OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Is the dream of Zionism crumbling?

The founding social contract of Zionism was based on the notion that all Jews must stick together, especially in combat against Arabs but also otherwise against a hostile world, and in exchange they would enjoy the benefits of a welfare state.

(Haggai Matar, an Israeli journalist and political activist)

There is a new (and in my view a positive) take on military service refusal in Israel. It flared up from an unexpected, and a very tragic angle.  In July 2012, a man set himself on fire in public; thousands took to the streets of Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, Haifa and Be’er Sheva; and Guy Tamar, a first sergeant (res.) in the engineering corps. declared:

Recent events cracked something within me. You can say my eyes were once closed, and the social justice protests opened them in such a way that I can’t go back.

Ruth Hiller from New Profile sketched the events leading up to the mass protest:

e-mail, 17 July 2012

Dear Friends,

I hope all is well.

I don’t know how many of you are following the newest wave of social protest going on in Israel. Saturday, July 14th marked a year since it began, and demonstrations were held in most of the larger cities in Israel. During the demonstration in Tel Aviv, Moshe Silman, a social activist from Haifa, who is unemployed and homeless, read a letter that he wrote to the government having been refused social benefits and rent assistance several times, and set himself on fire. The act in itself is horrific and sad. Moshe has burns on 96% of his body, is in a medically induced coma and is being ventilated. This is a tragedy for his family and for Israel, as so much could have been done to help him so that he would not have to reach this level of extreme desperation.

The discussion of why Moshe Silman and why he did what he did is very today’s discussion all over Israel. Here is a man who once owned his own small trucking business and an apartment. But due to debts incurred to the National Insurance Institute (our Social Security system), he had to claim bankruptcy and lost his home. Additionally he then suffered a series of small strokes and was unable to seek employment. From here everything was then downhill for him and in spite of the many applications for financial aid, he was deemed ineligible.  Moshe Silman’s sister gave several TV and radio interviews and shared with the Israeli public how he used to be a very proud man and how his sense of pride was beaten.

Other people in Israel have committed suicide, leaving testimonies of great shame in their inability to maintain their households and support their families… it is difficult for me to comprehend the choice of taking one’s life to prove a point. At the same time while it is not my place to criticize the act, I also can’t rationalize and call Moshe Silman a social justice hero. I would not want others, who have reached similar levels of desperation, to take their lives. (Just this morning a man tried to set himself on fire before the National Insurance Institute offices in Be’er Sheva, but was stopped on time by a security guard.) Moshe is not one case, and there are many other Israeli citizens, from all the ethnic sectors, who are experiencing the same systematic red tape treatment by governmental offices. However the social movement has been consistent in one aspect from the get go, and has kept matters of social services, affordable medical services, and affordable housing high up on the agenda.

Now Haggai Matar, a colleague and fellow activist in New Profile, writes about an new phenomena within the Israel social protest – conscientious objection in protest of neo-liberalism and the lack of social justice. I think you will find the article…on the online magazine +972, of much interest.

All the best,

Ruth

Group of J14 activists to refuse military reserve duty

Moshe Silman, who set himself on fire sparked a new wave of angry J14 protests against the Israeli government. Thousands of demonstrators marched the streets of Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, Haifa and Be’er Sheva, enraged by anti-social policies and by Prime Minister Netanyahu’s response to the event, which he defined it a “personal tragedy.”

Protesters carried copies of Silman’s suicide letter (parts of which were omitted in the pro-Netanyahu daily Israel Hayom), and chanted slogans such as “every man is Moshe Silman” and “Netanyahu – go home!”

In Tel Aviv more than a thousand demonstrators blockaded government buildings and blocked main roads, including the Ayalon Highway, and gained much support from car and even train drivers passing by. While in Tel Aviv police did not intervene, In Jerusalem six were arrested while blocking roads. Late at night the  entrance to the National Insurance Institute (Bituah Leumi) building in Ramat Gan was set on fire, and graffiti was sprayed reading: “Price tag for Moshe Silman.”

One of the protesters in Tel Aviv was 39-year-old Guy Tamar who is a first sergeant (res.) in the engineering corps who says:

I was careful not to reach this point before, but on a day such as this there is no choice. I will no longer defend a state that does not defend its citizens.

Within hours five more reserve service men, two of them officers, sent him their names and ranks and asked to join the initiative, as did two ex-servicemen.

I had problems with the way the army does things in the past, but I felt like it was important to be there and make a difference. But recent events cracked something within me. You can say my eyes were once closed, and the social justice protests opened them in such a way that I can’t go back.

