Humans of the Holy Land, Post #23: Tel Aviv, Part 2
Now in the home stretch for the project, I am retracing my steps a bit to cover some different bases. There won’t really be a theme other than the good ol’ humanity found within the lives and experiences of these people I meet. I came back to Tel Aviv for a few days to speak to people in the area. Here are some of the human beings I met.
Zizo’s story is quite unlike just about any other you will encounter in this region. A gay Palestinian from East Jerusalem who lives in Tel Aviv, that description alone would set him apart from just about anyone else. But simply confining who Zizo is with these labels doesn’t do justice to this person with an incredible sense of humor and humility, even in the face of racism and discrimination.
Zizo was born and raised for the first nine years of his life in Barcelona, Spain, where his Palestinian father and Syrian mother lived for 40 years. His father was originally from East Jerusalem, and they would make sure to come back every couple years in order to ensure that their residency rights wouldn’t be taken away. Zizo loved growing up in Spain. “I remember it much nicer than I think of here,” he said with a nervous chuckle, “I miss it. I always think I might go back. Tel Aviv is okay, it’s fun, but I always have this feeling of being an outsider. You know, it’s complicated. When I was in Spain, I was the Palestinian. When I came to East Jerusalem, I was the Spanish guy. Then I moved to Tel Aviv, and I’m the Arab guy. And everywhere I go, I’m the gay guy. So everywhere I go, I feel like an outsider. Which is fine, I don’t care. But every time I go to Barcelona, I have this feeling that I belong there.
When he was nine, his family returned to East Jerusalem. At that point, Zizo hadn’t even known Arabic. “At the beginning, it was hard. I didn’t know the language, the traditions, how things worked there. My family hadn’t taught us about religion even though they were Muslim.” His parents are believers who pray five times a day, though they have adapted their beliefs in their own way.
“It was hard to make friends because everyone looked at me like an alien. I remember the first time I went to the street to make friends…I opened the door, and a guy said, ‘don’t go out. If you go out, I’m going to throw a stone at you.’ I didn’t think he would do it… but he threw a fucking stone in my face. So I came back to my mother bleeding from my head.
“But soon, I adapted, like I always do. I understood how things work, how I should act, not always say what I think out loud, keep some things to myself, and with time, I had friends. High school was mostly good memories. I wasn’t bullied. You know, I kept on hearing the gay remarks here or there. Even if I wasn’t open, I’m not manly enough I guess for the Arab community. I don’t know, when I walk, I flaunt a little bit…so I didn’t fit the stereotype of how an Arab man should look and act like.”
Zizo lived in East Jerusalem during the Second Intifada, during which he experienced “way too much.” He recalled, “I remember starting high school, and we had a four month-break because we couldn’t get to school. I remember coming back, and basically half the class was either in jail, in the hospital, or dead. I don’t know what most of them did, but I don’t think that killing children is ever really justified.” Zizo also remembers observing some of the clashes from his roof. “We would smell the tear gas a lot. But there was one time where the mustarav (Israeli informants who pretend to be Arab) pointed the gun at me because I was taking a picture. I was shitting my pants and ran down the stairs to go to my parents.”
After finishing high school, Zizo decided to learn Hebrew. He took the intensive learning course recent immigrants enroll in, and he became fluent, with the help of his Israeli boyfriend, within a year.
With his boyfriend, Zizo moved to Tel Aviv because it was the “reasonable thing to do.” As he put it, “I am a city person, and I just like the people in Tel Aviv more than I do the people in Jerusalem.” Since then, he has worked in an insurance company analyzing data statistics. Though he stayed, his now ex-boyfriend moved to Spain. “That was a part of my fault,” he admitted with a smile, joking, “that’s my job — I make the Jews get out of the country!”
Now living in Tel Aviv for nine years, most of Zizo’s friends are Jewish. “I don’t mind. I hate religions, and I hate nationalists. I think this is the big problem in the world. Killing in the name of fiction. I think that God is manmade. I think the world would be better without walls or borders.”
To make life easier for him, Zizo is one of the few Palestinians from East Jerusalem who both applied and were able to attain citizenship. He went to the consulate in Tel Aviv because it was much easier, and, after “seven or eight months of bureaucratic hell,” he was finally able to attain Israeli citizenship.
Even after leaving his life in East Jerusalem, Zizo could never completely escape the problems of the conflict. “Earlier in the year, before the whole stabbing thing became trendy, I was on my way to work, and I saw this guy stabbing people. One of them was actually one of my colleagues, but he is fine and at work now, luckily. Just last Thursday, at the attack, one of my other colleagues lost their brother. So yeah, it sucks everywhere. Last summer, it was hell here with the rockets from Hamas. We got used to it and would just make fun of [Hamas] because nothing actually happened. It was more psychological with people. Every siren, everyone would go running and crying. [Hamas] knows that they can’t wipe Israel off the map, so theytry to scare them off with the rockets.”
As a man with an Arab name, he has not escaped the racism found in Israel. He describes the racism he receives as being from “all parts of life” and even in “the most random situations — at the grocery store, at the dentist, even.” Of course, he confronts the humiliating treatment all Arab citizens of Israel deal with going in and out of the airport as well.
