Friday, March 13, 2015

Redemption from the mouth of a leper

Photos: Motti Kimchi/AFP - Ynet

The final stretch. Four days to elections, and everything is still hanging in the balance, and nothing has yet been decided. Will Binyamin Netanyahu fall or remain in power? Will a new government  be established in Israel, or will it not? And if a new government does come about, will it bring about a significant change or will it prove nothing but bitter disappointment? Until the morning of March 18, we will not know, and maybe not then, either. In these last days I think a lot about something which happened on one night many years ago, and of its significance for the political upheaval which will or will not occur in the Israel of March 2015.

In the summer of 1971, the word "Intifada" had not yet entered the Hebrew language. In the papers of the time we could read of the army and security service launching “a large-scale anti-terrorism operation in the Gaza Strip", but the reports did not really go into the fine details. At the invitation of a high school classmate, I arrived one evening at a meeting in the damp basement of an old house in downtown Tel Aviv. Twenty youngsters were sitting there, and in front of us was a soldier in uniform, just returned from Gaza. He told us things that were not published in any newspaper. He told of the arbitrary beatings of by passers in the streets  of Gaza, sometimes using whips, of bulldozers razing houses and whole streets in the refugee camps, and also of extrajudicial executions.  "People are located according to blacklists, captured, shot in the head at point blank range, and the bodies are thrown into dry water holes". We, the high school students assembled in that basement, protested strongly. We did not believe it, we did not want to believe it. "That's not true! Our army does not do such things!". The soldier said, "It’s all true. I've seen it myself. I have done it myself, and now I can’t sleep at night”.