And then the words that I find so encouraging:

We mustn’t worship the army, but rather the lives of citizens and all others who live here. Before equal duties we must talk of equal rights. The government must understand that we are rejecting the militaristic discourse.

Read the full article with photos here.

In another step, Abigail Disney an investor in Shamrock Holdings, the Disney family investment fund that owns a part of Ahava, decided to donate her profits to the ending of the occupation.

Ahava’s main factory is located in an Israeli settlement, and is owned by companies deeply invested in Israel’s illegal settlement project.  She says:

While I will always hold my colleagues and coworkers in the highest regard, I cannot in good conscience profit from what is technically the “plunder” or “pillage” of occupied natural resources and the company’s situating its factory in an Israeli settlement in the Occupied West Bank. Because of complicated legal and financial constraints I am unable to withdraw my investment at this time, but will donate the corpus of the investment as well as the profits accrued to me during the term of my involvement to organizations working to end this illegal exploitation.

These Israelis and Jews who have the guts to stand up for justice remind me of those in my country during the apartheid years who were willing to face the critique of society when they said that apartheid must end.  The occupation of Palestine will end too.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
Gallery

A visit by three Zionists to Stellenbosch

The other night someone started to talk to me at an art exhibition.  After asking all the obvious questions over glasses of wine (his) and mineral water (mine) and learning of my studies in religion and culture, he asked: “So what do you think of Islam?” I almost choked.  Ok, so now he had my attention.

I mentioned my travels to Indonesia and that I recently spent three months in Palestine. “These people opened their hearts and their houses to me” I told him.  “And I witnessed gross human rights abuses in Palestine….”

Someone else started to talk to the man and I wandered away to look at the young artist’s first solo exhibition. The extraordinary colourful paintings featured a South African fishing community – salt of the earth, weathered faces. They are not rich in earthly belongings, but they have such joy that they made me smile too.

happiness by Wilko Roon

The man and I eventually ended up having a late supper in town where I listened to his myths on Islam and Palestinians.

“There are two sides to the story” he said (But why do you think that these two sides are equal? Ever heard of systemic injustice? Like in apartheid – in our country – remember?)

“It’s a complex situation” he tried to ease it up (Well it would help if Israel starts to adhere to international law…. that’s not complicated, it’s pretty much black and white).

And so it went on.  I did not move him one inch (or centimetre). “You can say what you want,” he concluded “but the Israelis are damn good with water.”  (Yeah….they also steal Palestinian water.)

But we did part on a nice foot and when he called about two weeks later to say that some Israelis were visiting Stellenbosch to talk about their country I thought I should better check it out.

The Israelis turned out to be an ex-Christian South African couple, previously from Klerksdorp.  White Afrikaans speaking people like me, but probably about ten or fifteen years younger.  Their conversion to Judaism a few years earlier was prompted by their realisation that Christmas trees are part of a pagan tradition. They burnt their tree, started to study their Bible and eventually felt that it was their destiny to “return” to Israel. They now live in Be’er Sheva just off the southern border of the West Bank.

This is also the home of the Ben Gurion University (the University of Johannesburg severed ties with UBG in 2011).

Accompanying this couple was another Jew, a man who also used to be Christian. He emigrated from Dortrecht in the Netherlands to Israel.

To them their lives as new-born Jews in Israel have real purpose.  During the first part of their presentation they told us about their religious task to take back all that “belongs” to them.

“Fifty to sixty years ago” they said, “the West Bank and the area where we live was a wilderness and nobody wanted to live there.” (Thoughts of the thriving Palestinian agriculture and trade before the Nakba – the Catastrophe of 1948 when over 700 000 Palestinians became refugees and Israel took possession of 530 Palestinian villages in addition to the land allotted to them by the UN – crossed my mind).  He showed us beautiful pictures of fields in bloom – exactly the way Yanoun (where I used to stay whilst I worked in the West Bank) looks like in spring…. green fields dotted with red poppies….all natural.  “No-one succeeded before to let the Negev blossom” he said. “Each year our crop increases and this is God’s blessing to us.” I kept my silence to listen him out.

The Dutch Jew quoted from the Bible (Gen 22:19, Ex 3:31, 1 Kings 5:1, 1 Kings 19:1-3, Num 21:1, 1 1 Sam 25:1, Lev 26:20,32, Ps 126, Ezekiel 36:8, and so forth) to demonstrate that God promised all of the current Israel plus the occupied territories of Palestine (the West Bank, Gaza and East-Jerusalem) to the modern state of Israel and to anybody else in the world who chooses to be Jewish.

“There is only one thing in the Middle East that matters” he told us, “and that is the truth.  We can now see how the things that our prophets mentioned are coming true.” (Thank goodness my Bible talks about an inclusive love and respect for all.)

