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  • Writer's pictureJames Ron

Holding Two Truths

Updated: Oct 28

In 1985, I was drafted into the Israeli military for three years. Two of those were in the explosives & mines (combat engineering?) company of the paratroop brigade, one of Israel’s more rigorous infantry units.

Zeev Jabotinski, a right-wing Zionist thinker, once wrote that the Jewish community would have to erect an “iron wall” between itself and the Arab population, as no Palestinian would willingly give up sovereignty. That iron wall is still thriving, and the paratroops, among others, are its outermost layer..

“Brigade 35,” as the Israeli airborne is called, has three specialized companies – reconnaissance, anti-tank, and explosives – and their training is even more specialized than usual. Participants are intensely committed, although not necessarily for political or religious reasons. Many volunteer for the Brigade because military service is required, and they want to do well. A particular interpretation of masculinity and the desire to excel often guides their choices.

Those years had all kinds of positive aspects. I began a few weeks before my 18th birthday and soon learned to fend for myself and deal with seemingly impossible obstacles. I learned self-discipline, accountability, and loyalty, and developed a set of physical and emotional tools I have used ever since. I don’t think I’ve ever done anything quite so difficult again.

My service also left all manner of emotional scars, however. Although our experience did not include the heavy fighting and civilian contact associated with Israel’s 1982 Lebanon war or the 1988-1992 Palestinian uprising, we had substantial exposure to the Lebanon “security zone,” which Israel created and maintained from 1985 to 2000.

That zone was a 20-30 mile wide strip just north of Israel’s border held by the Southern Lebanese Army, a local militia supported by Israeli forces. It included a string of concrete and barbed-wire forts populated by the militia and Israelis. Forces like ours patrolled on foot through and beyond the zone, often at night. My unit set ambushes and staffed the zone’s forward posts, occasionally under fire.

Thankfully, my company did not have much interaction with Lebanese civilians. In its drive to defeat the Palestine Liberation Organization and then suppress the Lebanese militias that sprang up in its wake, the Israeli military caused damage to civilians, sometimes catastrophically. I didn’t see much of this, although there were incidents that I still remember in distressing detail. We never killed civilians, thankfully, but our behavior, at times, was neither lawful nor appropriate.

When I left the military, I underwent a gradual political transformation that resulted in a sociology Ph.D. on Israeli politics and several reports for Human Rights Watch, a U.S.-based group. These include one on excessive Israeli force in the West Bank and Gaza and another on Israeli interrogation methods in the same region. I traveled extensively to interview Palestinian witnesses and families. In the process, I grew alienated from friends and family alike. The Palestinian stories penetrated my psyche, leading me to question everything I’d learned from my parents, friends, popular culture, and school.

Once I started interviewing Palestinian witnesses, I stopped contacting my army colleagues. My brain could not handle both. It was just too much.

Thirty years later, I realize those long-buried ties are integral to my being. There never was a way of excising them, even temporarily, without causing damage. I tried, but could never quite succeed, to remove those experiences from my life. That failed surgery has instead led to an all-pervasive sense of exile, loss, and alienation.

In 2016, I began to re-explore my relationship with Israel through trips and discussions with friends, a process aided in 2017 by a wrenching divorce. I hqe met my ex in 1992 in Ramallah, the capital of the Palestinian West Bank. After three years at Birzeit University, she’d been understandably reluctant to engage with my Israeli past. Our relationship was over, however, and I could return to those friends without feeling disloyal to my spouse.

I began spending time on email and social media with Israeli friends I’d been so close to years ago. I brought my son to the country in 2019, his first visit ever. Neither of my kids ever learned Hebrew or has much sense of the region, and while I initially did that by design – I didn’t want them saddled with an identity I was battling – I am now regretful. My children have little connection to the place I call home.

Last month, I received a surprise call from the old paratroop unit members. One of them had my number, and at a rare Tel Aviv reunion, they started calling absent members to say hello. I was lonely that Minnesota morning and the unexpected connection had a powerful impact. I bought an airline ticket a few days later, cashing in my miles and messaging the group that I was going. In an act of incredible generosity, they agreed to gather again at short notice at the farm of one of our number.

