December 10, 2018

From Pacific Palisades to IDF Officer

Something of a chameleon, Moti White, or Matthew, as he was always known at home, fits in anywhere and nowhere. He certainly doesn’t fit the bill of LA’s Pacific Palisades white, Jewish Ashkenazi demographic, despite being a white Ashkenazi Jew from the Pacific Palisades.

Moti immediately strikes you as a walking contradiction. He’s the sort of person that demands you get to know him on a deeper level – if only because there is simply no way to sum him up on first impressions alone. His nose ring bespeaks hippy, the diamond stud in his ear, gangsta. The sometimes-yarmulke signifies his religiosity, and Moti is profoundly religious, if not in the conventional sense. The double hamsa bling hanging from his neck speaks volumes about his spiritual grounding.

Moti speaks fluent Spanish, courtesy of LA’s University High School, and you’d be forgiven for mistaking him for a regular Latino esse (homeboy), ginger locks and freckles notwithstanding.

The IDF apparently thought the same. Not long after making aliya in 2013, he joined the army and the fresh-faced 25-year-old American oleh was placed in charge of the Latin America and Africa desk in a foreign relations unit. There he was tasked with everything from escorting South American attachés on tours of the Gaza tunnels, to becoming an expert on the military industrial complex of countries such as Tanzania and Angola.

The occasional yarmulke signifies his religiosity, and the double hamsa bling hanging from his neck reflects his spiritual grounding. 

His first trip to Israel with the Nesiya Summer Program, coincided with the 2006 Lebanon War. The trip matches up North American teens with their Israeli peers, which is how Moti met Gideon, whom he calls his adoptive brother.

“I came home from that trip knowing three new things,” he said. “One, I began to define myself as bisexual. Two, I became religiously observant and three, I left knowing there was no other place I could call home.”

His moment of revelation came three weeks into the six-week trip when he broke down in front of the Western Wall. Up until that point, Moti said, he had barely allowed himself to cry. Throughout middle school, Moti suffered from depression and came close to suicide.

“Letting go of emotions and expressing myself was monumental,” he said of that transformative day in Jerusalem, adding that the experience made him realize how much there was to live for. “It was a visceral reaction. I felt something, a higher connection. I didn’t know what it was but I knew I wanted to feel it more.”

Returning home, his mother was far more distraught by her son’s newly acquired belief in God than his sexuality. “Me keeping Shabbat was a very, very big deal,” he said.

It would be another seven years before Moti finally made aliyah. When he returned to California, he studied history at UC Berkeley. He describes his alma mater as a toxic cesspit of anti-Semitism and anti-Israel sentiment.

“It was a topsy-turvy [expletive] world,” he said. “We were called kikes, baby-killers, accomplices to genocide. Even professors would flat out justify suicide bombings.”

Moti became a figurehead of staunchly pro-Israel activism on campus, co-founding a Zionist student group called Tikvah. His stance eventually led him to taking a job as a campus coordinator with the pro-Israel advocacy organization StandWithUs. Yet he maintains that his views back then were devoid of nuance and were little more than a knee-jerk reaction to the vociferously anti-Israel voices on campus. He donned what he calls “hasbara (PR) Kool-Aid wings” and said he regrets viewing Palestinians as part of a “monolith” and not as individuals.

After moving to Israel, Moti made a concerted effort to see the country for what it was – beautiful and bold and, at times, bad.

“I tried to see the struggles and not just see Israel through a rosy-eyed, Birthright [prism.],” he said.

Moti picked up Hebrew in record time, possibly because he already spoke nine other languages with varying levels of fluency. He volunteered for the army and was assigned a jobnik role – a derogatory term for noncombatant recruits. Moti doggedly fought the system until he was given a more respectable role in foreign relations. Within three months – an almost unheard period of time – he was sent to officer’s course. “They sent me before I would get too old and die,” he quipped.

His parents and only brother made their first trip to Israel to witness Moti receive his rank as officer. With trembling cadence and audible pride, Moti recounts seeing his biological family alongside his adopted family on the sidelines.

“It was an incredible moment,” he said, “seeing those two worlds be bridged and having my parents see that I’m OK and that I have people who love me and take care of me here.”