Saturday, June 3, 2017

Being a peace activist - after fifty years

(Written for De Brug, Amsterdam, where it will appear in Dutch)
I started being politically involved in the summer of 1969, when I offered myself as a volunteer to do menial work at the elections campaign headquarters of Uri Avnery’s "HaOlam HaZeh / New Force" Party. Uri Avnery, then a radical young Member of the Israeli Parliament, had been one of the first Israelis to call for creating a Palestinian state in the newly-occupied territories. As a matter of fact, it was not this which initially drew me to the party – but rather its opposition to "the rotten old parties" which dominated Israeli politics, as well as the call to separate religion and state. HaOlam HaZeh was, in fact, rather similar to the Dutch D-66 party, launched at much the same time. It was only gradually, over a period of some two years, that I fully accepted the idea of Israel making peace with the Palestinians and getting out of the Occupied Territories.

There was a key moment – an evening in 1971 when I was sitting with some twenty other youths in the a dingy basement of a house in downtown Tel Aviv, and heard a soldier in uniform who had just come from the Gaza Strip. He was telling of horrors: extrajudicial executions, the victims’ bodies thrown into dry wells; torture; soldiers beating up passers-by on the streets of Gaza "just for the fun of it"… We were shocked, we did not want to believe it, we said "This can’t be true, our army does not do such things!". The soldier said:"Yes, it is true. I have done it myself, and now I can’t sleep at night". Later that night, we went out with some three thousand leaflets, badly printed on an old stencil machine, which contained what the soldier had told. We put them into postboxes around Tel Aviv – "To let the people know what the government was hiding from them" – and looked behind our shoulders to make sure there were no police patrol cars in the streets.

There followed the daily exhausting routine of activism – distributing leaflets on street corners, endless debating with passers-by, going after midnight to write graffiti and paste inflammatory posters on the walls, visits to Palestinian villages, protest vigils of a few dozens outside government offices, sometimes a bit bigger demonstrations which required weeks of intensive preparations and sometimes had disappointing results…


Even if the going was difficult and there were many setbacks, for some decades we felt we were making a headway. PM Golda Meir said that "There is no such thing as Palestinians". Gradually, the idea that the Palestinians are indeed a people and deserve to have their own state became widely accepted in the mainstream of Israeli society, and Golda Meir’s opinion is nowadays held only by the extreme right lunatic fringe.

When Egyptian President Anwar Sadat landed in Israel and spoke on the Knesset podium, there was a month of peace euphoria. Peace stopped being an unattainable dream and became a concrete, real possibility, peace rallies grew from hundreds to thousands and to tens of thousands, sometimes to hundreds of thousands. When it became clear that Menachem Begin wanted peace only with the Egyptians and had launched an invasion of Lebanon in order to crush the Palestinians, there was for the first time in Israeli history an active grassroots anti-war movement, with large rallies on the streets and soldiers going to prison for refusing service in Lebanon and eventually the protest of soldiers’ mothers forcing the government to terminate the Lebanon adventure.

The outbreak of the First Intifada convinced many that continued occupation was both immoral and impractical. For decades, the PLO had been considered "a terrorist organization", and the activist and philanthropist Abie Nathan served two six-month prison terms for the "crime" of having met Yasser Arafat and shaken his hand. "We will meet the PLO only on the battlefield" was what Prime Minister Yitzchak Rabin said in the earlier part of his career, and he ordered soldiers to "break the bones of rioting Palestinians". Little did Rabin realize that eventually he himself would shake Arafat’s hand on the White House lawn, in a blaze of worldwide publicity – or that he would pay for that courageous act with his life and become after his death the archetypal Martyr for Peace, at the focus of vast annual memorial rallies.

At the time when Rabin signed the Oslo Accords with Arafat, we felt that our task was nearly done, that peace between Israel and the Palestinians was at hand and only a few last details needed to be worked out. Even after the assassination of Rabin, peace activists were far from losing heart. The first time that Netanyahu got elected, we in general regarded it as a regrettable accident to be soon corrected. Many of us considered Netanyahu an altogether illegitimate Prime Minister – a bit like many Americans consider Trump nowadays – and the three years of Netanyahu’s first term were stormy, full of intensive demonstrations and protests.

