What brought you to be critical of Israel?

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“What brought you to be critical of Israel?”

In the past few years I have been asked several times (the latest time a few days ago), what it was that brought me to have critical views about Israel. The question has often pointed specifically to my service in the Israeli Defense Forces, and what those experiences may have caused.

I’m 43 today. My significant turnaround in terms of looking at Israeli history and current practices began around 2007, after over 12 years of living in Denmark. It’s not really that dramatic a story as you might think. It might even be disappointing.

My army service was mostly as a musician – I was given the title of ‘Distinguished Musician’ and allowed to continue my violin career, whilst occasionally playing concerts for soldiers, mostly classical music and mostly for officers. Yet, as a kibbutznik I had a societal conditioning which was very militaristic, and at a point I actually felt it was shameful to just play Bach and Mozart whilst my peers were combat soldiers. At a point I felt so bad about it that I volunteered for a combat unit, an elite one no less – I went through the sifting test, the two-day physical ordeal that you go through when you want to get into these combat units. Whoever survives it can go on. Then I did the basic training of four months, but regretted it deeply after a few months. Even though I had anticipated that I would miss playing the violin, the deprivation became visceral. At some point towards the end of the training, I fainted in a 20 kilometer night journey. I was brought to the base clinic, my body temperature was 35 Celsius. They let me rest. This was a point where I already felt I was on a wrong track, despite my efforts to convince myself otherwise. I spoke with the base psychologist who was near. She knew some musicians, and understood my dilemma. She suggested to have me sent back to the central army distribution base, on the basis of a psychological crisis, which she believed this was, and in the hope that I may return to being a musician in the army. I said I would think about it. I did, and when I got back to the field, I went up to my sergeant, and said to him “Commander, I believe I have made a mistake.” I elaborated a bit, but with only few words. I recall something that I wouldn’t forget – this sergeant was always wearing a cap which hid his eyes. In those moments, I saw a tear rolling down his left eye, and I couldn’t believe it. The contact between a private and a sergeant in the basic training was a matter of uncompromising distance – a sergeant being moved was for me non-computable at that point, something from another universe. He immediately said he would have me speak with the lieutenant. He went to the commander tent, spoke a few words with the lieutenant, came out and said I could speak with the lieutenant now. I explained to the lieutenant how I felt. I didn’t need to elaborate, he seemed in complete understanding of my situation, and asked whether I had any plan of how to actually get back to my former unit. I said I had spoken with the psychologist, who was certain she could help. He said “very well.” He wanted me to finish the basic training before I left the unit. I agreed. I believe there was about a month left. Before I left the tent, he stopped me, and said “I want you to know, that I appreciate what you have attempted.” Those were moments where I felt honor, although a part of me was feeling guilt.

My return to the music corps was thus arranged. The kibbutz movement’s military service department was involved in my case. I had come to speak with the same official man who arranged my being sent to combat service, but this time he was not proud. Now he was downright disappointed. “You came here and said you want combat service, and I arranged it, and now you come and regret it?” I could not pacify him. I had a talk with another man from a kibbutz neighboring ours, who seemed to be pulling strings over at the department. He was a much older man than the official, and was not worried. He said it was a pity that his comrade couldn’t understand it, but that it will be alright, he would arrange things. Apparently, he did, and in some miraculous way which I remember nothing of, I was suddenly back in my old unit, back to being a musician in the army.

But somehow, the combat unit episode wasn’t completely over for me, and it returned to haunt me: Time passed, and these soldiers whom I trained with were involved in various war operations. Israel was still in southern Lebanon, and soldiers were constantly losing their lives. At some point, several soldiers from the battalion I was training for were announced dead, and the thought came to me, that I was not there. The feeling of having betrayed my comrades, having betrayed my country, grew in me. And it reached a degree where I could not feel any dignity about my life anymore. I got to a point where I wanted to die. Over years to come, I had recurring nightmares of battles which I was supposed to take part in, had I stayed in the commando unit. Sometimes I would save the lives of those I was fighting with, sometimes I died instead of them. These nightmares caused actual feelings, and I remember that the feeling of having died instead of someone else was not a bad one, it was actually a certain relief, I felt as if I had saved someone’s life. But these were dreams; I was no longer in combat service, and I would never take part in any armed battle. I only had the experience of what it was like to not be there.

