TEL AVIV — “WHAT are you,” he asked, “a leftist?”
We were both wearing the surplus United States Marines uniforms given to prisoners at Israeli Military Jail No. 6.
“It depends how you define ‘left,’ ” I said.
“Don’t get clever with me. Why are you here?”
“I didn’t want to be part of a system whose main task is the violent occupation of millions of people.”
“In other words: You love Arabs, and don’t care about Israeli security.”
“I think the occupation undermines all of our security, Palestinians’ and Israelis’.”
“You’re betraying your people,” he said.
“Why are you here?” I asked.
There is a growing chasm between Israeli rhetoric and reality. In the discourse of Israel’s Knesset and media, the Israel Defense Forces represent a “people’s army.” Refusal to serve is portrayed by politicians and pundits — many of whom began their careers through service in elite units — as treacherous and marginal. This rhetoric becomes the common wisdom: A popular bumper stickers reads, “A real Israeli doesn’t dodge the draft.”
The outrage is disproportionate. Rarely do more than a few hundred Jewish Israelis publicly refuse to serve each year in protest against Israel’s occupation of the Palestinian territories. The shrill condemnation of refusers is thus an indication of the establishment’s panic.
Last year brought something of a surge in refusals. Open letters of refusal were published by a group of high schoolers, a group of reservists, veterans of the elite intelligence Unit 8200 and alumni and former staff members of the prestigious Israel Arts and Sciences Academy. All were denounced by politicians and in the media: In September, the Knesset’s opposition leader, the Labor member Isaac Herzog, blasted the letter from Unit 8200 as “insubordination.”
Aggression toward refusers is widespread. When I accompanied a refuser named Udi Segal to his draft station during the Gaza war this summer, we were met by a group draped in Israeli flags and chanting, “Udi, you’re a traitor! Go live in Gaza!” After signing the scholars’ letter, Raya Rotem, a former literature teacher whose husband was killed in the 1973 Yom Kippur War, received a threatening phone call. And a friend of 50 years severed ties with her.
The idea that the “real Israelis” serve and those who refuse are “traitors” is a false dichotomy. As Ms. Rotem told me, “Israeli patriotism today means resisting anything which frames the occupation as normal.” It’s also inaccurate: The reality is that a majority of Israeli citizens do not serve in the military, including Palestinian citizens of Israel, or the “fifth column,” as they are often branded, and the ultra-Orthodox, or “leeches,” as they’ve been called.
The largest group is the 1.7 million Palestinian citizens of Israel. Members of this community are not required by law to enlist, and only a tiny fraction volunteer (about 100 Christians and a few hundred Muslims in 2013). In 2014, the defense forces began sending “voluntary draft notices” to Christian Arab citizens, inciting Palestinian protests at Hebrew University and in Tel Aviv.
Even among the Druze, an Arabic-speaking minority whose male members have been drafted since 1956 and whose Arab and Palestinian identities are often played down or denied, dissent is rising. Omar Saad, a soft-spoken viola player, is the most prominent of a rising number of Druze refusers. He spent the first half of 2014 in and out of jail. In his letter of refusal, he wrote, “How can I bear arms against my brothers and people in Palestine?”
The next biggest group of nonserving Israelis are the Haredim, ultra-Orthodox Jews. Historically, they have been exempted from service as long as they were enrolled full-time in a yeshiva. Recently, though, a coalition formed in the Knesset over a proposal to draft the Haredim — which resulted in a 500,000-strong public demonstration. Most Haredim cite religious reasons for refusing, but the Haredi refusenik Uriel Ferera, recently released after six months in jail, gave the occupation as a primary factor in his decision.
There are also thousands of “gray refusers,” who find quieter ways to get out of the army, mostly by seeking mental health exemptions, known as a “Profile 21.” Like most public refusers in recent years, I was released after a month in military jail with a Profile 21.
Most of the prisoners with me in Military Jail No. 6 were Mizrahim (Jews of Middle Eastern origin), Ethiopians and Russians. Many of these members of Israel’s most marginalized Jewish communities told me of their intention to “get out on 21,” despite the risk this entailed for their future: Employment and educational opportunities often depend on completing military service.
In a recent interview, the Israeli author Amos Oz urged politicians to act as “traitors,” and make peace. But the type of traitors Mr. Oz wishes for — visionary ministers, peace-minded military men — are nonexistent. The most left-wing of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s potential challengers in Israel’s coming election is the same Mr. Herzog who attacked the 8200 refusers.
Peace won’t come from the next Knesset, or the one after that. But some hope for a less violent, more decent future lies with the real traitors, the disregarded millions of Israeli citizens who have refused to serve in the army.
The reasons for not serving may differ between a Palestinian youth from Acre and a Haredi from Beit Shemesh, between an 8200 veteran and an Ethiopian immigrant, between me and the deserter in Military Jail No. 6, but there is a deeper consensus: We all refuse to see the government as a moral guide and military service as sacrosanct. As the Israeli government leads us further from peace, and the army faithfully executes its violent orders, this is the kind of treachery we need most.
Moriel Rothman-Zecher is working on a book about his experience refusing to serve in the Israel military.
