“He was only 15 years old. He was a pacifist.” Ruth is describing her son. “Israel is not a state with a military, but a military with a state,” she says. Ruth is an Israeli Jewish woman, one of the founders of New Profile: A Movement for the Civil-ization of Israeli Society. She tells us that in Israel there is no place for pacifists. Boys must serve for 3 years and girls for 2. Any attitude that dares question the fundamental principle of enlistment is almost incomprehensible in a soldiers’ state. It is rejected as illegitimate.
My mind wanders. I am remembering another young man, age 27, who spoke with us five weeks ago. As a proud paratrooper, Avner carried a “colt” inscribed “property of the US government.” At 18 he joined the army, as did all of his peers. He saw it as his duty “to protect Jews from Arabs.” Taught to believe that the army was “holy,” he served 3 years in the West Bank and took seriously his mandate: to control 2.5 million civilians by force. It was here that, for him, “the bubble burst!”
Avner is now an avid spokesperson for Breaking the Silence. Founded in 2004, this organization of veteran combatants is committed to educating the Israeli public on the moral price paid for an occupation which does not allow soldiers to see the “other” as equal. Avner is a bright, articulate, passionate young man, committed to exposing the underside of the occupation. He is convinced that the majority of Israeli Jews do not know the atrocities that soldiers are committing against other human beings in their name. In order to become civilians again, soldiers are forced to ignore what they have seen and done. To date, approximately 850 veterans who have served since 2000 have bravely come forward to share their experiences. “What future do we have as Jews if we push this issue aside?” he asks. “We are excellent at war and intifadas (uprisings). But we do not know how to deal with non-violence.”
Fast forward two weeks to an encounter I had in a northern West Bank village. While visiting our EAPPI placement in Yanoun, I met representatives of Combatants for Peace ~ 3 Israeli Jews and 2 Palestinians who had come to investigate the newest “outpost” (trailer) belonging to the illegal Itamar settlement, 1 of 8 outposts that are perched on the hilltops surrounding this tiny village of 75 inhabitants. These Israelis and Palestinians have taken an active part in this ongoing cycle of violence; but now, instead of fighting each other, they have laid down their guns to work for peace. This brave group of women and men believe that “only by joining together, only in seeking to understand the national aspirations of the other side, only by means of dialogue and reconciliation will it be possible to terminate the Israeli occupation, to halt the settlement project, and to establish a Palestinian state with its capital in East Jerusalem, alongside the State of Israel.”
“Our son’s trial was the first trial of a pacifist in Israel.” It is Ruth’s voice that pulls me back to the present. “Our case went to the Israeli High Court: It took us 6 years, but my son was finally released from mandatory conscription ~ he was deemed ‘unsuitable.’” In the process, New Profile was born ~ 30 October 1998. Ruth tells us that her 3 younger sons also did not enlist in the military. “‘Refusniks’ are becoming more and more common,” she says. The New Profile Hotline receives over 200 calls per month. Faced with no legal option for conscientious objectors who refuse to participate in an illegal occupation, young people are released on grounds of unfitness or poor health ~ it’s virtually their only way out. New Profile sees this as “discriminatory and non-democratic.”
But they are rowing upstream. Ruth and the 60+ activists that make up New Profile are not popular with the Israeli government or the Ministry of Education. Two years ago they were investigated, and Liebermann has labeled the group as one of the most dangerous organizations in Israel. But they are a brave, determined lot ~ they are working to save their children, and their children’s children ~ and to uphold Jewish values that protect and preserve life ~ all life.
As Ruth makes her concluding remarks, I am reminded of an ancient dream, the words of which have echoed down through the corridors of time: “They shall beat their swords into ploughshares and their spears into pruning-hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation; neither shall they learn war anymore.” ~ These words are attributed to Isaiah, ancient Israel’s prophet from the 8th century BCE, who also had an alternative vision of a world without war ~ This image is picked up in the black gospel tradition of spirituals: “I ain’t gonna study war no more” ~ War is not the answer. It never has been. It never will be ~ I am reminded of another teacher of alternative wisdom from the 1st century CE who, when he looked out over Jerusalem, wept: “If you, even you, had only recognized on this day the things that make for peace!” ~ Can we envision a world without war? ~ Can we recognize the things that make for peace? ~ Do we have the courage to do what it takes for this dream to become a reality?