On Monday night Kobi Skolnik, who grew up on a Chasidic settlement in the West Bank, spoke at Oberlin. It was grim, to be sure, but it was also one of the most fascinating lectures I’ve seen at Oberlin in a while, although there are many.
Kobi didn’t just grow up on a settlement. It wasn’t Maale Adumim, which is essentially a suburb of Jerusalem that is unfortunately (and intentionally) built on the Palestinian side of the Green Line. Kobi lived in Itamar, a community of fanatics who think it is their God given duty to live on the historic land of Eretz Israel, in violation of international law and at great cost to the Arabs who live in the area now and live there before they did.
When Kobi was a teenager he was active in a Kahane-ist youth group, named after Meir Kahane, the patron saint of Jewish terrorism. (Read about Meir Kahane on Wikipedia if you aren’t familiar with him.) Kobi described participating in a Shabbat service at the gravesite of Baruch Goldstein, an American doctor turned terrorist who murdered twenty-nine Arabs while they prayed at the Ibrahimi Mosque in Hebron. Kobi said that after the service was over he and his fellow youth group members danced and sang. They felt inspired by being there.
His change of heart came when he was serving in the army. After studying and training, Kobi entered the paratroopers, one of the most elite units in the Israeli Army. It was on a patrol in Hebron during the early days of the Second Intafada that Kobi’s worldview shifted.
A group of Palestinian children between the ages of six and fifteen were throwing rocks at Kobi and his patrol. His commander ordered Kobi to shoot rubber bullets at the children. In the ten seconds that it took for him to replace his regular bullets with rubber ones, he realized that he couldn’t shoot at the children.
Kobi had done the same thing when he was their age, in the same city. His Kahane youth group took trips to Arab villages and relished in throwing rocks at Arabs. (When I was in Hebron in January I saw that streets in the Arab market were covered with chicken wire to catch rocks thrown by the Jewish settlers who live above the town.) Maybe it was this memory or maybe because years of trauma from actively living in the Occupation had built up inside of him, but Kobi couldn’t shoot.
“If felt like if I shot, the bullet would somehow turn around and go into my chest,” Kobi said.
I’m sure his departure from Israel’s religious right is more complicated than I can possibly understand; I don’t know all the details. But now he lives in New York City and travels around America as a peace activist. His perspective on policy was interesting because of his experience, but nothing particularly revelatory. What I appreciated most about Kobi’s talk was the opportunity to hear from someone who had been so close to extremism and changed his position so dramatically. Maybe that can give you hope.