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Moriel Rothman-Zecher learned to speak Arabic at Middlebury.

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The Alumnus Who Refused to Serve in the Israeli Army

March 5, 2015

MIDDLEBURY, Vt. – Moriel Rothman-Zecher ’11 returned to Middlebury last week to give an impassioned talk infused with his own spoken-word poetry on the subject of the Israeli-occupied territories and his own conscientious objection to serving in the Israeli army.

Born in Israel and raised in Ohio, Rothman-Zecher holds dual citizenship and, in the years since he graduated summa cum laude with a BA in political science, he has emerged as a powerful voice in opposition to some Israeli policies. His op-ed piece “Why I Won’t Serve Israel” was published in the New York Times in January, and his essays have appeared on The Daily Beast, Sojourner Magazine, and Haaretz, Israel’s oldest daily newspaper. He also makes public appearances at colleges, conferences, and synagogues in the U.S. and Europe.

Rothman-Zecher was introduced by Assistant Professor Tara Affolter, whose program in education studies was the lead sponsor of his talk. With more than 100 people assembled in Dana Auditorium, Affolter set the stage for Rothman-Zecher saying, “Moriel’s conscientious objection and continuing nonviolent protests against Israeli occupation [in Gaza and West Bank] offer a model for the transformative power of love, while demanding that none of us simplify or essentialize this complex struggle.”

Over the next 80 minutes Rothman-Zecher delivered a powerful, rapid-fire lecture mixing his poetry with prose, all without the benefit of a note or cue card. The bearded 25-year-old recounted his confrontations with Israeli soldiers, his standoffs with bulldozers poised to destroy a Palestinian village, and his state of mind in the days leading up to his time behind bars in Israeli Military Jail #6.

In December of 2011 Rothman-Zecher had a transformative experience while attending a protest in the West Bank village of Nabi Saleh – a protest that coincided with a funeral for a Palestinian man who had been shot and killed the week before.

Rothman-Zecher explained how the man died: “During the protest some of the young men were throwing stones, and Mustafa Tamimi was throwing a stone at an armored Jeep that was closed and sealed off and driving away. And as the Jeep was driving away a soldier poked his gun out the back of the Jeep and shot a tear gas canister directly at Mustafa Tamami’s face, and he was killed.

“So the next week I went to the protests at Nabi Saleh, and if I ever had any doubt in my mind about whether the Israeli soldiers waited for provocation before shooting, before firing tear gas, before arresting people, or before shooting rubber bullets – all that doubt dissipated in a moment, because as soon as this protest had assembled there in Nabi Saleh, tear gas cannisters started falling out of the sky and the soldiers were screaming and people started being arrested.”

Rothman-Zecher said that as he stood amid the violence and chaos, all he could think about was Mustafa Tamimi, the murdered Palestinian, “lying there on the ground, his handsome face still intact except for one huge red flowering chasm where his eye used to be."

Known as Mori Rothman when he was a student at Middlebury, the speaker is now married and lives in Israel.

Rothman-Zecher referred to each of his personal experiences as “layers” that affected his psyche. When he confronted a column of soldiers, that was a layer. When he met a Palestinian man whose sole livelihood, his grape vines, had been wantonly cut down by Israeli Defense Forces, that was a layer. And when his fellow Israelis showed complete indifference to the plight of Palestinians, that was another layer. Each layer contributed to his decision to refuse service in the military.

A critical layer occurred during his extended stay in a Palestinian village in the north of Israel. (Rothman-Zecher is fluent in Arabic after studying the language at Middlebury.) Israelis are remarkably “uncurious” and “disinterested” in the lives of the non-Jews who make up 20 percent of the population of their country, he said, so he decided to live with a Palestinian host family to see what their lives were like.

“The most shocking takeaway I had from those few weeks there was how radically normal it is, which was a completely jarring thing for [an Israeli] to realize at this juncture. Of course on a theoretical, hypothetical level you know that life is normal everywhere, and people have normal lives in all places, but it didn’t feel like that. It felt like a foreign place to me, just some minutes away from where I had lived and become so familiar in northern Israel.

“It was a completely different world. Some people were nice, some were kind, some were boring, and some were goofy. All these adjectives you would never hear Israelis use to describe this entire group of people.”

Rothman-Zecher described himself as “terrified” on the day he reported to prison. He would ultimately serve about one month’s incarceration until he was released on a mental health exemption known as a “Profile 21,” which he explained is how most "public refusers" are freed.

He currently is a leader in an organization called All That’s Left: An Anti-Occupation Collective and has a blog of his writings, videos, and performances called the Leftern Wall. His presentation was sponsored by Education Studies, Wonnacott Commons, Arabic Department, Middle East Studies, and the Academic Enrichment Fund.

