David R.* is 33 years old and grew up in the fourth generation in a Kibbutz near Haifa. He describes his family’s political stance as humanist-liberal-left and went to demonstrations with his parents as a child. Peace and equality were issues that were much talked about in his parents‘ house. Nevertheless (and this was not an ideological contradiction for him and his family) the army was very important. David talks to Schulamith Weil about his service in the army. There, growing doubts led him to decide to refuse even reserve duty. In the seminar, he faced Palestinians for the first time without him wearing a uniform.

David R.: The Kibbutz society very much supported to contribute something to the state and to join the most important combat units of the army. I also did preparatory courses for military service and after the social year I joined the paratroopers. (…) During the service I suddenly had moral conflicts between my upbringing, which had taught me to „contribute and to be responsible, the state needs me“ and the sudden realization: the tasks that I will perform raise value questions. After four months in the army, I decided that I didn’t want to be part of the fighting force in this role. I went to my officer and told him that I wanted to go to the educational unit to do something that did not require service in the [Palestinian] Territories. They didn’t speak to me for three days, nobody.

Then my superior came; he was also a kibbutznik, also a leftist; so we had a common language. He told me that he understood me well, that he had similar views. But precisely because of my convictions, he thinks it is right (…) that people with more humane opinions are at the hotspots, because then one could perhaps perform operations in a different way. At that time, it gave me an answer to my inner conflict. (…) So I said, „Okay, if it’s like that, I’ll be an officer. I will educate or train soldiers to act differently”, not like in the stories we heard here in the seminar. And I stayed in the army. I finished an operation, (…) then I had to decide whether I wanted to be an education officer (…) or if I was going to do another deployment before going to the officer course. (…) I decided to do an operation in the Jenin region.

In terms of my conscience, these were the four most difficult months of my life, emotionally and personally. It was the time of the Intifada and I still have nightmares about that time. The routine was to go out for a rather dangerous operation in the evening that you might not return from, finish it, and come back to the base to sleep in the morning. At noon you got up and prepared yourself for the next operation, got on jeeps, entered the refugee camp again, in the heart of Jenin. You couldn’t tell if you were going back unharmed. Every week for five days. I still dream of it today. The absurd thing was that it happened terribly close to my home. My kibbutz is 20 kilometers from Jenin and I went home on weekends, was with the family, at the swimming pool, etc., it was completely paradoxical. It was very difficult to explain this reality at home because my whole family had no idea what was happening behind the fence, only 20 kilometers away. It was a very difficult and complicated time for me, during, but especially afterwards when I looked back.

After four months I attended the officers‘ course (…) and then served as an officer, training new soldiers for a whole year (…) with the feeling that I showed new recruits a different army, gave another example, taught them to act in a more moral or humane way. I was also asked to carry out some operations in the Ramallah region with them.

Then came a point where I had to decide what to do next and they invited me to talk. I still had one year to go to the army because I had committed for four and a half years. They offered me to be the commanding officer of the leading team in the unit. That meant running many operations in the [Palestinian] territories night after night. Suddenly I got into this personal conflict again, I collided with ideas that I believe in, I doubted whether we should be there, whether we should intervene militarily or not. I didn’t want to wake children or families in the middle of the night or stand at checkpoints.

But again they managed to convince me, again I received the answer that, precisely because there are such difficult things, it is important that someone who acts differently is on duty. As I said, I was able to convince myself at that time. I was an officer in an executive unit for a year. After that I was free, my commitment in the army was over. My superiors did everything to convince me to continue, but I knew that I just didn’t want to have anything to do with the army anymore, I didn’t want it to be so dominant in my life. But unfortunately that is impossible in Israel. Even after you finish your military service, you still have to continue on reserve duty, one month per year.

One of the questions that came up at the beginning of the seminar was: „Where do you encounter the conflict in your everyday life?“ I ended my military service in 2010, nine years ago, and yet I feel that this reality is present in my life every day. This tension in my head: Now they’ll call me to the army to do things that I don’t believe in or that I can die of. I dream of things that I have done or that could be asked of me. The reality of life that exists there, that I may have created or influenced, people who grow up because with trauma today, causes me pain. (…) A pain, like a scar that I feel on my body, on my soul, that I also feel for myself, i.e. a pain about living in such a reality. I am burdened by the military actions that I had to carry out and I can still see thousands of Israeli young people, in principle all Israelis, who are required to live under these circumstances. These are signs of militarism and power. There are people who really come out mentally ill with post-traumatic stress disorders. (…) There is no one for whom this has no influence on their life, on how they behave, towards their parents and in their partnerships or in the street. (…)

I feel very sad that almost all of Israeli society is experiencing this, which we describe as – allegedly – a period of maturity that gives us tools for personal development and leadership skills. But we forget that it also leaves scars on the human soul and creates dehumanizing ideas in you, like the idea: „You are stronger than others, you are worth more than others, you have power over them, violence is a way to solve things“.

Operation Protective Edge 2014/2015 in Gaza was the last turning point in my life. I had a real crisis of confidence with the Israeli leadership and the state as a whole. I had the feeling that they could tear me out of my life at any moment because of political decisions (…) put me in a helicopter or a jeep in uniform and send me into an operation. I actually went through that, both emotionally and physically. I didn’t want them to rule over me anymore, I didn’t want to do things that I don’t believe in. I went abroad for two and a half weeks to prevent them drafting me in at all. Basically, I fled. When I got back, I told them I was not going to continue in the unit in which I was on reserve duty.

