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In the name of God, Most Gracious, Most Merciful.


the Message Continues i/61   -   Newsletter for  September  2006



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"The real heroes, according to Leibowitz, are those who speak their minds
without fear of scorn, contempt and ostracism; those who do the unpopular
thing and follow their conscious, willing to bear the consequences for
their beliefs."
-the author
My Glorious Brothers
by Daphna Baram
--exerpt from Ronit Chacham, Breaking Ranks: Refusing to Serve in the West 
Bank and Gaza Strip (Other Press, LLC, )9 Jul. 2003
The late Jewish philosopher (he lived more than half his life in Jerusalem
and was among the founders of its Hebrew university, but it is still
somehow hard to relate to him as an Israeli philosopher), Yesha’ayahu
Leibowitz, had only contempt for physical courage. He used to remind his
audiences of brave and daring acts by Nazi special units soldiers during
the WW II. "They were extraordinarily fearless, they risked their own
lives in service of their leader," he shouted at the top of his unique
prophet’s voice. "Do we think of them as heroes? No, we do not." The real
heroes, according to Leibowitz, are those who speak their minds without
fear of scorn, contempt and ostracism; those who do the unpopular thing
and follow their conscious, willing to bear the consequences for their
Leibowitz was a spiritual leader for refuseniks of my generation in the
early 1990s. Before reporting to reserve service in the IDF only to
announce a refusal to serve in the occupied territories, the guys would
make a pilgrimage to Leibowitz’s modest apartment to receive his
encouragement, some would say his blessing. Leibowitz lived a very long
and fruitful life, but not long enough to see his own grandson, Shamai,
join the honorable club of Israeli refuseniks. There is no doubt he would
have been proud to read his grandson’s thoughtful and articulate account
of his decision to refuse in Breaking Ranks.
Ronit Chacham’s book comprises of nine interviews with conscientious
objectors (or 'refuses'). I was amazed by the strong emotional impact it
had on me. I thought I knew everything there was to know about refuseniks.
My father refused to serve in the occupied territories when I was 12 years
old; his best friend was imprisoned in the same year, 1982, for refusing
to serve in the invasion of Lebanon; the vast majority of my male friends
are refuseniks. And still, the words of these 21st century refuseniks
excited and inspired me, as I’m sure they would affect any reader.
The question what leads a person to dissent may remain unsolved forever.
Why was Yaniv Iczkovitz, who used to hold, according to his own account,
racist and derogatory views of Arabs in general and Palestinians in
particular, driven to dissent after watching -- from atop a watch tower --
the ordinary day to day life of a Palestinian family in a refugee camp,
while so many others have watched, and continue to watch worse atrocities
remain unmoved? What made Ishay Rosen-Zvi defy the rabbis - the political
and spiritual leaders of his community - and turn his back on his peer
group of settlers, while most of his contemporaries carry on the
oppression of Palestinians without questioning it?
What makes a man like Rami Kaplan, who never wanted a thing in his life
but to serve in a combat unit of the IDF, who had his identity defined by
being an officer in the Israeli army, wake up one morning and see no
choice but to leave his fellow officers and his subordinates and choose
the hard ungrateful path of dissent? Those questions may well be
unanswerable, but the book provides many hints and small keys to the souls
of the interviewees, and to that of Israeli society.
One important observation is offered by an interviewee who notes that most
of the refuseniks come from the middle class, and are, for the most part,
of eastern-European origins. Those who were raised to see themselves as
the salt of the earth, he explains, are less afraid to defy the consensus.
The members of Courage-To-Refuse mentioned above believed that coming from
them -- the backbone of Israeli society -- defiance would cause a
political and social earthquake. They were not, they knew, a bunch of
radical leftists; no one, they thought, would dare to question their
patriotism; when they refuse, they had no doubt, everyone will understand
that something is fundamentally wrong with government policies. That’s why
they strove to maintain a distance from the veteran refusenik
organization, Yesh-Gvul, whose members had long ago been labelled ‘radical
leftists,’ and marginalized. Courage-to-Refuse and its members did their
best to avoid the hug of the radical left. Little did they know that when
Yesh-Gvul was formed, 25 years ago, its members harboured similar
thoughts. Yesh-Gvul founders also saw themselves as unquestionable
patriots. They too believed that no one will dare to call them traitors.
They too tried, at first, to distance themselves from the traditional
I disagree with Chacham when she writes that the new refuseniks were
quickly marginalized by Israeli media. I was working as news editor at a
Jerusalem weekly magazine at the time, and followed all other media
closely. I remember well the vast coverage given to the new refuseniks
group by various papers and electronic media. It stood out against the
backdrop of ultra-nationalist collaborative stance adopted by most Israeli
media at the time of CTR’s first public appearance. Their lineage in
itself called for attention: Leibowitz the grandson, a high court judge’s
Speakers for the new group were interviewed by the weekend supplements of
all major Israeli newspapers, and managed to embarrass the army
profoundly. In those first months they even refused to talk to the foreign
press, to bolster their patriotic image. And in spite of all that, CTR has
so far managed to mobilize 'only' a few dozen more than 500 other
soldiers. The left views it as a huge success, but some of the new
refuseniks were disappointed: the earth did not shake, and consensus in
Israel did not move much. In that sense, they were indeed marginalized. As
was the story of Jonathan Ben-Arzi (not interviewed in this book), a
nephew (by marriage) of Israel’s former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
As were the Shministim (high school seniors) with their truly radical
manifesto, school leafleting, and -- scariest of all -- dialogue with
It is fascinating to observe how the process of refusal and the creation
of a political organization radicalised these main stream men’s views.
Some told Chacham they have lost their faith in Zionism. Others developed
critical views regarding Israel’s treatment of Mizrahi immigrants, women,
the poor. Having taken one major step outside consensus, other ideological
barriers also lost their grip on them.
Chacham conducted the interviews with of sensitivity and wisdom. Her
conversations with the refuseniks make a fascinating read. She brings the
real heroes, the interviewees, to the fore. All of them are eloquent,
intelligent, and honest. The last interview, a talk Chacham had with her
own son, David, is especially touching, in spite of, or perhaps because of
a lack of any mother-son emotional statements.
It is rare for Israelis to find something to feel proud of in our country
these days, but reading the words of these compatriots of mine made me
feel proud indeed. Ironically, I was reminded of a poem by the Zionist
Chaim Chefer, relating to his brothers in arms of the Palmach, "They are
my brothers, They are my brothers." That’s what Ronit Chacham’s book made
me feel toward these brave young men.
Daphna Baram is a Senior Associate Member of St. Antony's College, Oxford.
She was a fellow of the Reuters Foundation Program in Oxford University,
and News Editor of Jerusalem weekly Kol Ha'ir. Her book Disenchantment:
The Guardian and Israel (buy from Amazon UK) was published by Guardian
Books, in July 2004.







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