Saturday, May 3, 2014

Of racism and occupation and apartheid

At the beginning of this very busy week there was a public uproar in the U.S. when Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling was heard saying very racist things about blacks. Among other things Sterling had said that "In Israel, the blacks are just treated like dogs."

Sterling probably heard that the State of Israel imprisons without trial thousands of refugees and asylum seekers from Africa, far away among the Negev desert sands, and that Israeli cabinet ministers express pride that such is their policy and promise to continue pursuing it. Perhaps he also heard that even Ethiopians who are Israeli citizens and are officially recognized as Jews suffer quite a bit of discrimination and prejudice  in Israel; that in many places there are people who refuse to rent them apartments and that some call them "apes” and  “monkeys". Anyway, Sterling evidently liked what he heard of the treatment of blacks in Israel, and he considered it a good model for white Americans to emulate.

The vile racist remarks of Donald Sterling did not go without an appropriate response. After several days of public outrage, the NBA commissioner banned Sterling for life from all games of this League, and in addition imposed on him a fine of 2.5 million Dollars, to be passed on to charity.

In the same week, there was in the United States another public storm, also derived from publication of a recorded conversation. In the final accord of his failed peace efforts, Secretary of State John Kerry sounded a warning that if Israel does not end its occupation of the Palestinian territories nor give civil rights to their residents, it might become an Apartheid state.

Kerry was careful not to assert that Israel is already an Apartheid state - as is claimed by quite a few people, including a growing number of Jewish students on the campuses of American universities. Nor did Kerry assert - as did former President Jimmy Carter – that the situation in the Occupied Territories, as distinct from Israel itself, constitutes an Apartheid situation because there are separate roads for Israelis and for Palestinians and two different and completely separate legal systems for the two populations living in the same area .

All Kerry did was to sound a warning, as a worried friend, about what might happen in the future if the State of Israel does not change the direction of its current policy. However, in the mainstream American public opinion and political system, the coupling of the words "Israel" and “Apartheid" was quite enough to kick up a major storm. After several days, Kerry was forced to apologize and retract that word. (At least, he was not required to pay a fine...)

To clarify and emphasize that Israel is in no way an Apartheid state and that all such assertions are nothing but malicious anti-Semitic slurs, Prime Minister Netanyahu hastened to announce his strong support for a bill which would make it a matter of Basic Law that the State of Israel is a Jewish state. Not a "Jewish and Democratic State" as stated in laws which the Knesset passed at earlier times. This time it would be unequivocally A Jewish State, period.

Meanwhile, it seems that indeed “the threat of peace has receded" (a saying attributed to the late Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir). Which means that Israeli  soldiers are probably going to continue for very much longer to patrol the streets of Hebron and closely guard the settler enclave established at its heart.  One of these soldiers, named David Adamov and serving in the Nahal Brigade, made ​​headlines this week. Outside a settler-occupied house he had pointed his gun at a 15-year old Palestinian boy and shouted very rough abuse, and the scene was captured on camera by a Palestinian activist who placed the video on the net.

Just at the time when this film came up on the net, the soldier was sent to the military jail. His fellows thought there was a connection between the two things – which was a mistake. In fact, the soldier was imprisoned because in addition to shouting abuse at a Palestinian and threatening him, he also shouted abuse at his Israeli commanding officer and threatened him and then went to physically assault him. But the mistaken information spread very rapidly, and soon there was created a Facebook page called "I, too, am David of the Nahal" and seventy-five thousand people expressed their like for this page.  In direct contravention of military orders, uniformed soldiers of many other units posed with their faces covered by signs supporting David of the Nahal and posted these photos on the net. Reportedly, the military authorities feel deeply concerned about “the first digital mutiny" and the unbearable ease by which  soldiers equipped with smart phones can bypass the chain of command. For his part, Minister Naftali Bennett of the Jewish Home Party  rushed to climb the bandwagon, stating “I, too, would have acted like David of the Nahal”.

According to military correspondents, the upsurge of support for the wayward soldier stems from frustration among the soldiers sent to "restore order" and face the growing unrest among the Palestinian population - while at the same time being instructed by their commanders to restrain themselves and avoid killing Palestinians. The leaders of Israel’s military have taken to heart the lessons of two Intifadas – particularly, that mass funerals in towns and villages and refugee camps are likely to ignite the Third Intifada. Members of John Kerry’s team, who gave a candid anonymous interview to Nahum Barnea in Yedioth Ahronot and analyzed the reasons for their failure, had said bitterly: "There had not been a sense of urgency, not deep feeling of the need to reach an agreement. Only in times of war is there such a sense of urgency. It seems we need another Intifada in order to create the kind of circumstances which will facilitate progress in negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians". But the soldiers on the ground, those to whom David of the Nahal became a hero, have no interest in considerations of high strategy. If sent into a hostile Palestinian territory with guns in their hands, they want an authorization to use these guns, intifada or no intifada.

On the other side of the political spectrum, a group of activists who began collecting on the net signatures under the simple slogans "I'm not David of the Nahal" , feeling no need to add anything to this statement. Conversely Sarit Michaeli, the veteran spokesperson of B'Tselem , appropriated the  slogan "We are all David of the Nahal": "It's time we all stop playing games. In face of the reality of the occupation, we create with our own hands the next Davids,  throwing them into impossible situations. The incident never really ends. Any forceful act of pointing a gun might achieve a momentary 'calm' - but the continuation of the situation in which the IDF rules over the civilian population in Hebron and the rest of the Occupied Territories will inevitably lead to the next confrontation, which in some cases will be recorded by cameras and get into public awareness. Those who stridently demand to ‘let the IDF win’ are just perpetuating a lie. As though there is any possibility of really winning such a fight, in which troops are repeatedly sent to oppress a civilian population which does not want their presence."

