March 6, 2022 • By Eitan Nechin
EVEN AT 73, my father can’t help being concerned. Our transatlantic conversations, which are not infrequent these days, often end up with me telling him he has done his duty.
But the man can’t help caring. He and my mother still go to demonstrations and remain active. They still lose sleep over the future of Israel. I would very much like to see my father less affected by the whims of the world. Though a part of me relates to his relentless vigilance, I worry about his incorrigible caring.
Political consciousness is important to my father. It’s almost biological, perfected by evolution over countless years. Like an inner ear: it keeps one’s balance.
My father still suffers from idealism, though — not the fleeting kind we stumble upon in our youth and can shed at will. His idealism has deep roots, guiding him to pursue a career in the Israel Defense Forces and then resign in protest. I thought of him, of course, when I sat in front of my own IDF release board.
My family has a long history of choosing between duty and defiance. Perhaps it started with our last name, which was born of a crime.
My great-great-great-grandfather was a thief of names. His original surname may have been Rabinovitch. He was born in a river town on the outskirts of the Russian Empire in the first decade of the 19th century. His future seemed to be sealed in 1827 when the Gendarme of Europe, the reactionary Russian Haman Nikolai I, issued the Ustav rekrutskoi povinnosti, an edict stating that any Jewish man over age 18 was to serve 25 years in the army.
Towns all across the Pale of Settlement became struck with terror. Families married off their teenage boys. Parents starved their children so they would be so malnourished they would be discharged. A mother would cut off her child’s index finger — if he couldn’t shoot, he wouldn’t be sent to the frontlines. Nonetheless, each community had to give their share of Jewish youth destined to be cannon fodder in the forests of Northern Europe, the first to charge the hills of Crimea.
Upper-class Jews could buy their way out of the martial life sentence, so the brunt of service fell on the lower rungs of Jewish society. Local community leaders had to draft lists of “non-useful” Jews: single young men, the poor, beggars, outcasts, orphans, secularists, heretics, and idlers. It’s safe to assume my great-great-great-grandfather fit the bill. Of course, none would go willingly. This led to the abominable phenomenon of the khapers: Jewish men who kidnapped poor Jewish boys and delivered them to the Cantonist officers to serve in kantonistskie uchebnye zavedenia (institutions for children). Tsar Nikolai I thought the army was the only genuinely educational institution for Jews. They would not only learn to become Russian but also pick up useful skills, and eventually they would become his loyal subjects.
There was, however, a hidden and more sinister agenda: Jews had always been outsiders or inorodtsy (“of different descent”). In an army united in uniform and ideology, being absorbed into the mother country meant getting rid of a religious identity. Many cadets eventually converted to Christianity: by embracing Jesus, they assured their place in the ranks of Russian society.
My ancestor may have found it odd that he had to serve under a tsar who despised his people. But his future had already been decided. There was only one thing to do. At 17 or 18, the young Rabinovitch fled from his home, leaving everything and everyone behind, including his name — this despite the 50-ruble reward for capturing an AWOL Jew.
Evading military service is part of a historically universal phenomenon. Mainstream society sees draft dodgers as cowards. That’s why it’s fitting that this phenomenon often included an illegal name change: these boys, like my great-great-great-grandfather, not only erased themselves from public records but also from history books.
After much wandering, he settled in Nizhyn, a town northeast of Kyiv, famed for its illustrious university alum, Gogol, and for its pickles. Perhaps, like a seed, he believed a new name would take root and grow. But with every generation, the family had to move down the Dnipro River, trying to outrace persecution, evading conscription into the Russian black hole of assimilation. At the end of the 19th century, it became fear of eradication by pogroms, which were carried out, in part, by soldiers who had bunked with Jews in the western barracks.
By the turn of the 20th century, they sailed from Ekaterinoslav to the United States. They must have rejoiced when they saw the first piece of land in weeks: New York. Emigration was not only about seeking future fortune but also about leaving a failure.
