- The Washington Times - Saturday, June 18, 2005


By Haim Watzman

Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, $26, 387 pages


All lives are worth exploring and Haim Watzman’s, because of its many contradictions, even more so. Born in an American suburb of middle-class or reasonably affluent parents he turned from a typically semi-secular Jewish existence to Orthodox Judaism. He did this, he states, because of his exposure to two Orthodox rabbis whose intellectual approach in dealing with ethical problems he found particularly attractive. On the inevitable trip to Israel he did not become rapt with admiration but found a country with flaws and deficiencies.

The same overdeveloped conscience which brought Mr. Watzman to Orthodoxy also made him stay and work in the country to help remedy those flaws he felt existed. In time he became an Israeli citizen, was drafted into the army, and after release became subject to the mandatory reserve until his 45th birthday. His book, “Company C: An American’s Life as a Citizen Soldier in Israel,” chronicles for the most part his life in the reserve.

Life in the army was not easy for the author. As a teenager like so many of his generation he had demonstrated against the Vietnam war and developed an anti-military attitude; and like many urban liberals he did not particularly like guns. He was also a self-styled klutz, unathletic and uncoordinated. The one physical activity he did enjoy was running, which perhaps made the infantry with its long hikes the least inappropriate service for him.

Politically Haim Watzman was of the left and felt the Israeli presence in the occupied territories morally wrong and politically foolish. He was also a staunch feminist which put him at odds with some of the more traditional Orthodox practitioners. Wherever he looked, he was the odd man out. How these contradictions resolved themselves, and although he does not say so, made him a valuable member of his community, both army and civilian, is what this book is about.

Every veteran of the Israeli Defense Force is required to serve one month each year in the reserves. Since the date of service may vary according to national needs a great deal of personal hardship could be involved in a call-up, but exceptions are frequently made. Nevertheless some veterans made a political issue of refusing to serve because they might be required to police the occupied territories.

Mr. Watzman was faced with this same moral problem. He was against his government’s policy towards the Palestinians but at the same time could not turn his back on his fellow reservists in Company C. He arrived at a truly rabbinical decision by saying it was not where you served that counted, but rather how you served, and reported for duty.

As was inevitable the time came when the author’s unit was required to serve in the territories and because through time of service he had become an NCO he was one of the leaders of foot patrols in their area. The company commander conducted his patrols by the book. Anti-Israel graffiti had to be erased as soon as discovered, either by the owner or residents of the building so defaced. Schoolboys throwing stones were immediately apprehended, (not always easy for overweight middle-aged reservists), warned, and turned over to their elders; but the Palestinians were not bullied though there was no fraternization. The Company Commander’s patrols evolved into relatively quiet walks through town.

Mr. Watzman’s patrols were quite different. He was more lenient in his approach and encouraged fraternization despite the language difficulties. To his horror, however, he discovered in time that his patrols were subject to more stonings than any other. His fellow NCO’s explained to him that his leniency was interpreted as weakness and that unless he toughened up he could be subjected to serious attack; wolves always went for the weakest members of the herd. The lessons of the kindergarten had to be relearned as an adult, but he went at it, practiced putting on severe faces, and followed his company commander’s example. The stonings lessened.

Through the years the venues changed. At times Mr. Watzman was on Mount Herman facing the Syrians, an assignment he enjoyed the most because he felt he was actually defending his country. Other years, he was back in the occupied territories. He had always been in sympathy with the Palestinian desire for self-government in a recognized Palestinian state, but what truly depressed him was the growing realization that this desire included not only a free Palestine but the destruction of Israel as a nation, to him a shocking and frustrating mindset.

Service in the reserves took up only one-twelfth of the year; the other 11 months had to be spent supporting his family. Mr. Watzman did this by writing for newspapers and translating, never a particularly lucrative occupation. His concerns were not material, however. If they were he could have stayed in the United States and been much better off. Rather, he seemed always directed by a desire for justice and ethical behavior.Whether this was caused by his religious beliefs or is what propelled him to religion in the first place is unclear. But it was the motivating factor of his life.

The author is now too old for the reserves which perhaps is what gave him the time to write this book. He is the father of four children the eldest of whom, a girl, will soon enter the army. A boy two years younger is contemplating which part of the service to join. In looking back upon his life Mr. Watzman may acknowledge that he did not achieve all of what he had hoped. But he can be satisfied that he stayed true to his beliefs, and that his presence was beneficial to his surroundings and to his family. What more can a man ask for?

Sol Schindler writes from Washington.

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