(Haifa – Feb.13, 2020) Today’s presentations began with breakfast at 7 and an 8 am gathering put together by the EAs from Tulkarem with incredible voices and guitar accompaniment, singing a Dido song and introducing us into a rooftop reflection on what surprised us in our time here. We shared a lot of thoughts about resilience, about life going on, about humour and laughter in Palestinians and in teams, about the warmth and hospitality we encountered almost everywhere.
Our first speaker came to tell us about the Israeli political system. How it works, what the various parties represent, who works with who, who won’t work with who, and so on. Sharon Dolev works with the Israeli Disarmament Movement trying to get a Middle East Agreement banning the use of weapons of mass destruction, including the Atomic Bomb, a weapon only Israel has at the moment. She is a long-term peace and human rights activist and has worked in Israeli politics for decades. She explained in detail the mechanics of the political system.
Our presenter after the break was Ruth Lackner Hiller. She moved to Israel from the US at a young age. Already (through her parents) a campaigner against the Vietnam War and in favour of the United Farmworker’s Union (she was from California) she learned about faith from her religious mom and healing efforts from her physician father. Moving to a kibbutz in the golden area of kibbutz’ she married, had 6 children (four boys and two girls) and watched with surprise and not a little horror as her children began thinking about joining the military. It is a requirement under Israeli law and a given in Israeli life.
Telling us about a militarized society where people in uniform are honoured, guns are not ‘seen’ and the education system works hand in hand with the military to induct children (they begin choosing a branch at age 16) she painted a picture of the normalization of ‘fighting for your country’ against not only Palestinians but all they represent, for most Israelis, ‘a sea of relatives in Arab nations who would throw us into the sea at the first opportunity’. It is a well-known story in Jewish Israeli circles, one politicians have mined to successful election after successful election (“Netanyahu knows he only needs 30% to win, he just has to divide the rest of us.”)
Her daughters served without much impact, one becoming an officer and serving in offices for three years, the other on the national judo team, showing up on base in the morning, training and competing for the rest of the day. Her oldest son was the first to say no. Having grown up in a pluralistic household with access to other points of view and perspectives on the role of the military in society and in Palestine in particular, he chose another path.
Three years later the family finished a saga of effort, legal battle and supreme court hearings resulting, finally in the military letting him go. None of the other boys served either. Not unusual in Israel, we were told, where over half of the Jewish population (you have to be Jewish or Druze to serve in the Military) does not serve for one reason or another. So many are in the military now that young women in uniform are sent to be teacher’s aids in schools, helping to continue the positive narrative around military service and keep school salary costs (ordinary soldiers are paid $200.00 a month, men serve 3 years, women 2 years) down. People from a lower socio-economic background (recent immigrants, others) cannot really afford to serve, but if they refuse or find a regular job they are jailed, for long terms. Ruth is part of a group that helps find legal counsel for soldiers in jail. These days most are those who are ideologically opposed to the military mission.
“You can be a conscientious objector, have a mental health diagnosis, or an economic reason, it is easy to get out of serving,” she says, “there are too many in now and many more want to serve, it is an entrance ticket into civil service jobs (you have to have military service to be civil service), is a ‘badge of honour’ and is a bond between many in society. You cannot disagree with settlements and enforcing their safety. That gets you long terms in jail.”
Ruth and her family have pioneered much of the way people walk to exercise their consciences and refuse military service. She helped form New Profile twenty years ago that aimed first to create a conscientious objector ‘profile’ in the Israeli Military classification system and then to create a new way of thinking about militarized culture, its consequences for all people (she has some very good feminist analysis) and a new kind of Israel, a country she loves and wants so much to see change.
These days she continues life on the Kibbutz, where she is mostly seen as an enemy of the state by her own generation. Her children’s generation sees things differently. Her hope lies in them.
As for us, she asks that we find partners to work within our own countries. Independent Jewish Voices for Peace are everywhere including Canada. Meet them, network with them. Invest in the organizations here, Yesh Gvul, B’Tselem – The Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories, Breaking the Silence. Find an organization that supports the Bedouin.
“Don’t give up on us”.
More from the presentations to follow.