Israeli-American novelist’s respite in Yellow Springs
An Interview With Moriel Rothman-Zecher
By Marshall Weiss, The Observer
It’s been a year of roller coaster highs and lows for Moriel Rothman-Zecher, who with his wife, Kayla, moved from Jerusalem to his childhood home — the hippie-centric village of Yellow Springs, Ohio — in November 2017. The Israeli-American’s first novel, Sadness Is A White Bird, published in February 2018, earned him a 2018 National Book Award 5-Under-35 honor. Their first child, daughter Nahar, was born in April. But in July, Israel’s Shin Bet detained Rothman-Zecher for nearly three hours at Ben-Gurion Airport connected to his left-wing activism.
Here, he talks about his refusal to serve in the Israel Defense Forces, his subsequent imprisonment, and how this led him to write Sadness Is A White Bird. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
You were born in Jerusalem?
Both of my parents are American. But both made aliyah and have Israeli citizenship as well. I was born there, lived there for the first five years of my life. Basically living there off and on, and then we came back to the states and settled here when I was 8. My grandfather moved here from Philadelphia. My grandfather was teaching education at NYU, and then got an offer to teach at this small college (Antioch) in southwest Ohio. And 75 years later, their great-granddaughter was born here. I lived here (Yellow Springs) from ages 8 to 16, and it was a hugely formational place in my life. We live with two other friends of ours from Israel.
What was growing up Jewish in Yellow Springs like?
It was, by and large, curious, occasionally fraught and unpleasant. I joke that my close friends growing up, none of whom are Jewish, all de facto kept Shabbat because they would come over to our house on Friday nights.
But then there were certainly some more fraught times, coming from a place of ignorance or trying to be edgy. Jokes and comments. It wasn’t necessarily constant, it wasn’t like a strong feeling of animosity or feeling targeted, but I certainly did feel like it was on my shoulders, that I had to represent the Jews at large.
There’s a chapter in the novel that draws largely on that experience of Jonathan feeling like he has to defend the Jewish people by himself in the face of this guy who is making these crude, bizarre comments. Jonathan finds in Israel an imaginary answer to all of those insecurities and pains.
I no longer see the novel as autobiographical. There are certainly parts of it that are drawn from my lived experience, and that chapter definitely was drawn from my experiences.
Why did you shift your story from non-fiction to fiction for the book?
It was a wild process. I thought I would write a political memoir, poetry, non-fiction, something like that. (But) I was a little bored telling the story that I had already told so many times. I was much more interested in examining what didn’t happen in my own life, but what could have. And I felt fiction was a real opening for me to explore what kind of truths could come to the fore while letting go of actualities. As soon as I made that decision, the novel writing itself was a very quick process.
How did you find an agent?
I was working on an anthology called Kingdom of Olives and Ash, an anthology of writers from around the world about the situation in the occupied territories. The editors of the anthology were Ayelet Waldman and Michael Chabon. At some point I had mentioned to Ayelet that I was considering writing a book. She put me in touch with what was then her agency.
You were in an IDF prison because chose not to go with the draft. How did you come to that decision?
It was something I wondered about and debated about from when I was maybe 11. When I was 17, my family moved back to Israel to Zikhron Yaakov in the north. I spent my senior year of high school there, connected with friends, and fell in love with people and the place, and the language, and just had this really beautiful year there.
My friends were getting ready to enlist and I was thinking that I probably would too, but my parents had encouraged me to try out college for a year beforehand. I went (to Middlebury College, Vermont) and started studying Arabic, and decided I’d finish college or at least I’d continue for another year, and then maybe after college I’d return and enlist.
It was between my first and second year in college and throughout my second year that things started to look a little different; after my first year of college, actually, with a Jewish American novelist from Dayton, Martha Moody. She had spoken to my mother and said that she was planning to go to live in a Palestinian village inside of Israel and teach English and get to know the kids.
My Mom said, ‘Well you know my son Mori’s taking Arabic. Could he come along?’ And she said, sure, why not. She asked Jamal Assadi, who was coordinating things from his end, if he knew anyone who could host me. So Jamal ended up having me hosted by a man named Rihan Titi and his wife and family in Al-Bi’neh.
Rihan’s work is calligraphy; he writes everything from calligraphy of poetry to high school diplomas, an incredibly talented artist. He said he learned part of his art from an Egyptian Jew. And so for him it felt like a beautiful way to repay this favor on a broad, national level as it were, to host a young, Jewish man at his house for a few weeks that first summer.
It was a pretty wild experience. Having lived in Zikhron Yaakov, which is right across the street from Faradis, a Palestinian village inside of Israel, if you had asked me when I was 17 what life was like in Faradis, I would have shrugged and said to you, ‘I don’t know. I know that you can get good hummus and fix your car for cheap on the outskirts, and that during the Intifada they threw stones and burned tires and it was scary for Jews.’ And that’s it. I couldn’t tell you anything else because this radical separation exists between Jewish Israel and Palestinian Israel, let alone the West Bank and Gaza and refugee camps.