In 1999 Ehud Barak was elected, claiming to be Rabin’s successor and complete Rabin’s unfinished task. The fact that this claim got wide public credibility enabled Barak to give the Israeli peace movement the most grievous blow it ever suffered. In August 2000 Barak, Arafat and Clinton were closeted for intensive negotiations in Camp David. Opinion polls in Israel indicated that, if an agreement was reached and presented to the Israeli voters, it would have gotten at least 70% support and possible as much as 80%. A vast coalition was formed, including the Labor Party and more or less everybody to its left. Gush Shalom (The Peace Bloc), on whose behalf I took part in this coalition’s meetings, was the most radical and critical participant – but we, too, were ready to throw our full backing behind a Barak-Arafat deal. A full-scale campaign was planned in great detail. A very beautiful color poster was prepared, with a large dove and the words "Back the Agreement – Vote YES for Peace". Everybody in the room fell in love with it - If things had gone as we hoped, a hundred thousand copies would have been printed and everybody around the country would have seen them.

What did happen is that Barak came back with the announcement that he had made "generous offers" but the intransigent Arafat had rejected them, and there was "no partner". Shortly afterwards, Barak allowed Sharon to stage his provocation at the Temple Mount, the most sensitive spot in the entire Middle East – resulting in 13 dead Palestinians, the outbreak of the bloody years of the Second Intifada, and the increasing isolation of the peace movement. There had never been a more difficult and uphill task, in all my years of peace activism, as the effort to convince Israelis that Barak’s "generous offers" had not been so generous at all. The general Israeli public just refused to listen, convinced that "Barak offered EVERYTHING to the Palestinians and they reacted with bloody terrorism and suicide bombings".

There was a partial upsurge in 2003, when hundreds of prominent Israelis and Palestinians met in Geneva and signed a draft peace agreement – just needing the signature of the official leaders on the dotted line. But the crafty Sharon, Prime Minister by then, diverted this political energy into a unilateral move in Gaza. Israeli settlers were removed from the Gaza Strip, but direct military occupation was replaced by a suffocating Israeli siege of the Strip – and on the West Bank occupation and settlement expansion continued unabated. There followed several rounds of fighting in and around Gaza, shooting of missiles at Israel and large scale bombings by the Israeli Air Force – altogether cementing the feeling of ordinary Israelis that "peace is impossible" and that "every territory given to the Palestinians will just become a Hamas shooting pad".

And so we come to the present – the incredible fiftieth anniversary of the occupation, which none of us really believed we would see. There was an impressive big rally on the Rabin Square, and numerous smaller protests and events are planned at various locations. But there can be little doubt that Netanyahu – now far more firmly seated than he was twenty years ago – fully intends to continue and perpetuate the occupation.

So why should we continue being active under these inauspicious conditions? For two overlapping reasons. Because it is immoral to occupy and oppress and dispossess another people – and when your country is committing injustice, to be silent is to be an accomplice. That would be true in any country – and doubly true in a country which prides itself as "The State of the Jewish People", given the centuries-long history of Jews suffering injustice and discrimination and persecution.

But also, we must continue to act and strive and protest and hope against hope because of sheer self-interest. Because Israel’s present course is a deadly threat to our future. As things now stand, the survival of Israel depends of three factors: On Israel’s military superiority in the Middle East, on the American domination of the world and the United States being willing and able to give Israel unlimited political, military financial and diplomatic support. An undermining of any of these three would put Israel in very grave trouble. And history shows conclusively that no military superiority, regional or global, lasts forever – nor are there any eternal alliances.

Only a peace agreement, making Israeli a legitimate part of its geographical environment, can truly ensure our long-term survival. And only the Palestinians can sign such a peace.

Ultimately, the reason to continue being a peace activist in Israel is very simple: we just can’t afford to stop it.

