The hardest question so far has come from Nadeema in South Africa. After suggesting that a South African finds it “almost impossible” not to draw a comparison between the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and apartheid, Nadeema asks, “What is your opinion on this view?”
Zack Katowitz acknowledged having to spend some time writing his answer. But not answering was out of the question.
“I, like you, am also on the side of human rights,” he began, “by finding common ground, for everyone, no matter where they are.”
The Montclair native who made aliya in September 2006, is one of 16 participants in Friend A Soldier. An independent project launched in February, it is essentially a website inviting anyone to pose questions to Israeli soldiers.
The site is the brainchild of Daniel Nisman, Josh Mintz, and Yagil Beinglass, Israelis who decided to take hasbara, or public relations on behalf of Israel, into their own hands.
According to the site, the founders believe that “forging personal connections is the only way to gain a better understanding of the complex reality of the conflict and, ultimately, the only way to achieve a lasting peace.”
The website works like many dating sites. Next to the photo of each soldier is a brief bio. Katowitz’s profile explains he served in the West Bank, “performing high-risk arrest operations,” and also that he is from New Jersey and “enjoys riding his bike and reading voraciously.”
Katowitz, 24, got started almost as soon as the website was up and running; he knew founder Nisman because they both work as bouncers in Tel Aviv. Nisman is also a student at the Interdisciplinary Center of Herzliya, where Katowitz plans to study this fall.
Questions posted to the website range from the simple to the very complicated. For example, Anna in Poland asks, “What do you think about Israelis who immigrate to Europe/other countries in order to avoid the army?” Iman in Jordan asks, “Do you have a heart? Do you have feeling? How can you sleep and know you’re a killer?” Ruth in the United Kingdom asks, “What made you decide to make aliya?”
Like other participants, Katowitz answers carefully, but honestly. No public relations doubletalk creeps in.
“Every question is different; every answer is different. I just take them one by one,” said Katowitz in a Skype interview from his home in Givatayim on July 19. “The only questions I won’t answer are hateful and include cursing.”
He takes those hostile questions in stride.
“At the end of the day, it’s an e-mail. I never take it personally. When people are nasty, it’s emotional — that’s the nature of the conflict. But I try to answer as calmly as possible. If I’m negative or mean, I’m not helping anyone.”
‘Question of honor’
He doesn’t shy away from speaking candidly about his experiences as a soldier in the West Bank, and described a tough situation that he sometimes found himself in.
“You go to do an arrest and you go into the house and the last room to be cleared is the bathroom. The father says, ‘You can’t go in; my daughter is in the shower.’ That’s a question of honor. We’re looking for terrorists, but we don’t want to disgrace the family. Do you kick the door down? Is the daughter really in the shower?”
He points out that most Israeli soldiers are young people put in “very, very grownup situations they are not mentally capable of handling.” He added, “The whole situation needs to be put into that context.”
Katowitz, raised in Montclair, graduated from Montclair High School and made aliya after completing one year of college at George Washington University in Washington, DC. He had spent a semester in the Reform movement’s Eisendrath International Exchange High School in Israel program and said that experience played a major role in his decision to make aliya. He grew up attending Temple Ner Tamid in Bloomfield. His father, David Katowitz, who still lives in Montclair, is a finance specialist at the Union for Reform Judaism, where he served as director of the Fund for Reform Judaism for 16 years.
In his response to the South African, Zack Katowitz acknowledged the complexity of the issue.
“The comparison between the occupation of the West Bank and apartheid in South Africa is a troubling one for me, both as an Israeli and a human being,” he wrote. “Personally, I don’t like my country and my people being compared to the terrible things that happened in South Africa during apartheid. While there are seemingly many similarities, I think it is the differences that are much more telling.”
He continues, “Apartheid was forced onto a majority population because of the minorities [sic] racist and intolerant views. The occupation was a result of a war, and the inability of the other side to come to the negotiating table to get that land and people back under their own control. The righteousness of either side is irrelevant in my view.”
He adds, “Both sides should go back to the negotiating table and solve the issues instead of playing politics with people’s lives.”