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‘Speak Hebrew or shut up’

Etgar Keret

Etgar Keret is the author, with Samir El-Youssef, of Gaza Blues: Different Stories, published by David Paul. Visit his website.

Israel’s official code of ethics says troops can only use force if threatened. But at a checkpoint near Nablus, Israeli author Etgar Keret witnessed another code of behaviour in operation...

By Etgar Keret
From the UK Guardian
August 11, 2004

A few days ago, the philosopher Assa Kasher, who had just finalised the Israel Defence Force’s Code of Ethics, paid me a visit on the television screen in the dentist’s waiting room and explained to me, in a nutshell, how it really works. The Code of Ethics, if I understood it right, says that a soldier can exert force and, under certain circumstances, can even cause suffering if he does it to protect his own safety or the safety of the citizens of Israel. An elderly woman sitting next to me, even more bored than I was, stared at the screen and said that was very good and if she wasn’t mistaken, the IDF was the only army in the world to take the trouble to “commission”, in her words, a code like that, and not from just any hack, but from a university professor.

If, two weeks earlier, I hadn’t gone to the Haware checkpoint, not far from Nablus, I probably would have been quick to agree with her. After all, I was brought up to agree with elderly women. But during that purely chance visit to the checkpoint, more the result of a weak character and my girlfriend’s nagging than anything else, I saw a different, rival code, one that might be a little less ethical, but works like a charm. We can call it Udi’s Practical Code.

Udi was the checkpoint commander at Haware that day, and his Code was very simple – smiling people don’t get through. Of course, he didn’t formulate it as a Code – it worked more as intuition – but more than once I heard him and his buddies at the checkpoint exchanging intelligence information on all sorts of smilers in the queue. “You see that guy over there, the tall one with the tie?” I heard a soldier say to Udi, “Do you see how he’s laughing at us? Don’t worry, I’ll wipe that smile off his face.” Udi nodded his agreement, and the smiler was in fact detained for more than an hour. When he tried to show them the permit that would justify his smile – he was just a man on his way to his own wedding – it was already too late. A happy father who had bought his three-year-old son a birthday cake imprinted with a picture of the child had also violated the code and was detained. The official reason – he didn’t wait in line like everyone else.

When I tried to explain that the people in the queue had let the father get ahead of them because the cream cake would spoil if he waited in the heat, Udi gave me a smile, and from behind the barrel of his gun, which was pointed in the general direction of my chest, explained that he didn’t give a shit. Not a very surprising statement considering that an hour earlier he had been just as stingy with his shit when he ignored the distress of a 70-year-old man who had been discharged from the hospital that day after heart surgery and was finding it difficult to stand in the hot sun for such a long time.

There are a lot more clauses in Udi’s Practical Code. When a Palestinian student tried to explain to him in English something about a permit he had in his hand, Udi clarified, “This is Israel, so you either speak Hebrew or you shut your mouth.” The student immediately recognised the Code he had come up against, and because he didn’t know Hebrew, he took the second option, shut his mouth, and was detained for four hours.

Udi’s Code, by the way, also has a few pointers about Hebrew-speaking Palestinians, especially the ones who argue. I saw him cock his gun, point it at the head of a Palestinian who was talking without permission, and say, “If you don’t shut your mouth, you’ll get a bullet in the head.” And the talkative Palestinian shut his mouth, too, because a Code is a Code.

The day after the interview with Professor Kasher on the daily TV news magazine, the host on that programme talked about a soldier who had hit a Palestinian he claimed had called him a liar and then shot and wounded him while he was trying to get away. I don’t know that soldier’s name, but I can assure you it’s not Udi. Because Udi’s no idiot. And like a few other soldiers, he knows how to put his Code into effect so it doesn’t conflict with the IDF Code. If you are a decent, sensitive person, the IDF won’t force you to torture people unnecessarily, but if you are an asshole and you have a good enough grasp of how the system operates, you can abuse to your heart’s content without exceeding accepted levels of detaining and cursing, or threatening with a cocked gun, and without getting on the TV news magazine.

When I mentioned everything Udi had done that day to his commanding officer – the one the Palestinians called “the good officer,” mostly because of his thin-framed glasses and his psychotherapist tone of voice – he nodded empathetically and said that the soldiers have been under terrible pressure the past couple of days. “But the minute I got here,” the officer tried to see the good side, “it all started moving like clockwork, didn’t it? Almost half the ones they detained went through.”

I won’t be going to the Haware checkpoint any more. But if one day Professor Assa Kasher gets tired of sitting at his desk and mulling over the Code of Ethics of the most moral army on the planet, I would heartily recommend that he take half a day off and visit a place where Immanuel Kant has never set foot.

Translated from Hebrew by Sondra Silverston.

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Additional Resources

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B’Tselem Report – Restrictions on Movement

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Human Rights Watch – Second Class: Discrimination Against Palestinian Arab Children in Israel’s Schools

Jews for Justice – The Arab Citizens of Israel


Machsom (Checkpoint) Watch

Association for Civil Rights in Israel

Seeds of Peace

Mossawa Center: The Advocacy Center for Arab Citizens of Israel

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