By EA Alice
While serving as an Ecumenical Accompanier I had the opportunity and privilege to visit a synagogue and a school in Haifa. I met the community and spoke to school pupils about to be conscripted into the military. EAs were warmly welcomed and included in Shabbat with one of the local families. I had dinner with Tanya and her son Dan.
Young soldiers in the Israeli army. Photo: EAPPI
Tanya is originally from Croatia, which was part of Yugoslavia when she was a child. After she finished university she volunteered in a kibbutz and attended ulpan – an intensive course in Hebrew.
‘Righteous among the nations’
Tanya’s mother was orphaned when her grandparents were killed by the Ustaše (Croatian fascist militia) during the Holocaust. Yad Vashem, the Holocaust museum and memorial centre in Jerusalem, commemorates the ‘Righteous Among The Nations’. These were non-Jews who saved Jews during the Holocaust, always at great personal risk to themselves and their families.
Reflecting on this, Tanya said “There are no good or bad nations, just good or bad people … It is important that in the museum there is a name for the murderers, for the victims who were killed, and the ‘Righteous Among The Nations’ who risked their lives to save Jews”.
Young soldier in the Israeli army. Photo: EAPPI
The Hebrew students in the kibbutz came from all over the world but had one thing in common – being a Jew. Being among them was very powerful for Tanya. She reconnected with her Jewish identity and, since her homeland had fallen apart during the breakup of Yugoslavia, decided to make a life in Israel.
Around Tanya’s table, over dinner and apricot rakia – a fruit brandy popular in the Balkans – we were able to talk very openly and personally. We spoke about our experiences and perceptions of life in Israel and the occupied Palestinian territory. While Tanya feels that the Palestinian Authority “does not pay due attention to their own people”, she also talked about the pain of facing up to what the government of Israel, a country that represents hope for so many Jews, has become when it comes to the treatment of Palestinians.
At 17, after high school, all Israeli citizens – apart from those of Palestinian descent, the ultra-religious, or those with a medical condition – are required to join the army. Many serve in the occupied Palestinian territory. Girls serve for two years while boys serve for three. Dan said that, although he has to serve as a soldier, he really wants to make as positive an impact in the military as possible.
Tanya told us how painful it is that “the government is taking my son for three years, after I’ve invested so much love in bringing him up. It’s out of our hands. I’m scared for his life because many soldiers do not come back home. When he was born I had hoped that there would no longer be war by the time he came to this age. I was wrong. But the existence of Israel is based on the army and with all my sorrow I find it essential.”
A young Israeli man carries a gun on the light railway in Jerusalem. Photo: EAPPI/Alice
Since 1967 over 600,000 Israelis have settled in the occupied Palestinian territory in contravention of international law. Tanya said “I don’t feel comfortable with some of the settlers … There are some who spit on our soldiers. I can only imagine the way they treat Palestinians,” adding that “Ecumenical Accompaniers are precious because they tell us what we cannot see”. The day after my dinner with Tanya, one of the school pupils at our discussion said “I don’t want to [join the army to] defend the ultra-Orthodox settlers, I don’t want to defend my country that does this”.
Militarisation in Israeli society
Internationally, more is said about the trauma of Palestinians at the hands of the Israeli army than the trauma experienced by young Israelis serving as soldiers. The impact that militarisation has on Israeli society is rarely discussed.
I found the culture of silence around military service in Israel very troubling. It prevents young people from revealing what they do and how it affects them. A young person from the school in Haifa told me that even her best friend feels he can’t tell her about what he’s doing in the army’s combat corps.
Israeli organisations such as Breaking the Silence exist to tackle this but, along with other Israeli peace and human rights organisations, they are under attack from their own government. The organisation allows ex-soldiers who have ‘broken the silence’ to tell their stories, revealing both the reality of life for Palestinians in the occupied territories and the reality for soldiers who “witness and participate in military actions which change them immensely”.
Read the testimony of ex-soldiers and support Breaking the Silence: www.breakingthesilence.org.il
Support Israeli conscientious objectors and organisations like Courage to Refuse that are set up on their behalf: