When You Have to Shoot

Asher Kravitz wrote `I, Mustafa Rabbinovitch' about a sniper in an undercover unit who vows not to kill. Kravitz himself, however, is far less of a pacifist.

Avihai Becker
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Avihai Becker

The phone call between Asher Kravitz and the researcher from the morning television program was quite cordial. The two had already agreed that Kravitz would appear on the program to talk about his new book, when Kravitz happened to mention that it is not 100 percent autobiographical. Unlike the hero, he, for example, was never a sniper in the Israel Defense Forces' undercover Duvdevan unit. The tone of the researcher on the other end of the line turned angry and reprimanding.

"I naively thought that media people have a certain degree of intelligence," Kravitz says. "They probably read a number of books, from which they understood - allow me to cite some big names - that just because Nabokov wrote `Lolita' doesn't necessarily mean that he himself had intercourse with underage girls, or that Tolkien didn't raise hobbits in his backyard, or even that our own A.B. Yehoshua, the author of `The Lover,' never fixed a carburetor, yet he does an amazing job of describing an Arab garage mechanic."

The interview was canceled.

At the center of "I, Mustafa Rabbinovitch" (published by Hakibbutz Hameuchad, Hebrew), which is related in the first person, Kravitz presents a paradox: a sniper who takes a vow not to kill. "I don't want to have it on my conscience that I cut short the life of another person, who according to the best of the sources I know, was created in God's image," the book's protagonist says. "In principle, it doesn't sound so hard to uphold the vow. How many of us have killed anyone recently? ... Most people would find it very easy to keep a vow of that kind. Not me. That's how it is when you're a fighter in Duvdevan."

In the beginning of the book, the hero, who is well disguised, is on the roof of a house on the outskirts of the town of Tubas, in the West Bank. He is waiting for a door to open, through which will emerge the top figure that most recently joined the list of wanted individuals targeted for assassination - a Palestinian who is responsible for a large number of horrific terrorist attacks.

"I am the man behind the trigger. The middle joint of my right finger seals people's fate," the first-person narrator says. "My name is Yair Rabbinovitch. At any rate, that's my original name. Now I have been given the nickname `Mustafa.' I am Mustafa Rabbinovitch."

A minute has gone by. The wanted man has at last left the house. "I count to myself: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5. His face is clearly visible through the telescopic lens. I raise the barrel. Now his arm is in the center of the crosshairs. I shoot. An accurate hit. He falls, he stretches his neck and he rubs his shattered elbow in agony. I shoot again and hit his ankle."

The vow is not violated. Mustafa Rabbinovitch has chosen to shoot to wound - not to kill, as he has been ordered. Surprisingly, the army debriefing goes by without any problems. The commanding officers don't doubt Rabbinovitch's marksmanship skills, not to mention his motives. The failure to kill the Palestinian is explained in terms of the location of the ambush, which ostensibly was not ideal, on top of which the rifle supposedly malfunctioned somehow.

One operation follows the next and Rabbinovitch perfects his ability to refrain from killing, raising it to the level of an art: "After an exhausting pursuit of no less than 700 meters I managed to get just a few steps away from him. Huffing and puffing from the effort, I pulled out the pistol. I held my breath, aimed at his legs and pulled the trigger."

`The little Mahatma'

Kravitz, 34, has woven a fascinating plot that is informed not only by the theme of the morality of war but also contains love, mystery and awakening. "I, Mustafa Rabbinovitch" is his third book. The first two, "Magic Square" (2000) and "Boomerang" (2002), drew little notice. The new novel has already attracted more attention, and not only because of its striking title.

"You want to know the book's genesis? It originated in my encounter as a combat soldier who spent a lot of time in the territories with religious guys from the Duvdevan unit, with whom I grew up in a youth movement. Suddenly, to my amazement, I spot them dressed up in a variety of strange disguises which, for reasons of field security, I will not reveal. As far as I am concerned, you can write that they are dressed like circus clowns - which won't be far from the truth."

Kravitz spent his childhood in the Orthodox Bayit Vegan neighborhood of Jerusalem and his adolescence in the French Hill neighborhood in the city's eastern part, which was annexed after the 1967 war. His parents met as students in the Bible Studies Department of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. When they married they decided that they would lead a "way of life that would be traditional-plus. The house was permeated with the Bible and I was brought up according to a verse in Zechariah: `Not by might, nor by power, but by my spirit.' My parents tell me that as a boy, when I saw violence on television, I, the little Mahatma Gandhi, barely two, would rush over and shut off the set."

