Bread and Conscience

Dani Ben Simhon

ON FEBRUARY 18, the Forum in Support of Conscientious Objectors held its first public activity: 600 people gathered in Tel Aviv for a solidarity evening and rock concert. The event was held in an art gallery called "The People's House," which accommodated only a hundred. The rest filled the street outside, but the organizers opened the entire front, creating in effect an indoor-outdoor theater. On the walls hung works by Israeli artists, portraying the effects of the Occupation. The three-hour program featured well-known musicians, singers and poets, conscientious objectors, and speakers from the major support groups: Yesh Gvul, Profil Hadash and the Forum itself. Fifteen organizations from around the world sent messages of solidarity.

The Forum arose two months ago at the initiative of journalists from Etgar (Challenge's Hebrew sister). Its purpose is to provide support for the ever-growing circle of those who refuse to serve in the army. There are different types of objectors. Some are would-be conscripts, still in twelfth-grade. Others are reservists. Some oppose any military service: even if you work for the army inside the border ("Green Line"), they point out, your contribution frees up other soldiers for the Territories. Others are willing to serve in Israel but not beyond. The Forum backs all forms of refusal, although most of its members at present belong to the younger age group. At the time of the event, two of these were in prison: Ya'ir Hilu and Yigal Rosenberg, both 18.

There was personal drama on this night. The musicians were risking their careers. Israel Television's First Channel had spotted the potential for a story, and it covered the event, which appeared as a lengthy chapter on its Weekend News Magazine (February 22). 

To understand the drama, one must be aware of the outright scorn (and subterranean fear) with which Israelis have always met the phenomenon of conscientious objection. They perceive themselves as eternal victims, and only their army stands between them and another Holocaust. To say "No" to the military, therefore, is to blaspheme against the narrative of Jewish history. Until the Lebanon war (1982), hardly anyone thought or spoke this "No". Then it began to sound, here and there, and a whole society rushed to quash it. Leaders of the left, such as Yossi Sarid of Meretz, condemn the "No" at every opportunity. The condemnation is a knee-jerk response – perhaps the only thing in which Israeli Jewish society has remained, till the last few months, unified. 

"It's a democracy!" Israelis say. "You have to obey the majority. You can vote and you can demonstrate, but you mustn't say 'No' once decisions are made." The Israeli concept of democracy does not extend so far as to guarantee minority rights. There is no recognition of the universal human right to place the call of conscience above the requirements of the state. 

In an interview with Challenge, the MC for the evening, Nir Nader (himself an objector and Forum organizer), pointed out the drama of the situation: "For many years now, painters and sculptors have expressed solidarity with the Palestinians and those who refuse to oppress them. The case has been very different with singers and musicians, who depend on a mass market. They need disc jockeys to play their songs, they need the public to buy their albums. With rare exceptions, they have never bucked the consensus. Tonight changes all that. The restraints have been broken. Here well-known singers have come out and shown where they stand, along with others who'll be better known after tonight. They have done this without regard for their careers. This is their conscientious objection."

One of these is singer and guitarist Hemi Rodner, who took the stage shouting: "I'm with you!" Rodner gained fame as a soloist with a popular rock group called, "Where is the Child?" Now he has gone out on his own. When Israeli television asked him about the risk to his career, Rodner answered that he hoped to find an echo among the public. "If not," he said with a smile and a shrug, "What to do? There's bread at the corner store." 

This answer contains it all. For popular musicians do perceive the mood in the street. The fact that they come out precisely now is above all  an act of courage and conscience, but it also indicates a change in the popular mood as state-sponsored brutality increases. 

Among the other musicians taking a stand were Guy Assif, Shlomi Shavan, Yaheli Sobol and Sharon Ben Ezer from a group called Polyanna Frank. This group was already famous for its radical messages twelve years ago in the first Intifada. Ben Ezer sang a satirical piece on the ethos of the Zionist soldier, entitled "Hero of the Defense Forces". 

An Arab rap group from Ramle, led by Tamer Nafar, would have brought the crowd to its feet if it weren't already on them. One of the songs included the refrain: "I'm not against the peace, but it's against me!" 

The gallery's walls were full. The initial list of 25 consensus-bucking artists had swelled to 52. Among them were several whose works are exhibited in the country's major museums: David Reeb, Maya Cohen Levi, Haim Luski, Naomi Siman Tov, Ido Bar, Guy Raz, and Michal Ne'eman. 

Outside the gallery, people visited booths belonging to the Forum, to the three sister publications, Challenge, Etgar  and al-Sabar (Arabic) and to Profil Hadash. A petition circulated, as well as postcards in support of the imprisoned objectors. Some contributed money and volunteered for future activities.