The 19 year old Uriel Ferera, who was born in Argentina and lives in Beer Sheba, did not agonize over whether his commanding officers would allow him to open fire when facing Palestinians. He took the firm decision not to enter into such a situation in the first place, and informed the military authorities of his refusal to enlist. Uriel Ferera is an unusual figure among the young conscientious objectors who signed the recent "High School Seniors' Letter” - an ultra-Orthodox student of a yeshiva seminary, who declares his refusal to join the army is not for reasons of wanting to continue his Torah studies , but specifically because he is not ready to serve in an army of occupation.

Last Sunday, Uriel Ferera came to the Induction Base in Tel Hashomer , bearing the refusal letter which he was going to hand to recruiting officers.  He was escorted to the gate by dozens of cheering young activists, by his very supportive parents and family members, and by the father of Omar Saad, the Druze musician who had already been sent seven times to prison for his own refusal to enlist. Thence he was taken straight to Military Prison Six, where he refused to put on a military uniform and promptly got an additional eight days, to be served in the isolation ward. Ferera told his lawyer that the prison authorities refuse to allow him and Omar Saad to stay in the same part of the prison. "They seem very unwilling to let us to be together."

When I shared on Facebook the video showing Uriel Ferera walking towards the gates of the recruitment base, accompanied by his fellows, there came after a few minutes a furious reaction from a right-winger: "Today is Holocaust Day! Are you not ashamed to post such a thing on such a day?" Indeed, the date set out in Uriel Ferera’s call-up order was the day which is marked in Israel as Holocaust  Memorial Day.

Virtually the only lesson drawn from the Holocaust in the official speeches of this Memorial Day is the need for the State of Israel to maintain a mighty  military power against enemies who plot a new Holocaust . To the late Golda Meir is attributed the saying "After the Holocaust, nobody in the world can accuse us", and also this year ministers and deputy ministers and Knesset members repeated this argument in various forms, against anyone criticizing Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians.

It is not easy for a Palestinian to express empathy with the suffering of the Jews at the time of the Holocaust in Europe. Quite a few Palestinians succumb to the temptation for a gut response: "There had never been a Holocaust, and anyway you are Nazis yourselves." On Holocaust Memorial Day this week, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen ) broke through this barrier and made the most clear and unequivocal statement on the subject ever made by a Palestinian leader: "What happened to the Jews in the Holocaust is the most heinous crime to have been committed against humanity in the modern era. The Holocaust is a reflection of the concept of ethnic discrimination and racism which the Palestinians strongly reject and act against". The official statement went out conspicuously, on all the Palestinian news agencies . The Prime Minister of Israel was not really impressed. "First of all, Abbas must abrogate his agreement with Hamas" responded Netanyahu, turning back to the routine sparring and "blame game" about the responsibility for the failure of the negotiations (which does not truly interest anybody) .

In Budapest this week there was an unexpected mass attendance at the Memorial March marking seventy years to the mass murder of Hungarian Jewry. For quite a few non-Jewish Hungarians, this event had an all too relevant political implication – in a country where an extreme right registered an alarming growth in the recent general elections. In other European countries, Far right parties tend to target mainly the Muslims, and such parties often foster ties of friendship and deep brotherhood with Israeli settlers on the West Bank. But in Hungary, where there are not many Muslims, the extreme right sticks (with considerable success) to the traditional targets – the Jews and the Gypsies . In the face of anti-Semitic speeches made in the Hungarian Parliament and the desecration of Jewish cemeteries, a lot of Hungarians who are deeply worry about  their country’s future turned up at the Holocaust Memorial March in Budapest – rather surprising the representatives of the Government of Israel who initiated the Budapest procession .

Late on the night after Holocaust Memorial Day, some unknown people came to the village of Fureidis - the only Arab village to remain in place after 1948 on the  Mediterranean coast of Israel. These uninvited guests spray-painted on the wall of the local mosque a Star of David accompanied by the words "Destroy all Mosques!” and for good measure punctured the tires of dozens of cars. Like in dozens of previous cases, the country’s leaders duly condemned the act, but as in previous cases Israel's acclaimed security services exhibited a  lack of ability to identify and apprehend the perpetrators.

On the day after the hate crime, Fureidis residents held a general strike and thousands of them went out on a protest demonstration in the streets of the village. Dozens of residents of neighboring Zichron Yaacov  came over, holding such signs as "We Support Our Neighbors" , "Bibi, Bennett and Lapid - the Criminals Must be Stopped!" , and “Hate Crimes are Terrorism”. " Zichron Yaakov resident Yoel Ben-Artzi said :"We heard that our  our neighboring village had been attacked, and we came to express solidarity with the inhabitants. Such acts threaten not only our Arab neighbors, they also threaten us Jews."

Messages and letters of support to Prisoner of Conscience Uriel Ferera can be sent by fax to +972-(0)4-9540580
Or by mail to:

Uriel Ferera
Military ID 8004295
Military Prison 6
Military Postal Code 01860