And today?

Kravitz: "Today I am no longer Mahatma Gandhi. I absolutely do not identify with the people who frequent cafs and run the country from Sheinkin [a trendy Tel Aviv street], or with the different types of refuseniks, who decline to serve or with those who evade reserve duty. I continue to serve and to carry out my obligations, mainly because I have a lot of good friends there whom I wouldn't want to see having to do more hours on guard duty just because I didn't feel like showing up. I also think that the right to express any sort of opinion obliges an intelligent person to come and see first-hand who's against who. To spend a little time in settlements, to get to know the [Palestinian] villages a little - I won't deny that this entails something of an adventurist spirit, too. I'm going to stay home when there's finally a little action in the field?"

Kravitz is a graduate of the religious educational system - from Nezer David during the early grades, to the trauma of Kiryat Noar, a high school yeshiva that draws its inspiration from the ultra-Orthodox Shas movement, which Kravitz describes as "the ultimate immunization against becoming religious." During his time there, he says, he was too young to formulate in words the feeling the school aroused in him.

"Today, as an adult, I realize that I felt total revulsion there. I think there is nothing more disgusting than the `Rafsanjani and Khatami' version of the precious Judaism that I imbibed in my father's house."

During his high school years he took up judo and developed a habit of walking through Palestinian neighborhoods in Jerusalem - Shuafat, Issawiya and their surroundings - on his own. "I mixed with the population, I sat in the cafs and played backgammon - and I always lost. True, what I did bordered on the irresponsible, but back then - well before the first intifada - the situation was very relaxed. You could still communicate without knives." Brimming with self-confidence, he began to take with him some charming female from Bnei Akiva, the national-religious youth movement, whom he wanted to impress.

His wanderings in the Palestinian neighborhoods and villages are evoked in the new novel. His protagonist's fondness for Arabic also has its roots in the author's life: "In the `window' between the end of my high school studies and the draft, I took a course in spoken Arabic at the university. I was utterly enthralled by the language," Kravitz relates. "The script fascinated me, along with the sound of the language and its pathos. I really got into it. I devoted every spare moment I had in the army to practicing Arabic."

Childhood dream

In 1987, Kravitz was inducted into the Armored Corps. The first intifada erupted as he completed his basic training, and the new recruits were sent to Bethlehem. He served in the commando unit of the 7th Brigade and was removed from an officers' training course just before the end because of a breach of discipline.

"The frivolity I displayed bordered on idiocy," he says. "The straw that broke the camel's back came on the last Shabbat of the course, when I was caught in the office of the base commander with my legs on his desk, making phone calls."

Toward the end of his army service he became an instructor in hand-to-hand combat. After his discharge he took physics in university. Kravitz says he has a deep love for physics. "I read physics books for my pleasure," he says. "When I go on vacation I take with me a book about physics to pamper myself with and to open my mind - some quantum, some lasers, some relativity. For me, this is a delight."

He received his bachelor's degree from Hebrew University and the second from the Technion - Israel Institute of Technology in Haifa. He specialized in physics of the atmosphere and its relation to bird migration. At the same time he also obtained a pilot's license, and as though all this was not enough, enrolled for M.A.-level studies in Talmud, having a yen to go back to the sources after removing his skullcap for good. However, he soon abandoned Talmud, not because of lack of interest but because he came to the conclusion that if he ever produced a doctoral thesis "about some sort of text from the Genizah [referring to rare documents that were hidden in storerooms], at best maybe five righteous people will read it."

At this stage of his development, Kravitz decided to realize another childhood dream and become a policeman who eradicates evil. To his delight, he was accepted to the spearhead of the force - the National Unit for the Investigation of Aggravated Crime. In 1996 and 1997 he was involved, as a cog in the machine, in the interrogations of Uzi Meshulam [a rabble-rouser who demanded that the state investigate the alleged disappearance of Yemenite children in Israel in the early 1950s] and of members of the Russian mafia. All told, though, he was disappointed with what he found.

"I walked around with a feeling of terrible disappointment. I say this with a great deal of pain, because I don't usually `spit in the well I have drunk from,' but the truth cannot be blurred. The personnel there for the most part are not capable of waging an effective war [against crime]. Much of the energy is devoted to internal struggles instead of to dealing with external targets. The system as I found it was worn down. The only creativity I came across was on the part of the criminals."

