Conscientious Objector Puts Himself in an Israeli Soldier’s Boots in New Book

Debut novel by anti-occupation activist Moriel Rothman-Zecher reflects life in a 'broken place' and charts the fragile relationship between an IDF soldier and Palestinian twins

Andrew Esensten
Andrew Esensten
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Moriel Rothman-Zecher, an anti-occupation activist whose newly published debut novel is called “Sadness Is a White Bird,” February 2018.
Rothman-Zecher. “What if I could write a book about what almost happened, but didn’t?” he recalled thinking.Credit: Joanna Eldredge Morrissey
Andrew Esensten
Andrew Esensten

Moriel Rothman-Zecher was fasting on Yom Kippur in 2015 when he had a moment of clarity. The nonfiction book he was writing about his experiences as an anti-occupation activist in Israel – including his stint in a military jail in 2012 for refusing to enlist in the army – no longer felt urgent. A new idea had taken hold: He should write a novel about an American Israeli not unlike himself, except this young man would join an Israel Defense Forces combat unit at age 18.

“What if I could write a book about what almost happened, but didn’t?” he recalled thinking to himself. “I didn’t know if I could do it, but I had this clear feeling that this is what I needed to be writing.”

Although he had never published a work of fiction before, or served in the IDF for that matter, Rothman-Zecher set to work. Within two months, he had produced a draft of over 100,000 words.

His just-published debut novel, titled “Sadness Is a White Bird” (Atria Books), charts the intense but fragile friendship between Jonathan (or Yonatan, as his fellow soldiers call him) and Laith and Nimreen, Palestinian twins and students at the University of Haifa. Full of Hebrew and Arabic dialogue in transliteration (and translation), the book has already earned admiring reviews from literary luminaries like Michael Chabon and Geraldine Brooks, who praised its “thoroughly original insights into the holy and the broken place that is modern Israel.”

For the 28-year-old Rothman-Zecher, that holy and broken place has been his home for nearly half his life.

Moriel Rothman-Zecher's just-published debut novel. "Someone with Mori’s gifts should be doing nothing but writing and social justice work," says writer Ayelet Waldman. Credit: Atria Books

Born in Jerusalem to American immigrants, he spent part of his childhood in the Jewish wilderness of Yellow Springs, Ohio. After discovering the books of Leon Uris and the music of Israeli rap group Hadag Nahash around the time of his bar mitzvah, he decided that he needed to move back to Israel – with or without his parents and two younger siblings. His parents convinced him to wait a few years, and they all relocated to Zichron Yaakov before his last year of high school.

After graduating, he received a deferment from the IDF to attend Middlebury College, where he majored in political science and Arabic. (He called learning Arabic “one of the most radically, life-changing single things I’ve done.”)

Activist seeds

The seeds of his anti-occupation writing and activism, and by extension of his novel, were planted in 2008.

That summer, Rothman-Zecher spent a transformative month teaching English in Al-Bi’na, an Arab town in northern Israel. It was the first time he formed close relationships with Palestinians, and the experience shook up the “comfortable ideologies” he had embraced to that point.

“When someone is your friend, your host, your teacher, someone you interact with on a human level, it’s much harder to make a generalization ‘the Arabs are like this,’” he said in a recent phone interview from Yellow Springs, where he recently decided to resettle with his wife, Kayla, a human rights attorney.

He added: “Suddenly I had Palestinians who were closer friends than my Jewish friends. The whole idea of who are my people, who are in my inner circle and who are outside, got scrambled.”

(Rihan Titi, a high-school Arabic teacher and the patriarch of the family who hosted Rothman-Zecher in Al-Bi’na, wrote in an email that their friendship was “a model for brotherhood and solidarity between the nations.”)

Then, in December 2008, Israel launched a war against Hamas militants in the Gaza Strip that resulted in over 1,000 Palestinian casualties. “That was an immensely disorienting thing,” said Rothman-Zecher, of the death toll of the IDF's Operation Cast Lead.

Moriel Rothman-Zecher with Rihan and Maryam Titi and their children Credit: Shiraz Grinbaum

At college in Vermont, he decided to become involved with J Street U, the university wing of the NGO that calls itself a “pro-Israel, pro-peace” organization, and served as the head of its national student board.

Upon returning to Israel in 2011, he became active in leftist circles, attending demonstrations and posting political essays on his blog.

As for the decision to refuse to enlist in the army, Rothman-Zecher says he had agonized over it for years beforehand. (He believes he would have served had he not gone overseas for college.) In a 2015 op-ed in The New York Times, he explained that he “didn’t want to be part of a system whose main task is the violent occupation of millions of people.”

The piece prompted a backlash from Jewish readers who felt he was abdicating responsibility for protecting his homeland and, worse, showing disdain for those who had heeded the call to serve. “The main task of the IDF is to defend against those who would annihilate Israel,” one reader wrote in response. “He leaves it up to others to risk their lives in the defense of Israel.”

Rothman-Zecher said he saw his refusal to join the army as just another political action but conceded that he may have come across as too self-righteous in the op-ed. “I’ve never felt – not for a single day or minute – any judgment on Israelis who became combat soldiers and went to maintain the occupation,” he said. “I’m not better than them. I’m not more compassionate than them. I’m just luckier than them.”

Rising star

With his literary star on the rise, he was invited by Chabon and his wife, writer Ayelet Waldman, to work on an anthology they edited, "Kingdom of Olives and Ash: Writers Confront the Occupation.” He coordinated tours of the West Bank and East Jerusalem for prominent international writers while working in a freelance capacity for the anti-occupation group Breaking the Silence. He also helped Chabon and Waldman edit the collection, which was published last year.

Rothman-Zecher and Waldman first connected on Twitter, then hit it off after going on a hike together in Berkeley, California in 2014. She would later recommend him to an agent at her agency.

Waldman told Haaretz that she had been very impressed with Rothman-Zecher’s editing skills, but admitted that she feared the worst when he sent her the manuscript of his new novel: “This person whom I adore gave me this novel, and most novels are shitty, and this novel is going to be shitty. What am I going to do?” She loved it.

“When you read someone like that, your job is just to say, ‘Go forth,’” Waldman said. “Someone with Mori’s gifts should be doing nothing but writing and social justice work, if the world were a fair place.”

Rothman-Zecher is currently working on another novel and preparing for the birth of his first child in April. He also spends a lot of time running long distances, explaining that “It’s the way I keep sane.” It is also an important part of his writing process. He said he mentally revised the first page of “Sadness Is a White Bird” more than 100 times, often while running in the hills of Jerusalem. “It was a time for me to do a lot of wordsmithing and plotting,” he added.

Over the years, he has run several marathons and ultramarathons – races longer than standard marathon (about 42 kilometers) – including the 61-kilometer Sovev Emek Ultramarathon in Israel. This past Sunday, he ran a 50-mile trail race in Ohio in about 12 hours. In freezing rain. “It took a little longer than expected, but I finished with a smile,” he reported.

Writing, like running, requires perseverance, said the young author: “You keep going even if you feel awful, or miserable, or are doubting yourself. You keep going, taking step after step, writing word after word. Eventually you’ll get to where you need to go.”

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