What Makes a Hero? A Letter to Israel’s Minister of Defense
To Mr. Ehud Barak:
You should be proud indeed that you have young people such as the Shminitism to secure the future of Israel. These young men and women poised on the edge of adulthood have the uncanny ability to discern and destroy the enemy, even when it is hidden in the most treacherous and shadowy place of all, the mistaken hearts of their countrymen.
I am not assessing your situation from afar. I lived under the Occupation for the year I taught philosophy at BirZeit University. I know firsthand what it is like to practice ways of walking that do not gain the attention of the soldiers as you buy fruit in the marketplace.
I know what it is like to have your students come to class wet and shivering from sleeping in the fields to avoid the soldiers searching house to house for the colors of the Palestinian flag since it was a punishable offense to pose the possibility of a Palestinian state.
I know what it is like to have my best students disappear to prisons where UN and Israeli civil rights groups cannot locate them-and where torture is rampant.
I saw soldiers fighting children, since that is what happens when a civilian population becomes the enemy: one sees the ghosts of threat everywhere. And multiplies them. Now there have been 41 years to multiply such chimeras in the Occupation.
It takes a clear-sighted hero to see through the Occupation’s boxing at shadows and stand eye to eye with a Palestinian and hear their story.
Such clarity came to Sahar Vardi at the age of twelve when she visited a small village in the Occupied Territories with her father for work on a water project. . In her following visits to the Territories, she learned that the values that she was brought up with, “such as justice, freedom, human rights and equality,” were violated as the state she loved oppressed “millions of people so that I could enjoy the ‘freedom’ they taught me everyone deserves.”
Once a true lover of country sees such things, they cannot abet their country on its destructive path-but must instead show that country its true values once again. This is the service to country Mia Tamarin wishes to express in the three jail sentences she has served for her own refusal to join the occupying forces. Omer Goldman has served her jail terms because, as she says, “I believe in service to the society I am part of”. That is the same refusal-and resulting jail terms-of Udi Nir, Yuval Ophir-Auron, and Raz Bar-David Varon. Tamar Katz is currently in solitary confinement for her refusal to wear the uniform of those enforcing the Occupation in jail.
I don’t know if the snow is falling in the mountains of Palestine today as it fell relentlessly the winter I lived there, but December 18th was a fitting day for the public actions supporting these young men and women. For delivering to them the 20,000 letters they received in support.
On the verge of the darkest day of the year, it is time to honor what humans can contribute to the light. Like that contained in the letter one hundred teenagers up for the draft have sent to Israeli officials, asserting their refusal to become part of the occupying forces which Katz notes, make of her Israel an “invader of foreign lands… which… tyrannizes civilians and makes life difficult for millions under a false pretext of security.” They fully understand they will be jailed for that refusal. And when released from jail, they will be drafted and jailed again if they continue to refuse service-with no end in sight.
These young men and women have assessed some hard issues that face their people in terms of peace and economic justice, as their statements indicate. They are no strangers to the realities of the relationships between the Palestinians and the Israelis. But they take responsibility for stopping the oppression of civilians. They refuse to sanction the punishment of a whole population for the violence of a few.
Most striking of all they are motivated by hope. As Yuval Ophir-Auron puts it: “I am convinced that it is no one but ourselves who determines that it is our fate to live by the sword. There is another way…This is the path of dialogue, of understanding, of concession, forgiveness, of peace.”
What better hero would you find, Mr. Barak, than a man willing to be jailed rather than fail to enact this hope for his country?
And what better values for your heroes to live up to than the ones cited by Udi Nir, “human rights, democracy and the personal responsibility each and every human being bears towards fellow human beings…As an Israeli citizen and as an adolescent liable for enlistment I feel a sense of extensive responsibility for the cycle of violence..It is out of this sense of responsibility that I refuse to enter the cycle of bloodshed and to add fuel to the fire of hatred raging here.”
Though in the context of this cycle of violence, hope feels “so far away” as Raz Bar-David Varon notes, she will go to jail rather than join the occupying forces– since only standing up for her beliefs makes that hope real to her. And I would add, to those who see her model her hope with her courage.
To cycles of violence that exist anywhere these young heroes show us the alternative that allows us to inspire the vision of peace in one another as we stand face to face, enacting the values that come to “a human being among other humans”, in Yuval Ophir-Auron’s words.
What great heroes Israel has in these brave young men and women. Heroes who love their country enough to go to jail to defend its highest values.
Heroes who sow hope in a climate of violence and despair.
I urge you to free them from jail and celebrate them in the way they deserve.
Here is my previous post including a bit of my personal experience on the West Bank
The December 18th above gives you a way to send your own letter in support of these teenagers who refuse to enforce the Occupation.
Amnesty International has issued a statement supporting their cause .
Jewish Voices for Peace works for justice to Palestinians in a number of arenas.