Israeli ‘Refuseniks’ Reject Anti-Arab Bias

Many admirers of Judaic traditions, including the commitments to independent thought and social justice, have wondered why the Israeli experience has veered so far from those honorable principles. But Lawrence Davidson says some Israelis continue to ask the tough questions and reject anti-Arab bigotry.

By Lawrence Davidson

The vast majority of people in any given society are “locally normal.” By this I mean that they conform to the accepted outlooks and behaviors of their local society. They fit comfortably with their neighbors who fit comfortably with them. Their opinions are majority opinions that reflect local societal norms.

Those norms may or may not espouse racism and other prejudices. That these views may be objectionable to outsiders doesn’t matter in terms of how conformity inside the group works. They will be adhered to because they are culturally imbedded. This “locally normal” also will adhere to the country’s standard history and mythology. Collectively, all these traits are what constitute “good” citizens, the glue that maintains social solidarity.

In a socio-political sense, the fact that most people are “normal” in this way is not a mistake. There is probably a genetic inclination for such behavior. After all, if most people did not behave this way, you could not maintain stable societies. Still, there are drawbacks to being “locally normal.” For one thing, the more “normal” you are the less independent (at least in socio-political terms) a thinker you are.

The strange thing is that the “locally normal” would not agree that thinking outside the community box is a legitimate act of independence. Such a stance would appear, from inside the box, as not being independent so much as being antisocial and perhaps unpatriotic. And, such behavior is going to make “normal” folks suspicious and fearful.

That is the genetic impulse again. Stay with the group and you stay safe. Safe from what? Safe from people on the outside, of course. If you are really looking for a “locally normal” definition of independence it is going to be an economic one: having a good job, paying your own bills, and not living with their parents.

The “Locally Abnormal”

It is against this background that we might consider the plight of Israel’s refuseniks. These are Israeli Jewish citizens who are “locally abnormal” either because they refuse to serve beyond the 1967 borders (that is they refuse to go into the Palestinian Occupied Territories) or refuse induction into the Israeli military altogether. There are only between 1,000 to 2,000 individuals in this group a figure small enough to make them rare.

There is evidence of some sympathy on the far left side of the Israeli political spectrum for the refuseniks, but there is nothing but condemnation from other quarters. Almost all Israeli politicians have labeled the refuseniks “dangerous” and some have described their behavior as treasonous and “helping the enemy.”

The Israeli courts, of course, have declared that refusal to serve in the military (by all but the Ultra Orthodox) for any reason other than conscientious objection is illegal. Interestingly, one of the reasons used by the Israeli high court to condemn the actions of those who refuse to serve in the Occupied Territories is that such behavior “weakens the ties that bind us as a nation.” Thus Refuseniks are so “locally abnormal” that they usually get thrown into jail.

Nonetheless, the refuseniks continue to pop up, albeit at slow intervals. The most recent one is Noam Gur (the first refusenik in 2012). She is an 18-year-old Israeli Jew who has just announced that she will refuse mandatory military service. In an open letter, she announced that “I refuse to join an army that has, since it was established, been engaged in dominating another nation, in plundering and terrorizing a civilian population that is under its control.”

Ms. Gur is not sure how she came by these (for Israel) “abnormal” sentiments. At the age of 15, she started trying to make sense of the Nakba, the 1948 exodus of some three-quarters of a million Palestinians from what is now Israel. This led her to join the small number of other “abnormal” Israeli Jews taking part in Palestinian-led protests in the West Bank, thus “seeing what was going on with my own eyes.”

By 16, she knew that she could not “take part in these [Israeli] crimes [against Palestinians]” and that meant she could not go into the army. She has gotten plenty of negative feedback from “locally normal” Israelis securely situated within their community box, yet Ms. Nur does not find this response intimidating. “I am following what I believe in,” she says, “I don’t really care what other people might have to say about it.”

Though she has little faith that Israeli society can change from within, she still urges her peers to “look into what they are doing.” As it stands now, “most 18 year olds” bound for military service “don’t really know what they’re going into. They don’t really know what is going on in the [West Bank and Gaza Strip]. They only … see Palestinians for the first time … once they are soldiers.”

What Gur is describing is a closed Israeli society. Much like the U.S., it doesn’t matter if there is freedom of the press and speech because education and personal interaction reinforces a broad set of perceptual norms, which, over time, literally come to dictate the parameters of thought. These parameters define “normality” within the nation’s local space. If, for whatever reason you find yourself outside of the box, you’re a social mistake.

