BOOK REVIEW Refusenik! Israel’s Soldiers of Conscience (Peretz Kidron)
by Mark Chmiel
A Reflection on Peretz Kidron, Refusenik! Israel’s Soldiers of Conscience (London and New York: Zed Books, 2004)
General, your tank is a powerful vehicle
It tramples the forest, it crushes a hundred men.
But it has one flaw:
It requires a driver.
General, your bomber is strong.
It flies faster than the storm, it loads more than an elephant.
But it has one flaw:
It requires a mechanic.
General, man is very useful.
He knows how to fly, he knows how to murder.
But he has one flaw:
He knows how to think.
—Bertolt Brecht, German poet and playwright who left Germany after Hitler came to power
Refusenik = Israeli Army reservists who report for duty when summoned but refuse morally objectionable assignments (notably serving in the West Bank and Gaza)
In Refusenik!, Peretz Kidron has done a great service in collecting the testimonies of and giving the historical background for the Israeli refusenik movement. It is a slim volume, less than120 pages but it shines a powerful light on the Jewish humanism at work in Israeli society.
Born in Vienna in 1933, living in England during the Third Reich, and moving to Israel in the early 1950s, Kidron has been a refusenik himself. Although there were some instances of Israelis refusing military service in the 1970s, it was with the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon that galvanized Israelis to protest and say, Enough. In fact, these soldiers of conscience called their organization, Yesh Gvul, Hebrew which means “There is a limit.”
The refuseniks, it is important to know, are not pacifists. However, they would seem to agree in principle with a formulation of the twentieth-century’s best known pacifist, Mohandas Gandhi, who said, “Non-cooperation with evil is a sacred duty.” Theirs is a selective conscientious objection, that is, they are committed to the defense of Israel but not to Israel’s occupation and domination of the Palestinians.
Not surprisingly, many Israelis would see such questioners of authority as traitorous. Likewise, in recent years, even though more Americans have indicated that they want the U.S. troops brought back from Iraq, I suspect those soldiers who refuse to go to Iraq and Afghanistan would be seen in comparably critical terms by their fellow American citizens.
Consider the view of Mike Levine, who was jailed for his refusing to serve in Israel’s Lebanon campaign in the early 1980s: “First time I was called up, I reported for duty. The second time I refused and joined Yesh Gvul. I should stress that my activity in the movement is in no way directed against the state of Israel, I do it out of concern and dread over what is happening here. I believe my refusal is an act of personal protest stemming from unwillingness to take part in the brutal acts committed by the Israeli army. Furthermore, I consider my refusal to be a patriotic act.” [p. 17]
Stephen Langfur was born in the U.S. and was a Conscientious Objector during the American war of destruction in Vietnam. When he moved to Israel, he began to serve in the Israel Defense Force but later refused to serve in the West Bank during the first Palestinian intifada. He faced three weeks of detention for his objection. The following is part of his reckoning for why he did what he did: “The basic moral law here is the Torah, as stated by the Jewish sage of antiquity, Hillel: ‘What is hateful to you, do not do unto others.’ Its principle: another person’s life is as important to him as mine is to me. Insofar as I owe my own being to other persons, that law is basic to being human. We are stuck with it. When we violate it, we feel guilt. There is, however, a way to oppress others and not feel guilt. The moral law applies to persons, so one can avoid feeling guilt by persuading oneself that the oppressed are subhuman. The doctrine of the sub-humanity of the Arabs is in full swing among us (‘grasshoppers’, ‘cockroaches’, ‘one thousandth of a Jew’, ‘animals’, ‘the dirtiest people on earth’). But then, instead of guilt, one feels dread of their ultimate revenge. And because one has pushed their humanity into the unconscious, the oppressed seem not only like animals, but like animals with demoniacal properties. So one feels threatened and beats them harder, and then there is more guilt to avoid, so one de-humanises them more, and on and on: it is the spiral of evil. One cannot sit upon another people without de-humanising them. This is my green line. I refuse to de-humanise the Arabs.” [p. 32]
There have been controversial reports circulating in Israel from soldiers speaking frankly about what they did in the recent Operation Molten Lead in late 2008 and early 2009 in Gaza. Supporters of Israeli policy attribute the problem to individual soldiers. This reaction is reminiscent of the reaction to U.S. soldiers involved in the Abu Ghraib torture scandal in the early years of the U.S. occupation in Iraq. A few of those soldiers, like Lynddie England, became scapegoats to obscure the chain of command ultimately responsible for the nefarious treatment of Iraqis.
Doron Vilner is a social worker and a co-founder of Yesh Gvul. While imprisoned for his resistance, he had some contact with fellow soldiers who were the cogs in the machine of the Israeli occupation that is authorized by the Israeli power elite. He writes, “The surprise is the discovery of what it is the occupation does to those who enforce it on the ground. Ostensibly, they’re ordinary youngsters like you’d meet anywhere in the world, who talk about the girl-friend they have or haven’t got, or how many days they have left to serve in prison. But over and again, conversations in the tents revert to experiences they’ve had in fighting the intifada. They talk about the Palestinian they beat to a pulp; about the child they caught after a chase, and how his mother came along and made such a fuss trying to get him released; about the Ratz (Liberal) party member who handed over the Arab he’d caught to the Border Guards, begging them not to beat ‘his’ Arab, and how they just waited for him to clear off before giving the prisoner a thrashing. Whenever I enter the tent, the talk ceases or they change the subject to more general matters. Those silences cry out. I have often heard stories of such silences. I heard about them in another land [German] when an entire generation kept silent, never telling their children about an entire period of their lives. And here in prison, detached from my usual circles of acquaintances, I meet those who do the daily work of the occupation. An entire generation for whom authorized establishment violence is part of their daily round. In corners, when there aren’t many listeners around and you can talk discreetly, someone finds a moment to slip up to me and say he didn’t behave that way, that he was different. And anyway, they too, the Arabs, are human beings.” [p. 40]
There are many other such compelling voices in this collection.
Yigal Bronner is a professor of literature at Tel Aviv University and has worked with Ta’ayush, an Arab-Jewish solidarity group. In his letter of refusal to a general, he stated, “I have to turn down your summons to duty. I won’t come along to squeeze the trigger on your behalf. Of course, I have no illusions. To you I am a buzzing gnat that you will swat and try to crush before striding on. You’ll find yourself another gunner, more obedient and gifted than me. There’s no shortage. Your tank will rumble on. One single gnat can’t halt a tank, certainly not a column of tanks, certainly not the entire march of folly. But the gnat can buzz, irritate, infuriate, occasionally even sting. Ultimately, more and more gunners, drivers and commanders, who will see more and more aimless killing, will also start thinking and buzzing. There are already many hundreds of us. Ultimately our buzzing will ascend into a deafening outcry that will echo in your years and the ears of your children, and on the pages of history for many generations.” [p. 117]
For more information, see
Yesh Gvul: http://www.yeshgvul.org/index_e.asp
The Shministim are Israeli high school students who have been imprisoned for refusing to serve in an army that occupies the Palestinian Territories: http://december18th.org/
Courage to Refuse: http://www.seruv.org.il/english/combatants_letter.asp
Breaking the Silence: http://www.shovrimshtika.org/index_e.asp