Asked about the obligations of American Jews to Israel, the sociologist Steven M. Cohen once offered this analogy. Imagine if Jews living in Rome around 135 C.E. had learned that Simon Bar Kochba was planning to lead the Jews of Judea in revolt. Living in the seat of empire, those Roman Jews might have realized that the revolt would likely end in tears. Should they not have used the insight that their particular vantage point offered to help their brethren avoid disaster?
The analogy is not perfect, but Cohen makes an important point. American Jews will never possess the intimate understanding that Israelis have of their own political culture. What we do possess is an intimate understanding of the political culture of the superpower on which Israel relies. And American political culture is growing more critical of Israel. There’s been a noticeable change even in the last few months.
To understand why, one must realize that Americans have always felt most comfortable defending Israel in the language of democracy. To combat Israel’s “delegitimization,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu often stresses the Jewish people’s biblical ties to the land. That rhetoric works among conservative Christians, but it’s too theological for most Americans. Stressing Israel’s democratic character, by contrast – the political ideals it shares with the United States – appeals to Americans of all stripes.
That’s why Israel’s American supporters keep claiming that Israel’s government wants to create a Palestinian state, even as top Israeli leaders themselves insist they don’t. If Israel doesn’t want to create a Palestinian state – if its leaders are comfortable permanently controlling millions of people who cannot vote for the government that oversees their lives – then the core rationale that Israel’s American defenders have been using all these years breaks down.
That’s starting to happen. A few years ago, only experts fretted that settlement growth was killing the two-state solution. Now it’s a cliché. The failure of John Kerry’s peace mission and this summer’s war in Gaza have emboldened the American media to begin peering beyond the two-state solution. And the more journalists discuss the prospect of an Israel that permanently and undemocratically controls millions of stateless Palestinians, the more they question Zionism itself.
Eleven years ago, when Tony Judt advocated a binational state in The New York Review of Books, it created a scandal. Today, newspapers publish similar arguments all the time. In just the last month alone, The New York Times has published Antony Lerman’s “The End of Liberal Zionism,” which declared, “The only Zionism of any consequence today is xenophobic and exclusionary.” The Washington Post, meanwhile, has published Patricia Marks Greenfield’s “An Israel Equal for All, Jewish or Not,” which insists that Israel “must be a fully secular state.”
In the mainstream American media, the taboo against questioning Israel’s existence as a Jewish state is lifting. In the three weeks after Lerman’s oped, I received more requests to debate anti-Zionists than I had received in the previous three years.
This should worry Israel’s leaders a great deal. It should worry them because once Israel’s Jewish character becomes a subject of controversy rather than an unquestioned fact, many liberal-minded Americans will find it difficult to defend. That’s not because they are anti-Semites. It’s because outside the Christian right, Americans intuitively assume that governments should have no religious or ethnic character. Indeed, a clear plurality of American Jews already tell pollsters they want Israel to separate religion and state. They just don’t realize that in saying so they’re challenging political Zionism itself.
I still believe the best answer to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a democratic Jewish state alongside a democratic Palestinian one. I believe that because, in a post-Holocaust world, I want there to be one country that has as its mission statement the protection of Jewish life. And I believe it because among both Palestinians and Israeli Jews, nationalism remains a massively powerful force. To assume each community could subordinate its deep-seeded nationalism to a newfound loyalty to secular state strikes me as utopian. Secular binationalism barely works in Belgium. Between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea it’s probably a recipe for civil war.
But this requires arguing that Israel/Palestine is, at least right now, fundamentally different than the United States. It requires defending Zionism as something alien to the American experience, something necessary because in Israel/Palestine, the civic nationalism we revere here is neither possible nor desirable. That’s very different than arguing that the United States should support Israel because it’s America’s Middle Eastern twin.
For all his references to Derek Jeter and "Gone with the Wind," Benjamin Netanyahu doesn’t understand Americans as well as he thinks he does. Yes, an aging minority of Fox News-watching whites will support Israel no matter what, because they admire Jews and fear Muslims. But younger Americans are less white, less religious, less nationalistic and less racist. And the harder they find it to conceive of Israel as a democracy, they harder they’ll find it to support Israel’s existence as a Jewish state.
Israelis need to realize that by undermining the two-state solution, Netanyahu is prompting a debate inside the United States about Zionism itself. That debate will take a long time. But unless Israeli policy changes, it’s a debate that we Zionists may ultimately lose.
When I read Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's assertion that Israel has a problem with "job-seekers from Africa" rather than refugees who seek asylum, I thought about J.
I recalled the afternoon I spent with him in south Tel Aviv, listening for hours as he told how he'd gotten there from Darfur in Sudan: About the attacks on his village by the Janjaweed militias and Sudanese government forces; about fleeing to a UN camp that the Janjaweed also attacked; about his trek, walking night after night for weeks, to the Egyptian border; about the Sudanese intelligence agents in Cairo who targeted Darfuri refugees; about another journey by night in the Sinai to the Israeli border; about how he wanted to go home and how he knew he'd be killed if he did.
