- Joel Carmel was raised in London’s Jewish community. He was passionately committed to defending Israel from its many critics, whom he believed were biased and did not grasp the constant threats to its security from the Arabian world.
- He went to Israel as soon as he could, joined the army, and rose to the rank of second lieutenant. He served in the West Bank territories, which Israel occupied after the Six-Day War in 1967.
- The West Bank is home to 2.8 million Palestinians, as well as more than 500,000 Jews, who are often described as settlers.
- When he witnessed the occupation as a soldier, he said he came to realize that Israel’s policies were as much a force for violence as the terrorism it was supposed to prevent.
- Carmel said he left the army determined to prove that “you can be a patriotic Israeli and criticize the occupation.”
- He now works with Breaking the Silence, an organization of military veterans that says it hopes to show the Israeli public what daily life is like for Palestinians living under the occupation.
As a teenager growing up in the comfortable suburbs of north London, the heartland of the British Jewish community, Joel Carmel had a singular passion: defending Israel against its critics.
“My synagogue, my youth movement, my school were all Zionist organizations. Zionism meant not just Israel has the right to exist but actively defending Israel,” he said.
In this bubble, all of Israel’s critics were biased, Carmel, the son of a rabbi, said.
“Everyone was against us. Everything in the MSM was anti-Israel, and we had a responsibility to show the other side,” he said. “That meant saying what Israel did was always a security issue and Israel had to do whatever it had to defend itself.”
Carmel became a young zealot for Zion — a prodigy of pro-Israel campaigning. Passionate and articulate, he won a communal “Apprentice”-style competition — the Ambassador’s Prize, which recognized his talent for defending Israel.
At 18, Carmel relinquished his place at a British university, made “aliyah” to Israel (aliyah, which means “return,” is imbued with deep spiritual and nationalistic connotations), and joined the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) soon after.
“It wasn’t because I wanted to be a soldier. I wanted to be an Israeli and to do what everyone else did. I wanted to be useful,” he said.
Indeed, the soldier’s life did not come naturally to Carmel, he said.
“Most of the young Israelis were very excited about picking up a gun because it’s cool. I hated it. I didn’t like the smell of gunpowder, and it was nerve-racking to hold this weapon,” he said.
But ever the high achiever, he was selected for officer training. He learned he would be posted at COGAT — the acronym for Israel’s military bureaucracy,the Coordination of Government Activities in the Territories. Carmel described it as the “shadow government” that Israel built to rule the West Bank, which is home to 2.8 million Palestinians and was captured from Jordan in the Six-Day War in 1967.
Since then, more than 500,000 Jews have gone to live in the territory and build often controversial settlements.
“I wanted to be the moral soldier. I believed I could be that soldier who gives the Palestinians good service — service with a smile,” Carmel said. “Later I realized you could be as smiley as you like. You could give Palestinian children sweets, but ultimately, you control their lives with military power.”
During his officer training, he said his doubts about the occupation began to crystallize.
One morning at a Bethlehem, West Bank, crossing point, where Palestinian workers gathered to gain entry into Israel, Carmel said he witnessed an upsetting scene.
“You’ve just got to be there to feel it,” he said. “Thousands of young Palestinian men crushed into tunnel cages on the way to the security check. People forced to climb on top of one another — that was when I started to think, ‘There’s something wrong here.'”
He said another critical moment for him was a visit for the young officers to the mosque at the Caves of the Patriarchs, in Hebron, a city south of Jerusalem. It is believed to house the graves of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and both Muslims and Jews treasure the shrine. There is also a synagogue on the site.