Battle not to fight

2009-11-05 00:00

AS they exit The Witness building, Yuval Ophir-Auron teases Omer Goldman about the bright-pink shoes she’s had to borrow because hers got wet in the Pietermaritzburg rain. There’s a bit of shoving and giggling and, perhaps, relief that yet another interview is over.

It’s the normal banter of 20-year-olds but it gives me a jolt because I realise that during our hour-long discussion, I’d managed to lose sight of the glaring fact of their youth.

It’s partly because of the seriousness with which they talk about serious matters, such as economic boycotts and up- ending the comfortably held views about what it means to be a patriotic Israeli Jew. And there’s the composure that comes with being convinced by your cause.

But there’s also the lived reality of the struggle. Both Goldman and Ophir-Auron have seen the inside of Israeli prisons owing to their refusal to serve in the Israeli Defence Force and participate in what they believe is Israel’s illegal occupation of Palestinian territories.

Military service — three years for boys and two for girls — is mandatory in Israel.

Goldman, whose resistance seems all the more pointed given the fact that her father is an army general and former deputy head of Israeli Intelligence Service Mossad, says although the number of people refusing to go to the army for different reasons is slowly growing, most young people still do it because they don’t want to go to prison.

“Some of my friends say they will serve in the army but they will be kind to Palestinians and hand out sweets to the children at checkpoints. I tell them, it’s still a checkpoint. It’s still a crime to defend the system,” she said.

Goldman said taking the decision to become an objector was “very easy” after she was exposed, at the age of 18, to conditions on the West Bank. “Once you see what’s going on, it’s hard to close your eyes to it. It’s just the right thing to do,” she said.

Goldman, who grew up in a comfortable Tel Aviv suburb, said she had always been interested in human rights issues and politics, and would debate issues around race and gender with her father.

“But it took me a long time to connect these debates with the Palestine reality,” she said.

Since coming to South Africa at the beginning of October at the invitation of the South African End Conscription Campaign and Open Shuhada Street (OSS), a nonprofit Israeli organisation, the representatives of the pacifist Shministim (Hebrew for Grade 12 pupils) Movement have been in the media spotlight and have spoken at a number of gatherings at schools and universities.

Together with the 19-year-old Sahar Vardi (who was in Cape Town on the day of the Pietermaritzburg interview), the young objectors have had to hold their own among critics and supporters alike.

Denied permission to talk to pupils at Jewish schools — King David in Johannesburg and Herzlia School in Cape Town — the Shministim’s visit drew fire from SA Zionist Federation national vice chairman David Hirsch, who reportedly raised concerns that the visit could fuel anti-Semitism.

The SA Jewish Board of Deputies (SAJBD) disputed parallels between the Israeli objectors and the South African End Conscription Campaign, currently celebrating its 25th anniversary.

In a piece on MoneyWeb, SAJBD associate director David Saks said: “What the Shministim and their South African backers only succeed in doing is misrepresenting the respective histories of apartheid South Africa and the Middle East conflict, as well as revealing the blinkered denialism that characterises the Israeli hard left’s understanding of the existential threats that Israel faces.”

In the same piece, Saks argued that the Shministim’s call for an end to the occupation is in fact a view held by most Israelis.

“It’s one thing for Saks to say that most Israelis don’t support the occupation, but what do they do about it?” said Ophir-Auron when questioned on the deputies’ position. “Couldn’t you say that in the eighties, many South African whites said they were against apartheid, but what did they do about it?”

“I think there’s something to work with there,” said Goldman about the refuseniks’ meeting with the SAJBD. Generally, she’s been impressed by the fact that South Africans seem interested in what is going on in Israel. “It sometimes feels like it’s a bigger issue here than it is in Israel,” she said.

Omer says it feels good as an Israeli Jew to challenge the “comfortable” and potentially “dangerous” line which traditionally links categories such as Jewish, Zionism and Israel and, conversely, that which links anti-occupation with anti- Semitism.

“In Johannesburg, where we spoke at a meeting of the Wits Palestine Solidarity Committee, a Hamas supporter came up to us to say how good it was to meet us. He had never met anyone like us before,” recalled Goldman.

The pair said their best experience in South Africa was a visit to Soweto with the Landless People’s Movement and having dinner in Khayelitsha where they met members of Equal Education, a movement working for quality education.

“We saw the awful living conditions. I was shocked,” said Goldman. “I really didn’t even want to talk about the occupation after that. But we met some amazing people who have no money in their pockets, no lights and water, but they are passionate and principled freedom fighters who have strong nonviolent morals.”

For Goldman, the trip to South Africa has given her new ideas on how to make activisim more attractive to young people. “I have a lot of new ideas to take back with me,” she said.

Ophir-Auron believes the media attention garnered during their trip has been encouraging.

“I have hope that what’s published here will have an impact on Israel,” he said.

The trip has been an opportunity for the Shministim to call for an economic boycott of Israel and to raise the profile of information sources such as the website, which publishes the names of national and international companies and corporations involved in supporting the occupation.

“Our fight inside our society is grey,” said Goldman. “Because Israel is ostensibly a democratic state, everything the state does is technically legal, which makes it difficult to fight it. We need help from the international community because it’s very complicated. We need them to help us make it possible.

“We seldom hear the word ‘occupation’ back home in the media, but we have heard it so much here,” said Goldman.

“We hope it will affect Israelis and that’s where change should come from. We need to make it a little bit harder for people to sleep well at night. We need more open discussion.”

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