When my great-grandfather arrived at Ellis Island, he was asked his last name, but the immigration officer could not pronounce Slavic. The bureaucratic error became our name — it is etched on the marble memorial at Ellis Island, a corrupted version of the name of the city of pickles, Nechin.
Few people in Sutton, West Virginia, where my father grew up, could pronounce his last name. His family moved from New York after my grandfather got a job with the Army Corps of Engineers.
For a Jewish family, moving to the American backwoods was like immigrating to a new world all over again; it came with the promise of a better future, but it was also strange and unfamiliar. Only a generation before, Jews were confined to the Pale of Settlement, branded, and ostracized. In the United States, Jews suddenly enjoyed freedom of movement for the first time and were able to take an active part in society.
My grandfather, from a poor immigrant family, welcomed his draft card during World War II. Joining the army was a step toward assimilation. My grandfather and his brothers could prove direct loyalty to the country and go back to their ancestors’ land as liberators; they, whose families ran away from persecution, now had the power to free their brethren who were being exterminated in the camps. Putting on the uniform was like a shield, both on the front lines and back home; it was a garment of loyalty and shared sacrifice. It is no surprise that while on leave, my grandfather donned his dress uniform to marry my grandmother, who was a teacher in a school in Harlem.
My grandfather told my father that equality ebbs and flows. Jews were still not “white.” In the entrance to a public pool, my grandfather saw a sign: “No dogs, no Jews, no [n-word].” Yes, Jews in the United States were coming upon a crest of acceptance. But if societal seas became rough, they would be outcasts again. So apart from shaping Jewish life in this backwoods diaspora, my grandfather organized meetings with local Black communities to support their struggle against West Virginia’s segregationist system.
My father thought about becoming a law professor: a scholar of words and justice. Aiming high, he applied to Ivy League schools and was accepted to Dartmouth. But my grandparents couldn’t afford it, so my father asked for a referral letter to West Point from Representative Ken Hechler. One of a handful of Jewish cadets, he quickly excelled, making the dean’s list and mastering his language requirement, his ancestors’ native Russian, now a vital tool on the frontlines of the Cold War. He tried to maintain his Jewish practice, going to Shabbat services and participating in the choir.
The Army sent my father to Stanford University to continue his Russian studies and immerse himself in his grandfather’s tongue — now the language of the enemy. He began to feel a new weight on his shoulders: the country had drained itself of young men as they flew across the world to fight in the rice paddies and jungles of Vietnam. His university cohorts were spared; their monied backgrounds had allowed them to find refuge in Stanford’s halls. Instead, it was poor kids who were sent to the front lines, Black and brown kids, country kids –– kids just like the ones he’d played with on the streets of Washington Heights and studied with in Sutton, and kids just like his ancestors whose fates were sealed by poverty.
He took a seminar about Tolstoy’s War and Peace. Tolstoy argued against the Great Man theory, which argued that great leaders were the chief makers and movers of history. Instead, Tolstoy argued that history was an inevitable flow of small events, and only a person, any person, who understood this could effect change. This lesson coincided with the Jewish notion that every soul is unique: “Whoever saves one life, it is considered as if he saved an entire world.” But to my father, about to be shipped to Vietnam, the first part of the maxim held more weight: “Whoever destroys a soul, it is considered as if he destroyed an entire world.”
If he could save or destroy a world by his actions, he actually had a choice; he could do something by doing the opposite of what he was trained to do. My father soon became a leading antiwar voice on campus, believing –– perhaps naïvely –– that he could stay in the army and lead the fight from within the rank and file. My father joined the Concerned Officers Movement, a group of active-duty military personnel who had decided they could not be agents of an unjust system. They wrote in July 1970:
Many officers disagree with the Government’s policy in Vietnam but remain quiet to avoid controversy, flipping into apathy and counting the days until their obligated service is completed. We believe that officers should not be passive and unquestioning, because of threats of harassment and “legal” punishment.