It was as if he repeated the Netanyahu rhetoric of “truth – more truth – and the truth only.”   But even Netanyahu’s truth sometimes shifts…like when he realised that the illegal expropriation of Palestinian homes and lands could actually implicate Israeli officials in war crimes litigation as one can read by clicking on the following link:

Netanyahu ordered evacuation of Hebron home over fears of war crimes suits

“God’s will”, they explained, “is to bring the people of Israel back to Israel.” (Will the land always be enough no matter how many people from all over the world convert to Judaism and move there? What about the many Jews who do not agree with the Israeli government’s policy to take someone else’s land and resources by force….those who say that the Torah speaks of respect for others and human dignity without a political and nationalistic agenda?)

“Each nation needs to be in its own place where they belong and this only will bring peace” the presentation continued. (Therefore Dutch and South African Jews are… what…Israelis? What is a nation and what is a religion – is there perhaps a difference between the two?)

“The Arabs belong in Jordan.” (In other words those Palestinians whose families date back to the times of the Old Testament, many of them Christians, should move to Jordan? What about the millions of Palestinian refugees worldwide – all of them too? I am a South African whose ancestors came from the Netherlands, France and Italy a mere three hundred years ago…where is my “place”?)

The man from the art exhibition and I were the only people who attended the talk by the three people from the Beit Moriah organisation. It turned out they came to ask money for their community which they said had been falling apart lately. They need the money to integrate immigrants from Ethiopia and the USSR, to feed those living below the poverty line, to run schools, to train leaders, to turn neighbours into friends, to instil Jewish and Israeli knowledge and pride. (The money that Israel receives from the USA each year is more than what the USA gives to the entire developing world.)

We had a long discussion and I felt like a lone voice between three Zionists and one person with an un-nuanced admiration for Israel.  I tried to talk to my fellow (albeit ex-)South Africans with warmth and love and asked them if they really, honestly, in their inner-most beings as members of a post-apartheid society think that the solution lies in separation. They answered quickly and surely – they don’t – and therefore all of the land must belong to Israel. I actually referred to separation between people.

The woman told me how she once took her child to a Palestinian hospital and how well she and her child were treated. There she realised that she and the Palestinian women are both mothers. The couple acknowledged that settlers live illegally in the West Bank (this unsettled the guy I went with) and that they are deemed the “baddies”. They know this. But they deny settler violence and regard the United Nations, the Red Cross, the Quartet and Save the Children as leftish organisations – “Don’t talk to us about them” they told me.

They felt the IDF discriminates as much against them as they do against Palestinians. Yet when I told them some of the things I witnessed in the West Bank they asked if I am sure that the transgressors were indeed settlers.  They didn’t know about the demolitions, the personal harassments, the damage to property, the confiscation of water, the denial of basic human rights and all the double standards. These things are not true they asserted, in fact, they heard rumours and when they checked it out the army told them that none of this is true and therefore none of this is true.

Despite my very best intentions and much discipline to restrain myself, my many questions and my counter information clearly irritated them. Or perhaps not? Did I give them something to reflect on? I’m not sure of this. The gentleman whom I accompanied assured me afterwards that I launched an attack on the three guests from Israel who just wanted to tell us their story.

I arrived home feeling very emotional…but I also remembered the grace and dignity of the Palestinians in the midst of their humiliation, pain and loss. I owe it to them to engage with those who do not yet see Israel’s systemic injustices so that even though they do not hear me, they can still feel my longing for harmony and perhaps, maybe on a level outside their minds and beyond their emotions and religious convictions, something may start to shift.

Over centuries, the truth has always shifted. We know only in part. Therefore we should be modest about our claims on truth or a single right way. In fact, we start to recognise a plasticity in the nature of reality as Richard Tarnas explains in his book on the ideas that shape(d) Western worldviews (1993:406).

If this is indeed the case, it has immense implications for the human situation as it actually implies that you and I can participate in the creation of reality.  It means we can influence our own reality through our actions, and even through our attitudes, our thoughts and our prayers. As we are all inter-connected, we can also influence the reality beyond our own bodies. All of this means that what we do really matters (in the literal sense of the word). We actually have an impact on what happens.

This is (one of the reasons) why I don’t give up, and why a situation as the one I described here actually energises me in my quest for living a message of non-violence.  I’ll keep on trying.

Read also the profoundly moving testimony of Rabbi Brian Walt (who grew up in South Africa) on Affirming a Judaism and Jewish identity without Zionism.

Tarnas, Richard. 1993.  The Passion of he Western Mind. New York.