Dealing with this “outsider” identity all his life though, Zizo prides himself on “hav[ing] fun with it. I like to make people uncomfortable with their own ignorance and racism. One time, when I was at the dentist, he asked me, ‘What is it with your name?’ and I said, ‘What do you mean?’ He responded, ‘You know…where is it from?’ I knew where he was going with this because I didn’t fit in with his stereotypical perception of the Arab with dark skin, macho, this accent. So I told him that my grandma gave it to me. He kept going on, and I kept going to see how far it would take him to just ask me if I was fucking Arab.” After a while, of this, Zizo, recalled, “the man finally said, ‘oh, I have just never heard that name in the Jewish community.’ So I said, ‘Oh, wasthat what you were asking me? Oh, yeah, because I’m not a Jew. I’m an Arab!’ But the man was like, ‘oh, but you don’t look like a typical Arab. You know, you don’t have the typical accent.’ So I told him, ‘You’re from Russia. Do you sound Russian or not? Do you look like a typical Russian? Do all Russians look the same?’ He’s a fucking dentist, he should know better, but it doesn’t matter. There are amazing neurosurgeons who can still be so ignorant and stupid.”
In October, amid the stabbings and subsequent fear spread through Israel, Zizo was surprised to find a letter posted on the notice board in the lobby of his apartment building. The letter said:
To the Tenants of 51 Bar Kochba Street,
“Due to the security situation I don’t think we can allow ourselves to be indifferent and do nothing about the fact that there is an Arab residing in our building. His name is Ziad Abul Hawa and he lives in Apartment 4. This is something that I have long sought to discuss with the Tenants’ Association, even before the current situation.
Now is the opportunity.
I invite you all to a meeting in the bomb shelter on the first floor, this coming Thursday October 15, to discuss the situation and decide what can be done.
I’m not rejecting him outright, but I do think we should talk to him and check him out.
We have the right to be concerned about our safety and the safety of our families and to feel secure in the building we live in.
The Apartment Tenants”
“My first reaction to it was laughter,” he told me, “because it was written absolutely horribly in Hebrew with no punctuation or anything. I thought it would be funny, so I took a picture with it and sent it to my friends. But my partner didn’t think it was funny…he was furious.”
Always one to laugh in the face of racism, Zizo posted his selfie with the letter on Facebook, writing the caption, “Ya! I’m coming with the mulukhiya muffins!”
Zizo never expected what would happen next — within an hour, Zizo’s picture went viral. By the next day, Zizo was asked to be interviewed by all the Israeli outlets and many international outlets as well, including the Huffington Post and Time Magazine. Overnight, he became a worldwide curiosity.
Within the building, other tenants tore down the letter, replacing it with another one mocking the first. Others apologized to him for whoever did it. “I definitely feel much closer with everyone in my apartment,” he said, “it had the opposite effect than what the letter had wanted.”
There was a protest that was organized for Zizo’s story. Hundreds gathered to stand up against this racism, leaving Zizo an involuntary symbol of a political cause. “I didn’t really want to go to the protest, but I figured I should go, so I went. They made me say a few words, which I did… badly!” he said while laughing. “The gesture was very nice, but it was very awkward. Now, I have a lot of people who are adding me on Facebook, following me, and I feel like my privacy is completely invaded. I feel like I can’t be what I was before because people have this image of me and I should represent something. But I just want to represent myself. I’m generally a clown who makes fun of everything and doesn’t take anything seriously.”
While there was an outpouring of support for Zizo, by no means was this uniform. “When I started to see the comments on Israeli news outlets, I saw some of the things they wrote about it, and it was mostly horrible. Saying, ‘you shouldn’t check him out, you should kill him directly.’ Or, ‘he’s not only Arab, but he’s gay. So he’s not only a terrorist but is giving everyone AIDS.’” Looking at the comments on sites like Times of Israel for his article, the comments are indeed truly disgusting.
In the aftermath of Zizo’s story going viral, he was also outed to the East Jerusalem community. “My parents didn’t have a problem with who I am, just as long as nobody knew. You know, because of honor and all that stuff,” he explained, “but they received calls from my aunts and uncles how they read in Time Magazine about me and my Jewish husband. So my parents aren’t very happy with me, but it’s okay.” Her parents have continued to receive threatening messages and messages critical of their son’s upbringing. Though they aren’t happy with the problems his outing has wrought, Zizo’s parents have always been accepting of Zizo for who he is. “They love Yossi (Zizo’s Jewish husband), and they loved all my previous boyfriends. They don’t love the idea of course, but they learn to accept it. As long as people don’t know about it, they don’t care. I love them.”
Zizo is unique for truly experiencing the humanity on both sides, and he expresses it in his world views. “People keep forgetting that there are basically people on the other side. They think the other side is all monsters and deserve to die. We have something in the office where whenever people are fighting with each other for whatever reason, they work next to each other for one day. It would be easy like that, if we just had 1,000 Palestinians living in Israel every day, 1,000 Israelis living in Palestine every day, and it would be so much easier for them to understand each other and realize they aren’t all monsters. I think it’s a good plan!” He giggled.
