- Joel Carmel was raised in London’s Jewish community. He was passionately committed to defending Israel from its many critics, whom he believed were biased and did not grasp the constant threats to its security from the Arabian world.
- He went to Israel as soon as he could, joined the army, and rose to the rank of second lieutenant. He served in the West Bank territories, which Israel occupied after the Six-Day War in 1967.
- The West Bank is home to 2.8 million Palestinians, as well as more than 500,000 Jews, who are often described as settlers.
- When he witnessed the occupation as a soldier, he said he came to realize that Israel’s policies were as much a force for violence as the terrorism it was supposed to prevent.
- Carmel said he left the army determined to prove that “you can be a patriotic Israeli and criticize the occupation.”
- He now works with Breaking the Silence, an organization of military veterans that says it hopes to show the Israeli public what daily life is like for Palestinians living under the occupation.
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As a teenager growing up in the comfortable suburbs of north London, the heartland of the British Jewish community, Joel Carmel had a singular passion: defending Israel against its critics.
“My synagogue, my youth movement, my school were all Zionist organizations. Zionism meant not just Israel has the right to exist but actively defending Israel,” he said.
In this bubble, all of Israel’s critics were biased, Carmel, the son of a rabbi, said.
“Everyone was against us. Everything in the MSM was anti-Israel, and we had a responsibility to show the other side,” he said. “That meant saying what Israel did was always a security issue and Israel had to do whatever it had to defend itself.”
Carmel became a young zealot for Zion – a prodigy of pro-Israel campaigning. Passionate and articulate, he won a communal “Apprentice”-style competition – the Ambassador’s Prize, which recognized his talent for defending Israel.
At 18, Carmel relinquished his place at a British university, made “aliyah” to Israel (aliyah, which means “return,” is imbued with deep spiritual and nationalistic connotations), and joined the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) soon after.
“It wasn’t because I wanted to be a soldier. I wanted to be an Israeli and to do what everyone else did. I wanted to be useful,” he said.
Indeed, the soldier’s life did not come naturally to Carmel, he said.
“Most of the young Israelis were very excited about picking up a gun because it’s cool. I hated it. I didn’t like the smell of gunpowder, and it was nerve-racking to hold this weapon,” he said.
But ever the high achiever, he was selected for officer training. He learned he would be posted at COGAT – the acronym for Israel’s military bureaucracy,the Coordination of Government Activities in the Territories. Carmel described it as the “shadow government” that Israel built to rule the West Bank, which is home to 2.8 million Palestinians and was captured from Jordan in the Six-Day War in 1967.
Since then, more than 500,000 Jews have gone to live in the territory and build often controversial settlements.
“I wanted to be the moral soldier. I believed I could be that soldier who gives the Palestinians good service – service with a smile,” Carmel said. “Later I realized you could be as smiley as you like. You could give Palestinian children sweets, but ultimately, you control their lives with military power.”
During his officer training, he said his doubts about the occupation began to crystallize.
One morning at a Bethlehem, West Bank, crossing point, where Palestinian workers gathered to gain entry into Israel, Carmel said he witnessed an upsetting scene.
“You’ve just got to be there to feel it,” he said. “Thousands of young Palestinian men crushed into tunnel cages on the way to the security check. People forced to climb on top of one another – that was when I started to think, ‘There’s something wrong here.'”
He said another critical moment for him was a visit for the young officers to the mosque at the Caves of the Patriarchs, in Hebron, a city south of Jerusalem. It is believed to house the graves of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and both Muslims and Jews treasure the shrine. There is also a synagogue on the site.
When Carmel and his fellow trainee officers arrived, he said he was shocked when they did not remove their shoes to pay even minimal respect to Muslim beliefs.
“I was tramping around in my military boots in their mosque,” he said.
Once he was a freshly minted second lieutenant in the IDF, he was assigned to the Jenin district of COGAT. His job was issuing travel permits to Palestinians who wanted to enter Israel to visit family or hospitals. There, businessmen were given priority over the “regular people,” he said. As a young officer, he controlled the freedom of movement of tens of thousands of people.
His work was stressful and had Big Brother overtones, he said. The permit-application process required Palestinians to provide exhaustive biographical information, he said.
“It was part of Israel’s effort to control – we had to know everything,” he added.