I had to resolve all this with myself. I could not live like this, with this internal nightmare which was rendering my life useless. I then came to resolve, that if it was true, that I had stepped out of combat service because I had to play music, if that was indeed a need, then this is what I was meant to do. But it was not easy to resolve with myself, that others were giving their lives away so that I could play music.

I had reached a kind of dialogue with death, and met the seriousness of life in its mirroring with death.

For a time, I felt it like a darkness I could not really step out of. Was there in fact more to life than death? And was music really, in any way, a rightful alibi to not sacrifice one’s life? These were not thoughts I proclaimed outwards to others – they were a darkness that I kept within myself. And music, with all its charm, could not disperse this cloud. It was in much later years, that I began to contemplate, that perhaps this whole way of thinking about life and death had an obsessive nature to it, and that there was perhaps another way to approach the idea of life.

The idea of death for one’s country has been a central subject in the Jewish and Israeli culture, and especially in kibbutz society. In the 1973 war for example, eight men from my kibbutz had died in war – my uncle amongst them. This was a huge ratio: 8 out of the 180 conscripted and reserve soldiers, out of a population of some 600. It was not something people shouted about. Actually, there was a roaring silence about it, people just did not talk. A recent documentary that was made about that time by a kibbutz member got some people to speak openly for the first time about the experience. Nonetheless, this aspect of death and sacrifice had a clear ethos about it: that many had died so that we could survive, and thus could, in turn, sacrifice ourselves.
Israel apologists like to refer to the Palestinian “culture of death.” Alan Dershowitz does it in his ‘The Case For Israel.’ But it must be admitted, that such a culture does exist in Israel.

But back to me: I never got to be in actual combat, never served in the Occupied Territories, never was in battle, never shot at anything but a training target.

I don’t think that having shot someone, having been in battle, or having not done any of that stuff, is necessarily a factor in what realisations one arrives at later in life. Our summation of our experience in life depends upon what we choose to make of it. I could just as well have become a fervent Zionist nationalist given the same experiences I had.

But I didn’t.

I think the first thing that caused me to change radically, was a reading of Ilan Pappe’s book The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine, which was published in 2006 and which I got hold of in 2007. I had some suspicion in me, that there was something I was not being told in school and through the Israeli and mainstream media, but I didn’t realise the magnitude of the issue, as well as the magnitude of its cover-up through Zionist propaganda.

From that point on, I began devouring other books and information which painted another picture than the one I had been indoctrinated with. This was not a counter-indoctrination; I realised that the facts spoke volumes in themselves, and that the problem with the Israeli indoctrination was simply that it evaded uncomfortable facts and truths. It was like discovering I was being lied to.

I do not think it is necessary to have any particular experiences as an Israeli in order to come to a critical view of Israeli history. It can be taken on by any person, Jew or not, Israeli or not, worldwide. Milestone events can also be causative for a person to search for an alternative narrative: I have thus encountered several international acquaintances who have said the the assault on Gaza of 2014 has been a turnaround for them. They simply found it impossible to reconcile the liberal values Israel professes to have with the reality that was being shown on full screen and prime time. So they began to research…

It must nonetheless be said that I am in the small minority. Most people who are inculcated with the Zionist narrative, and that even includes non-Jews who merely watch mainstream news in USA or read the New York Times for example, often reflexively reject facts that challenge the moral righteousness of Zionism. For it is in the vein of Zionism, to brush away scrutiny that involves application of international law, under the idea that Israel is a “special case”, an “enlightened state in a bad neighborhood”, and that applying international law is often the irritating, pedantic act of the “nations” or the “goyim” (which literally translates to “nations” by the way), and this is the vein by which Israel systematically avoids application of UN resolutions and international legal bodies.

But what I discovered is that Israel is not a special case. It’s not more special than any other state, and any state can think it’s special – most do.

