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.

Noam Gur, an 18-year-old Israeli who refuses to serve in the military because of its mistreatment of the Palestinians.

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.

7 comments for “Israeli ‘Refuseniks’ Reject Anti-Arab Bias

  1. Judah The Lion
    March 28, 2012 at 20:34

    Check out the arab press and their antisemitic cartoons and falsehoods. So much for hypocritical anti arab bias.

  2. Judah The Lion
    March 27, 2012 at 13:04

    Never a peep about anti Jewish bias on this hypocritical site.

    March 27, 2012

    Who will stand up for the Jews of Toulouse?
    Dear Friend of FLAME:
    As you are no doubt aware, a gunman killed three children and a rabbi last week at a Jewish school in Toulouse, France. The French authorities have now apprehended and killed this assassin, a young Muslim man they believe was trained by the Taliban and also had connections to al-Qaeda. Not only did the gunman drag one of his young victims around by her hair before murdering her execution-style, but he also filmed the attack.
    What continues to be appalling in the aftermath of this tragedy is the persistence of inflammatory and false reporting about Jews and Israel in the media. Recently a United Nations employee tweeted a photo allegedly showing a Palestinian child killed by recent Israeli air strikes in Gaza. The photo was a fake, actually taken more than three years ago. Once a retraction is issued and even if the employee is fired—as she should be—the impact on world opinion remains and the damage has been done. Israel and Jews are vilified once again.
    Even after the events in Toulouse, European Union Foreign Policy Chief Baroness Catherine Ashton compared the murders of four innocent Jews to “what is happening in Gaza.” Again, the requisite retraction of said statement occurred and naturally Ashton also subsequently strongly condemned the Toulouse attacks, but the damage of her initial comments remains—another public figure openly displaying her biased thoughts. What would her response have been if the situation were reversed—if a Jew had killed Muslim children? Would she have compared it philosophically to Palestinian murders of a Jewish family in the West Bank? Hardly. It is high time to call this form of bias what it is—pure anti-Semitism.

    In fact, any comparison or comment hinting that Israel may be targeting Palestinian children in Gaza is a form of anti-Semitism. A recent editorial in The Commentator succinctly points out the baseless nature of these claims:
    “Let us be clear. There has not been one single instance, ever, of the Israeli military deliberately targeting Palestinian children in a school in Gaza. Palestinian children have died in the overall conflict of course. But even that indirect responsibility lies with the people who have started all the wars, namely Palestinian terror groups such as Hamas.”

    These are very scary times in Europe, and we are scarcely 60 years removed from the attempted annihilation of the Jewish people. As the Simon Wiesenthal Center reports:
    • Almost a third of Europeans show significant levels of anti-Semitism
    • Over half of Europeans view Israel as “the greatest threat to world peace”
    • Traditional anti-Semitic stereotyping of Jews as a money-hungry, power-seeking minority remains strong
    • Anti-Jewish hate crimes, ranging from verbal harassment to vandalism and arson, and violence have become a fact of life across “the new Europe”
    As Holocaust survivor and author Eli Wiesel argues in this week’s FLAME Hotline, in the aftermath of the Toulouse tragedy perhaps the only truly effective response available to us is “to remain Jewish and do everything to become more Jewish.”

    May Wiesel’s brief but moving article below inspire each of us, Jew and non-Jew alike, to rise to this occasion to increase our support of Israel. I urge you to pass these powerful thoughts along to friends, colleagues, and fellow congregants using the “send to a friend” button at the bottom of this email, or using the buttons above to share it via social media.
    Thanks for your continued support of Israel, and thank you for your support of FLAME.
    Best regards,
    Dave Nogradi
    FLAME Hotline Contributor

    P.S. One of the biggest reasons that Muslims cannot accept a Jewish state in the Middle East is the anti-Semitism inherent in the culture of most Muslim countries and in the Koran itself.

    While there are those who believe it’s not politically correct to say such things in public, we at FLAME believe it’s a worse sin to ignore this source of hate and this major obstacle to peace with Israel. That’s why I invite you to review one of our recent position papers, which has appeared in national media reaching more than 10 million readers, including college newspapers.

    It’s called “Muslim Arab Anti-Semitism: Why it makes peace very difficult – almost impossible.” Please take a look, and if you agree that these kinds of outspoken public relations efforts for Israel are essential, I urge you to support us.