And I thought about Y., who told me his story in one long rush of words, in the park across the street from the Tel Aviv bus station. He was an Eritrean in his 30s, who'd joined the army before his country drifted toward totalitarianism. The first time he was jailed was after he asked why soldiers only got 10 days furlough a year to see their families. The third time was after he asked why journalists had been jailed without trial. When he was released from prison, he was assigned to a base near the Sudanese border. He fled, and kept going through Sudan to Egypt, where he heard that you could pay smugglers to take you to a democratic country called Israel, "where Jews, Christians and Muslims could live together." So he crossed yet another border. When the Israeli soldiers who found him gave him food, he thought they were practically angels because they treated him like a human being.
These, according to our prime minister, are the immigrants coming only for jobs, not for refuge from persecution.
Netanyahu made his remarks about "illegal job seekers" and Israel's right to protect its borders last week, when he was asked in New York about the Supreme Court's recent decision overturning two anti-refugee amendments to the Prevention of Infiltration Law: One allowing the state to jail new "infiltrators" for a year without trial, the other allowing it to keep more veteran infiltrators in the Holot "open facility" in the Negev, a prison in all but name.
The week between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur would have been an appropriate time for Netanyahu to engage in introspection about his government's errors. Instead he seems set on finding a new way to circumvent the judgment of the earthly court.
In the seasonal spirit of forgiveness, though, let's accept that Netanyahu really believes in a country's unlimited prerogative to seal its borders, and that he's merely ignorant of the meaning of international law. But forgiveness has limits. One can only attribute his insistence that the 50,000 or so Sudanese and Eritreans in the country are all economic immigrants to dishonesty. And his underlying attitude toward the refugee issue points to what's truly pernicious in his constant references to the Holocaust.
Contrary to what Netanyahu implied, national sovereignty isn't absolute. It's limited by law. The part of international law created by treaties is a textbook example of a social contract: Countries agree to give up freedom of action to create a world with less conflict and cruelty. Israel is a signatory to the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, and to the 1967 protocol expanding it. As a guide to those treaties by the UN High Commissioner on Refugees explains, one of the basic rights of people fleeing persecution is "not to be punished for illegal entry into the territory of a contracting state." Under the social contract, Israel has ceded some control of its borders.
But then, Netanyahu claimed in New York that Israel allows legitimate "asylum seekers… like those from Syria" to enter its territory. (Apparently he was referring to people wounded in the Syrian civil war who have received treatment here.) He just denies that the Sudanese and Eritreans are legitimate. As the Supreme Court ruling notes, though, the Interior Ministry has evaded dealing with most requests by Sudanese and Eritrians for refugee status. Of those on which it has ruled, it has approved two out off 444 applications by Eritreans and none by Sudanese.
Worldwide, the acceptance rate for Eritrean asylum seekers is 82 percent, and for Sudanese 68 percent. In other words, government policy under Netanyahu is to ignore the facts.
Israel, along with international Jewish organizations, took an active role in formulating the convention on refugees. The reason was clear: Before, during and after the Holocaust, Jews were victims of nations asserting their unlimited right to seal their borders. Jews knew that there was a greater right to safe haven.
Except for Menachem Begin, no Israeli prime minister has called up the memory of the Holocaust more often than Netanyahu. He uses it to justify Israeli actions and to demand that the world remove threats to Israel. Heaven knows, such threats exist. But in his rhetoric, the memory of the immense crime imposes responsibilities only toward Jews, not toward human beings as such. It does not serve as a reminder that Jews, too, have an obligation to those fleeing the threat of murder - and that as prime minister of a Jewish state, he must meet that obligation.
Gershom Gorenberg is the author of The Unmaking of Israel and The Accidental Empire: Israel and the Birth of the Settlements, 1967-1977. Follow him on Twitter.
What the prime minister said is true: The regional changes indeed call for a daring new diplomatic initiative on his part, in order to end the occupation and reach a peace agreement with the Palestinians. Without doing those two things, Israel has no chance of improving its diplomatic and regional standing, even if new temporary alliances have been created with several Arab states that oppose Hamas. These alliances won’t hold water over time without a solution to the Palestinian problem.
In the summer of 2009, Netanyahu gave a speech at Bar-Ilan University in which he voiced willingness to see a Palestinian state established. Since then, five years have passed, during which he did everything in his power to thwart this possibility. He lent a hand to more and more construction in the settlements and sabotaged the talks with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas on various pretexts. Now, he has been granted a second opportunity, perhaps the last, to make his mark and advance a historic agreement.
It’s good that the prime minister said what he did precisely now, at the height of the fighting in Gaza, and at a time when he is under incessant attack by his colleagues on the right. But the burden of proof is on him. His statements about a new diplomatic horizon must not remain empty words.
Netanyahu must imbue them with real content, and as quickly as possible. He must resume negotiations with the Palestinian Authority — including the Palestinian unity government, if it lasts — and undertake a series of confidence-building measures, including the release of Palestinian prisoners to which Israel previously committed and freezing construction in the settlements. Without such steps, Netanyahu’s statements will remain hollow and worthless, exactly like the words of his Bar-Ilan speech.