Three of the guys picked me up from my Tel Aviv hotel and drove northwards to meet the others. We spent about eight hours eating and joking as if we were 18. “Do you remember when,” and “Where is that guy now?” dominated the conversation. I couldn’t participate much of the time, as they had spent decades in the reserves stationed in Lebanon, the occupied territories, or one of Israel’s border fortifications. I didn’t have those experiences, as I had cut my reservist years short when I left Israel in 1993. So I just sat there, looking at the faces of the 55-year-old men who had once been friends and rivals in an intense, 15-person community when we were as young as my daughter today.

Three decades ago, these people had been my entire world, with every comment, gesture, or expression of vital importance. We had mocked and helped each other through the days and – more frequently – the nights, walking for hours with too much weight strapped to our bodies. Now, they were engineers, architects, biologists, factory managers, computer programmers, and, in one remarkable case, an old-fashioned blacksmith. Regular people who had lived together intensely for a short time and then gone on to lead their lives.

Some appeared aware of my political views. As we lined up for food, one quietly said he had seen me on TV years ago. He couldn’t remember the program’s name, but I knew it was The Film That Wasn’t, an Israeli documentary recounting harsh interrogation methods in Israeli prisons. The director, Ram Loevy, had interviewed me on camera. The documentary aired on Israel TV in the mid-1990s after an intense political struggle.

Today, Israeli groups such as Breaking the Silence routinely use the testimonies of former service members to critique Israel’s use of force. In the early 1990s, however, there was no such organization.

Sitting with my veteran friends made me realize I had carried too much shame for far too long. I had been angry at what we had done and seen, even though our actions were not extraordinary by the standards of time and place. I had been ashamed of my participation, that I had later spoken out publicly, and that I hadn’t stayed in Israel with the others, trying to make the country a better place. I spent almost three decades wandering through America, Canada, and Mexico, all too often filled with regret.

Before the meeting, I worried the others would be critical of my political views or work with international human rights groups. Instead, I encountered nothing but warm acceptance. We didn’t talk politics and never once mentioned the controversial bits of our service. Some may have shared my views, others not. Either way, it never came up.

We connected that day as humans who had been through a difficult time together years ago and as middle-aged men with deteriorating bodies (with some remarkable exceptions!), thinning hair, and wrinkled faces. Many of us had had children, and everyone had struggled to earn an income, deal with family, and figure life out. No one talked of their personal tragedies, but I couldn’t have been the only one whose marriage had ended unpleasantly or whose career hadn’t turned out as planned. Many must have considered leaving the country; several had spent years abroad. We called one of our numbers in Florida and talked of others in California and Texas.

There was only one moment where I raised the subject of Lebanon. In a private conversation, I mentioned to one of our number something I’d seen him do one day that had upset me. He didn’t remember the incident but accepted that it likely happened. He was sorry, and that was enough.

Later, when I mentioned that I had met my ex-wife in Ramallah, he quietly acknowledged that “Israel must look very different from there.” I thought this was a remarkable statement from someone who had spent two decades in the paratroop reserves, fighting in Israel's wars.

The same three men brought me home that night, driving miles to drop me off. We promised to do this again, and for my part, I meant it. Not because we have so much in common, although we do. Instead, I just want to spend more time together. We shared so much when our hair was not gray, and our adult lives were still unlived. They are a part of me and always will be.

At the meeting, everyone seemed to implicitly acknowledge that some of the things we did back then were not things we would do today. At this point in life, that’s more than enough. The Lebanese men and women we encountered years ago might feel differently, but I am not them, even though I can dimly perceive their pain when I close my eyes. Maybe they would forgive us, maybe not. I’ll never know, as I cannot go and ask.

I want to think that if one of the Palestinians I’d interviewed, or one of the Lebanese we had encountered, were sitting with us at the table, we would have been able to connect. That we would see each other’s humanity despite all the violence. Maybe that’s too much to expect, but it’s a comforting vision. Perhaps it could only happen if we were all gathered somewhere neutral, like Mexico or Minnesota.

The meeting with the guys was good. Getting together 33 years later helped fill a hole created years ago by anger, shame, and loss. Although this does no one good but myself, it is perhaps a lesson that applies more broadly.

After all these years, I can hold two truths at one and the same time. The suffering of those on the receiving end, the humanity of those operating the military machine. They exist simultaneously in time and place, one alongside the other, hand in hand.

We are all human, and we all deserve love and respect.

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