This idea was memorialized by another letter he received in his mailbox from one of his other tenants. He posted the letter on Facebook, with the caption reading, “Faith in humanity restored.” The letter read:
“Ziad. Hi. I don’t really know what to write. I threw away my first draft, because it wasn’t meant to be a political manifesto. But I also didn’t want to send you some empty co-existence message that would make me feel better but leave you feeling pretty much the same as before.
I’m getting off track again. Anyway, I just wanted to show some solidarity with you, and felt the idea of writing a letter with actual pen and paper was sort of magical in this age of the indifferent Internet. Besides, I figured that after your mailbox was recently the receptacle for a toxic missive, it’d be nice to have some good karma coming out of it.
Anyway. The point is, I really don’t know where things are going in this country, or if we can count on us humans to do some good. But I can tell you that about two years ago I decided that I might as well die trying — so to speak. Just to do everything possible to make a difference, to make things better.
I hope that one day we’ll all live here as equals, in one political entity. That we’ll all know Arabic and Hebrew, and that we’ll recognize all the historical narratives and that we’ll learn a lesson about racism and hatred from them. And the refugees will return to their homes, and we’ll be able to live with an authentic, holistic identity that is not based on repression and lies.
Until then — I send you a hug that lasts 30 seconds (that’s supposed to be a really good way to transmit positive energy). And I hope, I really hope that your neighbors will bring you muffins, and will come to apologize, and get to know you for who you are. And that if they hate you it’ll be because you didn’t clean the stairwell after your garbage bags leaked or something like that!
Shelly, your sort-of neighbor”
Zizo said that he has spoken with the woman on Facebook, who he says is “very nice and sweet and they are looking to meet up soon.”
As Zizo puts it, “I have received a tremendous wave of support and met so many incredible people from this. Plus, I get into parties for free. A lot of the support came from the gay community, which also makes me sad. If I had dark skin and had traditional Muslim clothes, it would not have become as big. But because I was funny and I’m a cute, gay Arab, it’s easier for them to accept them. I’m like Tel Avivi hipster, whatever, so they can accept it. But if it was Fatiha with her head covered, people in Tel Aviv would have looked at it as more justified. But with me, it was, ‘how do you dare say that to this light-skinned, gay Arab who is very nice and funny?’ So it’s upsetting a little bit.”
I asked Zizo, this delightfully unique person, how he identified himself. He laughed, paused, and said, “If I knew, I would have called it myself a long time ago!… I’m a human being. I feel Spanish mostly, and Palestinian, and Israeli as well. I hate nationalism. I hate religions and think those aren’t the things we should use to judge people. The most important thing is that I am a human being.
“Everybody is suffering. Nobody wants to live their life this way. And it’s easy to make the decisions when other people are the ones who are really suffering. When you have a prime minister like Bibi who hates Arabs so much that he is willing to make Hitler the innocent in the Holocaust just to blame the Palestinians, or he says to be careful because the Arabs are voting… It’s like, sorry we are exercising our rights to vote! And of course, there are the terrorist groups like Hamas killing people, and nobody deservers to be killed. I just wish that people looked to the other side and tried to understand them a little bit instead of having their head in their own ass all the time.”
Bahta appeared to the restaurant he works at, still a bit groggy. He greeted me and shook my hand. “Before we start, I need a coffee. Do you need anything?” It was three in the afternoon, but Bahta had just woken up. He runs the overnight shift at this small restaurant, serving as shift leader and head cook from 8 PM until seven in the morning. “Sometimes I go without seeing sunlight at all,” he lamented, “but I am the shift leader at night, and as a refugee, I am proud of that.” Whenever I had seen Bahta, no matter the circumstances, he remained cheerful while speaking with me. His warming presence made listening to his often sad story a bit easier to stomache.
Before getting into the exact details of Bahta’s life, a little background is needed. In the past decade, there has been an influx of Africans crossing illegally through the fenced border with Egypt into Israel. Coming from a variety of countries experiencing violence and persecution, the two countries with the greatest amounts of people coming are Sudan and Eritrea, which has the most migrants coming in. In Sudan, people are escaping the after-effects of the genocide and the ongoing turbulence there. In Eritrea, the government is seen as one of the most despotic and gravest violators of human rights in the world. With the threat of endless military conscription and massive violence and social upheaval, people are fleeing to seek asylum in other places. Many of these refugees go to Israel.
Braving an extremely dangerous journey, some are able to make it to Israel. At this point, many are granted a temporary residence status by the Israeli government, but with few exception, the Israeli government refuses to recognize them as refugees. Instead, these refugees are deemed ‘infiltrators’ by the Israeli media and government. South Tel Aviv has become the center of this displaced population, where poverty and crime are some of the highest in the country. Subsequently, racism has run rampant in Israel regarding these refugees with rhetoric that would make Donald Trump’s hair shimmer in the wind.
Bahta is one of these refugees. Despite what he has been through in his life, Bahta always has a smile and a pleasant, inviting disposition. He laughed no matter the topic and no matter how sad the details became.
Bahta was from Asmara, the capital. His childhood was marred by the civil war Eritrea faced by the ruling Ethiopian government, war lasting for thirty years. After Eritrean independence, as Bahta recalled, the Eritrean government, though promising to be democratic, quickly turned despotic and quite violent. “Every young Eritrean lost hope of our government.”
