In Praise of Resistance

16 February 1995

Like all professions teaching has its rewards. Some of these come instantly as students absorb, create and, often enough, improve upon received knowledge. Others are those that arrive late; among them I count former students who became good scholars, fine writers, committed social worker, or that rarity - honest and progressive politicians. But the greatest reward of all are those students, present or former, who take risks in the pursuit of a just and moral order - crossing boundaries, and breaking barriers of ideology and conformity.

In the 1960s, dozens of my students in elite American universities landed in prison for defying the requirements of military conscription. All of them had qualified to apply for the educational exemption from the draft; but they opted to risk jail in order to protest their government"s war on Vietnam. Nearly all of these "resistors" continue in their mid-years to make valuable contributions to society - as film makers, artists, educators, and social activists. In many ways, their radicalism changed the moral and cultural environment of the United States. The emergence of the republican right is largely a response to that change.

These are quieter times in the US Thousands of morally motivated youth are going into social work, education, and health services. The current American environment does not demand open acts of resistance. Yet, occasionally a brave youth sets an inspiring example. In the mail yesterday I found a brief letter from a former student. Robin wrote: "I don"t know if you remember Nathan. He was a student of yours, taking the class when I did. The section on zionism did, I recall, send him into a tail spin. But he grappled with things, and it looks like he came to a better conclusion than most..". Robin then informs that on February 5, 1995 Nathan Krystall was arrested in Jerusalem for refusing to enlist in the Israeli army. "Although Nathan has not yet been sentenced, it is likely that he will be subjected to a difficult and lengthy process of harrassment, isolation, and imprisonment".

I do remember Nathan Krystall. Five years ago he came to me seeking admittance into my seminar on the Middle East. "Why do you want this course?", I had asked. "I am Jewish and zionist", he had said, "and I have decided to migrate to Israel. Since I am going to live in the Middle East I want to learn about it". I informed him that I regard political zionism as a sectarian ideology, view Israel as a discriminatory state, and advocate the restitution of Palestinian rights and democratization of Israel as essential conditions for peace in the Middle East. "I have heard that", he had said, "I want to know how you see it". Nathan rarely spoke in class; asked questions occasionally; and read a lot. He did, it seems, migrate to Israel where he is now in prison. By choice!

With his note, Robin enclosed the letter Nathan wrote to Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin who also holds the portfolio of Minister of Defence. Dated February 1, this remarkable letter was sent by fax four days before Nathan was arrested. I can do no better than to quote it in full; explanatory notes in parentheses [] are mine:

To Minister of Defence:

Despite my declaration to the Israeli Defence Forces, both written and verbal, that I will not serve in the army, I am still expected to report for 120 days of service on February 5. I ask that you cancel the order for my enlistment due to reasons of conscientious objection, which I briefly discuss below:

I arrived in this country almost three years ago. Over two years ago I decided, for various reasons, to take advantage of my privileged status as a Jew and, via the Law of Return, become an Israeli citizen. I knew that I would possibly be ordered to serve in the IDF [Israeli Defense Forces], and at that time believed that service inside the Green Line [i.e. Israel] would not be totally counter to my principles, but afterwards I changed my mind.

First and foremost, I now totally oppose the existence of Israel as a Jewish state, which is antithetical to the establishment of any kind of democratic state here. After living in the country, it is clear to me that preservation of Israel as a Jewish state will always mean upholding the rights of Jews at the expense of Palestinians. As such, dominance can only be achieved and maintained by the use of force. The IDF- like its predecessor, the Hagannah- is a central instrument of this violent rule.

In the short time that I have been here I have witnessed how the IDF, upon the orders of government and its commanding officers (which ultimately emanate from the same place, namely yourself, being both the prime minister and the minister of defence) will stop at nothing to silence any voice that cries out against this oppression, and to smash any action aims at guaranteeing the full rights of Palestinians. This I have witnessed every single day, through accounts via the media, stories told to me personally, and with my own eyes [here the letter says "see attached" but I have not seen this apparently eye-witness account.]

The continuing, and even increasing, expropriation of Palestinian land, settlement expansion and road building in the West Bank, particularly in the Greater Jerusalem area, along with IDF and settler presence in the Gaza Strip, West Bank including East Jerusalem, the Golan Heights and Southern Lebanon, only reinforces my resolve to refuse army service.

It is IDF that guards the work crews who uproot trees and tear through hills to build only settlements, and now the Jewish-only bypass roads. It is the IDF that protects settlers who rampage against Palestinian residents; that enabled the massacre, one year ago, of 30 worshipers in the Ibrahimi Mosque by Baruch Goldstein and his accomplices and that, over subsequent months, carried out an additional massacre of forty more Palestinians; that now supervises religious persecution through the division of the Ibrahimi Mosque; that routinely assassinates Palestinian political activists and stands guard over thousands more in Israel; that bombs to death hundreds of Lebanese citizens every year and afterwards claims that they were "terrorists"; that prevents Palestinians from drilling even the wells required to meet the minimal level of water use; and that blocks Palestinians from reaching Jerusalem - the geographic, economic, cultural, and religious center of Palestinian life. And finally, it is the army that, by en masse expulsion and deportation, has created millions of Palestinian refugees and that keeps them refugees by refusing to allow them to return to their homes, on both inside and of the Green Line.

Furthermore, the IDF serves as an initiation rite into full Israeli manhood. It is these men, though, who regularly beat and shoot to death their wives and girlfriends. Many feminists have drawn the connection between service in the Israeli army and the high level of male abuse against women that exists in Israeli society. Also, gay men, only recently allowed to serve in the IDF, do not fit into the norm of the Israeli Man and are subject to constant harassment.

The IDF solidifies the class stratification of Israeli society based on race and religion. Perusal of the "Help Wanted" advertisements in the newspaper reveals that a very large percentage of bosses demand army service as a condition of employment. This immediately excludes the vast majority of Palestinians who constitute 18 percent of Israeli citizenry, thus hindering their chances of economic upward mobility. Plus, it is common knowledge that within the army itself the most undesirable jobs are reserved for certain sectors of society, for example Ethiopian immigrants.

If there existed here a popular army that protected equally the lives and rights of every citizen regardless of religion, race, sex or class, I would gladly enlist and serve. However, for the above reasons and more, I am unwilling to serve in the IDF even for one day.