Holding Two Truths
Updated: Jan 31, 2022
In 1985, I was drafted into the Israeli military for three years. Two of those were in the explosives 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 airborne is called, has three specialized companies – reconnaissance, anti-tank, and explosives – and their training is even more specialized than the usual. Participants are intensely committed, although not necessarily for political or religious reasons. Contrary to conventional wisdom, many volunteer for the Brigade because military service is required and they just want to do well. A certain 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 was also destructive, however, leaving all manner of emotional scars. Although our experience did not include the heavy fighting and civilian abuse 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 strip just north of Israel’s border held by 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. Special 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 contact 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 much 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. There were reasons for our actions, but no one should be subjected to that kind of abuse.
When I left the military, I underwent a gradul political transformation that resulted in a sociology PhD 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. Their stories penetrated deep into my psyche, leading me to question absolutely everything I’d learned from parents, friends, popular culture, and school.
Once I started working with Palestinian witnesses, I never contacted my army colleagues again. My brain was unable to empathize deeply with Palestinians while maintaining my military connections. It was just too much.
Thirty years later, I realize those long-buried Israeli ties are still integral to my being. There never was a way of excising them, even temporarily, without causing damage. I had grown up in Jerusalem and spent my formative years in local schools. I tried, but could never quite succeed, to remove those experiences from my life. That failed brain surgery has instead led to decades of on-and-off depression and a 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’d met my ex in 1992 in Ramallah, capital of the Palestinian West Bank, and after three years at Birzeit University, she’d been understandably reluctant to engage with my Israeli past. Now I could return to those times and friends without feeling disloyal to my spouse.
I began spending time on email and social media with Israelis I’d known long ago. I even brought my teenaged 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 originally did that by design – I didn’t want them saddled with an identity I was myself battling – I am now regretful. My children have little connection to the place I called home.
Last month, I received a surprise call from members of the old paratroop unit. 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 on my way. In an act of great 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. Much of the time I couldn’t participate, 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 reserve duty in another unit 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, back when we were as young as my daughter is 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, a 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 politics. 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, a local documentary recounting the use of harsh interrogation methods in Israeli prison facilities. The director, Ram Loevy, had interviewed me at length on camera, outing me publicly as a dissident of sorts. The documentary had 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. Back in the early 1990s, however, there was no such organization, and I had felt both fear and pride at having publicly denounced behavior that many of us had privately seen but publicly denied.
Sitting together made me realize that I had carried around too much anger and 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 harsh standards of time and place. I had been ashamed of my participation, ashamed I had spoken out publicly, and ashamed I hadn’t stayed in Israel with the others. I spent almost three decades wandering through America, Canada and Mexico, all too often filled with anger, loss and regret.
Before the meeting I worried the others would be critical of my disloyalty, political views, or work with human rights groups. Instead, I encountered nothing but 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, 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 and several had spent years abroad. We called one of our number in Florida and talked of others living in California and Texas.
There was only one moment where I raised the subject of Lebanon. In private conversation, I mentioned to one of our number something I’d seen him do one day that had upset me greatly. He didn’t remember the incident, but accepted that it likely happened. He was now sorry, and that was enough. Later, when I mentioned that I had met my ex-wife in Ramallah, he simply 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.
The same three men brought me back home that night, driving miles out of their way 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 surely do. Instead, I just want to spend 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 are 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 – when I close my eyes – dimly perceive their pain. Maybe they would forgive us, maybe not. I’ll never know, as I cannot go and ask. A friend visited one of the Lebanese villages we mistreated several years ago. I had planned to go with, using my American passport, but lost my nerve.
I’d like to think that if one of the Palestinians I’d interviewed, or one of the Lebanese we had encountered, was sitting with us at the table, we would have been able 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 if we were all gathered somewhere like Mexico or Minnesota it might work.
The meeting was good. I recognize my privilege – I came to the reunion as a male Israeli citizen with a record of combat service and legal rights, not as a woman, Lebanese or Palestinian – but it was healing. Meeting 33 years later helped fill a hole created years ago by anger, shame, and fear. Although this helps no one but myself, it is perhaps a lesson that applies more broadly.
After all these years, I can, in fact, 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. There is no equality between the powerful and the powerless, but they are both complex human beings.