Saturday, March 11, 2017

Women and the army

- with such rabbis, who needs Trump?
- women enter tanks and military prison

This week, Rabbi Yigal Levinstein made a new provocative pronouncement. To the students whom he is educating and preparing for their term of military service in his pre-military academy at the settlement of Eli in the northern West Bank, the Rabbi he told to "marry a warm woman, a religious woman who did not serve in the army" and embarked on a barrage of condemnations for the service of women in the IDF in general and  the military service of religious women in particular: "Our women are holy and chaste. What is the mission of a woman? The Talmud says it clearly: to bring up the next generation. That is their destiny. Only our holy women know how to do it. What is she going to be? Commander of an infantry company? Madness, this idea belongs in the lunatic asylum. They are making our girls crazy, recruiting them into the army. They go in as Jews, but they will not come out Jewish in the end. Their values and priorities will be totally disrupted; home-career, everything falling into confusion. It must not be allowed!"
Rabbi Levinstein was not religious in his youth, having "seen the light" as an adult, and he is very familiar with the Israeli secular society. He knew full well what the reaction would be for his making such a statement precisely on International Women's Day - just as six months ago, he knew what the response would be to the statement he made on the eve of the Gay Pride Parade ("Those perverts have broken with full steam into the army - and no one dares to open his mouth about it").
Indeed, the responses were immediate - women's groups issued a series of sharp condemnation of the Rabbi’s intolerable words, joined by secular politicians from various parties as well as parts of the religious community. Michal Nagen, who herself maintains a pre-military academy to prepare and encourage young religious women to join the army, wrote: "I was shaking with grief and shame at the words you uttered before the very Ark in your synagogue. I felt that God's name was being desecrated. I have had enough of men telling ‘the girls’ what they should do and think. The army is not your private property, Rabbi Yigal, as it is not the property of the liberal secularist or of the women. The army belongs to all of us, to the entire people. I cry for your students who laugh at your banter which insults their sisters, their women friends, and sometimes even their mothers at home."
In the big wave of vehement response, the women who enlist in the IDF - especially those who in increasing numbers join combat units and take up belligerent tasks –were held up as a shining example of women's empowerment as well as of Zionism and patriotism. "The warrior women of the IDF and the Border Police, as well as the heroic women police in the streets of Jerusalem, are taking an active part in safeguarding the security of Israel, they are part and parcel of the nation’s defense system, and we are proud of them" said Prime Minister Netanyahu. For his part, Defense Minister Lieberman said: "Since the establishment of the State of Israel, women have served in the IDF and contributed enormously to the security of Israel. Rabbi Levinstein damages not only the women but also  the heritage of the IDF and at the basic values ​​of the State of Israel. I intend to re-examine the status of Rabbi Levinstein and his competence to prepare young people for service in the Army."
Rabbi Levinstein, however, was not really bothered by all the fuss. He feels secure of his backing deep in the political establishment , which would prevent anyone touching the funding and official status of his pre-military academy. Like no concrete steps were taken after his inflammatory remarks about the homosexual perverts. Standing his ground, the Rabbi reiterated: "In recent years, a deep cultural process is taking place. A feminist approach is infiltrating the IDF, which is completely incompatible with Judaism." Other senior rabbis met with the cabinet ministers of the Jewish Home Party to ask their help in a counter-offensive: "The army is being stolen from us! The previous Standing Orders regarding women's service in the army, were formulated with the aim of reaching a consensus and maintaining dignity and respect for the divergent lifestyles of all who serve in the IDF. Now, there is a new and completely different set of Standing Orders, which were composed in secret, behind everybody’s backs. These are infused with radical liberal and feminist agendas prevalent on the extreme left. Trying to force religious people to serve in mixed units of men and women, contrary to Jewish law and to the Jewish lifestyle upheld by our ancestors for countless generations. The result would be to push them altogether out of the army. "
