In the spirit of Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, when I was learning English, I had this amazing professor, Lola, who gave me the Letter from Birmingham Jail to read. I was so moved by this about a decade ago, when I didn’t even know much about the American Civil Rights movement, but the contents of this letter centered me at a crucial time in my evolution of self. It helped me to find courage toward the work of peace – the same courage it takes to share this piece with you, now. Sharing this may (and will likely) bring solace to some, and will elicit criticism from many others. However, inspired by the opening of this letter, where Dr. King shares that if he answered all criticism that came across his desk, he’d have “no time for constructive work”: in this time of massive intolerance and hatred, I believe that Dr. King would have wanted us all to find strength in our action, wherever we are, whatever we do. Because, as MLK so wisely said, “in a real sense, all life is interrelated. All men are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly. I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be, and you can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be. This is the interrelated structure of reality.” In that spirit, I wish to share the story that follows.
December 2016: Sterling, Illinois
I had the pleasure of spending Christmas 2016 in the beautiful Midwest: Illinois, to be exact, with its unique Holiday experience – its sweeping plains and kind-hearted folks who offered me no less than homes, their hands and their hearths as well as their “jello salad,” their promises that Trump isn’t a racist, and their partridge in a pear tree. As an ultra-Orthodox child of the Israeli Chabad-Lubavitch Jewish community, to be celebrating Christmas proper at all was already somewhat of a tiny miracle: as a now-secular New York Jew, I’m quite used to spending the day with ye olde traditional Chinese food and a movie. But more interesting was how this visit just so happened to dovetail with recent news regarding America’s policy on Israel, and how I was expected to feel about it. Perhaps you’ve seen it: John Kerry stating that America “supports Israel, but can’t defend Israel’s Right Wing Agenda,” or to hear Fox News tell it, Obama betraying Israel, a long-time American ally. Well, to be clear, while I came of age in the fundamentalist Kahane youth movement, where I assaulted innocent Palestinians, and danced in the street when peacemaking Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated, I also moved to Tel Aviv, chose a non-religious lifestyle, and joined the Israeli Defense Forces as a paratrooper, witnessing acts of military violence in a time of frequent suicide bombing and shooting incidences in both communities. Losing dozens of friends and deciding there was another way through the violence, I moved to New York, becoming a social activist for peace, an Ivy League graduate, and a UN adviser, transforming the immense loss into a voyage of self-discovery that led me to pursue a path toward finding ways to end conflicts without aggression, including holding several deep friendships with Palestinians, and making visits to Palestinian cities, towns, and refugee camps. So, when my well meaning host addressed me with, “you know the West Bank: can you believe this shit Anti-Israel decision?” I wasn’t entirely sure how to respond, the answer being so complicated. Because I do, in fact, know the West Bank. I know the West Bank as a child, as a student at Yeshiva High School, as a soldier, as a driver for the head of the settlement council, as a Dual Narrative tour guide, and as a brother of two brothers who still live in the settlements. The question then becomes impossible to answer.
First, I am, as my passport will tell you, as my host expects me to be, an Israeli. And not just an Israeli, a former settler. No story illustrates how completely that experience is sewn into my heart than a pivotal experience in the settlements: my involvement in the Basketball Murders, and my reaction to my involvement in that horrific evening. (What follows is completely true, though names of everyone except the murdered have been changed.)
May 2002: Itamar, West Bank, The Basketball Murders
Despite the second Palestinian uprising, it was a pleasant late-May night. I was spending the evening with my friend Sarah in Itamar, a West Bank Jewish Settlement. At around 11:00 p.m., drinking a cup of tea in her caravan (a space of two kind-of trailers that accommodated her and her five children) at one of the outposts, our conversation was interrupted by the sound of rapid gunshots. Initially, we didn’t panic. This was a common occurrence in this conflict-torn area. “It’s the usual . . . probably the soldiers,” Sarah suggested. But the gunfire was too close for comfort. Shots continued to ring out closer to the house. Sarah agreed, saying, “I have never heard shots so close.”
