Avner Gvaryahu is about the same age as me. But as a veteran combatant in the Israeli military, he seems older and wiser. He’s seen things; things that opened his eyes to the other side of the single story he had grown up with. A familiar story – a story which would have been much easier to live with.
I meet him on a trip to Israel with Christian Aid. We are sitting in a swanky restaurant in West Jerusalem. It feels a million miles away from the lunch I had shared with a Bedouin family living in the Judean desert earlier that day. It seems even further away from the day before when I had been standing in Ad Deirat in the South Hebron Hills, amid the rubble of a newly-demolished house belonging to a Palestinian father, his pregnant wife and their eight children.
From the age of 18, every Israeli is required to take part in compulsory military service – three years for men and two years for women.
It’s a rite of passage. It’s expected and it’s celebrated as an integral part of Jewish-Israeli life.
“I grew up in a society that was very religious,” Avner, 27, says. “My community is also the biggest fire behind the settler movement [ideologically-motivated communities built in East Jerusalem and the West Bank, dubbed illegal under international law].
“Among my friends, my school, it was very clear what views were the right views. It was very clear to me that I was going to join the army. My dad was a paratrooper, and I was named after a paratrooper who died in the Yom Kippur war.”
He joined the army in November 2004. “Still, today, with all my questions – that was one of the proudest moments of my life. Getting into a good unit in the Israeli army is like getting into a good university somewhere else.”
Like other Israelis his age, his military service took place during the Second Intifada – a sustained period of violence between Palestine and Israel which ended in 2005. It is thought that more than 1,000 Israelis and 3,000 Palestinians died during the conflict.
When you come face to face with war, when you play a part in it, you are bound to ask questions; questions about the nature of God, what it is to be human, and what it is that you are fighting for.
“I wanted to join the army in order to be that good soldier,” Avner says. “The good soldier at the checkpoint. The guy that would smile when the Palestinians pass by. If I had to enter a Palestinian house, I would try to do it nicely as far as possible. I wanted to be that good person in a bad situation.”
But Avner soon realised that it was impossible for him to come across as the good guy, for example, to Palestinian children for whom the military force was their only experience of Israelis. He realised that the story he had grown up with about the ‘other’ was not really true.
“Something about perspectives hit me,” he says. “I do not think Jewish settlers are evil. I know them. My uncle lives in a settlement. My cousin lives in an outpost. But the situation is wrong. And their perception of Palestinians is also of course not true.
“There are good people. There are bad people… But the system is bad.”
His story reminds me of the many people of our generation – the Millennials – who are leaving their parents’ faith, rejecting the stories we have grown up with in droves; whether evangelical, Zionist, or pro-Palestinian, because we realise we were only told one story.
We are a generation that has grown up in a plural society, where we live alongside the ‘other’, and are more open to hearing their stories.
“The religious Zionist community in which I grew up was closed-minded and lacking in diversity,” Avner says. “That’s probably why I never really felt connected to that community.”
He remains very much a Jew, and very much a nationalist, a lover of Israel.
“If there are groups that call for the destruction of Israel, then I do not have a conversation with them,” he says. “Because they are questioning my right to be here. And I don’t think it’s politically realistic because we’re supported by the biggest superpowers and have one of the strongest armies.
“But if there is criticism, and right criticism, we have to embrace it. It’s important for more groups that criticise Israel to come and make that very clear. This should not be about whether you are pro-Israel or pro-Palestine. You have to be pro-peace. I would imagine most people worldwide, even most of the Jewish community, would say they don’t want to continue occupation. Pro-Israel does not mean pro-occupation.”
Avner is part of Breaking the Silence – an organisation of veterans who raise awareness among the Israeli public of the reality of life in the Occupied Territories.
While conscription happens in Israel, 50 per cent of Israelis, including ultra-orthodox Jews, Palestinian Israelis and women in the religious Zionist community, do not actually go to the army. And of those that do, just eight per cent serve in the West Bank.
“This is a story of a generation. And it’s our generation that needs to talk about these things. Even in our generation, it’s a very small amount of people that know. Everything happening there is very distant from Israeli society. Most Jerusalemites see the separation barrier but they don’t know what the issues are. We manage to distance ourselves and separate ourselves.”
But ignorance is bliss, as they say. Many young Israelis would rather not hear about what’s happening. And in the West, many of us are too pre-occupied with the day-to-day of our own lives, in our own places, that global issues take a backseat.
Avner has lost some close friends over his speaking out. And he chooses not to speak with some of his friends and family about politics.
“Most people don’t want to hear. But my belief as a Jew is that I may have a historical or traditional right to be here, but Abraham had other sons. And besides that, we have a responsibility as Jews to make sure our neighbours that are poor and weak have the same rights as we have.”
For more information about Christian Aid’s Christmas appeal ‘Healing in this Holy Land’ or to make a donation, visit www.christian-aid.org/christmas or call 0207 523 2493.
Images by Christian Aid/Sarah Malian