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.

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Can one act morally in an immoral situation?

“I fell in love with Israel as a Zionist state.”

Ruth Hiller originally came from the States at the age of 17 to work on a kibbutz.  And so she stayed, got married and raised her six children.

But things changed when her third child said that he did not want to serve in the Israeli Defense Force (IDF).  Today Ruth and her colleagues from New Profile assist other young Israelis who also refuse to join the IDF. (I met her last year during my work as an ecumenical accompanier in the West Bank.)

One such person, is the 18-year old Noam Gur who explains in frank words why she refuses to join the Israeli Army:

“I can’t take part in these crimes”: Israeli refuser interviewed.

I refuse to take part in the Israeli army because I refuse to join an army that has, since it was established, been engaged in dominating another nation, in plundering and terrorizing a civilian population that is under its control.

Israel, since it was established, is committing war crimes and crimes against humanity, from the Nakba [the forced displacement of 750,000 Palestinians in 1947-48] until today. We see this in the last massacre in Gaza, we see this in the everyday life of Palestinians under occupation in Gaza and the West Bank, and we see this in Palestinians living inside Israel in how they’re being treated.

I don’t think that I belong in this place. I don’t think I can personally take part in these crimes and I think that we have to criticize this institution, these crimes and go out publicly saying that we will not serve in the army as long as it occupies other people.

Since Noam announced her decision in public, others felt less alone and also refused military service on behalf of Israel. This is not an easy decision, as they all expect to go to prison for refusing to enlist in the Israeli army.

Alon Gurman, 18, from Tel Aviv had no doubt that he would enlist until he first went to the West Bank. During his last year in school, he started to educate himself on what happens in Palestine.

Right-click here to download pictures. To help protect your privacy, Outlook prevented automatic download of this picture from the Internet.

Alon Gurman in Nabi Saleh (Anne Paq / Activestills)

“I started going to demonstrations thinking that while certain policies might be wrong, they can be changed, and changed from the inside, and so I went on with the pre-draft procedures as expected of me. Only after I went to the occupied territories did I realize that I could never be a part of the army. I saw house demolitions; I saw unbelievable levels of violence used against civilian protest, and all in the name of colonialism. I was especially traumatized when I was arrested in a demonstration in Al-Walaja, just as we were starting to disperse. The soldiers were my age, my peers, and I saw the effect of the service on them. You can’t be moral in an immoral situation.”

But what about those Israelis who did join the IDF?

Yigal Levin, 25, is far from your typical conscientious objector. Born in Ukraine, and growing up in Bat Yam, Levin was taught that a man’s role is to protect his family and homeland:

“I used to be a Mussolini-styled fascist, not the local kind of religious fascists who want the land because of some divine promise, but the kind who believes that the spoils go to the winner. I knew I would be an officer when I joined the army, and having snipers shoot at me in Gaza in 2005 made me even more of an extremist.”

Right-click here to download pictures. To help protect your privacy, Outlook prevented automatic download of this picture from the Internet.

Yigal Levin (Oren Ziv / Activestills)

“Part of my ideology was that the state has to be wise, responsible, decent and protective. In Lebanon, I saw a war that started for no clear reason, where soldiers died in vain while also committing a massacre against the Lebanese.”

Levin says he witnessed officers raping their female subordinates, soldiers tormenting Sudanese refugees who crossed the border from Egypt, and during operation “Cast Lead” he was shocked to see the army bombarding the civilian population and setting Gaza aflame. These factors broke his faith in making a difference from within the ranks.

After the attack on Gaza, Levin finished his service, and inspired by Lev Tolstoy, he joined the Israeli Anarchist Communist Front and toured Ukraine and Germany with comrades. When he recently received an order to show up for his reserve service, he ignored it, and is thus now considered a deserter. Having heard of Gur and Gurman, he decided to turn himself in on the day of their refusal.

“The Israeli army is commonly considered to be ‘the people’s army’, an army of the people protecting the people, but in fact, the Israeli army is simply a bourgeois army – a tool in the hands of a small clique, which does not give a damn about the people… Not willing to remain a mere tool, a traitor, and a hypocrite, I decided to terminate my participation in it.”

(Information on Yigal and Alon from Ranjan Solomon, badayl.alternatives)

read more.

And then there is Michael whom I met in Jerusalem in 2011:

In conversation with Michael from Breaking the Silence – veteran Israeli soldiers who now wants the occupation to end.

We try  to convince our society (Israel) to end the occupation completely, and not as proposed in the past. We want to be completely equal. If you want Breaking the Silence to end, then start by talking to your kids.  There is still a lot of work to do.

Breaking the Silence is an Israeli organisation that was started in 2004 by veteran soldiers who wanted to talk about their experiences whilst serving in Palestine. By the end of 2011, they received testimonies from 800 soldiers. Breaking the Silence conducts photo exhibitions worldwide, they publish books and they take people on tours to see for themselves what happens in the occupied territories.

In my mind, the issue here is that what we do to others, also defines who we are.  So we should not ask ourselves “What system do I fit into?”  but rather “Who am I?”  and “What kind of world do I want to live in?” 

An ethical choice not based on fear requires emotional courage and maturity.  If one really wants a better world, it is possible.  We can each make a difference in the direction of the kind of freedom we choose: