Adopted patriotism

Although Tal Ben-Tovim was born-and lived most of his life-in Israel, he doesn’t feel like an Israeli.

His views on his homeland and his ideas for achieving peace aren’t typical of other Israeli nationals-and he knows it.

“There aren’t many others like me,” said Ben-Tovim, a doctoral candidate in Middle East history.

Even though he was raised in the suburbs of Tel Aviv, Ben-Tovim has struggled with his Israeli identity. He is critical of Zionism, the political movement that calls for Israel to be a Jewish homeland.

When he turned 18, he decided he would not serve in the Israeli military. So he left for England and began a self-imposed exile.

“I don’t feel like I have the right to live in Israel because I didn’t serve in the army,” he said. “I, myself, don’t understand how people cannot serve in the army and call themselves Israeli. To me, that is a mystery.”

After a year, Ben-Tovim returned to Tel Aviv, where he studied Jewish philosophy and earned an undergraduate degree. After graduation, he left the country again and entered the Harvard Divinity School, from which he obtained a master’s degree in religious studies.

June Marvel, academic program support specialist with the Middle East Center, said she is impressed with Ben-Tovim’s intellect and drive.

“From our first meeting, I realized that Tal Ben-Tovim was a serious student and that he would be a great addition to the Middle East Studies graduate program,” she said.

Ben-Tovim goes back to Israel only to visit his family and renew his visa, he said, because his political perspectives leave him feeling like an outsider.

He said is aware that his views might upset others adding that he “didn’t travel all this way not to speak my mind.”

However, Ben-Tovim doesn’t object to those who question his pride for Israel.

Ziv Abolnik, sophomore in biology and biochemistry and fellow Israeli, vouched for the rareness of Ben-Tovim’s views.

“Most Israelis are very nationalist,” he said, adding that the instances of secular Jewish Israelis not serving in the military are very uncommon.

Ben-Tovim’s pessimism for the Middle East, however, is tempered by his American optimism.

“I love this place,” he said. “It is a nationality that defies nationality.”

Ben-Tovim also said the United States has done a good job handling religious and ethnic diversity and that he’d like to become a citizen one day.

“You can come from anywhere, and if you can make it, you belong,” he said.

Ben-Tovim traveled to Israel this summer when Israeli Defense Forces started a military campaign in Lebanon in response to the abduction of soldiers by Hezbollah fighters.

He saw the warfare as the newest link in a chain of misunderstanding.

“There are two vicious cycles in the Middle East,” he said, “Not just the cycle of violence, there is also the cycle of putting the blame on others.”

Israeli politicians and Arab nationalists are reluctant to publicly admit mistakes or show compassion for the victims of violence, Ben-Tovim said. “People aren’t looking to find the common denominator.”

Ben-Tovim also said that while leaders in the region court the western media in an effort to appear righteous, innocent people are still suffering.

Until that changes, he said he believes the achievement of lasting peace will be unattainable.

In the wake of the conflict in Lebanon, Israel is becoming more hawkish, and the Israeli political left is reeling and in tatters, Ben-Tovim said, adding that the peace process isn’t being helped by the current American policy.

He said he also believes the United States should encourage Arab countries to modernize and become more cosmopolitan instead of trying to democratize them.

Forcing Muslims to make a choice between becoming more secularized and following God is a losing proposition, he said.

Ben-Tovim’s idea for peace, he said, would be to turn Israel into a non-theocratic state in which Jews and Arabs could peacefully coexist. He said it would be a place where the monotheistic traditions of Jews, Muslims and Christians would be both honored and studied.

“I’d call it Abraham,” he said.

Bobby Sakaki

Israeli student Tal Ben-Tovim left Israel at 18 when he decided not to join the military. Ben-Tovim has spoken out in criticism of Zionism.