Man-to-Man With American in Israel Who is Protesting Mandatory National Service

Cooper Fleishman sits down with Moriel Rothman, an American in Israel who will go to jail rather than be forced to join the Israeli Armed Forces.

Editor’s note: Cooper Fleishman’s interview with Mori Rothman is a further examination of Rothman’s experiences as an American living in Israel, for whom protesting against enforced enrollment in the IDF could land him in jail. Read Mr. Rothman’s full story here.

CF: So what happens next for you? Will you be arrested?

MZR: Nah. On Wednesday the 24th, I go present myself at the army base with my letter in hand. I get there and say I refuse to go in. They say, “What are you talking about?” They may give me a trial on the spot. Best possible scenario, they release me right there, after a minute. Next-best, they give me a short sentence. Next after that, a longer sentence.

But we’re talking two-, three-, four-week sentences. It’s not like I’m being thrown in for the length of an army service. A kid six months ago went to the base ready to go to jail and they released him immediately. another guy went in and out for 11 months. Totally arbitrary; those are two recent extremes. Aside from those two cases, over two years, the average has been between two weeks and two months before folks get out.

But prison isn’t an alternative to joining the army. They’ll keep drafting you and keep imprisoning you when you refuse.

Yes. Being in jail doesn’t replace the service. It’s neutral time. The way out is through a psychiatric exam. People see a shrink and say they’d hurt themselves emotionally if they joined the army. Then they’re free.

So why not go through the exam?

The spiritual struggle of trying to maintain that high level of honesty in the work that I’m doing. I wanna make a statement, make my voice heard. I understand media, discourse. You get people taking, arguing, angry. We have to be open, not hypercritical of any form of nonviolence and activism, because we don’t know. none of us has the answer, the correct formula. Some, of course, are more effective on the outside. They need to write, for example.

I hold out until I decide enough. Short sentences. Two-, three-, four-week sentences. After each sentence, if I decide, Enough, I can’t take it, I start to make those proceedings [and undergo an exam].

I don’t wanna be falsely modest. I know what’s happening. I know military jail is not a very bad place. This is no comparison to, say, the civil rights struggle.
You appealed to the Conscience Committee; they rejected your request. Why? Do you think there was an element of vengeance to it?

Good question. Yeah, I don’t know if there’s an element of vengeance to it. I don’t wanna be megalomaniacal. They’re not out to get me — well, maybe they are. Maybe my appeal fell through.

Part of the wider culture, though, is that men aren’t recognized as pacifists. I only know two men who successfully passed the committee by claiming pacifism. I went through all the proper steps. It’s very chaotic. Very arbitrary. The day after I had my second interview for conscientious objection, I got a message that said I would be deployed in armament corps. Like, “Let’s make this fuckin’ guy play with a bunch of weapons!”

Tell me about the work you’re doing in Israel.

I’ve been involved for the last year and a half in what is termed (internally and externally) the Radical Left. The distinction between us and the mainstream Left — the Labor Party — is that they criticize settlement and settlers, but they won’t criticize institutions like the army and the Supreme Court. We take it a step further.

This is all connected. It’s all in the context of occupation. The Supreme Court, IDF, national parks, the JNF [Jewish National Fund] — seemingly innocuous parties that are working hand in hand with settler groups in east Jerusalem.

We’re a host of NGOs, activist groups and individuals, part of this loosely connected community. We’re raising awareness, pushing direct action and trying to prevent evictions of families, through public pressure, letter-writing, etc.

I don’t work on the legal end, but I do public-opinion work, organize demonstrations, organize fact campaigns and letter campaigns. It’s opinion-shifting work, a multi-pronged strategy of legal work and political pressure and humanitarian work.

At our best, all that stuff happens in concert. We’re not always at our best, but that’s a different story.

A lot of people who read your story might be wondering, like, didn’t he realize what he was in for when he moved to Israel? But it’s obvious you put a lot of thought into this decision. You seem in shock but well-prepared.

The possibility that I might be drafted definitely weighed into my decision to move here, and had for a while. Part of life here is the army, good or bad, for or against it. It’s very personal for many people. For a while I thought I’d do it, then I thought I wouldn’t. But [protesting the IDF] is a lot less dramatic than I’m making it.

It’s a clear-cut issue.

It is not possible to be a moral soldier in a situation that is innately immoral. When you’re in the context of war, all the morals you learn back home, ideals of justice, dissipate. You’re given an order, you carry out the order. Or you don’t. If you don’t you end up in jail. Should you be there, at war, in the first place? I’d answer no. It’s hard for me to think of a war right now that should be happening.

So you’ve taken flak from people around you?

Yeah — if you’re living in a democracy, you have to obey the law, right? As part of a democracy, it’s not your place to decide which laws are just or unjust.

But the country we’re occupying cannot be called a democratic country. Half of Israel does count as a democracy, maybe. But it’s myopic to think we can bracket the millions of people living under military occupation for the last four and a half decades and than talk about democracy.