I went to the guest room, grabbed Sarah’s handgun (a memento from her husband, who was killed by Palestinian gunmen a few months earlier) from under the pillow, loaded it, asked her to turn out the lights (so the attackers wouldn’t see the kids in case there was more gunfire), and ran outside to see what was going on. I met Moshe, the next-door neighbor there, who was standing with his M-16 and his combat vest ready to go. We briefly talked strategy—who would protect the kids, how to secure the houses—then another guard came and said the shooting was in the Yeshiva High School (my own former high school), about a half-mile away. After I heard this, I called Uri, who lived nearby. He answered the phone with “I killed him! I killed him!” his voice trembling on the line. “What happened?” I asked. Breathing hard, he said, “A terrorist came to the high school and opened fire at the students who were playing on the basketball court, and then went into the students’ rooms, but I shot him with my gun!” I had finished my advanced EMT and was specifically trained for such attacks. “Listen to me,” I said. “If there are students who are injured, give me a call right away.” I hung up. A moment later, he called back to tell me that one student had been injured. I told Moshe to protect the families there and I drove off in Sarah’s white family van full of baby strollers and my first-aid bag, hugging the single winding road to the familiar basketball court with my headlights strategically off, afraid that there might be other gunmen along the way.
As I approached the school, I saw a young teenager with multiple gunshot wounds lying in the road adjacent to the basketball court. An Israeli Defense Forces paramedic was over him, starting CPR. I jumped from the car with my supplies and joined in CPR with the paramedic while others tried to stop the bleeding. The teenager’s stomach was open. An official ambulance arrived and a paramedic put the defibrillator on him and declared him dead. We felt helpless, but there was no time to think. We got up and ran to the open area where the kindergarten is located to look for more students who might have run, could still be hiding, and might be injured. Suddenly, someone screamed, “We need a doctor, now!” I ran toward the voice behind the dining room, a place where I used to hide from the rabbis and smoke during my teenage years. I saw two students lying on the ground. I later learned that they had been playing on the basketball court. When they saw the gunman, they had run and tried to hide behind the dining room to no avail—the very dining room where I had managed the kitchen for years to help pay for my school tuition.
One student was lying motionless on the floor, his brain exposed from a gunshot wound to his skull. Realizing that I could do nothing to save him, I turned to the other student. I put my fingers to his jugular. He had no pulse, so I began mouth-to-mouth CPR and called to people around me for help. He had bullet injuries in his chest, so each time I exhaled, a rush of blood came out of his chest onto my eyes. I continued for about five minutes, but nothing changed. When the paramedics finally arrived and put the monitor on, they told me, “He’s already dead. I’m sorry, but you must stop now.” The victims were Netanel Riachi (17), Gilad Stiglitz (14), and Avraham Siton (17).
A night that had begun with a cup of tea ended back at Sarah’s with cans of Heineken.
It was the longest night of my life.
The next morning, I was driving from Itamar in the West bank to Jerusalem with my friend Roni. Staring ahead at Road 60, unable to escape the reality behind me, the blood from the night before still under my fingernails, I couldn’t break through the shell of sorrow. Each cell of my body seemed to feel a sense of loss and grief. As I drove, I felt certain that every Palestinian was happy about what had just happened. I approached Road 60 and Hawara Village. Palestinians near the checkpoint seemed to be laughing, delighted, and smiling at me. Two were crossing the road. I imagined that they were mocking me, proud about the dead teenage Israelis. Suddenly, believing their intention was malicious, I was blinded by rage. I had lost all control: my mind blacked out, and I just wanted to kill them. In a matter of seconds, I had pressed down on the gas pedal, intending to run them over with our car, the faces of the dead youth flashing over and over again in my mind. I wanted to make these Palestinians feel the same pain they had brought on Israeli youth the night before. Thankfully Roni, from the passenger seat, jerked the steering wheel to the right and screamed, “Kobi! What is wrong with you?” snapping me out of the daze during which I had almost run the men down. I could feel the previous night’s events still in my chest, where a deep scar ran through my heart. I had wanted to kill just to suppress my own feelings of impotence.
Each night from 2001 to 2002, I went to sleep with a handgun in my hand, underneath my pillow. My cell phone was near my head, and my first-aid bag was always packed and ready, near my shoes. I was prepared for the worst, every single day. Living in the settlements did not provide the space to think about empathy, and the other side; war and peace or your Palestinian neighbor. Though you know that they are also getting killed, there you are with a gun under your own pillow. Both sides get trapped in a cycle, as if there is no other way. The palpable force that consumes you, knowing any second your life could be over: someone at the side of the road could shoot you while you’re walking or driving. Hey, you would think, I can be safe at home, but then you also go home and get killed there. You think instead, I will take the bus, or I will go to the coffee shop, but both buses and coffee shops have regular suicide bombings. A new day will start, and it’s difficult to see people from the community in the morning. You go to the store, and when you buy your bread and milk and say, “Hey, good morning,” knowing it could be the last “good morning” you would ever tell them. Sometimes you sit near people in the synagogue, and they look at you, and you exchange no words. You smile at them, they look into your eyes, and you respect them. Maybe the same thing that’s going through your head is going through their head. Someone will surely get killed. Maybe I will be the next one to get killed? Maybe they will be the next one? So the eye contact and that respect is deeper. The human connection becomes closer without words. Fear becomes integral to life, part of your day—bread, milk, and fear—but because of that, the interpersonal, non-verbal communication, your behavior is more open and intimate.