At this time, Bahta was a teacher in an elementary school. Working for the national service, however, he was never paid. “They give you nothing, but they exploit everything from you,” he said, “they exploit your age, your muscles, your mind, they exploit you like you are a slave to them.”
“I saw everything,” he said, “we had hope to see democracy. But in this case, the government became authoritarian. I saw friends get tortured in front of my eyes. I had a fear every day that I might have done something wrong to the national service and they would kill me or worse. It was not a way to live.”
In 2007, Bahta made the decision to flee the country. “The greatest thing I still face is my wife and two children. I left them. They are still my priority in my life. I don’t want to be separate from my wife or kids. You fear for them. But to live without your wife or kids, it is very difficult.”
By fleeing the country, he undertook an extremely dangerous, not to mention expensive, risk. “The biggest fear is to run away from the country,” he said, “there are police who have orders to shoot to kill. When you leave the country, they kill you. This is a very life-risking journey, and it starts before you even leave the country.” Bahta worked on the western border with Sudan, so he better knew what was the proper way to flee. He left the country at night on foot.
Once he made it into Sudan, there were Bedouin smugglers who agreed to smuggle him. “They ask for money from you, and if they don’t receive the ransom, they can kill you. They can sell your body organs. They kill people in Sinai. But on the border of Sudan, I got good smugglers.” For the journey, Bahta paid the smugglers $3,000 to bring him to Israel. “From Sudan, to Aswan, to Cairo, to Sinai, across the border to Israel. It was very hard. All of it was very risky. Nobody would take this journey if they didn’t feel like they had to.”
The network of smugglers took him from place to place at night, evading authorities and other dangers.
To cross the border between Egypt and Israel, he and the group of refugees had to cross the Egyptian fence and the Israeli fence. “Crossing the Egyptian side,” he recounted, “the Egyptian border police started shooting at us. We crawled like snakes on the ground. The Israeli fence is a little bit harder to cross. Not only your trousers, your jacket, even your skin was cut everywhere going through the barbed wire.”
Bahta was one of the lucky ones who survived this month-long struggle to make it to Israel. They were picked up by border police. After checking all the refugees, they took them back to the station. Though as refugees they were allowed to stay, they were given temporary residential visas they must reapply for every month. “ I can’t live or work in Israel — it’s forbidden!” he said with a smile.
“Life is hard here,” he said, “but it is better than our country.” His laugh was tinged with exasperation. “Always, they say that the only refugees they want are Jews. If you are Jewish, you are accepted, you have a place in Israel.” Bahta is a Christian man personally. “I was taught in my country about Israel…we believe in the old bible, and this is a holy place for us. This is the one democracy in the Middle East. But you come here, and things are different. It’s very difficult here.”
With help from humanitarian organizations, he was able to get housing, food, and clothing to start out. However, “having no status in the state is a big problem. The government doesn’t do anything for you. You have to find a house, you have to eat, you have to buy clothes. So, you have to work. If the employer speaks English, it can be easier.” Bahta found a job at a local small restaurant. Starting at first as a dishwasher, he has worked up to become a cook and the line shift leader over night. “It is a great pride for me,” he boasted, “that I can work up and be leading the restaurant as a refugee.”
Now living in Israel for eight years, Bahta knows Hebrew and has settled in as much as he can. No matter how stable the situation feels, the constant pain of being a denied asylum seeker continues. “The hardest thing is to live without your wife, your kids. Eight years, I haven’t seen them. I go crazy when I think about it. I work, get money, and it doesn’t help.” Knowing what it would take for them to get there, he wouldn’t risk the lives of his wife and children. “Their safety means more than anything for me.”
Living in Israel itself is a struggle dealing with the racism and bigotry. “There are good people in Israel,” he said, “And there are bad people also. Maybe 20% of the population dislike the dark skinned population. Whenever you go in the bus, they don’t want to sit beside you. You see how they are screening you, even in my work. I’m a chef now, I worked myself up from dishwasher to chef. I cook for them, and I am a shift leader for Israelis, but still, some Israelis, they don’t want me to make food for them because you are black.”
“However — most of the people are good people. In every country you have this.”
According to the government, they are not refugees. “We are collected in the same area in South Tel Aviv. It’s very poor…overcrowded now. There’s no placement from the government. The would never do anything for us. The biggest, the biggest problem is the Israeli government never calls us asylum seekers or refugees. They give us this word — ‘infiltrators.’ It’s a…disgusting word. It’s a really bad word.
“They incite the people [by calling us things like this]. It’s not good. They think we are rapists so they won’t do anything for us. But there are 30,000 of us, it can be possible to do something for these refugees. But they don’t take it very seriously for us.” I mentioned to them how it reminded me of people fleeing to America from violence in Central America.
It amazed me how in spite of everything he was saying, this man’s smile never wavered.
Bahta’s hope and vision is simple: go to the USA. “Atlanta!” he exclaimed. His sister-in-law and mother-in-law live there, so with sponsorship, he is hoping to have asylum there so he can reunite with his kids and wife. “I want to go to America, have a restaurant, and have many friends come to eat in my restaurant. Always, it is USA in my mind. USA is my dream country. I will get status and bring my wife and kids so I can live peacefully. You must have hope. What else is there to live for than hope?”
