Contending for the Israeli Left: Josh Drill

For the last few months, Josh Drill has styled himself a voice of the anti-government movement.
May 11, 2023
Josh Drill (Photo from Twitter, by permission)

It’s a warm, spring day in Tel Aviv’s Dizengoff Square. Josh Drill, my subject for this interview, arrives from the cafe with a pint of beer and a plate of German sausage. I’ve met with Josh on several occasions now, in friends’ apartments and at crowded bars in Sarona Market while protests rage on Kaplan Street just outside. For the last few months, Josh has styled himself a voice of the anti-government movement, publishing a steady, daily stream of content on social media—information, commentary and output from the various organizations involved in the hafganot, or demonstrations. He has a mailing list of journalists from around the world at his disposal, to whom he broadcasts information on what is happening in Israel in English, to those who normally wouldn’t be paying attention.  

Nobody told Josh to take on this responsibility—he simply saw the opportunity of how to be of help and took it. “Shoutout to the researchers, in like fifty years, who read this conversation and deem it relevant,” Josh quips as I open my laptop. 

The first thing I originally planned to discuss with Josh was what his childhood was like, leading up to his decision to make Aliyah from the states. But then sentiment got the better of me, and I chose instead to reflect on our surroundings. After weeks of chaos, fires burning on Ayalon Highway, rockets from Lebanon and Gaza, and the impending (at the time) Independence Day holiday, Tel Aviv was, on this day, remarkably serene and lively. The cafes, park, buses—everything was breathing. “Life is going on, I guess,” Josh agreed, looking over his shoulder, and perhaps also realizing the irony in the themes of our conversation contrasted with our current environment.  

This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.  

BF: So, Josh. How did you get here? What’s baseline knowledge for someone who doesn’t know you? 

JD: I grew up in New Jersey, my father is a lawyer, my mother is a conservative rabbi.  

BF: What was it like being the son of a rabbi?  

JD: It gave me a lot of insight into community life and the necessity of helping those around you, I think, because my mom was always helping her congregants, from births to deaths in the family. I think I get my spirituality from her.  

BF: So, when did the idea of moving to Israel get thrown into the mix? 

JD: I always had a very strong Jewish identity and a very strong Zionist identity. The idea of moving to Israel must have happened as early as eight or nine. There were moments when being a minority in America became apparent for me, like when I was walking back from shul with my friends at seven-ish –we were yelled at and called Jewish pigs. Since then, we walked back without our kippahs on. That contributed for sure. Visiting Israel for the first time and finding that being Jewish was the norm also had a profound impact on me. Eventually, I decided to move after high school, too impatient to wait till I graduated college. I came to the realization that Israel is the soccer game of the Jewish people. I wanted to participate in it. In the Diaspora, there’s a feeling that you’re on the sidelines, no matter how engaged you might be.  

BF: And then, you made the decision to join the army, first in the Egoz unit, then in the Golani Brigade. What made you so keen on enlisting? 

JD: Well, my decision to join the army, and my willingness to become an officer in Egoz and then in Golani in Hebron—this came from my Israel education growing up, or rather, my lack of Israel education growing up. Don’t get me wrong, I was taught to love Israel and still love Israel, but, I guess, everything seems a bit shinier from the outside. I was taught only half of the story. It was only when I got here and began to serve that I realized that there were other realities I was unaware of.  

BF: How did the experience in the Golani Brigade influence where you are today? 

JD: I would say my love for Israel changed during my service in Golani. I first saw how much it takes to keep this state running: massive personal sacrifice and commitment under tough conditions. However, at the end of the day, I was also one of four commanders overseeing twenty soldiers in Hebron, which meant I was forced to learn other lessons as well, like when I managed how to enter Palestinian civilian homes at two o’clock in the morning every week for five months to set up military camp. 

BF: Were children ever present in the homes during these operations?  

(Josh did not answer the question.)  

BF: Okay, so let’s discuss just the other lessons you learned.  