The feeling of frustration, together with a personal crisis generated by the breakup of his marriage, led to a premature departure from the police force. Since then, Kravitz has been teaching mathematics and physics, currently at the Academic College of Engineering in Jerusalem and the Open University in Tel Aviv.

Working with his hands

Although the book is set against the background of the Duvdevan unit in 2003, Kravitz reveals in it much about himself and his experience during the first intifada as a soldier in the regular army. This may also be why he doesn't feel the need to be precise about small details.

"I didn't do thorough research," he says. "After all, it's not a documentary story. So I didn't feel an abiding need to be precise about every small thing, from the way the soldiers lace their boots to the exact length in millimeters of a certain cartridge," he explains, in response to comments that have already been made about technical inaccuracies.

"Some of the events happened to me personally, from my first day in uniform to the present time in the reserves. I also added stories I heard from friends, from students and from soldiers I happen to sit next to on the bus, and on top of that I used my imagination. And I crammed all that into a plot about a protagonist in conflict.

One incident that Kravitz recalls: "When I was a cadet in a platoon commanders' course, our group was sent to Gaza. One day a group of second lieutenants and sergeants got together, and on the pretext of dealing with a suspicious vehicle, the group impounded a Renault commercial van from a local driver. They also took his ID card and his license, and after completing their duties, in high spirits, they took off in the van to have a good time in Ashkelon. They each had a few beers and ate a spectacular sandwich, and at night set out on their way back to the base. At this point they started to be concerned that the owner of the van would file a complaint against them to the Civil Administration, which could lead to prison or removal from the unit. Luckily for them, they found a Palestinian flag - which at that time was still outlawed - in the glove compartment. Right away they figured out how to get out of the entanglement."

Their creative solution was to park the van next to the house from which it had been taken and to spread the flag across the whole front windshield, held in place by the wipers. The implicit albeit unsubtle hint: `If you don't say anything, neither will we.'

"The unit's reaction to the event took the form of a lot of laughs and backslapping. After all, this wasn't some hair-raising episode involving a herd of Cossacks, who rape and plunder everything in their path. But I felt that it was precisely the banality of the event that furnished proof of the tremendous power possessed by these 19-year-old kids, wandering around Gaza like the lords of the land, and to the wrongs and injustices those feelings can lead to."

Another recollection from Gaza: "We are standing in formation ahead of going out to break up demonstrations. The company commander is checking the soldiers' equipment. He goes to one guy from the Nahal [paramilitary brigade] who was with us in the course, and asks, `Where's your billy club, kid?' He replies, `I won't use a club. I'm not willing to be a brute.' My guts turned over. Never in my life had I ever heard anything so sharp. A minute later, the company commander comes up to me: `Well, what about you, Kravitz?' I knew that if I were to brandish a club, I would feel like a lowlife. `I work with my hands,' I explained. He liked that so much that he left me and went on to the next soldier. Ever since, I was stigmatized as Conan the Barbarian, for whom a club is beneath his dignity - though in the field I was quite determined to prove that I know how to work."

"Knowing how to work," in fact, meant unnecessary aggression. "When I had to defend myself I didn't hesitate, but when it came to sheer violence against wretched people, I absolutely avoided that. I wasn't very brave, I have to admit. Maybe my cowardice found expression in the fact that I didn't do anything except keep my hands in my pockets. Unfortunately, I didn't have the courage to stop the excesses of others."

Thirst for blood

During his period with the Israel Police, Kravitz again found elegant ways to avoid using force. At the time of the riots that broke out after the opening of the Western Wall tunnel in the fall of 1996, he was a cadet in the police force, and the cadets were rushed to Jerusalem to help suppress the demonstrations.

"A tacit understanding was created between me and the course commander that they would not make me run about with a club, and in return for that, I would document the events with a video camera. The camera furnished me with the perfect alibi."

The camera also furnished him with a hobby that became increasingly professionalized. He has an album of spectacular aerial photographs that he took, as well as equally spectacular images that he captured during his travels in Africa: Madagascar, Kenya, Morocco, Swaziland, Botswana and Somalia. He has also toured Greenland and Turkey, and next month he is going to Panama on a photographic mission.

Kravitz's fondness for animals is apparent on nearly every page of his new novel. In the interview, too, the subject comes up within the first 10 minutes. He has also been a vegetarian for the past six years.

