Israeli refusers bring ‘a declaration of sanity’ to New York City

by DAVID SAMEL on OCTOBER 2, 2009 · 

Last night, I attended a presentation by two women named Maya Wind and Netta Mishly of the Shministim, a group of young Israelis who refuse mandatory military service, and are often sentenced to repeated prison terms until they either change their minds or obtain a recognized deferment. Maya and Netta both served several weeks in jail before being found mentally unfit for military service. To me, the phrase sounded like a declaration of sanity. They appeared at Sarah Lawrence College on Thursday night, and are in the midst of a US tour sponsored by Jewish Voice for Peace and CODEPINK, with future engagements at NYU, New England, Philadelphia and DC-area colleges.

Along with their extraordinary courage, the young women were extremely intelligent and articulate critics of their society and its military. They spoke eloquently of the wide range of injustices perpetrated by the Occupation, focusing on the settlements, checkpoints and the separation wall/barrier. They appropriately spent most of their time discussing the oppression faced by the Palestinians, but added very perceptive comments on the destructive effect on Israeli society as well. Even when they talked about matters I was quite familiar with, they offered a fresh perspective.

Maya and Netta were well aware of their privilege as “white” Jews, and believed that their talks probably had more potential to resonate with the public than speaking tours by Palestinians. The implication for Diaspora Jews is obvious. We can leave our country where we enjoy equal rights of citizenship and travel half-way around the world to instantly assume a superior position over those who have lived there for generations and even centuries. Opposition to this system of unfair privilege is welcome from all corners, but it is a little more meaningful when it comes from the beneficiaries themselves.

One revelation, to me at least, was that the purpose of the hundreds of checkpoints throughout the West Bank was not merely to cause general misery and inconvenience to Palestinians, but to effectuate control in a very specific way. The checkpoints operate to severely restrict those who publicly express a desire for liberation, or join a disfavored group, as well as their families. Those considered troublemakers can be delayed for hours or even denied freedom of movement altogether. Activism invites a world of hurt, and can make the necessities of daily living impossible. (Of course, the women remarked on the bankruptcy of the security pretext as well.)

Another moment that struck me was the discussion of Israeli textbooks. We are bombarded with claims that Palestinian textbooks are full of “incitement” of hatred and violence. The standard and perfectly legitimate response has been that the suffocating reality of the Occupation “incites” the hatred and violence. Moreover, many of the rumors about Palestinian textbooks have been proven false or grossly exaggerated. But I have always wondered what appears in Israeli textbooks. How would they survive critical scrutiny? The women answered this question, saying that they were taught nothing of the disastrous effects that the establishment of a Jewish State in Palestine had on the native inhabitants. The old maxim “A land without people for a people without land,” an original myth that was disproved more than a century ago, still lives on in Israeli schools.

On a related note, Maya and Netta observed that a country that requires mandatory military service and sends its young recruits into the Occupied Territories to exert authority over Palestinians will necessarily become a breeding ground for racism. From an early age, Israelis are trained to rule over Arabs, who are viewed as inferiors to be dominated and distrusted. The corrosive effects of this socialization result in favorable election results for avowed racists like Lieberman, while those who actually view Palestinians as equal human beings are marginalized as extremists.

Questions from the audience were almost entirely favorable, but one notable exception was from a member of Rabbis for Human Rights. The rabbi noted that he agreed with much of he presentation, but politely challenged Maya and Netta’s brief historical introduction, as he rehashed the old propaganda line blaming the outbreak of violence in 1948 on the invasion of Arab armies to destroy the newborn Jewish State. The women chose not to engage in a lengthy debate with the rabbi, but pointed out that his version of history was far from undisputed. It was somewhat disappointing to see a genuinely concerned rabbi spouting such a simplistic and conventional view. It reminded me of Michael Lerner’s occasional forays into the realm of pure nonsense.

I would like to be optimistic that there are such impressive young people in Israeli society who have escaped the nationally-enforced narrative and are willing to risk social ostracism and even their freedom to reverse the tragic course of their country. They have the purest of motives, a refusal to act toward others in ways they would find hateful if done to themselves. But Maya and Netta also confirmed the unmistakable rightward drift of the Israeli electorate, and assured us that while there are some others who share their views, they are so much in the minority that a speaking tour of their own country is not presently contemplated. Still, it was a fascinating and inspiring evening.

David Samel is a criminal defense attorney in New York City.

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