Wearing a wifebeater, a black beanie cap, hippie necklaces, and showing off funky facial hair, every vibe coming from this young man was that of alternative lifestyle. “Yeah, I like this spot,” he said, noting the secluded bench we were relaxing at in the mall complex area, “it’s the closest I can get to nature around here. It’s very spiritually inclining, personally.”
Yeah, alternative indeed.
But in fact, to meet this young man fresh out of the army is to see a lot more than meets the eye. This is an intensely creative mind remembering who he is as a person after three years in the army. “I am still cleaning my head out from all that military stuff,” he said, “There’s something about the military where you don’t have time, you don’t have any personal rights, it kind of puts you down. It takes you time to get back inside music, back inside music, inside the imagination that is always stirring inside me. I’ve got my guitar in my car if you want to jam a little bit later.”
“Oh, awesome!” I responded, “Do you have any percussion lying around?”
“We can improvise a bit,” he suggested, “just tapping some stones together, man, we can make it work. There are no limits to creativity.”
Ian grew up in a small town in the center of Israel. After high school, he attended a Zionist seminary for ten months. “After that, I became a combat soldier,” he explained, “back in the day, at the Zionist Seminar, I was very highly motivated about Zionism and defending my country, my family, and I felt obligated to do it. People had done it before me and were much better than me — had even died — so why not do it?’
“But on the other hand…it breaks you down, it is so hard to think and create in the army. Also, I hate all the politicians in this country. I lost my faith in politicians a long time ago. But everything you do when you are in the army, even if you don’t mean to, is still helping out [the politicians].
Ian was a part of the armored corps, though later switching to infantry units.
“ There are both sides of the equations when it comes to the sufferings we’ve been through and then even the Palestinians, too. Some of them are normal people just like you and me. But they are lied to just as we are lied to because of the interests of politics. So why should I be an active part of that? If someone orders me to do something in the army, I can’t disobey except only in a few cases.”.
Suddenly, Ian whispered, “hey, could you stop that for a second?”, motioning to my tape recorder. I did, and he asked, “would you want to smoke a joint?”
Well, this project is all about immersing into the lives of everyone I speak, isn’t it?
What started as something like an interview evolved into an hours-long ‘chill sesh’ lasting deep into the evening. Now fully into his element, Ian let his full creativity and alternative ways of thinking free. He showed me the songs he had composed on the guitar, his signature finger-picking in vogue that evening. “This song is usually more metal, but I like playing it on acoustic with more of a folk feel. I call it a ‘dark lullaby.’”
The tape recording continues with explanations of his drawings, our conversation officially in full-on haze made. “I always see bands with shitty logos, so I like to draw new ones for them. This is one of two bands I like — Septic Flesh and Gods of Apocalypse. So I did Septic Flesh God of Apocalypse — it’s like a pyramid with wings, and above you have alpha and omega, with a drawing of the God of Ra.”
Ian’s greatest creative abilities can be found in his works of Legos — yes, Legos. Over the past twenty years, Ian has taken Lego-building to a whole other level, ordering special parts online to create incredible contraptions out of only Lego parts. He showed me one piece he made, a replica of the “crane game” you find at stores, constructed out of Lego pieces and fitted with a radio transmitter that shifts and controls the crane utilizing hydraulics and motors. He also constructed a Lego Gatling Gun that would rapid-fire rubber bands.
In little snippets, Ian would talk about his time in the army. He always avoided it, always repeating, “I’m trying to clear my head out of that stuff, man,” but in little bits of conversation, his three years of service would come up. From what I could piece together, he was a marksman, though he also was in the mortar unit when serving in Gaza. He split his time on the border of Gaza along with serving in many parts of the West Bank and in the Golan Heights.
Ian was a part of the mortar squad on the border of Gaza during Operation Protective Edge. He never actually went into Gaza, but rather was part of the squad firing mortars into Gaza. “We fired inside, and we would get some fire back, nonetheless. They fired pretty blindly, but they came as close as 60 meters away. One time, we had to wear our protective vests all the time. My friend had to take a crap. So he just goes, and the commander tells him, ‘bring your protective vest!’ But he said, ‘No! No! I gotta go!’ I was just wondering, ‘why does it matter so much? He’s already kind of protected in the ditch.’ And then, a mortar shell came off, and we were going in the ditches. Our commander gave us the most teacherish look… it was the ultimate ‘told you so!’”
As a member of this mortar squad, Ian was responsible for much of what happened in Gaza. Playing such an integral role from far away had its tolls on humanity within the squad. “The first time we fired deadly mortar shells, we killed a terrorist squad,” he recalled, “Everyone was cheering and everything. For me, I wasn’t defending the terrorists, but something never feels right about the act of killing. It’s not right. It’s a last resort. I wasn’t happy about that. Even in the Bible, it says, ‘In the death of your enemy, thou shall not rejoice.’ I was the only one who felt this way. It was just the atmosphere. I would think, ‘don’t you think this is the wrong thing to do?’ I can’t be happy about killing. You should not be happy at all about that kind of stuff, but that sums up the kind of atmosphere there.”