"This may sound pretentious, but in the society in which I grew up, we always saw ourselves as a `light unto the gentiles' and as moral exemplars - yet it's not happening. Allow me to leapfrog to another, supposedly unrelated, subject. If you saw the pamphlet of the Geneva Accord, [the writer] David Grossman has an introduction entitled `The Life We Deserve to Live.' This isn't pleasant for me to say, but the painful truth is that according to our behavior, we don't deserve any sort of better life. The corruption in politics, the way we treat the foreign workers, the profiteering crime organizations, the cruelty to animals - the list is endless. We have become a huge conglomeration of a slaughterhouse and a brothel, and even though I don't hold with the concept of reward and punishment, and I am certainly not God's advocate, I say that what we are experiencing now is exactly the life we deserve based on our behavior as a society."

Here Kravitz feels the need to add, by way of balance, criticism of the Palestinians: "In order not to come across as a tormented Jew, I say with regret that our cousins across the Green Line are in no way more saintly than we are. I happened to be present when a father turned himself in, holding a bloodstained knife after murdering his daughter because she had dishonored the family name. He didn't even blink."

And he has other testimonies in this connection: "I saw the results of the killing of collaborators [with the Israeli forces] who ended up with their dick stuffed into their mouth by the `shock committees,' or who had their ears cut off. Cruelty of that kind does not exist in Israeli society. For the Palestinians, the direct contact with blood is part of the routine way of life of infants. The attitude toward blood is one of equanimity. That thirst for blood is something I cannot deny, despite my yearning for peace. Does that extend to all of them? Heaven forbid. At the same time, the phenomenon is very widespread and is a factor that, in itself, distances the prospects of a solution to the confrontation."

The novel, too, doesn't set forth its themes in unequivocal, black-and-white, fashion. Kravitz describes the search in a house in a Palestinian village. The only occupants of the house were an elderly couple, who barely moved.

"`Rip out floor tiles,' the commander ordered. We were five soldiers and we each had the same feeling: What in the hell are we doing here? We didn't know where to bury ourselves for shame. We didn't dare look up, we didn't dare look those two old people in the eye."

Then, looking beneath a pile of mattresses, they discover a bunker in which a well-known wanted person is hiding. "One minute you feel cruel and the next you deserve a medal," Kravitz sums up the eternal dilemma. Nevertheless, "if my cat and dog can live side by side, the Israelis and the Palestinians are capable of the same thing."

Praise and damnation

A stormy debate was waged on Y-Net, the Web site of the mass-circulation daily Yedioth Ahronoth, when "I, Mustafa Rabbinovitch" was presented there as the book of the week. Comments included, on the one hand: "As someone who has very little respect for left-wing writers, this time I have to admit that there is a great deal of truth between the lines"; "I have never before come across such a mature and businesslike handling of a unit that has been operating for years, but whose history remains untold"; "At long last you have given expression to the voice of contemporary agonizing religiosity: Indeed, not all religious people are obedient messianists or enjoy military service"; and, "Shocking. A moving style."

And, on the other hand: "Another book by a whining leftist. We can be sure that it will be a hit in North Tel Aviv and in the European Union"; "The writer is a true loser"; "You didn't notice the main point of the book, which is to reveal methods to the enemy, so they will be able to look out for themselves"; and, "Inferior writing."

Kravitz certainly anticipated reactions of this kind, both praise and damnation, but the fashion line that designer Tehila Mazal was inspired to come up with because of the book came as a complete surprise to him. She read the book, was impressed and, as usual, translated the text into textiles: Her "I, Mustafa Rabbinovitch" line of clothes combines the kaffiyeh with an olive-green uniform.

In the book, Kravitz addresses the dramatic moment when "a person takes a soul." If this happens in a situation in which the life of the killer is in no immediate danger, that will be a defining moment for him: His life will be split into what happened before and what happened after the event.

"The sniper I deal with [in the book], who is not yet 20, is not a 34-year-old writer and has not been awarded the Israel Prize in philosophy, so it's difficult for him to verbalize the thoughts and hesitations that are whirling through his mind. I took it on myself to be his mouthpiece. He is an unusual person, not the typical sniper who does the job as a matter of course because it's a lot of fun. So I thought he deserved to be written about."

Yet, even though he is the voice of the agonizing soldier, Kravitz gives his protagonist, Mustafa Rabbinovitch, a scene in which he breaks his vow of not killing and prevents a major disaster.

"My hope is that the book will make people think twice," Kravitz says. "It's fine by me if they reach conclusions that are the opposite of mine - the main thing is that they should not remain indifferent."

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