Since 2003, several more people have been murdered in Itamar and its surroundings, the most brutal and unspeakable attack being that in March 2011, when two Palestinians from the village of Awarta, Amjad Awad and Hakim Awad, stabbed Hadas, a three-month-old infant, to death, and also killed her parents and two other siblings in their beds. The violence continued then, and continues now, in the same places, just in different times. But this is only one story of my own reality – it took me years to understand that, but Palestinians are, half a mile away, going through continual violence in their own community through clashes with the settlers and with the IDF. How then can the discourse only be about Israel? These decisions also involve the basic human rights of the Palestinian people.
This, then, is the primary memory that floods my mind on Christmas, 2016, while I eat peanut brittle, finger a domino, and consider how to respond to my host’s question. I think of the countless hours I spent organizing protests against peace, against the Oslo Accords. I see why people didn’t want peace. How can we have peace with them? Everything we’ve been saying about them, they’re doing. We give them guns, they’re shooting at us with the guns—it’s a cycle. How can any side think about peace when so many people are dying in close proximity? The environment is so difficult, you can’t imagine peace when violence is repeatedly happening. When you grow up like that, with the same environment and beliefs reinforcing the cycle of violence, you think you are right and justified, and everything you’re told to believe about Palestinians is actually happening—a self-fulfilling prophecy.
This, then, is the second memory that surfaces in my mind: how I became a settler at all – my extremist teenagehood.
When the Oslo Accords took place, I was about 12 years old. My family lived in Chabad community in the Southern District of Israel in the development town of Kiryat Malakhi (City of Angels). Everyone in my ultra-Orthodox Jewish community was called to go against the peace process because our Rabbi, Menachem Mendel Schneerson of the Chabad-Lubavitch, said that it is a big sin to give back land to the enemy. His command was that the land of Israel belongs to the nation of Israel, that we cannot negotiate with the Palestinians, that the negotiations themselves bring the terror to Israel. Everyone came to the protests because the rabbi said it was right to do so. I was part of an average family of ten in the community, and I had plenty of time to fight a good cause. No television or non-Orthodox activities were allowed.
One day at the height of the Oslo Peace process, my friends and I attended a secret meeting at the main synagogue, where we watched a video by Moshe Feiglin, who was the founder of Zo-Artzeino (This Is Our Land) and years later became a member of Knesset, Israel’s parliament. In the video, Moshe explained the nature of the problem with giving back land and guns to the enemy of Israel, trusting them. He showed us how to use strategies and civil disobedience to stop the peace process. I was fully invested. Every day I spent hours creating signs, making phone calls, recruiting people to organize at a local Chabad chapter office, organizing protests at the Kastina Junction, the main intersection near our town between highways 40 and 3.
For a while, every afternoon we walked or drove with our megaphones, calling people to come to protest. At night we put posters on the walls all around the neighborhood centers. We went with a bucket full of flour-and-water paste and a large, square paintbrush, calling for protests with every picture we pasted up: pictures of the dead, naming Rabin as a traitor. We would go earlier and hide empty wheels and big stones so we could easily block one of the main roads, which connected the center and the south of Israel. The adults as well as children were holding signs that read, “Do not give them guns,” “These guns will kill us,” and “Rabin, the Traitor.” Because the leftists and the government were giving the Palestinians guns so that they would have autonomy in their own area, there was a sense of threat to our existence carried out by our Jewish brothers together with the enemy. It was the subject of most of our conversations: we felt that we were going to lose everything that had been built so far. We did not want to sit in silence while they were destroying our nation and our purpose, so we took to the streets.