JD: Golani taught me that all narratives deserve to be interrogated, and that anyone who is propagating one perspective over the other is probably not acting in good faith, such as the BDS movement, which continually deprives Jewish Israelis the validity of their own story, or people within Israel who wish to advance anti-democratic and violent solutions. I believe the next, natural phase of Zionism is doing away with both movements. There can only be a future with mutual understanding.  

BF: How do you feel about all of this from a security perspective? Was there ever a time in Hebron when you felt like you weren’t serving to the best of your capabilities? 

JD: Every Saturday, we had to guard a group of settlers from H2 (Jewish Hebron) walking through H1 (Palestinian Hebron) for one of their history tours, which were truly just provocations. We had to give up fifty soldiers and drones for this to carry on smoothly. This put every one of my soldiers in danger, even if they agreed that a famous Jew was buried here or there or that the Cave of Patriarchs is a portal to heaven. It doesn’t matter—the many activities that the army has to undertake in service of the settlers are wasteful and counterproductive.  

BF: That’s ironic, considering over the last several months, the settler-right has delighted in calling those who turn out to protest the government anarchists and traitors.  

JD: Truly.  

BF: Did you see any influence of settler ideology in your soldier barracks during your service? 

JD: Yes. Rabbi Baruch Marzel of Hebron, a devout extremist, teacher of Itamar Ben-Gvir, was constantly speaking to my soldiers. He was constantly telling them that the best scenario was for the Palestinians, who he called Amalek, the ancient enemy of the Jewish people, to leave the land.  

BF: Who gave him permission to do this? Was anything coordinated?   

JD: Nothing is coordinated, ever. I did what I could to dispel some of the ideology that my soldiers were digesting, but I wasn’t as successful as I would have liked to be.  

BF: What do you think about certain controversial organizations like Breaking the Silence, which seek to broadcast the stories of soldiers to Diaspora Jewry and the outside world? 

JD: I do not want to comment on specific organizations, though I will say that we are past the point of not airing our dirty laundry out in the open in fear that it might put Israel in the crosshairs.  

BF: Maybe, but from my perspective, the Diaspora isn’t talented enough to hold different ideas in their heads at once. It’s hard to criticize Israel without bad actors trespassing into antisemitic territory and ignorant people, even ignorant Jews, going along with it.  

JD: There is a rise of antisemitism in America. Fact. Israel should be a country. Fact. There is an occupation in Israel, also fact. I believe that if we do not try to have nuanced conversation, if we speak about how important it is to defend Israel but not bring anything up about the occupation—I think that ultimately hurts our cause.  

BF: But the occupation did not just spring out of nowhere. It is a consequence of the war against Israel; therefore, it cannot retroactively be its cause. So yes, supporting Israel while admitting there is a military occupation is crucial, but there is also nuance within the reality of the occupation itself.    

JD: At the end of the day, the occupation is not Israel’s fault. A sovereign nation was attacked, defended itself, and conquered land. This is how war works. As an officer, in times of war I know that if you don’t take over enemy land, the enemy will take your land. However, we now possess the lands, and they must be a means to making peace, such as what happened with the Sinai. The settlements intensely complicate this formula.   

However, we now possess the lands, and they must be a means to making peace, such as what happened with the Sinai.

BF: How optimistic are you about peace? 

JD: Not really, if we are talking about peace in the immediate future. However, I know that when change happens, it happens rapidly. What remains important is that the next time the peace process comes along, moderates must remember it is in extremists’ best interest to sabotage it. Violence means that we’re getting close to something, and that it’s indeed time to hit the gas rather than the breaks. We also need strong leadership to guide us.    

BF: Would you want to be an Israeli leader in the future? 

JD: I believe the path I have taken could have a significant impact.  

BF: I will support you for a hypothetical candidate for the future … if you fight for two states.    

JD: From my vantage point, from having experience in the West Bank and seeing the situation, I don’t think it’s possible. You have huge cities that are east of the Green Line that are not going to be evacuated because then you would have a civil war. It would be ten times worse than the withdrawal from Gaza. We need a solution where both sides feel as though their national aspirations are being expressed but where there is freedom of movement and acknowledgement of universal human rights.  

BF: A binational state?  

JD: No. A binational state is a recipe for more violence. The two peoples will fight each other, over symbols and holidays, and be in a constant struggle for the state’s character. I’m in favor of more of a confederation or a federation.    