He eventually contacted the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and litigated against the army, petitioning to be released as a conscientious objector. He got phone calls and letters from friends, commanders, and people from his hometown, who pleaded with and reprimanded him, not understanding how he could walk out on the place that had accepted him or turn his back on his country. But he was resolute. He felt sorrow over his army buddies, his friends with whom he had shared four years on the banks of the Hudson, men who had been brothers to him, but he had to cut them off, move forward, and live with his choice.
After the lawsuit was filed, the Army pulled him out of school and transferred him to a filing job in a basement at the Presidio. He hung antiwar posters on the wall behind his desk, went to meetings, and continued to tell his story.
In his letter asking to be discharged, he invoked Tolstoy’s moral: “Each individual must change, and there is no way for a man to be absolved of that responsibility He must, to discover his beliefs, understand what be changed, and to act on them. If he lacks the courage to face himself and determine his beliefs, he is nothing.”
There my father was, 23 years old, and his path had ended abruptly. He traveled through the Western United States, working odd jobs and living in communes in Arizona and Oregon. Many of the people he met thought they were making a new world based on ideals of justice, equality, and free love. He didn’t find his place with any of them; people had lost their way in the hedonistic fervor of hallucinogens, magical thinking, and sex. He started to feel that this society wasn’t the idyllic one he sought.
He returned to West Virginia and started working on oil barges sailing up and down the Ohio River. But drifting up and down the river made him feel further detached from the world and his already shaken identity. He joined the Fabrangen Havurah, an egalitarian Jewish renewal community. They marched with labor unions and civil rights activists. One of them was Rabbi Max Ticktin, who called for the removal of West Bank settlements.
They saw Jewish texts as political documents. They jettisoned regressive halachic laws, making Judaism an ethical and moral practice. But the United States was mired in cynicism and apathy. People were retreating not only from war but from communal life; an alienated, individualistic age was replacing the naïve Age of Aquarius.
My father embraced Zionism. Despite wars and the new reality of occupation, he believed, looking from afar, that he could help build the foundations of a more just society in the state of Israel. Israel could be a country based on freedom of religion and coexistence, a haven from the cynical world. “Religion is a lived experience,” he wrote in his discharge request. Israel was a place where he could practice his Judaism simply by waking up in the morning. There he could live his identity to the fullest. Then again, he also left the United States because his father’s land didn’t feel much like home anymore.
In 1976, he arrived in the port city of Haifa, a place where new immigrants studied Hebrew. Most of his cohorts were ex-Soviets. At night, after grinding their teeth against Hebrew all day, tenants found solace in their mother tongue and government-subsidized brandy.
Then he was sent to accelerated basic training in the Israeli army. It may seem odd that one who was a conscientious objector in one country would go into the army in another. But it is an integral part of being an Israeli, a rite of passage. There is no way to be an Israeli — at least not Jewish — without serving in the army. In the mid-1970s, after Israel’s humiliation in the Yom Kippur War, the military still felt like an existential necessity to most people. Only a few radicals were warning that the occupation would lead to a moral decline.
Still, my father went. Joining the army is, of course, a shortcut to assimilation. But he never told his commanding officers about his West Point pedigree. He was a private again, running in circles, practicing shooting at targets, learning navigation. It was a kind of due he had to pay to enter Israeli society. But he never stopped feeling like an outsider: a big-bearded beatnik with a thick American accent.
After he completed his training, he was sent to a kibbutz. For a year, he woke up at 4:00 a.m. to milk the cows, and in the afternoons, he worked a shift in the dining hall. For many young immigrants in the 1960s and 1970s, living a communal life was the pinnacle of Zionist realization. My father wasn’t passionate about sustaining a predetermined existence. Again, he didn’t feel like he fit in with the existing order. He also realized that he still dreamed of pursuing art.
He heard from a friend about Ein Hod, a small artists’ village built on the ruins of a Palestinian village that had been “abandoned” during the British Mandate and the 1948 war, its residents fleeing and eventually establishing a new village five kilometers away that was cut off not only from basic infrastructure — water, electricity, roads — but also from Israeli discourse. New people lived in their old houses, and a new society was being built — partly out of indifference, partly out of ignorance — on the ruins of theirs.
