On the surface of things, Moriel Rothman-Zecher is very similar to the protagonist of his debut novel, Sadness Is a White Bird. Both he and his character, Jonathan, were born in Israel, yet both spent most of their lives living in America. Both moved back to a northern Israeli Jewish town at the age of 16 to finish high school and prepare to join the military—something almost all Jewish and Druze Israelis must do at the age of 18. “While I don't see the book any more as an autobiographical sketch,” Rothman-Zecher says, “the timeline of Jonathan's life very much mirrors my own.” There is however, one major point of divergence: Jonathan enlists in the Israeli military, and Rothman-Zecher never did.
The parallels between their lives is very much intentional, and very natural given the genesis of the story. Initially, Rothman-Zecher conceived of this project as a non-fictional account of his own experience. After deferring enlistment in order to spend time studying in the United States, and then after experiencing the 2008-9 war between Israel and Gaza from abroad, he decided to publicly refuse to enlist. As a result, he spent a short time in military prison. While it is more common today to see Israelis, especially from among the left-wing, refuse to serve, it’s still an infrequent occurrence, and tends to elicit quite visceral reactions—the culture and ethos of the Israeli Defense Force is deeply embedded in all aspects of Israeli society, and refusing to serve is seen by many as a betrayal of the state and the Jewish people. Yet despite his passionate beliefs surrounding the conflict and the military, Rothman-Zecher says that, as his non-fictional account progressed, it felt hollow.
“Then I came to this question,” he says. “What if a few things had been different? Were it not for a few random events in my life, I would have enlisted. I was like everyone else. I was like all of my friends. I was excited. It was exciting to talk about which color berets looked the sexiest, how fast you needed to run to get into a certain unit—and yeah sure, I was also liberal, I was also generally supportive of the Palestinians and generally thought they should have freedom and justice and rights, generally supportive of the two-state solution. But it felt like two entirely different issues. There was the issue of joining the military on the one hand, and the issue of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict on the other.”
Eventually, it was the question about relationships with Palestinians that would come to lie at the heart of Rothman-Zecher’s novel. On the verge of entering the military, Jonathan befriends twins Laith and Nimreen. They smoke joints on the beach, they talk poetry and they go on hikes. For Jonathan, his relationship with them is increasingly marked by the confusing interplay of friendship and lust and love.
Laith and Nimreen are Palestinian, but they’re Palestinian citizens of Israel. On paper, all three can vote in the same elections and travel to the same places. But despite everything they share, despite their feelings for each other, the odds are stacked against them, because Jonathan is Jewish, and Laith and Nimreen are Palestinian, and they live in a world defined by the conflict between their peoples.
“I went into this book not knowing whether genuine love and friendship is enough in the face of all the history, and the politics, and the realities pulling people apart in Israel and Palestine,” Rothman-Zecher says. “I neither started nor ended with an answer, and that's something I'm actually really excited about, to hear from others what answers they came to or what questions they came away with.”
In the course of writing his novel, Rothman-Zecher had a lot of time to reflect on his own decisions, to take a closer look at some of the truths he once saw as immutable. He doesn’t regret his decision to refuse. But one big question, for both Rothman-Zecher and Jonathan, is the idea that a moral and self-aware soldier would be able to mitigate the worst effects of the Israeli occupation.
“When I decided to refuse, I made the decision that that's not true,” Rothman-Zecher says. “People told me, ‘Look, you speak Arabic, you don't hate Palestinians, you could be the one who makes things easier, who makes sure your comrades aren't acting out of line.’ And I made the decision not to believe that. At the end of the day, you're still serving, and your intentions don't matter. But when I thought about it, when I really zoomed back from myself, I think I came to the conclusion that, I'm not sure. I think that's what I believe, but maybe that's not true. Maybe there are circumstances where the moral soldier could step in. It was a relief to be able to write the complexities of that question without giving a blow-off answer or a super self-assured answer. Because, like with so much about this conflict, I don’t think I know what the absolute truth is. I’d be skeptical of anyone who said they did.”
James McDonald is a British-trained historian and a New York–based writer.