shuhada Street on Purim. I don't understand how one human can throw acid on a child- on a child- simply because he is Palestinian. I don't understand how soldiers can throw tear gas at people without weapons peacefully demonstrating. I don't understand how they can arrest children and hold them in jail for days for no reason.  I simply don't understand and yet I know humans are doing this to other humans. These actions don't fit my definition of humanity and I don't want to believe they should.

I have no idea what the soldier sitting next to me has done or where he's been. I'd like to believe he has a conscience like the young man who led our tour yesterday. Our guide stressed that Breaking the Silence is not about asking the religious or historical questions, but rather the moral ones. The question should not be, "Do Jews have a religious or historical claim to this land?" but rather, "Is it moral to carry out the Occupation?" He stressed that the problem is not settlers or soldiers; they are symptoms of a much larger problem. The problem is the systemic forceful colonization (my word not his) of Palestinian lands. The problem implicates anyone who, by action or inaction, supports the structure that continues to demean, deny, and oppress. He said that Israelis sometimes ask him or others from Breaking the Silence why they are trying to delegitimize the state. His answer is that he is doing no such thing; the actions of the state are the problem, not his speaking about them.    

So the boy sitting next to me, cradling his gun as he slept, listening to "Mambo No. 5," a song I had going through my head yesterday, is not the problem. I wish I could just blame the soldiers or the settlers for what goes on here.  It would be much easier if the problem, though still daunting, were that small.  The problem is much larger. The problem is the militaristic state and anyone, like, say, the U.S., who supports its illegal and immoral actions.  It's the system that needs to change. It is overwhelming to consider.

Thank goodness there are small rays of hope like the young man leading us yesterday and the 800 other former soldiers who have given their testimonies. Their courage helps me to remember that I can't lump all IDF or all Israelis into one category. Their honesty  makes it easier for me to sit next to a boy with a gun and feel something other than anger and hatred. Maybe he is just a boy with no real way out of a messed-up system.  


  1. As always, your post is thought-provoking. You make me examine my views and actions to my fellow man each time I read your articles. Thank you for stating this painful subject of Palestine/Israel so compassionately in your series.

  2. Believe me when I say there are lots of not-so-compassionate thoughts that go through my head when I think about the situation, but I am trying...