Changing the Perceptual Frame

Is it possible to defy the socially constructed definition of “local normality” that exists in Israel, or any other state for that matter, and declare on the basis of good evidence criteria for a “universal civilized normality”?

Perhaps one way to do this is to play that old religious card and “appeal to a higher power.” But in this case we do not have to look to the heavens or some divine source. All we have to do is draw our criteria of behavior from sources such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR).

Here are some criteria for “universal civilized normality” taken from the UDHR:

1. A society’s citizens are normal and civilized when they do not support their government’s practice of “torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.” (UDHR, Article 5)

2. A society’s citizens are normal and civilized when they do not support their government’s practice of “arbitrary arrest, detention or exile.” (UDHR Article 9)

3. A society’s citizens are normal and civilized when they accord all elements of their population “the right to freedom of movement and residence…. (UDHR Article 13)

4. A society’s citizens are normal and civilized when they accord all “men and women of full age,” residing within their country “the right to marry and found a family” “without any “limitation due to race, nationality or religion.” (UDHR Article 16)

5. A society’s citizens are normal and civilized when they do not support the “arbitrarily taking of [another resident’s] property.” (UDHR Article 17)

6. A society’s citizens are normal and civilized when they demand that all residents have “the right to a standard of living adequate for health and well-being including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age…”. (UDHR Article 25).

Considering this sampling of criteria for “normal, civilized behavior,” where would we rank the citizens and supporters of the Israeli state? Well, a recent poll of Israeli high school students found that fully half of them “opposed equal rights for Arabs.” Another video poll revealed that “racism is rampant among Israeli youth.

As it turns out, many Israelis do support the state’s use of torture, arbitrary arrest, restriction of movement, the arbitrary confiscation of property, placing barriers in the way of marriage, and the purposeful maintenance of less than adequate standards of living for the Palestinians under their jurisdiction.

Thus, one must conclude that there is a wide gap between what we might consider to be “universal standards for civilized normality” and those standards of “local normality” in place in Israel. Therefore, it turns out that Noam Gur and other Israeli Jews like her must actually defy the majority in order to preserve “civilized normality.”

Maybe it is a thousand years of stress culminating in the Holocaust that turned today’s Jewish Zionists into such obsessively insecure people that they cannot accurately judge their own national interests. Maybe it is a variant on “the battered child syndrome” that has led the Israelis to batter the Palestinians and then, when they resist, call them anti-Semites. Maybe the problem is that they have allowed religious fanatics and political bigots to run their country (hardly a problem unique to Israel).

Whatever is going on in the heart of the “Holy Land,” it certainly has not produced a majority of “normal and civilized” people. But it has allowed for a small minority of them. And with this minority lies whatever hope there might be for a “normal and civilized” future for Israel.

Lawrence Davidson is a history professor at West Chester University in Pennsylvania. He is the author of Foreign Policy Inc.: Privatizing America’s National Interest; America’s Palestine: Popular and Offical Perceptions from Balfour to Israeli Statehood; and Islamic Fundamentalism.

PBS Undercuts Indie Documentaries

In recent years, PBS has grown more and more timid as financial and political pressures have mounted, explaining why two of its more controversial series presenting independent documentaries have gotten stuck in a time slot guaranteeing fewer viewers. PBS veterans Bill Moyers and Michael Winship object.

By Bill Moyers and Michael Winship

Neither of us is old enough to have been fooled by the Trojan Horse (see Wikipedia). But we each have been working in public television decades enough to remember the days when distribution was handled by physically transporting bulky 2-inch videotapes from station to station — “bicycled” was the word — and much of the broadcast day and night was devoted to blackboard lectures, string quartets and lessons in Japanese brush painting: The old educational television versions of reality TV.

Yet it also was a time of innovation and creativity. As the system evolved we saw bold experiments like PBL — the Public Broadcasting Laboratory and Al Perlmutter’s The Great American Dream Machine, each a predecessor to the commercial TV magazine shows 60 Minutes and 20/20.

The TV Lab, jointly run by David Loxton at WNET in New York and Fred Barzyk at WGBH in Boston, nurtured and encouraged the first generation of video artists, Nam June Paik, Bill Viola and William Wegman among others — and the early documentary work of such video pioneers as Jon Alpert and Keiko Tsuno of the Downtown Community Television Center, Alan and Susan Raymond, and the wild and woolly, guerrilla camera crews of TVTV.

The descendants of those pathfinders are the independent filmmakers whose works have not only re-energized the motion picture industry but also have vastly expanded the realm of the documentary — in both the scope of its storytelling and the size and diversity of its audience. Public television has faithfully provided an enormous national stage where nonfiction films can be seen by far more people than could ever buy tickets at the handful of movie houses willing to put documentaries up on their theater screens.