This is an unacceptable step in Israeli society, which may also be seen as a betrayal. I was very afraid of the social or even family cost of my decision. But there was a voice within me that was much stronger than the status of being in the army. I also didn’t care about the price of losing friends. (…) I then met the chairman of the „Mental Health Officers“. He told me: „You have come to a point where you are in a conflict that you can no longer resolve. (…) You have no more reassuring arguments for continuing to do what you did and that’s fine. I can either release you from the army now, or you can become a mental health officer. Then you can work from the therapeutic side.” In this phase I realized that I still needed a transition between serving the army with the toughest fighters and finally getting out. For the past five years, I’ve been a mental health officer in a reserve unit. That meant working only a few days a year and learning about what Post-Trauma is, what answer to give to a soldier who is experiencing a post-traumatic stress disorder.

But although I have had nothing to do with executive actions in recent years, I still felt that they could pull me in at any moment. So six months ago I decided to start the rather difficult process of getting out of the military system entirely. This is not easy, especially if you have been an officer. (…)

The system doesn’t like that, in their eyes, it weakens the system. But I decided long ago that I didn’t want to invest my energies and my commitment to the world there. Now I am socially involved in my everyday life to create a different reality, in Jerusalem and in Beer Scheva, in order to support love and something good with my energies, not war. That was the story in “brief” (laughs).

S.W .: Thank you. Can you tell me what brought you here?

D.R.: Why I came has a lot to do with the military experience I just described. (…) In recent years, I have been increasingly looking for ways to get involved in relations between Israelis and Palestinians. (…) When they [the Palestinians] told me where they came from (…), it was difficult for me to tell them that I have been to every single city and in every village they live in. (…) I always wore the military uniform, the rifle, the power. (…) To meet in the seminar, face to face, a young Palestinian my age, whose home I had invaded ten years ago and whom I woke up in the middle of the night, to see him and his family and his eyes full of fear and to see my eyes, full of inner fear, is very painful. Sitting here now and even telling this story, hearing his story, it hurts so much.  (…) How have the countless nights I went into houses or carried out operations (…) influenced the lives of children and with what trauma do they grow up? Here I suddenly had a very strong, sad and painful insight when I heard and understood firsthand how many such children have been growing up in such a reality for years and still are growing up like that now. (…) There is no humane way to break into a families‘ home at three in the morning, whether you are coming to find a family member for interrogation, if you are looking for guns there, or simply to get into the house because it is a good point for scouting, or because you want to put pressure on another family member who lives in another village or town. There is no way that does no harm and does not cause anger or resentment on the other side. Because you enter into the most personal and intimate place of a family. You wake them up in the middle of the night.

One memory I cannot get out of my head: the rooms of small children. You also have to go in there to find things. But to see pictures of Mickey Mouse on the walls and Barbies (…), that just hurts me, this reality that was forced on me and that was even more forced on them. Before I came to the seminar, I imagined this moment – eyes that meet – and all I wanted is for them to know that behind this uniform and these eyes is David. I didn’t know what it would be like to meet Palestinians here. I didn’t know if they wanted to talk to me or if they would be very angry with me. They may have had these feelings too, but I felt something else, I felt compassion from them or understanding or even forgiveness. (…) As if they were forgiving me.

S.W.: Did they say that explicitly, or is that your conclusion from their reaction?

D.R.: I had several face-to-face discussions and one of the participants in my group approached me after me telling my story and asked me to forgive him. I didn’t understand why. He said that he had always seen the devil in soldiers and did not believe that there were soldiers who had different views or acted differently. I believe that the fact that I came here to explain everything very openly and that I no longer want to be part of the army was accepted with a kind of understanding or appreciation by them. So this participant told me that he wants to forgive me. I told him that it was the other way around for me. For me it was a sign of great strength and it was extremely painful in some phases. Because with every story I heard from the Palestinians, I saw myself on the other side. It was a once in a lifetime experience. I believe that this experience that corrects something or heals it in a sense. (…) For me, this interpersonal connection is something extraordinarily powerful.

S.W.: Thank you very much, what you are saying is very moving. I would like to ask what you have learned or what has changed for you?

D.R.: I learned a lot about a reality of life that I didn’t know. (…) It was fascinating to see the diversity of opinions and worldviews within the Israeli group. We had extremely intense discussions about whether we need to maintain a common national stance and what everyone thinks, it was very diverse. And it was fascinating to see that these arguments also exist among the Palestinian friends, which means that ultimately each of us has a personal experience and opinion. (…) I would like to offer to invite soldiers with experiences similar to mine here. I believe that this helps to heal a society. (…) Thank you for the opportunity to be part of this seminar. Such a long and powerful process raises many questions, even the question of whether such a seminar is right, whether it makes a change, what its effect is, or whether it is just a bubble that creates expectations. I don’t have an answer to that, but I do need to thank you for the chance to be here, to meet and talk to others, to be angry and to laugh. It is a life experience for me, for which I am very grateful.