My father soon met a young Australian immigrant, another Zionist idealist. She was the daughter of Holocaust survivors, the only ones from their family, who came to the shores of Australia as refugees after the war. They got married and had my sister before I was born in the winter of 1982. For the first time in his life, my father was home; he had a place of his own creation. Finally, he could lay down roots and pass down his name.
But as much as names can make one feel part of something larger, they can also be a reminder of what has been lost.
Three months after I was born, my father went to war. My mother was left with my older sister and me in a government-subsidized apartment in the village. It was the Lebanon War that started as an operation but soon devolved into a full-scale war. Everyone eligible was enlisted. For six months, he drove trucks, transporting soldiers up and down the front lines. No one knew the goal of the war or how it would end.
Soldiers sat in jail for refusing to serve, and even a high-ranking general resigned in protest. Yesh Gvul, a movement formed in 1982, supported refuseniks and conscientious objectors, but most of the members were part of the old guard, soldiers who came from the second generation in Israel. My father, an immigrant on a diet of lofty ideals, believed he could help build a more just society. He passed this belief on to us, despite the Lebanon quagmire, despite the intifada that began the year my youngest sister was born, and despite the Gulf War when, for three months, we sat night after night in our closet/bomb shelter in our gas masks.
I went to school in a kibbutz where ideology eclipsed living ideals. History, literature, and Bible classes were centered around the struggle for a Jewish state in the spirit that the battle never ended and never would. We were forced to live by the sword, to continue the cycle of service and bereavement. This sacrifice gave permission not only to speak but also to be vicious toward outsiders in Israeli society: Arabs, new immigrants from the former Soviet Union, Orthodox Jews, Ethiopians. Our sacrifice was mingled with aggression, a ritual performed over and over again.
Even though I was born there, it seemed that everyone had reached Israel — the land of immigrants — before me. Our family name, and the values my father passed down, seemed to be transplanted to this land like the pines growing around our house. The pine is not native to Israel; rather, the trees were imported from Europe as seedlings by Zionist immigrants. They wanted their new country to look like their old snow-capped mountain home. Israel was all sun.
I was in the eighth grade when the Oslo Accords began. We rejoiced as Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin shook hands with Yasser Arafat on the White House lawn. And in 1994, we watched as Israel signed a peace treaty with Jordan. Despite the suicide bombings, the Cave of the Patriarchs massacre, and the raging protests from the Israeli Right and Palestinian factions, it seemed that my father’s vision was coming true, that his and the country’s ideals had begun to align.
But hope was short-lived. On November 5, 1995, my parents, who attended a large demonstration for peace in Tel Aviv, woke me up in the dead of night to tell me that Prime Minister Rabin was assassinated. The assassination jolted Israeli society — and me. My parents’ worries were justified: the right wing rose to power; progress was halted.
By 10th grade, I was a lost cause. I got into fights, got entangled with the police. While my classmates went to afterschool activities, I took the bus to Haifa to meet with my probation officer. I noticed that the station’s juvenile wing was made up mostly of ex-Soviets, Arabs, and Ethiopians, all the kids society didn’t want as the faces of its future. All of us were sent to Gadna, a week-long military program that prepared high school students for military service in the IDF. We slept in tents in the desert and did drills. We ran in circles, trained to shoot M16s, and learned how to navigate the desert. During the week, one of our commanders gave a lecture about the purity of the weapon, how to use it in a proper and ethical way. His speech sounded logical and natural yet was so divergent from the morals and ethics with which I’d been raised.
It wasn’t that I opposed the military itself. I never believed those who said, “By the time you’re 18, no one will have to go into the army.” But I felt uneasy with the sanctification of militarism. In Israel, the army wasn’t a necessity to sustain and protect society; society’s aim was to sustain the army. The army had value: as a unifying force that justified our actions. So I stood up and asked, “Who gets to decide what is moral?” The question hung in the air like tear gas.