The Speeches

First to speak was Dani Ben Simhon (the present author). "The twelfth-graders," he said, "belong to a generation that has stopped believing the politicians and generals. …The Oslo Accords lulled people of conscience in Israel to sleep. Between 1994 and September 2000, there were only two or three conscientious objectors per year. The Intifada has changed that. So far, almost a thousand soldiers and potential draftees have told the army that they will not take part in the Occupation. …Today, when the ears of the public are open and the eyes of our Palestinian neighbors are following what we do, it is important to announce in a clear, firm voice that we must not go back to the Oslo Accords. They merely perpetuate the Occupation under a guise of enlightenment, creating a protectorate dependent on Israel. We must not accept an agreement that institutionalizes Apartheid, turning the Palestinians into hewers of wood and drawers of water for Israeli society. We do not call for separation from the Palestinians. On the contrary, we demand that Israel offer them a peace between equals, a peace that will enable Palestinian youths to realize their social and economic rights and fulfill their potential, just as we want to fulfill ours."

Among the remaining speakers were Forum members who had signed the letter of the twelfth-graders to PM Ariel Sharon. One of them, Hillel Goral took up a well-worn Zionist slogan: "It's good to die for our country!" "Good to die?" he said. "Why? And who will be around to enjoy all the good that will be here when everyone's dead? …I don't know why Oslo didn't succeed, or how many have died in the last 35 years. But I do know this: If people wholeheartedly stretch out their hands for peace, they will find hands of peace stretched toward them – not rifles, not stones."

 Shimri Tzameret of Kibbutz Kabri is also a signer of the twelfth-graders' letter and a Forum member. He spoke about the daily confrontations that he and other CO's undergo: "At school they call us draft dodgers. Our teachers argue with us in front of the class… We face our parents, who did full military service, and argue with them about our refusal… Many times a day we have to answer the question that is put to every 18-year-old Israeli: Which army unit are you going to serve in? We answer, "Not us!" …Believe me, our lives would be a lot easier if we simply let ourselves be drafted. But we say 'No' to the easy path. We believe in a path of our own."


The Forum in Support of Conscientious Objectors seeks to broaden its international connections. Many around the world have already written us. Many have mailed out our postcards of solidarity with the young prisoners. In order to help us with the work of the Forum, please send a contribution, big or small, to Challenge, P.O.B. 41199, Jaffa 61411, Israel. Include a note saying, "For the Forum in Support of Conscientious Objectors."

In order to make contact with the Forum members, please write:

The speakers also included veteran Yesh Gvul activist Eli Gozansky, Idan Tzivoni from "The Left Bank", and Lotan Raz from Profil Hadash. Asma Agbarieh, director of the Baqa Center in Jaffa, emphasized the international character of conscientious objection. After describing the fake brand of Jewish-Arab co-existence that had led to the Intifada of October 2000 inside Israel, she connected it to the fake peace plan that had led to the Intifada in the Territories. "The growing awareness on the part of the Palestinian people that they had been cheated, the gap between the expectations aroused by Oslo and the grim reality of poverty and unemployment, together with the steady growth of the settlements, all brought them to despair. It wasn't just Israel that was dooming them, they saw, but their own leadership, the Palestinian Authority. To this feeling of no-way-out was added the continuing indifference of the Israeli left. We see the result in the Intifada of the last sixteen months. The Labor government's method was deception. The national-unity government prefers direct oppression. But the purpose, in both cases, is the same: to bring the Palestinian people to its knees, making it forgo its rights.

"The left," Agbarieh stressed, "must rise to the occasion in this time of war and take up its historical task, which is to stand by the oppressed, the victim. These young conscientious objectors are doing just that when they refuse to take part in the Occupation. It is no small measure of sacrifice when they dare at the age of 18 to go out against the consensus, against a national-unity government, identifying with the Palestinian side. These youth are the beginning of hope for building understanding between the two peoples on the basis of equal rights." 

The feeling of internationalism was bolstered through a statement signed by fifteen organizations, Palestinian and European. It read: "We express our solidarity with the courageous conscientious objectors and call for their immediate release."

"Friends of Challenge" in Bonn sent the following message: "Your step gives hope. It tells us that the times are changing. Hold fast to your determined and courageous positions. We hope that many more will join you."

Ending the evening, Nader cited Bertolt Brecht: "'New times don't start all at once.' This long evening has shown that despite the political cul-de-sac and the mounting despair all around us, there is plenty to be done, and there are people ready to do it. There is something to hope for. There's a world to remake so that all will be able to live in it. We have come here to identify with the refusers and give them support. All the important messages we have heard here tonight tend to a single purpose: the end of the Occupation."




Ms. War comes and goes

to right of me, to left of me

on many feet.

And me, I cannot speak

the lingo of these girls from Palestine

or guess their fear.

But I have a dread,

big, jagged,

spreading like knowledge in me:

that soon, tomorrow perhaps,

she'll be here.

And I don't feel like standing on rooftops

waving flags of ink.

I don't know how to speak in polished words.

Mine is the time of the cowards.

I count myself with the worried and trembling.

I'm fed up with catastrophes and guilty days.

Yet still I see her

creeping near

like a tempest self-exciting,

as children hear,

when the circus train approaches,

through the screeching of the cars,

the lion's purr.

And I don't see any other choice:

if war occurs,

arise will I and make a poem

and I shall in this city be

one woman

who has what on earth to do with war

if not to fear, have courage, or refuse,

if not heart's bodings.

Yaarah Shehori


Translated from the Hebrew by S. Langfur