Also two hundred reserve officers who were disciples of Rabbi Levinstein gave him their public backing: "Recently, the Rabbi sounded a warning about the changes and the transformation in the military, particularly with regard to the integration of women in combat units. These changes might severely and painfully damage the army. Being highly familiar with the military system, we well understand the problems of which the Rabbi was speaking and the inherent dangers. The grave criticisms which he made come of a great heart, full of love and pain, having before his eyes nothing but care for the IDF and of the State of Israel. The Rabbi’s position reflects the opinions expressed by the greatest of Sages and the generations-long rulings of the Chief Rabbinate on the issue of integrating women into the army."
Amid this debate - almost forgotten the position of young Israeli women who have no shred of sympathy for Rabbi Levinstein and his ranting and who yet refuse to seek women’s empowerment via service in an occupation army, whose main function already for many years is to maintain an oppressive Israeli rule over millions of Palestinian men and women.
This week, the IDF Spokesperson published statistics on the immense efforts which the army makes to reduce the number of women soldiers serving as secretaries in military offices, and to move more and more of them to service in combat units. The idea of training women tank crews is still in the stage of an experiment which for the time being includes no more than fifteen women. However, in the Border Police, the military-police force handling the daily routines of maintaining Israeli rule in the Palestinian territories, the number of women already reached 35 percent - more than a third. The trend is expected to increase, so that in future women will comprise a full half of the Israeli soldiers holding on roadblocks throughout the West Bank and late at night carrying out raids to remove"wanted terrorists" from their homes and transfer them to interrogation under "moderate physical pressure."  As it turns out, not all young women relish such a role.
Under the slogan in the "Neither secretary nor tank crew – a refuser and a Feminist", three young women this week repeated the ritual which the IDF forces upon those who were examined by the army’s "Conscience Committee" and ruled to be lacking a conscience. Again and again, those who refuse military service (male or female alike) are called to present themselves at the Tel Hashomer Induction Center. There, they are given an order to join the army, which they disobey and are promptly sent off to a month in jail - after which the ritual will repeat itself. The "Two Tamars", Tamar Alon and Tamar Ze’evi, have this week gone through this procedure for the sixth time. Atalia Ben-Aba, a refuser of a bit shorter seniority, was now sent to prison for the second time.  The military authorities took care to separate the three and send them to different prisons.
Vered Lee, reporter of Ha’aretz who was there, wrote: "Tamar Alon was radiant, inspiring optimism among the accompaniers. When asked where does she get her optimism, she laughs and replies: 'Also the girls imprisoned with me do not understand my optimism. They wonder how I can smile with such a long-drawn incarceration.' The other prisoners, she says, got there for going AWOL, for disciplinary offenses or for drugs.' Never before did they meet a real, actual leftist. They thought of us as traitors, enemies of the state. During our stay in prison, they learned to look at us differently, see us as human beings. Not that it was always easy. When we got to prison the first time we had a sudden shock to find ourselves behind bars. We felt suddenly alone. We asked ourselves again and again whether this act is significant, whether anyone cares. But yes, there are many who do care. "
Muhammad Awda of East Jerusalem, who is active in Combatants for Peace during the last nine years, said at the modest ceremony: " I realize that there are at this moment only three female objectors in the Israeli army, and no male ones. I see them and I salute them. I see them and I think about my daughter who is their age and who is also struggling for a just society. They deserve support, not only from the immediate family but from everybody. I'm speaking here, not only for myself but for many Palestinians who could not come and express support for you today, because of the policies of the occupation rule which denies them freedom of movement. We are proud of these young brave women, who are struggling for our rights and for justice and freedom. Thank you, from all of us! " He then added, with a smile: "We'll meet again in freedom. Freedom for all!"