-- With reporting and photography by Robert Keren


What a refreshing change to hear such and enlightened perspective on the plight of Palestinians under Israeli occupation. Thanks to all who made it possible for the college and all of us to share his perspective.

by Karen Will (not verified)

For the record, since the 2005 Israeli unilateral withdrawal from Gaza, there has been no Israeli occupation of Gaza. In 2006 the Hamas terrorist organization took control of Gaza by force from the Palestinian Authority. Hamas has killed far more Palestinians in Gaza than the Israelis have killed in the West Bank. In fact, during last summer's Protective Edge conflict, every month more Muslims were being murdered by other Muslims in the Mideast than the sum total of Muslims killed by Jews in the last 135 years of the modern Zionist movement. I
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am not a supporter of the continued occupation in the West Bank, but there may not be a better alternative considering Hamas' refusal to recognize the State of Israel and its intentions to end not only the occupation of the West Bank, but the Jewish presence in Israel as well. Perhaps instead of living with Palestinians in northern Israel, Mr. Rothman-Zecher should spend some time with Israeli Jews under constant missile attacks by Hamas militants from Gaza.
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by Eric Maltzman (not verified)

Mr. Maltzman's points are well taken and accurate. I have read Mr. Rothman-Zechers New York Times article and find it incredible that there is no mention of the stated aims of the powers that be in Gaza regarding Israel, that is her destuction and killing if necessary of all Israeli Jews as well. Israel would prefer the occupation to end, but not until those they leave behind agree in words and deeds to accept Israel's right to exist.

by Rich Wolfin (not verified)

Israel gave back Gaza almost a decade ago and there is no longer an occupation. Most of the Arab West Bank is Judenrein, and ruled by the PA. I am just a bit unclear as to where this occupation is? The group sponsoring his talk, and the professor who discusses “essentializing this complex issue” should be shunned and excoriated

by Martin Mendelsohn (not verified)

Why doesn't Rothman-Zecher note that the Palestinian constitution calls for the destruction of Israel no matter how many pro-Palestinian Israelis exist. Service in the Israeli Defense Force is a matter of existential concern. I'm glad and honored that I know several Americans, including close relatives,. who proudly serve in the IDF as Israeli-Americans, unlike the pusillanimity of pseudo-intellectuals like Rothman-Zecher

by rona mendelsohn (not verified)

The charges against Israel by an Israeli citizen living outside Israel are typical of emigrants who find criticisms of their country of birth as a rationalization for their living elsewhere. As an alumnus who has been living in Israel for more than 20 years I am incensed by these false charges and misrepresentations apparently unanswered by a representative of Israel following Rothman's tirade. Israel is surrounded by Arab states and Muslim terrorists who in no uncertain terms state that their objective is to destroy the State of Israel and kill every Jew living in it. Israel has
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every right to defend its homeland of 4,000 years. It is a vibrant, creative, and dynamic society tolerant of it Arab citizens, gays, and peoples of all religions. The head of the elections bureau in today's election is an Arab judge. I invite the Middlebury community to visit Israel and see for yourself.
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by David Schwartz ... (not verified)

As a non-Jew, I do not have a dog in this fight. I can't help but notice, however, that those who today support the apartheid-like policies of the current Israeli government rarely comment on the genesis of the current conflict--the great historical injustice suffered by the Palestinian people whose property and lands were expropriated by Zionists following the establishment of the Jewish state. That expropriation continues today under the West Bank settlement activities supported by the Israeli government. Using military troops, who are trained in warfare, to police suppressed civilian populations almost always results in atrocities
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like those witnessed by Rothman-Zecher.
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by Joel Gormley '65 (not verified)

Thank you Moriel for taking time to know the Palestinian people and the hardships and tragedies that they continue to suffer. You force us to look beyond the headlines and mainstream media to see the fiber of a group of people (also Semites) who have endured too much for too long.

by Linda Ramsay de... (not verified)

Re: comment by Joel Gormley -- Reading "The Lemon Tree: An Arab, A Jew, and the Heart of the Middle East" by Sandy Tolan (2007) was eye-opening: out of the warfare at the creation of the modern state of Israel in 1948, a significant number of Palestinian Arabs had their homes seized by the new state and "given" to Jews (many of them Holocaust survivors who had fled from Europe, such as the author's family). Does this justify anti-Semitism, terrorism, or vows to kill all Jews in Israel? Of course not. Would remedying this
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situation bring peace to the Middle East overnight? Of course not. But it's equally clear that this is a glaring and grave injustice that continues today, and cannot be denied or ignored in any efforts to promote such peace. As a related point, is anyone aware whether any Palestinian Arabs have tried to use Israeli courts to recover their homes? Obviously wouldn't be an easy case, but at its core it would be: This person is living in my house without my permission, please order them to leave.
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by Chris Carling (not verified)