By Matthew Edwards of Dialogues Against Militarism
Before leaving for Israel and Palestine, a friend of mine from California who has lived in Tel Aviv for the past four years sent me a message that included, along with the expected invitation to sleep on his floor, a plea for sensitivity. He suggested that there are things I just might not understand about how Israeli society functions, and while the delegation might be able to speak openly about militarism and its effects with those in the small yet elite ranks of the radical left, if DAM wants to penetrate deeper into the wider population of Israeli Jews we must remain sensitive and aware of just how powerfully linked the IDF (Israeli Defense Force, also known as the Army) is with every aspect of Israeli life. This warning was a good sign that DAM had chosen the correct place to send a delegation of anti-militarists: if mere questions and conversations are going to be seen as attacks against the State and Army then we are exactly where we should be.
Our first working day found us in Be’er Sheva (Bir a-Sab’a), the largest city in southern Israel, an immigrant boom town drawing many Russian and Eastern European Jews. Home of the southern Desert Command, this city has a proud military history—in ’48 the Negev Brigade “liberated” Be’er Sheva from Palestinian control. Streets are named after famous battles, and military hardware, such as tanks and jets placed in the middle of roundabouts, is dedicated to fallen soldiers.
Sitting at a café at Ben Gurion University of the Negev, DAM met with four activists who not only comprised a significant percentage of the total number of peace activists in the city, but also represented a large number of different peace groups. This model seems to be the Israeli norm: a small number of activists engaged in many different organizations, each serving a specific purpose, offering a specific critique or based on certain ideology. Like Israel’s Knesset, the radical left is held together by coalitions.
One of these four activists, a once proud solider who later refused to carry a gun, joined the military for much the same reasons I did- a sense of altruistic duty and responsibility. He grew up on a kibbutz and explained to us how besides the mandatory nature of service, there is intense social pressure to join the army. He shared that while growing up, he was told that the highest rank an Israeli could achieve was that of a casualty. Morbid but true.
It is apparent the militarist system DAM is being shown did not develop on its own: 62 years of unending war and occupation don’t just happen. So why the collusion between the state and the army? Was there a plan? It seems to me that the IDF has been used as a nation-building tool. This nation-building extends beyond the physical borders created by the IDF and moves past the steady and constant expansion of Israeli settlements in the West Bank. Despite the fact that today, less than 50% of each graduating high school class goes into military service, the idea of mandatory service serves is a unifying tool for the Israeli state. This state-building functions in multiple ways. For those born in Israel, service is clearly a rite of passage for entering into adulthood, and for men, is intensely linked with manhood and masculinity. For immigrants, it is the clearest way to show that one is part of society; willing to serve and “do their part.”
Militarism in Israel is not just about induction into the army: it is seen in every aspect of daily life. Armed guards and soldiers are everywhere with guns in plain view. There is constant reminding of regular folks that they are unsafe, at war, and should be on the look out for Palestinian terror attacks, Hamas rockets, teenagers flinging rocks, Hezbollah border incursions, Iranian nuclear weapons, being pushed into the sea, and the ultimate fear of the destruction of the state of Israel, the liquidation of the Jews as a race, and the next Holocaust.
There is an attractiveness to militarism that is important to recognize. It does offer a kind of solution by creating a false veneer of protection against the fears that are taken as reality. Kids are inundated from birth by both the legitimacy of militarism and are taught to recognize that the main antagonists for most of these problems are Arab or Muslim. Fear and racism mixed with militarism. Scary.
Before leaving Be’er Sheva, DAM stopped at one of the many unrecognized Arab villages of the Negev. These Bedouin communities sit on the outskirts of established Jewish towns that were once their ancestral lands. The people living here are “citizens” without state services: no running water, electricity from the power grid, sanitation, access to state education, or civil society. They are also exempt from mandatory military service, except in very special cases, possibly because Israel does not fully trust the loyalty of their Arab Bedouin Palestinian Israeli citizens.
These villages are illegal under Israeli law. DAM learned that home demolitions are common, even for families that have one of their sons serving in the IDF. Originally forced off their lands during the early conception of the state of Israel (much like the indigenous population of the United States), there has been a steady return of Bedouins over the past generation that is being met by the military and border police. Soldiers arrive in Jeeps, destroy homes, set fire to buildings, and uproot crops. From airplanes and helicopters they also spray animals, humans, crops, and villages with the pesticide Round-Up which is causing untold harm as medical services are also limited to these Bedouin and is in clear violation of the directs on the Round-Up bottle saying that it should not be sprayed more than 10cm above the ground and not at people or animals. You’d hope they’d read the warning.
As we were being driven to catch the train to Tel Aviv, one of our Be’er Shevan refusenik hosts left me with this to think about. She said, “In the U.S., there is a separation between Church and State. That is not so in Israel. In the U.S., there is a separation between the State and the Army. That is not so in Israel. With those things being true, there is no separation between the Church and the Army. Good luck and welcome to Israel.”