“Most of the time, we just slept, ate, talked. The danger was limited to the knowledge. The hardest thing is not knowing what will happen. They do it a lot in military training of being unaware, of getting ready to react to the unexpected.”
“When you are in war, you are only concerned with sleeping, eating, and after a week you go for some R&R and they let you take a shower, they let you use your phone — they took away your phones because then the enemy could listen — and the only thing I would do would be to talk with my family and friends. But then, I would go right to the music. I would listen to Janis Japlin, ‘Summertime’ — it’s why every time I hear that song, I think of the blue, cloudy sky above Gaza in the summer. In those moments of silence, I would just sit there and try to figure it out…and I couldn’t.”
Ian went on. “The most difficult thing about all the conflict is the spiritual conflict. You focus on your animalistic urges rather than philosophy or anything like that. It is really harsh to still have awareness of what is going on…even when we would go for some R&R, all the guys would see the girls and they would be talking all nasty because their animalistic urges are so present while we are in the army. Everyone would all be trying to be the alpha males. For me, yeah, I’m horny, but I’m not going to express myself like that.”
Ian was also a marksman, possessing an M4 Rifle during his military career spent in the West Bank and the Golan heights. “Within my first year in the army, I was manning the post. I was still new, I was still green, so when I heard a bush rattle nearby, I yelled, ‘who are you?’’ I cocked my gun, thinking this was a terrorist or something, ready to fire my shot. My heart was beating like crazy, and then, out of the bushes came out giant hedgehogs. I just [hit my head].
“But when I was in a more dangerous place, in the West Bank, I was looking over a small village near Kedumim. It was a new neighborhood not so far from an Arab village. Every Friday, they would throw stones and stuff. And you know, it’s crazy, because they told me that 20 years ago, they had good relations with each other, but then the wall was put up, so the Arabs started rioting. But we would fire non-lethal weapons at the rioters, you know, with tear gas and rubber bullets, stuff like that. One time, I missed with the tear gas so badly that the Arabs started laughing at us. It was so embarrassing when the enemy is laughing at you!”
Ian remembers many of these battles he had with the people of this village. “I remember all the time, we would go the night before into their villages and steal all their tires so they couldn’t burn them the next day.” You would steal their tires? “Yeah, so they can’t burn their tires and block their road. Because otherwise, you’ve got 12, 14 year olds throwing rocks like six meters, which is really lame.”
Other than those clashes, Ian would mostly just patrol the borders of those settlements. “Most of the time, it was pretty quiet.” There was one time, however, when Ian and his partner manning the base felt the need to act. “One time, though, we caught some Arab guy walking on the field with him with a knife.” Was he coming towards you? “No, but why else would an Arab guy be walking near a settlement with a knife?” He was running to you? “No, he didn’t see us before we saw him. He was just walking. But he had a knife in his pants. After we got him, we found the knife on him later.” Oddly presumptuous of actions to take, I thought. Stuttering, Ian changed the subject. “I-I-I’m getting off the case. Anyways, I was patrolling in the middle of the night another time, it was my first week in the area, so I cocked the M4, and went walking out, and then I was hip-deep in a pool of sewage shit!”
Rolling another joint in his car, Ian remarked, “It’s a very unique experiencing going through what you do in the army at eighteen years old. It makes you tougher, it makes you alert. You got to be tough.”
It was often difficult speaking to Ian about his time in the army. Clearly doing everything to forget his service, all that he looked to now was how he could expand his creativity in the future. With another puff from the joint, guitar perched up on his body, Ian declared, “My dream is to work for Legos, designing new parts and models for them. I still have the mind of a child, and even after everything I saw, spiritually, I know that for me, I still have the soul of a child. Creation will always be a part of my life from now on.”
Revealing a spiritual and creative side too often repressed in our society, I became great friends with Ian after my day with him. “Call me Ian,” he told me to do when writing about him, “I always wanted to call myself that.” At the end of the night, he gave me an IDF jacket he had found in the base. After talking for hours about philosophy, art, and life, it was one of those beautiful times where I wasn’t meeting a subject to interview — I now had a friend, someone whose uniqueness goes beyond what the surface says to reveal a bright and artistic guy who showed me the limitless potential of Legos.
I first met Oren last year during my birthright trip, in which he served as the security guard for our group. In every sense of the word, Oren is a professional. He was a professional body guard, as he would refuse to drink and party like the other soldiers would, always loyal to his duties. He was a professional soldier, upholding the tenets and values the army espoused in writing. Simply getting to know this man, I have come to admire this man as a model for Israelis and everyone alike to follow.
Oren’s family came from Ukraine. His grandparents dealt with the Holocaust in Ukraine, and anti-semitism continued in Soviet times. “My mother growing up was cursed at and beaten on the streets for being Jewish,” explained Oren, “This anti-Semitism was a big consideration for my family moving to Israel. Making this decision was hard. It made us give the government everything we had if we were going to leave.”
