It’s summer, and the mind is not given to big thoughts. Winona Ryder’s masterful turn on Netflix’s Stranger Things? That I am willing to contemplate. But Black Lives Matter releasing a platform that scathingly condemns Israel, and other coalitions of the progressive and righteous joining in on the attack? It’s too darn hot for that. So instead of sitting down and rebuking this newest round of outrageous claims against the Jewish state—which others, frankly, have already taken to task more eloquently and competently than I ever could—I reclined on my couch in my excessively air-conditioned study and allowed myself a midsummer afternoon’s dream about the most diverse society in which I’ve ever had the pleasure of living. It wasn’t the Ivy League university where I’d spent seven years of my life listening daily to thundering speeches about the importance of diversity. It wasn’t New York City, for all its melting pot swagger. It was Bahad Arba, the dusty basic training camp outside Beit El, where, 22 years ago this month, I arrived as a new recruit, my head shaved and my heart heavy, ready to begin the long road to soldier-hood.
I don’t remember the names of most of my fellow recruits, but I’ll never forget their faces and their stories: the young Muscovite who claimed a Jewish ancestor and made aliyah but continued to celebrate Novy God every December in his home in Bat Yam; the Ethiopian cousins who had memorized entire lines by Tupac and Biggie like they were from Compton instead of straight outta Petach Tikvah; the quiet Druze who scoffed at them because he was a violinist who believed, fervently, that rap was noise and Dvorak was king; the Baku-born dude who boasted that the only way to solve the conflict with the Palestinians was to put guys like him in charge because his family had lived among Muslims for decades and had never had any problems; the troublemaker who saw no contradiction between the yarmulke on his head and his abiding love for pranks, practical jokes, and other sophomoric pleasures; the pale weirdo from a wealthy suburb of Tel Aviv who missed his computer like the rest of us missed our girlfriends. These were my new friends, and as we were getting to know each other, the tent flap flew open and our new commanding officer stormed in and demanded we jump to attention. Her name was Esty.
And so, yeah, sure, I know: Ethiopians are still likely to face considerable bias, and Israeli women, like their counterparts in America, Europe, and elsewhere in the world, still face a maddening wage gap. Israeli Arabs are still struggling with real and often systemic discrimination, and it’s still perfectly acceptable for an educated and cultured secular Israeli to speak of an Orthodox Israeli in terms that would’ve made the copy editor at Der Sturmer blush. None of these are marks of the beast; they are all indications that Israel, like every other imperfect modern democracy—which, really, is all of them—is struggling with gargantuan challenges and doing its best to forge a more just and more welcoming society even as violence within and without threatens to overwhelm it.
But as they struggle for equality, Israelis have an ace in the hole that others do not: Israelis have weapons, and they are trained to use them by their government.
As Commander Esty concluded her initial welcoming speech—which was neither a real speech nor, as you know if you’ve ever watched any movie about military basic training, particularly welcoming—she took us to a squat concrete building where each of us was assigned an M16, still dripping with grease. For the next four weeks, we learned everything there is to know about our rifle: how to take it apart, blindfolded, and put it together again in seconds; how to clean it and how to fix it when it jammed; how to shoot it while standing, sitting, lying down or running around. It didn’t take much more than two or three visits to the firing range to turn our band of misfits into something like a cohesive platoon whose members truly respected each other. That’s because with guns in hand, we were so evidently and so beautifully equal.
This may sound appalling to those who’ve come to think of guns as satanic, many of whom, sadly, have never had the pleasure of feeling the rattle of a semiautomatic charge their body with its furious pulse. But stop to think about it plainly for a moment, and you’ll realize what all of us realized in Bahad Arba that August decades ago, and what every Israeli realizes as soon as he or she begins their mandatory military service: Whatever inference you were going to make about the person standing beside you based on their gender, skin color, creed, or sexual orientation is going to change dramatically when that person is casually tapping on a shiny, oily, combat-worn M16.
Do you want to be a sexist pig and make some lewd remark about that gorgeous brunette right there? Sure thing, just keep in mind that she may be a well-trained warrior capable of separating you from your limbs in three graceful steps. Are you a homophobic asshole? That’s cool, until you look around you and realize that three or four of the fiercest fighters you know have boyfriends or husbands, which kind of makes any benighted bullshit you might’ve believed about gay men and masculinity fly right out the window. The army doesn’t rectify all of society’s ills or eliminate all human prejudices. But it does force us all into the same sweltering big tent and then gives each of us a gun and an opportunity to feel just as powerful and capable and important as any other person.
That’s why the young Ethiopian man beaten to a pulp in Jerusalem by police officers who might very well have been racists decided that the best way to stand up to the bigotry he’d faced was to become an IDF officer. It’s also why more and more Israeli Arabs are choosing to reject Palestinian rejectionism—an ideology that doesn’t so much care to define its own values and aspirations as it does to push back against any attempt at normal life side by side with the Jews—and join the IDF instead. These brave souls often risk the chastisement of their community—just ask Major Alaa Waheeb, who spoke almost no Hebrew before he decided to enlist and who was called a traitor or worse once he’d put on the dark green uniform—but they rarely have a hard time explaining their decision. The IDF, they know, is not only the clearest path to full integration in Israeli society, it’s also an opportunity, nearly unheard of in the region, to take up arms in defense of the principles of an open democratic society. And while the road can be a bumpy one, it sure beats anything that Syria, where Major Waheeb’s father was born, has to offer.
Far away from the realities of Israeli life, American Jews who disown Israel and embrace Black Lives Matter in order to demonstrate their liberal cred or simply in the hope of doing the right thing by a fellow minority are not necessarily bad people. But here’s what they, and everybody else, must understand: The Black Lives Matter movement is full of racists–people who embrace the particularly ugly, conspiratorial, and long-lived form of bigotry directed against Jews. There is simply no other way to explain why its platform mentions Israel by name 11 times and demands that the United States divest from Israel but not from, say, Pakistan, another recipient of massive American aid and a nation whose totalitarian military regime frequently abuses civil and human rights giddily and without so much as a peep from American liberals. And if you embrace racism against Jews, you are not taking a hit or two in order to help some larger fight against “real” racism: You are encouraging racists in their promotion of racism, which, if you’re Jewish, also happens to be directed at yourself and your family.
Because here’s the thing: There is no such thing, logically, morally, or historically, as anti-racist racism. That’s not a movement that anyone can join without simply becoming a racist, and licensing whatever horrors your fellow racists will perpetrate in your name under the mantle of “historical justice.” The fact that groups like Hamas also play an active and deadly role in the African slave trade is not an accident, but rather the logical outcome of an ideology that demonizes the other and that is devoted to nothing but its own genocidal zeal. Is that really going to make the world a better place?
So if you really believe that black lives matter—or, for that matter, the lives of women or gays or religious minorities matter—then stand up for what you believe in, and embrace the nation that promotes multicultural values better than any other Western country, through the sacred and shared burden of self-defense. Cheer for the state that gives its black citizens—and gay and Arab and female and transgender citizens and everyone else—a gun and excellent training in how to use it. Zionism may be the national liberation movement of the Jewish people, but an M16, like justice, is for all.