I was arrested for the first time, for beating a police officer who jumped on my friend while we were blocking the main road. I hated them, the people from the left who wanted to give back the Holy Land. I hated all these leftists deeply, and the worst among them was Rabin, the prime minister who dared to talk with the dirty, murderous Arabs. I went to every major protest against the peace process in my area and in Jerusalem, often holding signs saying Rabin was a traitor. By then, I deeply hated Arabs, but now the same feeling of hatred spread to the Jews who turned their back to us, who disobeyed God and gave the enemy guns and land. Everyone around me hated them, too, including my family, neighbors—basically everyone I knew. In contrast to the majority of the Israeli society, who were shocked, devastated, and grieving, when I heard that peacemaking Prime Minister Yizthak Rabin had been assassinated, many members of the community were happy about this, and I was among them. I thought he deserved it—it was a joyful day. No one said that it was wrong to kill him. Instead, people said, “This what should happen to every Arab and Jewish person who wants to give the Holy Land to the enemy.”
This period of my life was also the first time I saw a gun being fired, and it too was in service of these beliefs. October 18, 1994: Hebron City – without warning, the person to my left, a man who I would later learn was an American Jew nicknamed “Rambo,” raised his mini-uzi and fired into the dark at the Palestinian house in front of him. Standing beside him, I was in shock as lightning flashed from the gun. When I realized what was going on, my inner voice enthusiastically shouted, “This is great, yes, shoot, yes! Kill them all! They are stinking animals. They stole our Holy Land and they killed so many of God’s children. Show them the power of the Jewish people!” But the shots paralyzed me. I was about 13 years old. This was on a Friday, the beginning of Shabbat, years ago, on the outskirts of the city of Hebron. Prayers had just ended.
Earlier that Friday, we had visited Kahane Park in Kiryat Arba, where the tomb of Dr. Baruch Goldstein (a resident of Kiryat Arba, who murdered 29 and wounded 125 Muslim worshippers at the Cave of the Patriarchs) was located. The community I was part of at the time respected the act, and people talked about his bravery. For me and my friends, he was a righteous hero. At his tomb, we said psalms and prayers and we walked from there to the center of the city, actively pushing Arabs along the way, throwing stones at them, and considering ourselves powerful young Jews, as Rabbi Meir Kahane wanted us to be.
I was inspired by Kahane’s books: they encouraged the use of force in order to achieve the goals of a greater Israel. The books talked about the right of the Jewish people to go back to the old days, when Jewish people controlled a large portion of the Middle East. The answer, in his opinion, was to use force in order to achieve the objective “two eyes for an eye.” Because of this, I affiliated with the Israeli organization Kach. I proudly wore the yellow shirt (which in the center had a fist, above the words “Long Live Kahane”) to school almost every day and cultivated relationships with friends who liked and wore them as well. Although I idolized him, Kahane was an outlaw to Israel, and many considered Kach to be a terrorist organization. Eventually, it was illegal even to wear the yellow shirt.
We participated in attacks on Palestinians. We threw stones at passing cars in my town. When I was 13, I had a toy tear-gas can and would knock on the windows of cars belonging to Palestinians, pretending that I was going to gas them in the face, to show them the Jewish power. My friends and I broke their car windows, and once, I even set a car on fire. With each of these acts, we felt that we were contributing to the goal of removing the Palestinians from the Holy Land. I found any use of aggression strongly desirable. It fulfilled my sense of identity. It also was not just me: I was part of something much bigger. I was a messenger of God and the Jewish people. At that time, when I looked at Palestinian people, I did not think of any of them as human. I considered them as animals, and enemies that must be destroyed.
Remembering this, it’s likely hard to imagine, but my third and final memory is of the time I spent visiting the Jenin refugee camps, the impact of which was an incredibly powerful counterweight to the beliefs and actions that had guided my previous life.
By now, I lived in New York. I returned to the West Bank frequently because I had become a guide for Dual Narrative tours: having met several Palestinians during my time in the army and in NYC and having had deep conversations about their perspective on the conflict, I had now, through these tours, visited every major Palestinian city and each of the refugee camps a few times. I had yet to visit, however, Jenin city and the Jenin refugee camps, as they had a reputation from the stories of the killings of many Israeli soldiers. Even being there, the Battle of Jenin (April 2001) was circulating in my mind. In-between the archway and the FedEx, on beautiful antique city walls, were large public posters depicting Palestinians who were killed, and who killed others. All were young men, all were holding M-16s and AK-47s. Seeing the posters, I wondered if some of the people in the photos, themselves now dead from violence, had murdered people I knew and loved. Likewise, I imagined if I were them: if I were growing up in this refugee camp, what would I have done? Would I be dead after killing Israelis, or would I be working for peace? Although I was, in this place, afraid of being outed as an Israeli, I held the contradiction: I understand now some of their life stories, why they chose this violent and ruthless way of being, and I saw part of me in them. I had wanted to kill Palestinians just because they were Palestinians: I understood now how this conclusion, risking their own lives while killing my friends, Israelis, came to pass.