My network here has been nothing but supportive. Even the very thought that one could say no to a mandatory draft — I don’t think it would have crossed my mind if not for those in my community who had done it before me. It’s not a point of shame in this community. In some circles, it’s even a point of credit.
The idea wouldn’t have crossed my mind without the hundreds of Israelis who have done this publicly (and thousands who have done it privately) in the last decade.

It does get complicated when I want to enter the wider world. My friend, a doctor, had lots of complications: His license was taken away as part of this process. He’s working to get it back. A friend working at a museum, active at demonstrations, came to work and was fired one day when they found out. She managed to get lawyers on her side and got her job back.

And are you worried about the abuse you might suffer in jail? Is avoiding the draft seen as treason? And how would your experience compare to that of your Palestinian friend, S., the 14-year-old who was tortured?

On a personal level, yeah, there’s abuse — there’s folks’ personal antagonism, hate mail, angry feelings on the street. But on a systemic level, I’m safe. I’m insanely lucky. My case is different from any Palestinian’s. If any of my rights are violated, I have lawyers to turn to. That’s not the case for non-citizen Palestinians. If an Israeli Jew is arrested at a demonstration, he can be held for a max of 48 hours. If a Palestinian is arrested at the same demonstration, doing the same thing, waving a sign, it can be up to eight days before that person can even see a lawyer. This is in the law. It’s not de facto discrimination.

This is part of the reason you’re raising awareness.

Yeah. It’s odd that the one thing you can see better from the U.S. than from Israel is the Palestinian occupation. Unless you’re a activist, a settler or a soldier, the occupation is basically invisible. I learned in a visceral way that the occupation is not theoretical. It can only feel theoretical if you’re not occupied. The army practices on civilians. The army practices raids, taking over houses, on civilians.

But I want to be clear: This is not a criticism against people who have decided [to join the IDF]. It’s against the system, the phenomenon of militarism. My anger is not directed at those who vote for politicians whose decisions I abhor.

Like who?

Almost all of them. Every single group sitting in the coalition right now I find horrible. Even the sort of pseudo-left-wing Labor Party I find problematic. They’re OK with the status quo. A few policy tweaks won’t cut it. We need fundamental change so the system doesn’t become permanent. People of one ethnic group are given certain rights. People of another ethnic group are denied those rights.

Has your experience changed your perception of Israel as a country? As a people?

It’s a long process. The first time you’re pushed or arrested by police while in a nonviolent demonstration or peaceful protest, it’s like, Wait, aren’t they supposed to protect me? It’s a bizarre feeling, being an enemy of the state. Even as I’ve lost love for and faith in the Israeli state, my love for the Israeli people has grown deeper and deeper.

What you’re doing is for Israel. Pro-Israel.

What I’m doing is for my community. Absolutely. I love this place, I love this people. I want to be doing good here for us.

Originally appeared at HyperVocal

Read Moriel Rothman’s story here.

About Cooper Fleishman

Cooper Fleishman is managing editor of After graduating from Kenyon College in 2009, he moved to New York to follow his dream of book-publishing glory. Once here, he sold dog food on the street and copyedited celebrity-gossip tabloids, finally landing as senior editor of the Good Men Project, where he served for a year before sneaking into HyperVocal. Email: Twitter: @_cooper.


  1. Richard Aubrey says:

    Oh, yeah. A good many people, frequently radical left, like to reproach the Allies for not doing more to prevent or end the Holocaust. Seems strange–presuming moral consistency is your thing–to reproach the IDF for being somewhat more attentive. Seeing that, for the Allies,it hadn’t happened and couldn’t be imagined, while the IDF has, you know, like, evidence and stuff.

  2. Richard Aubrey says:

    I missed the part where he says he’s grateful to the IDF that he’s not doing his radical left thing in a Syrian interrogation suite.
    Still, he could volunteer for the task of radical lefting Assad & Co. They need it more than the Israelis.

  3. What? I thought you could conscientiously object in israel

    • Apparently not in terms of the mandatory service; perhaps CO only applies to refusal to participate in a specific mission?


  1. […] Read also Cooper Fleishman’s Man-to-Man interview with Moriel Rothman. /* post_widget("#but1"); Filed Under: Conflict, Featured Content Tagged With: Bob Moses, civil disobedience, conscience, David Foster Wallace, Diane Nash, Fannie Lou Hamer, Israel, judaism, Martin Luther King Jr., military, Moriel Rothman, nonviolence, Palestine, protest, Racism, religion, Vernon Dahmer, violence About Moriel RothmanMy name is Moriel Rothman. I am an American-Israeli writer and poet, based in Jerusalem and situated squarely on the Left, especially here. Recently added to my byline is “Refusnik,” as I have decided to refuse mandatory service in the IDF. I also like be a ‘nik. A beatnik, a refusenik, a sputnik. This blob is dedicated to sharing my Completely Objective and Undisputably True reflections, writings, analyses and poems about politics, activism, justice, love, and life in Israel-Palestine and in the world. And other various topics. […]

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