The three refusers en route to another term in the military prison

A woman graduate of the Border Police training course, en route to the Occupied Territories

Friday, February 24, 2017

Scales of Justice

On September 13, 2015, young Palestinians from the neighborhood of Sur Baher in East Jerusalem threw stones at Israeli cars near the neighborhood of Armon Hanatziv, one of the Israeli neighborhoods built after 1967 on confiscated Palestinian land. A stone hit the car of Alexander Levlovitz, causing him to suffer a heart attack. Levlovitz began to convulse, swerved into a ditch and hit a pillar. He was seriously injured and died in hospital the next day.

There is no reason to claim that the Palestinians who threw the stones specifically meant to kill Alexander Levlovitz, of whom they never heard, nor that they at all intended to kill anyone. In fact, the vast majority of stone throwing cases end without casualties. Certainly, however, it can be argued that anyone throwing stones at moving cars is responsible for this act and should have taken into account that the outcome might be fatal.

By an intensive action of the Israeli security forces, the Palestinian stone throwers were apprehended. The 19 years old Abed Rabu Dawiat, described by police as "The stone-throwers’ ringleader" was charged with manslaughter. After lengthy legal proceedings, he signed a plea bargain whereby he got a term of eighteen years' imprisonment only. The Israeli media widely publicized the protests of the Levlovitz Family at the plea bargain and the leniency of punishment. "We had hoped for complete justice against my father's murderers. The judges should have been free to proceed to the full severity of the law, to impose the maximum penalty. I strongly object to the mitigation of punishment," said Nir, Levlovitz’s son.

On March 24, 2016, Abdel Fattah al-Sharif, a resident of Hebron, approached the Israeli soldiers guarding the settler enclave at Tel Rumeida, in the heart of Hebron. He stabbed one of the soldiers, and was then shot by other soldiers and severely injured. As clearly seen in footage taken by the hidden camera held by a field worker of the B'Tselem Human Rights organization, al-Sharif was lying on the ground, constituting no threat to anyone. A 19-year old soldier, Elior Azaria – a medic, arrived on the spot and deliberately aimed his weapon at the head of al-Sharif, shot and killed him .

Elior Azaria was detained by military police and charged with manslaughter. During the prolonged trial, the defense lawyers argued that Azaria felt subjectively threatened and suspected that al-Sharif was hiding explosives on his body. However, the evidence of Azaria’s commanding officer and of other soldiers who had been there convinced the court to dismiss such contentions out of hand. Rather, the judges ruled that Azaria had shot and killed al-Sherif out of seeking revenge and from the perception that "terrorists" should be killed without trial, whether or not they still pose a threat. This is a perception shared by quite a few people in Israel, some of them much older than the conscript soldier Elior Azaria, among them Knesset Members, cabinet ministers and newspaper columnists.

After the media reported that the prosecution was seeking to have Elior Azaria sentenced to three years in prison, his mother collapsed and had to be taken to hospital, full of fright and pain at the severe and cruel punishment facing her son. The media reported extensively on the difficult situation of the worried mother.

In the end, the judges resolved to impose on Elior Azaria a sentence of 18 months. Opposite the court room, hundreds of Azaria’s supporters demonstrated in protest of the severity of this sentence. Senior politicians from several Israeli political parties joined the protests and demanded an immediate amnesty to Azaria: "He already suffered enough, he should not have to sit in jail. End the story now, just send him home!"

Coincidentally or not, this week also saw the culmination of a long struggle over the appointment of new judges to the Supreme Court. Members of the Jewish Home Party have long asserted that Israel's judicial system is biased in favor of the Arabs and does not give due weight to national and patriotic considerations. Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked of the same party, redressed this negative tendency, making a successful effort to change the composition of the Supreme Court and include more conservative judges, especially some who belong to the Religious-Zionist sector. A particular success was recorded with the appointment of David Mintz – a British-born jurist who came to Israel in 1970 and immediately moved to the West Bank settlement of Dolev. His judicial career has been marked by strict and rigorous treatment meted out to foreign nationals accused of illegal entry to Israel.

David Mintz’s neighbor at the settlement of Dolev is Knesset Member Moti Yogev, also a member of the Jewish Home Party. Yogev became known for his way of objecting to a ruling of Supreme Court: "We just need to go to the the Supreme Court with a D-9 bulldozer and raze it right off the face of the earth."

The new Supreme Court Justice David Mintz will not bulldoze the Supreme Court. He will enter by the main entrance and sit in judgment to consider petitions on human rights violations.