There were maybe a few negative interactions (during the stay in Al-Bi’neh), things people said that were upsetting or strange and a few times when people glared at me. But for the most part, feeling welcomed and embraced. They were just people. And that’s a very different experience than thinking about all of the Palestinians as a very distant concept.
A few months later, the winter of 2008, Operation Cast Lead started. I was watching it from afar and just the sheer amount of Palestinians that were killed over the course of that month was something that I couldn’t process based on the formulas that I had grown up with: that Israel did everything possible to minimize Palestinian civilian death or suffering and that this war wouldn’t have happened unless it was absolutely necessary. I couldn’t find myself convinced of either of those two things. That was a pretty jarring experience.
And so, that was the long and short of what led my thinking and my politics to shift. I started the Middlebury chapter and then was (national) president of J Street U when I was a senior in college. When I returned to Israel by the time I was 22, I wasn’t sure what I was going to do. I thought for a while that maybe I’d enlist but I’d probably refuse to serve in the territories. Or that I would find a quiet way to get out of my draft. But I was involved in a lot of activism, and activism is a very theatrical endeavor.
I saw at that point, in my draft notice, a potential for an activistic stance and not only a personal one. I decided to refuse. A strange part of the experience was hearing people later on saying, ‘Well, you probably don’t understand anything about what goes into someone’s mind when they enlist.’ And, ‘It sounds like you’re judging other people for enlisting, and it sounds like you think you’re better.’
I understand how people could think that. Because you can see someone taking another action, you can assume there may be some judgment embedded in this. But for me, it was so crucial and so urgent to emphasize that I didn’t see myself as superior, I didn’t see myself as more ethical. I just think my life had taken a very different path.
A big part of writing the novel was partly saying to others but mostly saying to myself that this experience of the young Israeli Jew enlisting and wanting to be part of the military is not only not foreign to me, but is something that I can deeply, deeply embody, I can deeply live, I can feel it pulsing inside of me.
My dearest friends and members of my family and a slightly alternative version of myself all enlisted and were combat soldiers and served in the occupied territories. And so, it was a very important follow-up for me to my political decision, to continue to explore different parts of reality and different parts of empathy and different truths that don’t need to contradict each other, that can exist in the same reality.
Your father’s field is conflict resolution. Did that have an influence on your trajectory?
Absolutely. My Dad still works in the field of conflict resolution and mediation. (My mother), she’s a mental health therapist. She works now in hospice care out of Hadassah in Jerusalem. That also has a deep influence on me, this combination of my father operates from this place of wanting to see a myriad of perspectives and the truth that exists sort of across boundaries and the way that these truths need not be mutually exclusive — but can all exist at once in the same space. And my mother does work that is just profoundly laden with empathy, of not flinching away from pain and not flinching away from suffering but rather facing pain and suffering head on with an open heart.
What was it like being in military prison in Israel?
It was unpleasant and disturbing but not singularly traumatic. I was never singled out, I was never mistreated by the prison staff or by other prisoners. It was a short period. I was never physically attacked or abused. It was predictable. But at the same time, it’s a bizarre experience even though there was something volitional about this. Someone asked me, ‘You could have just stayed in America forever.’ And that’s absolutely right. No one forced me to go back to Israel.
It (prison) increased my dismay with what this place I love is doing to so many people, that essentially many Palestinians have this as an everyday experience. Their freedom is not entirely in their own hands: freedom of movement, freedom of where they can build, freedom of where they can travel. It’s not that they’re all imprisoned in the same place, although I heard a statistic that was pretty mind-boggling, that 40 percent of Palestinian males have spent some time in Israeli punitive custody.
Did you lose friends or family members over this?
Friends. A lot of it happened in the middle of Facebook, little internet puffs of, ‘Oh, now you made this decision. Now you’re dead to me emotionally.’ There were no close friends in my immediate life who threw me out, and I think it was really a powerful experience for those folks in my family and my close orbit who disagreed with my decision. But still, we managed to find the space to talk about it and the space to hear one another. And the space to continue to have love as the basis of our relationship, even as we were acting so differently in these spheres.
When were you released?
I went in at some point in October 2012 and then some point in November 2012 I was released from the system under a mental health exemption, which was the plan from the beginning: go in and I make my statement, I do my theatrical refusal, and then when I felt like I’ve spent enough time there, I start to apply for the mental health exemption.
Would you describe yourself as a Zionist?
It’s not a word I use these days. No. I don’t self-describe as an anti-Zionist, nor do I align with the term Zionist these days, for a number of reasons. For the vast majority of the serious Palestinians I’ve encountered, the term has come to mean someone who believes that they are less equal, who believes that they are less valid. But I do think of myself in some way as an Israeli patriot.
I want the best for the country, I want the best for whoever lives in Israel. But for me, when I say I want the best for Israelis, that can’t just be Israeli Jews. And that being said, this is what I love about the world of fiction. It’s less important to me how others self-define, more important how they act.