As Gordon Quinn of the independent documentary company Kartemquin Films (Hoop Dreams) told Anthony Kaufman of the website IndieWire, “In terms of having an audience in a democratic society, in terms of getting people talking about things, there’s nothing like a PBS broadcast. PBS is free, and it’s huge in getting into rural areas. That reach, all over the country, it’s a critically important audience that’s vastly underserved.”

Two PBS series have provided outstanding showcases for the work of new and established documentarians and between them have 13 Oscar nominations and 54 Emmys to prove it. For years, Independent Lens and POV held a nationwide time slot as part of the PBS core schedule on Tuesday nights, with public TV stalwart Frontline as a worthy lead-in, funneling to the independent films just the kind of audience that enjoys and appreciates documentaries.

But this season, PBS chose to move Independent Lens and POV to a new time slot — 10 PM ET, on Thursday nights. This may not seem like such a big deal at first, until you know that on Thursday nights stations can broadcast any program they like in prime time, whether it’s part of the PBS schedule or not. Many take the opportunity to offers viewers locally produced programs, British sitcoms or reruns of Antiques Roadshow. As a result, episodes of the independent documentary series can now be run anywhere local stations choose to fit them in (here in New York, WNET airs the films at 11 pm on Sundays) or maybe not at all.

POV does not begin the new season — its 25th — until June, but as Dru Sefton first reported in the public broadcasting trade publication Current, in the first few months since Independent Lens was shuffled into its new Thursday time slot last October, ratings plummeted 42 percent from the same period last season.

With programs scattered throughout the schedule in different cities, not only is it now more difficult for viewers to find them but coordinated national advertising and promotion campaigns are, at best, extremely difficult.

The team at PBS consists of dedicated people; all are our colleagues and many are our friends. They are constantly looking for ways to increase the audience that watches public television. But there is always a danger, in any organization, of only seeing the world from the top down, and then counting heads to measure whether something is good or not. An open letter to PBS from Kartemquin Films says it well:

“Public television is not just a popularity contest, or a ratings game. Taxpayers support public broadcasting because democracy needs more than commercial media’s business models can provide. PBS’ programming decision makes a statement about PBS’ commitment to the mission of public broadcasting.”

It goes on to note the mandate cited in the recently revised and reissued Code of Editorial Integrity for Local Public Media Organizations: “Our purposes are to support a strong civil society, increase cultural access and knowledge, extend public education, and strengthen community life through electronic media and related community activities.”

Most of both our careers have been in public television. Our affection and gratitude for it abideth, but we are not blind to the problems. Public broadcasting’s ever-tenuous funding places it in a perpetual dilemma and forces it into a delicate balancing act. PBS provides programming like Independent Lens and POV that may not garner the most viewers but helps fulfill its essential mission of public service, and, candidly, attracts grants from kindred spirits who believe in a robust mix of ideas and visions.

But to lure a wider audience, it also airs what our neighborhood diner calls “lighter fare”, whether entertaining, upscale imports like Downton Abbey, home-grown, how-to programs like This Old House or (during pledge drives) nostalgic reruns of folk musicians, pop crooners, and financial and spiritual gurus aimed at older viewers with, presumably, more disposable income.

Add to this the constant political pressures, especially from conservative politicians ever eager to cut off its funding (Mitt Romney says he wants to see commercials on “Sesame Street”), plus the self-censorship that all too often results, and you get a tendency toward orthodoxy and an aversion to controversy.

A PBS spokesperson told The New York Times that the service “is fully committed to independent films and the diversity of content they provide.” That can quickly be demonstrated by reversing a bad decision and returning to a national core time slot the independent documentaries created — often at real financial sacrifice — by the producers and filmmakers whose own passion is to reveal life honestly and to make plain, for all to see, the realities of inequality and injustice in America.

Along with its open letter to PBS, Kartemquin Films published a petition and asked for signatures from independent filmmakers and their supporters. We two are among the more than 300 who have signed it as of this writing. If you think the creativity and unique visions of life captured by independent producers, journalists and filmmakers deserve the best possible platform on public television, you can read and sign it yourself.

The effort has made a difference. Talks are ongoing and the Times reports that PBS now has “agreed to find a new home next season” for the two series. An announcement is expected to be made at the PBS annual meeting in May. That’s good news, but until the decision is made, it’s important to keep letting them know how you feel, write PBS or sign that petition.

Bill Moyers is managing editor and Michael Winship is senior writer of the weekly public affairs program, Moyers & Company, airing on public television. Check local airtimes or comment at