The following year, I turned 17 and had an appointment at the army induction center, the first step to being absorbed into the IDF. The waiting hall was full of teenagers, many with sleep in their eyes. I walked to the register. A brown-haired officer stared at me and asked for my ID. She gave me a ticket with a number and told me to sit. The room was quiet and still. Beyond the doors lay the future, unknown and predictable. Our birth certificates read “birthplace: Israel,” and this was a contract that could not be nullified. We were signing up for the right to carry our names in our society.
Suddenly an officer came into the waiting room and called my name, “Ne, Nich, Nichin?” He signaled for me to go with him. As we walked down the hall, he explained that, due to my police record, I had to meet with the army psychiatry board. I entered the room where three officers were already sitting. They each, in turn, asked me questions, “How’s your family life? Do you have friends? Have you ever tried to harm yourself?”
I told the board that it wasn’t going into the army that bothered me — that was a sad reality of living in Israel. Rather, it would be hard for me to be in a structure where I wasn’t free to question the meaning behind my actions.
“What is it you want to question?”
“Everything,” I said.
Then one of the evaluators chided me, “You’re not really army material, are you?”
I replied angrily, “Well, isn’t that for you to decide?”
If everyone in Israel did the army, then by not being “army material,” I wasn’t and would never be a viable part of society. The discharge was a conviction, a stain that would never be wiped away. Israeli society treats those who do not go to the army the same way American society treats those who never went to college: their fates are sealed at 17, and their chances of social mobility are hampered. In Israel, these voices are silenced by an epithet meant to belittle, to question someone’s manhood, courage, and dignity — draft dodger.
Intuitively, I knew what was right. Being disgraced in my own society was better than shaming myself by performing actions I didn’t believe in. But I felt uneasy because, in my teens, I still lacked the vocabulary to articulate what I felt deep down.
As the 21st century rolled in, the peace negotiations failed, and the second intifada erupted; the Zionist dream of a just society that my father had worked toward was collapsing. There were no demonstrations, no outcry over the incessant violence. People were retreating into themselves, their eyes averted as if by not looking, they would be spared by history. The children of Holocaust survivors, of refugees from Iraq and Algeria, Yemen and Syria, were cheering for destruction and annihilation of those who didn’t have a place to flee.
Nationalism is an addiction. Being an addict is knowing full well that the thing you’re doing is disastrous to you and those around you but not being able to stop because you’ve convinced yourself that not doing it will be even more devastating. My own crime was that I’d come to believe the army officers, police officers, and teachers who had preached that there was one way to live, to be heard. I realized that I had let myself be defined by what rejected me.
I left Israel with a single suitcase and arrived in the United States, like my great-grandparents and so many others, holding the United States as an idea, a place that hovers over the world. The distance allowed me to enrich my vocabulary, to learn everything that wasn’t taught in school.
The legacy of resistance isn’t only ideological but situational. An immigrant to my father’s land — just like my father — I learned to think and process while moving, to assess the previously held truths I was holding on to, to write from left to right instead of right to left.
Like my father, I still believe that people can change. In the era of identity politics, we all search for new ways and words to define ourselves within broader political and historical contexts. Yet the legacy of resistance passed down to me makes me aware that it is the sum of all those who sacrificed before — who dared to be spat upon, degraded, pointed at — that makes the difference; we can find strength in those people, those ephemeral communities, fleeting as they may be. Sometimes, we are defined by what we reject.
We are all given a name, but we need the courage to define its meaning for ourselves. Sometimes, resistance is standing up for what you believe in, to stand erect in face of those who cower to the whims of malignant ideologies. And sometimes, resistance is about walking away in order to find the spaces where our voices can be heard.
Eitan Nechin is a New York–based Israeli writer. He is writer-in-residence at the Cité Internationale des Arts in Paris where he’s finishing his first novel. His writing has been published or is forthcoming in The New York Times, World Literature Today, The Brooklyn Rail, The Independent, VICE, and more. He is the online editor of The Bare Life Review, a journal of immigrant and refugee literature.
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