I knew that being here was risky, but the fear was drowned out by how much I wanted to understand. Walking through the streets of Jenin was terrifying, but I trusted my Palestinian colleagues, I trusted the group I was with, and I was pushing one of our group members who was in a wheelchair, under my cover of an American hat, a cigarette in my hand as if the cloud of smoke masked my Israeliness, even just for a moment. I did ask them not to call my Hebrew name as we were walking through the streets of Jenin toward the refugee camp—one of the women kept speaking to me in Hebrew, and I tried to silence her as I kept thinking about how easy it would be for me to be killed here. As we walked through the market, I saw someone making fresh pita bread and I was struck by how similar this was to the familiar smell and experience of buying bread in West Jerusalem at Shuk Mahane Yehuda, where Yosi, my grandmother’s brother, had a vegetable stand for decades.
The next morning, I woke up on a mattress on the floor with two other men near me on other floor-mattresses, and I forgot for a moment where I was. I slept on the floor after evenings filled with meetings with local leaders and dinner with the host family. We gathered in the dining area, where the family placed comfortable mattresses and orange pillows to support our backs so we could sit in a circle around the newspaper they had spread on a rug, atop of which was food. We had avocado, chips, halloumi cheese, fried potatoes, tomatoes, hummus, two kinds of fresh pita bread, different kinds of homegrown olives, zatar. As we began to eat, more extended family came. When the female head of the house heard that some of us were Jews, it took her a second to say, “Oh, we don’t hate Jews. You are welcome here. Ahlan Wa Sahlan.” For the most part, no one in the house knew that I am Israeli—my friend didn’t want them to know for safety reasons—but they knew that I’m Jewish, and from Brooklyn, and while they were surprised, they didn’t have a problem with that. The night before, the man who was the head of the family, who smoked nonstop, grew tobacco in his backyard, and every few minutes handed me another hand-rolled cigarette, said, “It is okay, here. We don’t care. You speak Hebrew? You speak Hebrew? We respect everyone, and I miss my boss from Israel, who cared for me for years. My family and I are against violence and I worked in Israel. When the second uprising started, my boss would come to the checkpoint and give me money, because he knew I needed to feed my family.” I thought, I wish other people would hear stories like these, because for many Israelis, a Palestinian is someone who would kill them if he had the chance. For many Palestinians, a Jewish-Israeli is either a settler with a gun or a soldier at a checkpoint.
So, sitting here at this Midwestern kitchen table, I am at a loss for how to answer. I do not have just one angle on this conflict, nor one answer to this question. I’m the totality of my experiences. A former Hasidic Jew, a former settler, someone who visited Palestinian refugee camps and now a New Yorker. I have difficulty distinguishing between the self that was shaped by social norms and who I would be if they didn’t exist. I glance up at Fox News glaring over this dinnertime dominoes game, and remember that we are socialized into simple identity politics when the reality is much more diverse. Most of us stay in the same circles, and from that vantage point, we cannot break the boundaries of those circles. In relation to my own experience, for example, I now understand that, in Israel, there is societal tension between religious messianic visions, ultra-nationalistic lenses, and simple liberal democracy—the usual political structures can’t handle this complexity. I hope we can recognize the complexity in our conflicts.
I have spent more than a decade learning everything I can possibly learn about conflicts, about the history of my country and others. I have attended countless classes, received two degrees, studied the world, cultures, religion, psychology, biology, conflict resolution—trying to understand what I went through, what others went through, why we choose different paths. I have read hundreds of books, met thousands of people from across the globe, attended dozens of workshops and retreats about building relationships with people from the other side—part of my heart remaining with them, their with their experiences; part of my heart still there on the ground all those years ago, the blood all over me, trying to bring life to a dead body. None of this has provided me with an answer to my host’s simple and direct question, I suppose because my answer would be neither simple nor direct. Whatever the mainstream tells you about this conflict, there is more to the story. For me, because I know that violence is complex, because I know that millions of different, related stories converge here, because I work now for the advancement of youth, peace and security – there is no doubt in my mind that everyone has the same rights. I could just as easily have been born a Palestinian or an Israeli. This is the power of empathy, that we begin to see and to respect the complexity of life and of everyone living it.
I manage a meager smile and offer to refill his empty Midwestern coffee cup, just to have a chance to leave the table, breathe, and realize that I am homesick for Brooklyn, where the ten thousand things that I am, that we all are, blessed New York allows us, even invites us to be.