Do you believe Israel has a right to exist?
Of course. That, to me, doesn’t need to be predicated on the question of Zionism or non-Zionism in the current (situation). For me, Israel has a right to exist and not only has a right to exist, but I hope that Israel could exist first and foremost as an Israeli state. I think that’s a whole other difference between me and the majority of the Zionist community. An Israeli state would be deeply Jewish and maybe there would be some element in the constitution of an Israeli state that would have some provision for Jews who are in danger around the world to have easy recourse to safety. And a Palestinian state in addition to that, or some sort of creative confederation that allowed for degrees of autonomy but also collaboration and a recognition that for better or worse — and it has been a fraught and in many ways horrible history — we are bound together.
There is no way we can make a separate ‘Jews here, Palestinians there,’ Israelis on the left and Palestinians on the right. Territorially, linguistically, spiritually, culturally, nationally, politically, we are bound together, and so I think a two-state formulation for me that seeks to concretize separation is not one that I can identify with. But a two-state formulation that seeks to ameliorate the situation while working toward some sort of cooperative mutually-intertwined future is certainly one that I think would be a positive step.
How come you decided to come back to Yellow Springs?
We were tired on a lot of levels, my wife and I. My wife was working primarily with African asylum seekers in Israel. Also fraught and intense work. Work that is sometimes demonized by the government and is all encompassing. And we knew that we wanted to have a child. And I remember my brother-in-law said something to me that I thought was really wise. He said, ‘In this place (Jerusalem), it gives this sort of energy. It’s bolstering if you’re a committed activist or if you are a committed soldier: someone who is helping the system continue as is or someone who is working actively to change the system. But if you’re not one of those two, then the place can be devastating. Can eat at you. Can tear you apart.’
And for me, I wanted to and still want to be a parent. That’s my primary identity right now. Even if I were 15 minutes away from demonstrations, I don’t think it’s the same to put myself in these situations and demonstrations and potentially getting arrested if I’m a parent and a partner as it is if I’m a lone individual or even someone with a wife but not the kids. We wanted to step away at least for a little bit.
And this other sad thing happened in July, where we were returning (to Israel) for our first visit after our daughter was born, and we were stopped at the airport. I was questioned by the Shebak (Israel Security Agency) as we were returning for the first time with our little daughter, detained for three hours, a little less maybe.
We landed in Terminal 1, where we made aliyah 16 years ago. It was so nostalgic to hear Hebrew all around. We were so excited for our little daughter to get to see this country, which we love so much about and we care so deeply about. To have Abba (father) taken aside for questioning because of his involvement in left-wing organizations was a pretty awful welcome home.
How specific did they get?
They asked, ‘What’s your involvement in All That’s Left,’ which is this diasporic anti-occupation collective I helped start. ‘What’s your involvement in Breaking The Silence,’ and I worked with Breaking The Silence on this literary anthology. And they said, ‘You know, you’re not accused of anything, you’re not suspected of anything, we just want to warn you that it can be a slippery slope. You go to these demonstrations and you think they’re very legitimate but they can very quickly wind out into violence. And we think about the radical left and the radical right.’
And I said, ‘What do you mean by that?’ And they said, ‘Well, radial right like Baruch Goldstein, who massacred 28 Palestinians, or like the people who killed the Dawabshe family or the people who burned Mohammed Abu Khdeir.’ And I said to them, ‘Are you making a comparison between these people who killed unarmed civilians and killed children, and between Breaking The Silence and B’Tselem and All That’s Left and me?’ And he said, ‘No, no, no, I’m not making that comparison. I’m just saying we do extreme left and extreme right. And you, you seem like a good guy. I just want to warn you. Think about this as a warning conversation. You’re free to go.’
People have asked me, ‘Isn’t that legitimate, important for him to warn you these demonstrations can devolve into violence?’ I don’t buy that they believe that I was a threat. I don’t buy that they were doing it as a friendly warning. I think it was a tactic of intimidation. And they were doing it to a lot of people at that period. A week later, Simone Zimmerman from If Not Now was detained. A week after that — it was Sunday after Sunday — Peter Beinart was detained and questioned. It’s a good tactic of intimidation. Because it made me feel intimidated. It made me feel like, oh, next time I come back for a visit with my daughter I do have to take into account — will they detain me, will they not? If they detain me, for how long? Am I still on the blacklist, am I not? And it’s a terrible thing to have to think about.
What do you think after a year in Yellow Springs?
Something I like about my mode with Kayla, my partner, is we always operate with the sense of, for good for now. When we were in Jerusalem, we were in Jerusalem for good for now. Which means, we’re here. We’re not looking left and right trying to figure our ways out, but we also know that things could change. We’re here for good for now. My partner works with refugees in the field of human rights law. We like it here, and we like the community here. It feels like there’s a lot of work to do and a lot of involvement that is needed here in the United States, whether that’s on the literary level or on the human rights level.