At the end of the Soviet Union, his family decided to move to Israel when he was one year old. Oren mentioned the racism Russians face in Israel, though he never faced such discrimination. “This diversity we have in Israel comes with a price. The food we eat, the music we listen to, people to meet, it all comes with the price that it divides people in Israel, so that’s a big problem. But I believe that some people are either just ignorant or full of hate. I come from a place where all of my childhood, I heard of the stories of my family who suffered from hate. I grew up without hate like that.”
Oren grew up in Haifa, where he adapted well to the surroundings and grew up to be a proud Israeli. “So when, you were a kid, that was when you were still ‘Fat Oren’, right?” I asked him. Today, Oren is extremely fit and addicted to working out, but as he admitted last year, for many years, he used to be a cute, little fatty. “I think it came from my grandmother,” he explained, “her and my grandfather survived the Babi Yar pits in Ukraine, and almost all of their life, they were living in hunger. From a really small age, I used to eat really big proportions. Still today, when I see my grandmother, even if I say no to food, I still get a plate full of food. She used to sit with me for three or four hours until I finished my plate completely. She would say that bad people would come if I didn’t finish my plate. I was a good boy, so I always finished my plate.”
Oren loved growing up in Haifa. “I love it a lot more than Herzliya,” he said, where he currently studies, “I feel a lot more connected with the people. It’s a different vibe. I always see it in bars — in Haifa, people just want to hang out and laugh, while in Tel Aviv, people just want to get with each other. It’s kind of strange.” Oren became a huge fan of the Hapoel Haifa soccer team, which he bemoaned a little bit. “They suck. Terrible, terrible!”
While our bodyguard last year, Oren told me his greatest goal was to protect Jews around the world. In particular, this focus on security has always remained his focus when it comes to his service to Israel. “I think much of this is because when I was in the 9th or 10th grade, it was the Second Lebanon War, and Haifa was receiving all the rockets. As I kid, I was so scared. I was petrified. My ways of dealing with it was just trying to relax myself, thinking, ‘why are these things happening? What can I do?’ That is when I knew that if I wanted things to be done, I had to work for it. I have to take charge myself with my hands and make change. That’s when I got fixed up with the idea that my goal will be helping the security of Israel.”
With everything his family faced and he experienced growing up, the idea of the Jewish state is essential in Oren’s eyes. “I don’t think people should look at the state of Israel for granted. In one day, there could no state for Israel, and there will be no country for the Jews. Of course, Israel has a lot of problems, our politicians are not great, but I don’t take it for granted. Unfortunately, there is a lot of anti-Semitism still in the world.” Oren recalled one time flying back from Ukraine in which he was subjected to anti-Semitic rhetoric by men in the airport, calling them the Russian name for kike.
It was a foregone conclusion for him to become a combat soldier. A few months after graduating high school, he was drafted. “Three years in which I experienced a lot. A lot. About people, about Israelis, Arabs, Jews and Muslims, about Jews and Jews.”
Oren was a member of the Kfir Brigade, serving in the infantry. He spent most of his time in various parts of the West Bank. “I’ve been a lot to the settlements because of it. Sometimes protecting Jews from Jews, sometimes protecting Jews from Arabs, sometimes protecting Arabs from Jews. I learned a lot about people. There’s no good side or bad side. In all sides, there are crazy, bad people who really care about themselves when you understand them. They think they are doing something for a general cause, but it really is about making their opinion the most ‘true’ opinion. But most of the people are good. I am very happy for having that experience.”
It wasn’t all so simple for Oren as a soldier. “It’s hard, because sometimes, when the people you think you are protecting are screaming at you, calling you names, it’s kind of strange. Some of the settlements, when they did things that were wrong and we needed to stop them, it was us who got the fire. We are supposed to protect them, but we are not supposed to protect them when they do bad stuff. They said all these things, calling us Nazis, saying we were supposed to protect us. I found myself explaining to people just like me that what they are doing is not doing any good, just hurting people. I remember one of the soldiers, he was religious and he also believed in the settlements. He just started crying because they called him a Nazi. That was the first time I understood that there was no black and white.
“Sometimes, it was the opposite way — we were protecting [the settlers]. Again — [there are] bad people on both sides, but they are the minority. When you take out the religion and politics and all this crap, there is really a possibility that people will live in peace. The country will only be for prosperity.”
“In all sides, there are crazy, bad people who really care about themselves when you understand them. They think they are doing something for a general cause, but it really is about making their opinion the most ‘true’ opinion. But most of the people are good.”
After seeing what I have seen, I was surprised a bit to hear Oren speak in such fair and just ways in regards to treatment of both sides in the military. Granted, this was coming from a guy whose strong values and morals could make him a good candidate as Israel’s Captain America, but I was still curious what this Captain Israel had to say when I told him of the reports of soldiers taking part in awful actions alongside settlers against Palestinian residents.
“From my experience, it was not the way. But usually, people try to do whatever their group is telling them to do. It’s scientific that people do what others around them say and do. I don’t know who you have talked to, but just speaking from my own experience…sometimes, I wished that I could only come there to protect Jews. Unfortunately, that wasn’t always the case and I would need to stop them from doing bad things like throwing stones, making revenge because some crazy terrorist killed a Jew.” In such situations, Oren would use physical force to stop these extremist settlers. “Sometimes, they would even be arrested.” Oren asserted that it is military rule in these settlements as well, but I refuted these claims. I was confused how he didn’t know this, as it was this very basic difference that prevented other soldiers I spoke to from doing anything to stop the settlers from doing anything. “But to get to my point,” he said, “you have to make sure that nothing bad happens no matter what side.”