BF: My problem with a confederation is that it doesn’t appear to be entirely Zionist on paper. People being allowed to live wherever they want, especially considering the coveted Palestinian “right of return,” does not bode well for a sovereign state, with a Jewish majority, with the capability of defending specifically Jewish populations from harm.  

JD: I think the left is going a certain way. We will see if people’s perceptions of reality change. But what inspires me, when I see it at the hafganot, is that different sorts of left-wing Israelis are able to come together and unify. They see that this government is a clear and present danger that must be removed from power. It doesn’t so much matter to me which solutions for the future different factions are after, as long as they are pro-peace and pro-solution, not violence.

BF: I’m not sure I agree with that. I don’t think my values align with every single person at these protests. I think most left of center Israelis are okay with a tent only so big. But let’s turn toward the protests—what you’re doing for work these days—putting these ideas into action. What does a day in your life look like? 

JD: Every week, for people who are involved in organizing this truly extraordinary movement, there are events and times and messaging that need to be agreed upon by hundreds of people. It’s not easy. It takes coordination and compromise. But the amazing thing is once something is agreed upon, everyone falls in line. As the international spokesperson, I am speaking to journalists from around the world, from CNN to BBC to The New York Times and helping to shape the international narrative through them. For example, if Simcha Rothman (member of Knesset from the Religious Zionist list) gives an interview to the English-speaking press saying that the protests are for no reason and that the government is only trying to change trivial things regarding the balance of power in government, that is where I step in and relay the words from the demonstration organizers.  

BF: And why did you suddenly feel compelled to do this? Was it right after the last election? 

JD: Israel is a microcosm for tension that exists all over the world, between populism and liberal democracy. This global struggle is what motivates me.  

BF: While the tension here certainly does symbolize broader political winds, the concrete policy that is being wrestled over is the government’s proposed judicial overhaul. Why is this legislation so consequential? 

JD: The judicial overhaul, or the judicial coup in my wording, is an attempt by the government to consolidate all power in this country, so that whatever the majority in the Knesset wants to happen can happen. Which is not democracy. I fear for my friends that are in the LGBT community, who could lose rights. I fear for my Arab Israeli friends, for women, for the status of the occupied territories.   

I fear for my Arab Israeli friends, for women, for the status of the occupied territories.  

BF: What happens if we lose? 

JD: There will be no country to manage. If Netanyahu thinks he can pass this legislation, and we’re all just going to carry on like nothing happened, he’s joking himself. The economy will be hit hard. People will not go to reserve duty, the rift in Israeli society will be widened. And this will not be our doing, the responsibility will lie squarely with Netanyahu.  

BF: Does all of this go away if we can only get to another election? 

JD: Even if the liberal camp wins the next election, the issues permeating our culture right now will not go away. Israel is in this for the long haul, and no election, or even a constitution, offers a way out. So, we all need to be doing what we can to work on solutions from the ground-up, rather than the top-down.  

I thanked Josh for the honest and stimulating conversation, we grabbed one more beer, and then headed our separate ways. On my way back to my apartment, I walked past the usual protest memorabilia plastered on benches and walls. Some signs said “Lech,” representing the portion of the Israeli left hellbent on removing Netanyahu from office. Others said, “Ain Demokratia Im Kibush” (No Democracy with occupation,) representing those farther to the left who believe Israel is already embroiled in an illiberal regime regardless of if Netanyahu is in office. And then there was something that deeply offended me, a blaring red “A,” for anarchism, spray-painted onto a mural of Theodor Herzl.  

The Israeli left is varied, messy, and deeply divided. I don’t think Josh Drill convinced me that we are united in purpose or in values. I do not think the fault lines between two states versus confederation versus binational state versus liberal democracy with temporary military occupation can mend so easily in service of standing up to the right. But perhaps Drill was able to convince me of something else: that Israel is indeed the soccer field of the Jewish people. If one genuinely cares about who scores goals, they cannot afford to be on the sidelines.  

Blake Flayton is the New Media Director and Columnist for the Jewish Journal.

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