Although Israel may have a won a physical victory in the recent assault on the Gaza Strip, its grasp over a moral victory has gradually been slipping. With each Israeli aggression, a steadily increasing number of young Israelis, called ‘refuseniks’, and Jewish-Americans are becoming disenchanted and opposed to Israel’s territorial enterprise.
Four years ago, when Operation Cast Lead was unleashed on Gaza, I marched alongside my colleagues in two feet of snow in Massachusetts, US. Notwithstanding our anguish at the casualties, there was a sense of collective exhilaration as we chanted, “Gaza, Gaza, don’t you cry. Palestine will never die,” as if our voices could finally pull the reins of history and shatter the silence on the daily oppression carried out in “the world’s largest ‘open-air’ prison” (as Noam Chomsky famously calls it). At the forefront of the march were two college friends, a young Palestinian from Ramallah and an Israeli from Tel Aviv, both of whom had become the best of friends even as their compatriots battled it out miles away. What made this demonstration unique, however, was that it was largely organised and widely attended by members of the American-Jewish community. This is what truly made it a testament to our triumph over hate.
Twenty eight-year-old Noam Bahat, an Israeli Jew based in Tel Aviv, refused to be drafted in the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) when it was time for his initiation. Under the universal military service mandated by Israel, every Israeli of the age of 18 is required to draft into the army. Bahat was among the first in a small suburb of Nirit (a Jewish settlement close to West Bank) to refuse conscription on the grounds that he believed Palestine had been unjustly occupied.
“I became more aware of the horrendous things taking place in the occupied territories,” he says, “and I also became aware of the nature of the educational part of the army, that it means to be part of the propaganda of the occupation. Then I became aware that there’s nothing in the army I can do that I believe in, that I agree with, that I can tolerate. That’s when I decided to refuse.”
For the IDF, which heavily relies upon a civilianised military and reserve troops in times of war, a refusal by a civilian to conscript into the army is a powerful form of protest. Bahat’s refusal to obey the draft order led to nearly two years in prison, following which he joined the Refuser Solidarity Network, lectured widely in American universities, and helped his Israeli colleagues in the growing ‘refusenik movement’.
Although the Israeli right backed Operation Pillar of Defense as a just war, drawing parallels with the Hebrew tradition of the “Pillar of Cloud” where God rained fire on the Egyptians to protect the Israelis, a growing number of young Israelis are refusing to buy this historical parallel and have condemned the conservatives for exploiting Israeli suffering in the south to justify an offensive against the Palestinians and score political points in the run-up to the 2013 elections.
Many in Israel are speculating that when last week, Netanyahu threatened ground invasion on Gaza by calling upon 75,000 reserve troops and failed to follow through, it was in fact due to the increasing popularity of the refuseniks.
“There may have been an indicator to the government that if it invades, its popularity will drop, which was ultimately the main reason that this [ground] invasion was avoided,” says Bahat.
Over the years, though, successive ultra-conservative Israeli governments have grown increasingly intolerant of domestic opposition, and the refuseniks have had to change their modus operandi. In what is now termed as ‘the gray refusal’, many young Israelis now participate in political movements from an early age and prepare well in advance of their conscription, forging fictitious reasons to avoid service in the military.
“My twin siblings have just turned eighteen and have both refused, while in their class two other friends have refused [as well],” Bahat says proudly.
Meanwhile, many American-Jews, who are undertaking the ‘Birthright’ journey to Israel in order to forge a greater connection with Israel, are finding themselves unexpectedly on the other side of the border – as greater advocates of the Palestinians.
Alison Ramer, 26, who currently works with a local Palestinian organisation that empowers community members to become successful advocates, had obtained Israeli citizenship after a Birthright trip to Israel in 2007. She recalls having felt empowered by the Zionist narrative; but soon she became a border crosser, living in Palestinian villages of Nabi Saleh (Ramallah), Beit Ummar (Hebron), Beit Jalla (Bethlehem) and al-Ram (Jerusalem).
Ramer recalls her experience following the Popular Struggle in Nabi Saleh in June, when an Israeli settlement occupied the fresh water springs.
“The unarmed weekly demonstrations that the Palestinians held were met by such unequivocal and unnecessary violence from the Israeli Army,” she says. “It very quickly became clear that Israel was not interested in de-escalating violence or using dialogue to resolve conflicts. Instead, the West Bank was a testing zone for new weapons and military strategies.”
In the past years, Ramer has worked with Palestinian children, teaching them the use of photography to document various social issues – from poverty and lack of water to the environmental hazards of tear gas, trash and bullets used by Israeli soldiers. In one of her recent campaigns in Nabi Saleh, Ramer teamed up with a Palestinian artist to stamp passports, including her American and Israeli ones, with the New State of Palestine visa.
“It enables me to make fun of the current border control system and to create contradictions that the official system doesn’t have a protocol for… yet,” she says. Ramer finds her motivation in spiritual Judaism and the Jewish concept of Tikkun Olam (Repairing the World). “What I do is not extraordinary,” she says. “Only in the context of being a Jew, and being Israeli, does it become extraordinary – which is a shame. I guess that shame is also what motivates me further.”
Israel may be inflicting heavy casualties on the Palestinians, but the dream of Palestine continues to live on. And much to the anguish of Israeli right-wingers, it seems to have taken root in the hearts and minds of these young Jews.