When asked if he ever felt personally endangered, he said, “A lot of times. You have a lot of times that you have to take someone for questioning or you need to arrest them, so you have to go in the village. Beit Umar is in the newspapers a lot. One time, I thought I was going to die there. Really. They are crazy there. We needed to arrest someone who shot at a passing car. When we came to take him, we heard a lot of whistles and people were throwing Molotov cocktails and stones. All of a sudden, in our car, we heard a big bang, and then another one. I didn’t know what was it. I was just seeing a lot of fire because of the Molotov cocktails. Afterwards, we found out that there was a homemade bomb device and it exploded under our wheels as we were going to the house. Fortunately, no one got hurt. That’s the lucky thing with homemade bombs.
“After we got the guy, coming back, we heard another very loud bang, but it was a different loud bag. We then saw that they had thrown a refrigerator on top of us… It was really scary. That was the worst village I ever came to. They support a lot of terrorist groups, especially Hamas.”
I asked Oren what he thought was going on in those Palestinian people’s minds. “At that time, I just though that they don’t know another way. After time, I understood that they really do just think different things that I do. They think that we are there to hurt them, to make sure that they have difficult lives. Today, I think they just believe…I don’t know, hard question…they just believe this is the best way for them. It’s hard to say because most of the people there that do this stuff, they do it at a really young age. When the person starts so young, usually, there is an adult that teaches them. When you get taught something all your life, it brainwashes you and you never question it. I’m not sure I am blaming them, but it’s like you get used to something and don’t question.
“It’s also the same in the settlements. If people just hear all their lives that Arabs are bad and they want to kill you, they are eating your blood…those kids growing up will be extremists. Unfortunately, I’ve seen 12 year-old kids throw Molotov cocktails. And it is that someone is putting that in their mind.”
Oren never did anything that did not sit well with him morally. However, for Captain Israel, it was difficult to see what other soldiers may have done and how they acted towards civilians. “I think for me, the real question was how to make soldiers who don’t think like me, to realize that it was more than black and white. It was my goal through my actions to show that not everything is black and white. I never questioned if what I was doing was right or wrong because I always treated people with respect wherever they came from. I still do. As a squad commander, I made sure to show by example how we should act.”
“I really enjoyed my time in the army,” he declared, “Overall in the army, I did something very important. I felt that what I was doing was actually helping. I think that I used my force correctly. I had as an 18 year old quite a lot of [power], as we were the force in Judea and Samaria. I don’t know with other units, but I feel confident that I used my force correctly.”
Though Oren had planned to pursue a military career, he stopped after an injury during officer exams prevented him from further combat. But now, he sees it as a blessing in disguise. Oren currently studies in Herzliya governmental studies, where he is focusing on international relations, diplomacy and strategic decision-making. He would look to possibly pursue a master’s degree after, focusing on Middle Eastern intelligence. In the future, he sees himself as working either for Israel’s public relations or in government intelligence.
As always, Oren’s reaction to the question of his hope and vision for the future was fascinating. “Wow! That’s the best thing you could ask me,” he said, “My hope and vision are kind of combined. I always thought that the real problem is education. I think that people can’t really think about what they want if they don’t have the basic stuff. If some people from really small ages are getting clothes or food from terrorist groups, and sometimes those groups help fund their education, that becomes a problem. So I hope that children on both sides can get the same education. If that happens, I am sure, I am sure, that we can all live together. If it is one state or two states, it doesn’t matter. I hope that everyone would have the same opportunities and it will be possible for anyone to get an education they like and they won’t be forced to listen to this or that, and they can decide on their own. That’s the biggest problem I have, especially with the Gaza Strip, is that [education] is oriented and financed by someone with an interest. When these ideas go into these kids’ heads, you see what they become. You even see it in the very religious Jewish people. When you ask them questions, they say ‘I don’t know. That’s what they told me.’
“When you don’t question anything you are told, you become an extremist. You are not opening up your mind. So if the children from the settlements and from the villages are offered education without a specific intention or ideology, this is when a true solution can be possible.”
Though Oren has his strong views on matters, he is always seeking to listen to others when it comes to their opinions and perspectives. “When one person has an opinion and another person has another opinion, you don’t need to continuously fight about it. You can just live with each other without trying to change the other’s opinion. As you know, as a Jew or an Israeli, this is always difficult because people here have seven different opinions over one small thing. Though if you think about it, it comes from the variety of people here. If you come to listen, I think you can learn a lot. For my studies, we have lots of politicians come and speak. The most fascinating talks are when I listen to the ones I don’t agree with. I don’t raise my hand, but I want to see where they are coming from. It’s something that I love doing.”
During my friendship with Oren, I have seen these words in action. Though he and I don’t see eye-to-eye on quite a bit, there is a certain respect for every human being this man has that he approaches. He is an incredibly caring and compassionate individual, and regardless of whatever he views he has, this is the kind of person this region needs for peace and reconciliation.