This post is part of a week-long series of interviews with Jewish Israelis discussing their connection to the idea of Zionism. We hope this series will spark a conversation over the what Zionism means today. For more on these interviews see this post.
“It used to be that service wasn’t a question,” Tom Mehager, 32, says, explaining that he grew up in Gilo, a settlement outside Jerusalem that lies just east of the Green Line. “But then there was the moment.”
It was a split-second decision in 2003. Mehager was on reserve duty, deep in the West Bank. “I was at a roadblock east of Ramallah, near to Jericho,” he recalls. “The road connected one Palestinian village to another. It didn’t even lead to Israel.”
When Mehager, a staff sergeant at the time, asked his commander why they were erecting the roadblock, his commander replied that it was collective punishment. Mehager’s choice was “crystal clear,” he says. “I refused. And I spent four weeks in a military jail.”
Mehager joined an organization comprised of other soldiers that had objected to service. From there, he branched out into working with human rights NGOs. And he began to question the Zionist narrative.
“My father was born in Iraq. All my family names are Arabic. I’m Arab,” Mehager says. “From the Zionist point of view, I’m supposed to be the same as a Jew from Holland. But I really feel connected to Israeli Arabs. [We] speak the same language.”
Zionism creates another paradox, according to Mehager. “The guy from Holland has rights in both Europe and Israel. The Palestinian who is born here has no rights here or anywhere else.”
Though Mehager feels that Israel’s contemporary problems stem from the country’s Zionist roots, he points to the Jewish philosopher Martin Buber, a cultural Zionist and an advocate of a binational Jewish-Arab state, as an early visionary who foresaw a solution. Mehager also admires left-wing politician and activist Shulamit Aloni, who famously supported and echoed former President Jimmy Carter’s statement that Israel is an apartheid state. Like Aloni, Mehager disputes Israel’s claim to being a moral army, “The ‘moral army’ is a lie.”
“But I’m not a pacifist,” Mehager adds. “I would join the army again if we weren’t occupiers anymore.”
Mehager maintains that his criticisms are a form of patriotism. “If we recognize the full rights of the Palestinians,” he remarks, “I could be a Zionist.”