Then we produced on an old stencil machine which stood at the corner of the basement several thousand leaflets entitled "The Truth about what is happening in Gaza! Residents of Tel Aviv, read what the military censorship is hiding from you!". We went out, two by two, to spread the leaflets in the mailboxes of the sleeping city, one putting them in and the other keeping an eye for police patrol cars.
Sometimes I happen to meet  one of the others who had been there on that night, most of whom are no longer politically involved.  When I ask "Do you remember that evening with the soldier from Gaza?" the answer is invariably "Of course I remember, how can  you forget something like that?”
I will never know the name of that soldier who influenced my life. But by now I do know the name of the commanding officer who sent him on such tasks. The name of that commander, cleared for publication many years later, was Meir Dagan. Dagan was a confidant and personal friend of Ariel Sharon, then the General in charge of the IDF Southern Command, and he headed a secret unit called “Sayeret Rimon” which was in charge of dirty tricks in the Gaza Strip. At that time the operation was considered  a great success – though that success proved quite temporary, the Palestinians rising up again, with greater intensity, some years later. Meir Dagan continued to be among Sharon’s associates through various vicissitudes of military and political fortunes. After being elected Prime Minister, Sharon appointed Dagan to head the Mossad, Israel’s external intelligence agency. Most of what he did in the later part of his career is still classified information, but the clues which the media let drop made it clear that also after 1971 he managed to accumulate a lot of "blood on the hands”.
After completing his term as Mossad Director, Meir Dagan began to voice public criticism, ever more acute, of government policies. In particular, in the years when the possibility of an Israeli attack against Iran stood conspicuously on the public agenda, Dagan placed himself in the vanguard of public opposition to any such offensive. At first it was a little surprising to see him in that role - then we grew accustomed to it.
Thus, on Saturday night a week ago, it was not a total surprise to find the same Meir Dagan as the keynote speaker at the rally held in Tel Aviv’s Rabin Square under the slogan "Israel Wants a Change," a rally designed to mobilize and focus the struggle for the overturn and replacement of Binyamin Netanyahu. Tens of thousands of people filled the square, overflowing into side streets, the largest most hopeful gathering of the Israeli Peace Camp for many years. Meir Dagan’s speech was greeted with prolonged clapping.
”I do not belong to any political party. I'm speaking as a soldier who wishes to do whatever is necessary and possible for the country to whose security I have devoted forty-five years of my life. I have no other ambitions. Israel is a country surrounded by enemies, but these enemies do not frighten me, I am frightened by our leaders. I am afraid of a leadership which has no determination and gives no personal example, which exhibits indecision and stagnation. For six years in a row Binyamin Netanyahu has been Prime Minister, six years in which he has not taken any real initiative to change the face of the region, or create a better future. Why do you want to be in charge of our destinies if you are so afraid to take responsibility?
”On Netanyahu's shift, Israel waged the longest war since the War of Independence. For an entire summer Israel’s civilians huddled in air raid shelters under thousands of rockets, while the soldiers suffered heavy losses. And it ended with nil results - zero deterrence, zero political achievement.
 “The health care system is collapsing. The housing crisis is peaking. The gaps in income continue to grow, the periphery had never been so far behind the center. One in three children lives in poverty. 40% of Israelis can’t make ends meet. Israelis look and  see a national leadership which cares nothing about them. So, where are you going, Mr. Prime Minister? Why should a person seek a position of leadership when he does not want to lead? How is it that this country, which is far stronger than all other countries of the region put together, is unable to make a strategic move that will improve our situation? The answer is simple: we have a leader who is involved in one struggle only  - the struggle for his own political survival.
”I do not want to get to a binational state. I do not want an Apartheid state. I do not want to rule over three million Arabs. I do not want us to remain hostages to fear, despair and stagnation. I think it is time to wake up, I hope that the people of Israel will no longer be held frozen by fear, by the ever new  threats of which we are warned  day after day.
“I have a dream - to leave my three children and seven grandchildren a different  country. I dream that they will be able to devote their life to growth, development, realization of dreams – not to fighting for their homes. I would like to leave them a better life than the life I have lived. I would like to leave them a society which will root out discrimination and violence, which will take back its heritage and take up responsibility for its fate. A society which will ensure a real opportunity for all its citizens and will strive for true equality.
”To get out of our difficult situation, all it takes is a courageous leadership which is able to take decisions. Does anyone think that the country’s current leadership is such?". The crowd responded with a resounding “No!". "I would like to appeal to all those who still say that there is no alternative to Netanyahau. I speak as one who has worked personally with three different Prime Ministers, having  different styles of leadership, as one who knows many of the contestants in this elections. There definitely is a better alternative!”.  The crowd responded with chants of "Herzog, Herzog, Herzog!”.
In his long interview on Channel One TV, Meir Dagan reiterated much the same positions, but added something personal hitherto unknown. “This is a photo of my grandfather, who was the Rabbi of a small town in Poland. The German soldiers who murdered the town’s Jews have taken this photo of him a few minutes before killing him. It was found in a Nazi archive after the war." - "And what is your conclusion from this chilling story?" "Of course, I have an obvious conclusion, 'Never Again', that nowadays we can defend ourselves. But I think also of the other side of the story. How the Nazis took a unit of regular soldiers, who to begin with were not so  different from the soldiers of any other army, and made of them cold-blooded killers. With all the differences in the situations, this is a danger that any army must be aware of." There can be no doubt that Meir Dagan knows what he is talking about.
As the crowd around me on the square cheered Meir Dagan,  I recalled the soldier from 1971 and the improvised leaflets furtively spread in the mailboxes of Tel Aviv. If next week Yitzhak Herzog of the Israeli Labor Party is elected Prime Minister of Israel, he will have a great debt to Meir Dagan and to the speech delivered in the square a week and a half before elections day.
“But I will not take the news of redemption / If it comes from the mouth of a leper. /Let a pure one bring the news, let the pure redeem/ and if the pure prove unable/ then let me die among the ravages of the siege”. So wrote the poet Rachel Bluwstein in one of the most famous pieces of modern Hebrew poetry - her imagery based on the Biblical story of the besieged city whose inhabitants were reduced to starvation and cannibalism and to whom four despised lepers brought the message of the miraculous lifting of the siege.
I feel I can’t afford to be that squeamish. If a person who had shed a lot of blood and perpetrated many atrocities can at an advanced age become the standard bearer of the Peace Camp, I will not reject him.
Of Binyamin Netanyahu, his government and his friends and colleagues, there is nothing to expect - not even the slightest pinch of hope. The Herzog Government, if it gets established , may well disappoint us – only those of whom you expect something can let you down.  Let’s take the risk.