    The Tragedy in Toulouse
    by Elie Wiesel, The Algemeiner, March 21, 2012

    Will the hatred of the Jews ever finally vanish? Will Jewish children always be in danger?
    This time, a murderer slew four Jews: a teacher and three young children.
    When a blood-thirsty Jew-hater wants to kill Jews, he goes first to the Jewish schools. Jewish children are his primary target.
    It’s always been this way. This is what Pharaoh, King of Egypt did, what Hitler did. And this is what happened now.
    This is the background to the tragedy that occurred in the French city, Toulouse.
    I have visited that city many times. The Jewish community there is old and well-established – it dates back to the Middle Ages – but it is dynamic.
    In the streets, you can see Jews wearing yarmulkas. Nobody thinks of anti-Semitism. Spiritually, it is one of richest Jewish communities in France.
    Obviously, the terrible murderous attack evoked tears and rage among both Jews and non-Jews. The President, his ministers, and other political figures in France, as well as all the newspapers, have demanded that the murderer be found and punished.
    It often happens like this. Jewish blood is spilled and, temporarily, sympathy for Jews grows; the world warms to them.
    But the pain does not go away, nor does the anger. We think about the martyrs: Rabbi Yochanan Sandler, his sons Aryeh and Gavriel, and Miriam Monsonego. We say, as is Jewish tradition: “May G-d avenge their blood.” That will be the response from Above.
    Our own answer must be concrete and to the point. When we are persecuted, our response must be: We will remain Jewish – and do everything to become more Jewish.

  3. Judah the Lion
    March 27, 2012 at 08:29

    More of Davidson’s shopworn rehash of anti Israel rhetoric. The reality he and this site describes, goes against the reality of a country that treats its Arab citizens well-far better, in fact, than most Arab countries treat their own. Just look at Syria for example. Brutality in the raw. Israeli-Arabs enjoy the right to vote, sit in parliament, and have state-funded schools and religious courts.

    Davidson et al, refuse to appreciate that Israel is in a state of war, and that Hamas-which has ruled the Gaza strip since 2006-is a terrorist organization (recognized as such by the U.S.) that seeks to destroy what it calls the “Zionist entity.”

    While Hamas’s charter openly declares this destructive goal and fosters attacks on Israel with thousands of rockets and homicide bombers, Davidson et al, blames Israel for all Arab misfortune.

    In many ways the Davidsons compliment Israel by holding it to higher standards. Israel isn’t just an ordinary state. It’s the continuation of a stroy beginning in one of history’s famous books, the Bible. One of Judaism’sgreatest legacies is the belief that tomorrow can be better, even though existential threats and true crises loom.

  4. Peter Loeb
    March 26, 2012 at 06:03

    Regarding “responsibilities” of government, it ill behooves those of us
    who claim to support Palestinian rights and oppose Israeli/US terror to
    AWARD those who encourage such teror. In the knowledge that my little vote
    or “unvote” will not change the world, I still cannot look at myself
    in good conscience and support evil-doers with my vote. In brief, is my
    vote that CHEAP?

    That one side would be WORSE than another is no excuse.

    We must also see each “side” as calculating that they do not need my vote.
    They have made that determination and SHALL not get my vote either.

    To make a decision such as this is far from easy, especially by those of
    us who were raised to go along to get along. We have such core beliefs
    after many decades of training in “mythology” of “democracy”.

  5. Peter Loeb
    March 26, 2012 at 05:53

    VICTIMHOOD —- Almost every group justifies it past,present and future
    exploits by its victimhood. African Americans quickly pass over the
    historical victimhood of almost every other group. This is not to suggest
    that slavery and continuing discrimination is not real in any sense.
    Jews, whether rich and powerful or not, claim the Holocaust and thousands
    of years as a justification of their current terrorism. The Irish recall
    the days of “Irish need not apply”. Italian immigrants to the US claim
    ill-treatment of many decades. Native Americans were “removed” and/or exterminated by the so-called “settlers” in a land which was, of course,
    already settled. Instead of being any kind of “melting pot” at all, most of
    these groups spent much of their energies fighting against each other.

  6. rosemerry
    March 25, 2012 at 16:18

    People like ex-Israeli Gilad Atzmon explain the restrictions of the Israeli education of their youth, where he had never even spoken to a Palestinian though he lived in Jerusalem. Thirty years of happy life in Israel as a Jew was changed by his military service. Miko Peled, son of a general, never thought about Palestinians as having valid criticisms of Jewish behaviour until his niece was killed by “terrorists” and he made a decision to try to understand. A whole system of victimhood and chosen-ness, bolstered by military excess and US immoral support, makes embedded ideas and actions hard to change.

  7. Roger Thomas
    March 25, 2012 at 02:34

    I omitted to say how much I admired the courage and determination of the refuseniks such as Noam Gur and the other peace activists who have to withstand the hatred and vilification of their fellows and, even, beatings from IDF. They are my heroes.

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