‘They are people’
When he was assigned the role, he was excited at the opportunity to learn Arabic. But he said his language skills never went beyond issuing military orders: “‘Stop. Hold up your hands. Leave the room. Enter the room.’ No social context – just instructions.”
The workload was heavy. He processed hundreds of travel-permit applications a day. But he got to know his opposite numbers in the Palestinian National Authority – they were like him, he said: young overworked petty bureaucrats trying to keep their bosses happy.
“That was a humanizing experience for me,” he said. “‘They all want to kill us’; that’s something you hear in Israel. But as an officer in the Jenin district, I met loads of Palestinians daily. I realized that just isn’t true. They are people.”
After two years, Carmel said his doubts were magnified. The occupation as a defense against Palestinian terrorists was one dimension of what he witnessed, he said, adding that humiliating and instilling fear into Palestinians was another.
The night of the “mapping operation” was to be his epiphany.
He said he rode along to a Palestinian village in an IDF jeep and watched the driver strike the trash cans outside each home, leaving a trail of stinking rubbish and rotting vegetables in the street.
They burst into the home of a Palestinian family, he said. As the bleary-eyed parents and children were guarded by the heavily armed soldiers, others rifled through their draws and cupboards. Carmel said he tried to smile at a small Palestinian boy, but he just glared back. The search revealed nothing – they rarely do, according to Carmel – and it had no military objectives, he said.
As the soldiers exited the village, Palestinians on rooftops threw paint bombs at their jeeps, he said, adding that an Israeli soldier stuck his gun out the window and fired rubber-tipped bullets wildly.
“That was the moment I realized I wanted to get out of the army. I didn’t want to be doing something that I viewed as immoral,” he said.
“We are punishing people who haven’t done anything,” he added. “Yes, there is terror, and some people are very threatening to us. But the occupation is a system of constant violence.”
The army learned lessons from Carmel
Carmel’s next move risked a prison sentence. Refusing to follow an order was a severe military crime, but it was a price he was willing to pay.
He wrote a letter to his commanding officer.
“I genuinely felt at the time that by being at such odds, ideologically, with the establishment and the unit I was in, it affected me emotionally and severely limited my ability to do my job to the best of my ability,” he said. “That being the case, I was worried about the impact that would have on the tens of thousands of Palestinians whose freedom of movement I controlled, and who ultimately would be the ones to suffer most.”
After a series of meetings with the top brass and a lot of yelling, he was shunted to a nonjob to finish his service, he said.
“When I left I realized that even if I had been the chief of staff, there was nothing I could do. The instructions come from the government. It’s a political decision,” Carmel said.
But he did achieve one unexpected change. After his service finished, he became a case study for trainee officers.
He said a lecture was “dedicated to that ‘crazy soldier.'”
“They brought up on the screen the letter I wrote to my commander. The purpose was to weed out people who might have a moral objection. I had been a huge waste of resources for the army. The army learned lessons from me,” he said.
Carmel eventually went to university in Jerusalem, married, and now works for Breaking the Silence. According to its mission statement, it is “an organization of veterans who have served in the Israeli military who have taken it upon themselves to expose the Israeli public to the reality of everyday life in the Occupied Territories.”
“Israelis love their soldiers, and it’s difficult stuff to hear from us: ‘We experienced those things because we were sent by you, the people, to oppress other people in your name,'” he said.
Many would rather not listen, according to Carmel. He and his colleagues are often called liars and traitors, he said.
Now 28, Carmel is the father of a baby girl. The occupation is in its 54th year, and the thought she could be called upon to defend it in the 75th fills him with dread.
“There’s this old Israeli mantra: We do what we do so our kids won’t have to serve in the army. It gives me hope that many good people are fighting for this cause and people are listening to us,” he said. “I’d rather be that father than the father who tries to ignore it and find my daughter in the army one day.”
Carmel’s life has been a journey through ideology and conflict. When he reflected on his days as a young firebrand for a could-do-no-wrong Israel, he said he’d have some advice for his younger self.
“I would say do some more reading. That would have helped me understand that every criticism of Israel is not an attack on its right to exist,” he said. “You can be a patriotic Israeli and criticize the occupation. It would have changed things in my life if I had known that then.”