Conscientious objection: Louisville documentarian explores Israelis who refuse to fight

Mar 14, 2006 at 5:41 pm

It’s almost impossible to find a starting point for the discussion of Israel’s occupation of Palestine. Do you start with, as some would prefer, the ancient Jewish kingdoms? Do you jump forward to the 1917 declaration by the British that they supported a Jewish homeland in territory occupied by millions of Arabs (Muslim and otherwise)?

 Or the 1948 war that resulted an Israeli state, hundreds of thousands of Palestinian refugees, but no actual Palestinian homeland? Or do we look at Palestine today, with the West Bank under constant Israeli military occupation and only the Gaza Strip with any semblance of independence?

Increasingly, Israel seems to be uncomfortable with its occupation of Palestinian (and Lebanese) territories — a few U.N. condemnations, international scrutiny and 50 years of violence will do that. 

Louisville filmmaker Sonja de Vries visited Israel to document a growing trend of Israeli conscientious objectors — young Jewish men and women who refuse to serve in the Israeli Defense Force because of the policies in the occupied territories. Her documentary film “Refuseniks” will premiere Friday evening at the Kentucky Center. Local organizations Jewish Voice for Peace and Reel Revolution Films are organizing the event. LEO sat down with de Vries to find out what she learned after her trip to Israel.

Leo: Some people think the Israeli Defense Force’s main responsibility in the occupied territories is to intimidate the Palestinians. Do you find this to be accurate?
Sonja de Vries: The Israeli occupation is in place to control the water resources, the land and, for some, to fulfill the dream of “Eretz Israel” — Greater Israel — which encompasses all of historic Palestine. That is why Israel continues its occupation of the Palestinian territories, an occupation that has been declared illegal according to international law.
Ben Gurion, one of Israel’s founding fathers and the first prime minister, was quoted in 1937 as saying, “We must expel the Arabs and take their places.” I think it is clear that this has guided Israeli policy since Israel’s founding.

LEO: Israelis will say that they are trying to defend themselves from terror attacks. What’s wrong with that?
SDV: Security is an issue for both Palestinians and Israelis, and both people deserve to live free of the threat of violence with safe and secure borders. The root cause of the violence is Israel’s illegal military occupation of Palestinian territories. As long as that continues, violence will continue on both sides.
Palestinians experience daily and constant threats to their security. Curfews, mass arrests, indiscriminate bombings and shootings by the IDF. Nonviolent demonstrations regularly are fired upon by the IDF. The State of Israel has authorized hundreds of assassinations. With the humiliation and violence of the checkpoints, Palestinians cannot carry out the most routine things: a visit to the doctor, going to school, visiting relatives …

LEO: How can an Israeli love his or her country and be critical of the policies in the occupied territories? It seems that as soon as you criticize that, then you criticize the entire founding of Israel.
SDV: Dissent and looking critically at the policies and practices of one’s government must be at the heart of any democratic society. Our governments want us to believe there is a contradiction in criticizing your country and loving it. There is not.
I met people in Israel who do question the entire founding of Israel, yet they love their country and would defend it. Love of country is distinct from love of government or love of government policy. It is bigger than that. It’s about loving your people and your culture, loving the voices that have stood for justice throughout. Many Israelis who I spoke with expressed that they realized no one’s liberation can come at the expense of another people.

LEO: Do you think Israel’s culture has been poisoned by the xenophobia and racism of occupation? If that’s the case, what’s good about Israel?
SDV: What is positive about the people of Israel is the affirmation of Jewish culture and Jewish history. I am particularly inspired by the tradition of Tikkun Olam — to make things right, the belief that it’s important to work for social justice. Historically, Jewish people have always been involved in struggles for social and economic justice, have often been in the leadership of such movements. I think it is in part this tradition that will help bring about a peaceful and just solution to the Israeli/Palestinian conflict.
I think that the courage of the Israeli men and women shown in “Refuseniks” is a lesson for us all. In particular, it can be an inspiration for the men and women in the U.S. military.