I have come to realise that our denial of history is an illness. I mean, it’s institutionalized; look at the 2011 “Nakba law”, prohibiting commemoration of the disaster that befell the Palestinians in 1948. What kind of a state does that? A state that cannot tolerate seeing its own crimes, and certainly not when the goyim point it out. Israel wants to do its dirty laundry at home. That’s why Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked responded in January to the US ambassador’s critique of Israeli Apartheid (without him actually saying the word) and the proposed “transparency bill”, by saying that ”Israel is a strong democracy and there is no need for other nations to intervene in internal legislation”. But if Israel gets its way, and nations do not intervene, I’m afraid that the internal powers and dynamics in Israel today will only continue to pull towards further violence, harsher subjugation of Palestinians, more racism.

I have come to realise, that the unfoldings of today are a predictable outcome of Zionism, not of the Middle-East “reality”. And Zionism is pretty much a state-religion in Israel. That being the case, I cannot expect it to change. Those Israelis who allow themselves to think critically about Zionism are but few. Critique of this or that act of the state, yes. But challenging the whole ideology? No. Most see that idea of challenge as an opening towards an “existential threat” – the common slogan epitomizing the Jewish fear.

I have come to realize that historical unfoldings in historical Palestine in the past century are not incidental. They are a direct and even predictable consequence of a reality which Zionists tend to despise the title of: colonialism. This term was even used by early Zionists to refer to the plans to establish a “Jewish homeland” in Palestine. It’s not as if Jews can’t live in Palestine without this colonialist paradigm; rather, it is Zionism that suggested to them from the outset that the realisation of Herzl’s “dream” inevitably involved getting the “penniless population across the border”, “expropriation and the removal of the poor [indigenous population]” which “must be carried out discretely and circumspectly”, as Herzl wrote in his diary.

I came to realize that this ideology was from the outset a violent one. A classic settler-colonialist ideology. It continues to this day. The wars, the violent subjugation, are not mere incidental occurrences. They are the acts and consequences of colonialism.

When I realised that, all the heroic ethos came under a different light. I had come to realise that ‘fighting for my country’ meant something very different than winning ideological and physical battles for the State of Israel. It meant dismantling Zionist propaganda (which can be done substantially by the actual addressing of facts without the nationalist prejudice), and introducing a genuine belief in another future than that which Zionism has led us to believe is the only possibility.

Peace in historical Palestine is possible, but it requires an address of the paradigm of colonisation, which modern Zionism denies. It is for us to discern what Zionism really is – lest we by default become subject to its very widespread propaganda. That is my fight: to share what I have realised it to be.

About Jonathan Ofir

Israeli musician, conductor and blogger / writer based in Denmark.

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11 Responses

  1. Liz
    March 15, 2016, 11:34 am

    A really beautiful personal essay about your transformation. And so true: “Peace in historical Palestine is possible, but it requires an address of the paradigm of colonisation, which modern Zionism denies.” Thanks for sharing your trajectory.

  2. pabelmont
    March 15, 2016, 1:02 pm

    This is a terrific story. One thing I noticed and had to jump to comment upon was “I do not think it is necessary to have any particular experiences as an Israeli in order to come to a critical view of Israeli history. It can be taken on by any person, Jew or not, Israeli or not, worldwide”.

    Why? Because when I was part of pro-Palestine sidewalk demonstrations in NYC, people (Israelis?) often said, “Have you lived in Israel? Then how can you criticize it?” And Ofir takes the opposite view.

    I think one might ask many people, very much including Israelis, this question: “Did you live through the holocaust? did you live in one of the extermination camps? No? Then how can you know about the holocaust, and how can you criticize the Germans?”

    The answer is the same: one can read and anyone who reads has to decide what to believe if there is a choice.

    • WH
      March 16, 2016, 10:07 am

      The logic of demanding first-hand experience also falls flat as soon as there is a single born-and-bred Israeli who shares the criticism. Of course, they can then be dismissed as a traitor, self-hater etc.

    • Stephen Shenfield
      March 17, 2016, 7:45 am

      pabelmont: Yes, one can read. And with a little more trouble one can find and talk with people who have the first-hand experience that one lacks. And in Palestine one can observe physical evidence of the Nakba: there are still plenty of ruins with their own stories to tell. All that helps one “decide what to believe.”

  3. Sulphurdunn
    March 16, 2016, 7:47 pm

    USS Liberty

  4. Rooster
    March 16, 2016, 11:12 pm

    What brought me to be critical of Israel?

    When people told me I could not be critical of Israel but could not provide me a reason not to be, juxtaposed on an understanding of how correct Burke was when he wrote, “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.”

    I didn’t want to be the good man who does nothing.

  5. yourstruly
    March 20, 2016, 2:51 am

    What brought me to be critical of Israel?

    the same thing that brought 8 yr old me to be critical of racism in Nazi Germany

    the same thing that brought teenager me to be critical of racism in America

    the same thing that led me to be critical of racism anywhere & everywhere

    the same thing that has led me to always side with the slave/oppressed/occupied, but never to side with the slave-owner/oppressor/occupier

    no matter (better, especially) when the owner/oppressor/occupier happens to be a co-national/co-religionist/co-whatever

    isn’t this the mandate of everyone of the humanist persuasion?

    knowing as we do that none of us will be free until the last chain is broken

    and that only the slave can free us all

  6. JLewisDickerson
    March 20, 2016, 4:39 pm

    I think I might be suffering from a somewhat similar malaise. Let’s call it “Shared Values Revulsion Syndrome” (SVRS), for lack of a better acronym.
    Only recently have I come to appreciate how methodically the Native Americans were eliminated from the lands that ultimately became the peachy state of Georgia. For the most part this was accomplished by somehow getting them indebted to someone (e.g., “the traders”) and then making them cede land in payment of the debt.
    For instance, on June 1, 1773, shortly after Governor Wright returned to Georgia from a two-year stay in England, he went to Augusta, where he held a conference with the Chiefs of the Creeks and Cherokees, and obtained a tract of land containing 2,100,000 acres in payment of a debt of between 50,000 pounds and 60,000 pounds, “due by the Indians to the traders”.
    In 1802, the Creek people, hard pressed by debts to white traders, agreed in the Treaty of Fort Wilkinson to cede their land immediately west of the Oconee River.
    The Creek War was also taken advantage of by the U.S. to force the Creeks to cede even larger tracts.
    FROM WIKIPEDIA (Creek War):

    [EXCERPT] . . . On August 9, 1814, Andrew Jackson forced headmen of both the Upper and Lower Towns of Creek to sign the Treaty of Fort Jackson. Despite protest of the Creek chiefs who had fought alongside Jackson, the Creek Nation ceded 21,086,793 acres (85,335 km²) of land—half of Alabama and part of southern Georgia—to the United States government. Even though the Creek War was largely a civil war among the Creek, Andrew Jackson recognized no difference between his Lower Creek allies and the Red Sticks who fought against him. He took the lands of both for what he considered the security needs of the United States.[1] Jackson forced the Creek to cede 1.9 million acres (7,700 km²) that was claimed as territory of the Cherokee Nation, who had also fought as U.S. allies during the Creek War. . .

    To add insult to injury, the name Moore in a caption below an image on Wikipedia caught my eye because I have a great-grandmother whose maiden name was Moore. Might this Col. Moore be related to her? Sadly, yes.
    FROM WIKIPEDIA (Ocmulgee National Monument):

    [EXCERPT] . . . In 1702 South Carolina Governor Col. James Moore raised a militia of 50 colonists and 1,000 Yamasee and Ochese Creek warriors. From 1704 to 1706, they attacked and destroyed a significant number of Spanish missions of coastal Georgia and Florida. They captured numerous Mission Indians: the Timucua and Apalachee, some of whom the colonists and their Indian allies sold into slavery. Together with extensive fatalities from infectious disease epidemics, the warfare caused Florida’s indigenous population to fall from about 16,000 in 1685 to 3,700 by 1715.[14] . . .

    Museum display: Col. Moore’s raiding party passes the Ocmulgee trading-post

    • Theo
      March 21, 2016, 1:20 pm

      Yes, General Jackson was a passionate hunter, he liked to hunt indians in Georgia and Florida. It would be great to know how many of them did he kill personally. Later he became our president.

  7. Talkback
    March 21, 2016, 8:32 pm

    “What brought you to be critical of Israel?”

    Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein

  8. michelle
    March 22, 2016, 8:58 pm

    .
    what brought me to be critical of Israel
    why Israel did of course
    .
    G-d Bless
    .

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