An Open Letter to American Jews

An Open Letter to American Jews
Erev Pesach, 5762 / 2002
By Assaf Oron,
March 31, 2002

Dear People,
Yesterday I was informed of an interesting phenomenon: a peace-supporting Jewish organization called Tikkun published an ad in favor of us, the Israeli reservist refuseniks, and was immediately bombarded with hate mails and phones from other American Jews. What ‘s more interesting is that even other Jews considering themselves supporters of peace have denounced the Tikkun ad, to the extent that some of the Tikkun Advisory Board members are resigning in order to minimize the personal damage to themselves. This has so saddened, alarmed and angered me, that I find myself setting aside a half-day at the eve of Pesach, and writing this open letter to you all. As is my habit, it is quite long, so please bear with me.
Most of the ‘civilized’ attacks, so I understand, were seemingly aimed at this or that detail of the Tikkun ad. This is nothing new to me. Over the past two months since we came out with our own ad, I’ve heard and read so many specific arguments about specific aspects of our act. They range from petty nit-picking to plain ludicrous, and each and every one of them can be refuted to dust in a matter of minutes. But the moment you refute them, new specific arguments sprout up like mushrooms. It is clear that there is something very general and non-specific behind all this criticism. Therefore, if you allow me, I will start from the general and only later turn to a couple of these specific issues.
The general theme is the tribal theme. A very very loud voice (and in Israel nowadays, it is the only voice that is allowed to be fully heard) keeps shouting that we are in the midst of a war between two tribes: a tribe of human beings, of pure good – the Israelis – and a tribe of sub-human beings, of pure evil – the Palestinians. This voice is so loud, that it has found its way even to the op-ed pages of the New York Times (William Safire, March 24 or 25). To those who find this black-and-white picture a bit hard to believe, the same voice shouts that this is a war of life and death. Only one tribe will survive, and so even if we are not purely good, we must lay morality and conscience to sleep, shut up and fight to kill–or else, the Palestinians will throw us into the sea.
Does this ring a bell to you? It does to me. As a little child growing up in Israel under Golda Meir and Moshe Dayan, all I heard was that the Arabs are inhuman monsters who want to throw us into the sea, they understand only force, and since our wonderful IDF has won the Six Day War they know not to mess with us anymore — or else. And of course, we must keep the Liberated Territories to ourselves, because there’s no one to talk with. Then came the Yom Kippur war, and for a child of 7 it was the perfect proof that indeed the Arabs want to throw us into the sea, and what a great opportunity it was for our glorious IDF to teach them a lesson. I prayed for the war to continue to its natural and final end — the complete surrender of all Arab armies. I was too small to evaluate, then, how the war really ended; all these cease-fires and talks were too complicated and boring, much more boring than a war. And it seemed humiliating that WE should withdraw in these cease-fires; I remember that the re-opening of the Suez Canal was portrayed in our mass media as a kind of defeat.
A few years passed and a funny thing happened: those throw-us-into-the-sea Arabs came to talk with us, and in exchange for all of Sinai they would sign a full peace. The IDF chief of staff (the late Motte Gur, later a Labor Party minister) shouted that it is a hoax, that we should not believe Saadat, but the politicians had to sign. Already a teenager, I went and protested against the withdrawal from Sinai. It seemed strange to me that most of the demonstrators were orthodox Jews. After all, it was a purely logical issue: the Arabs are not to be trusted, that’s what we’ve learned from day one. Well, lucky for the country, the government and the majority of the people employed a different logic, and the peace with Egypt was not missed.
But the throw-us-into-the-sea paradigm immediately found new fields for play. There was an inconvenient reality on the Northern border, and even though the forces on the other side (Palestinians! Phew!) had strictly adhered to a secret cease-fire for about a year, they were Arabs and therefore could not be trusted. So we talked ourselves into invading Lebanon and setting up a friendlier regime there. The mastermind of the invasion was defense minister Ariel Sharon, and Shimon Peres, then head of opposition, voted together with his party in favor of the invasion. Only later, when it turned sour, and after many refuseniks already sat in jail, would the main opposition turn against the whole affair.
For me at 16 it was also a turning point. When I understood that the government had lied to me in order to sell me this war, I turned from “center-rightist” to “leftist”. Sadly enough, it has taken me almost 20 more years, in a slow and painful process, to understand how deeply the lies and self-delusion are rooted in our collective perception of reality. Anyway, when Peres withdrew most of our forces from Lebanon in 1985, the Arabs could still not be trusted. And so, to soothe our endless paranoia and suspicion, we created that perpetual source of death and crime ironically known as “the Security Zone”. It took many years, a lot of blood and Four Mothers – against almost all politicians, generals, and columnists – to finally pull us out of Lebanon. In the long and hard way, we learned that even the Lebanese are human beings whose rights must be respected.
But not the Palestinians. Because the Palestinians are too painfully close, like a rival sibling (and – may I add – because they have always been so weak), we have singled them out for a special treatment. Having them under our rule, we’ve allowed ourselves to trample them like dirt, like dogs. We’ve been doing it even to our own Palestinian citizens (especially before 1966), but we have perfected our treatment in this strange no man’s land created in 1967, and known as the Occupied Territories. There we have created an entirely hallucinatory reality, in which the true humans, members of the Nation of Masters, could move and settle freely and safely, while the sub-humans, the Nation of Slaves, were shoved into the corners, and kept invisible and controlled under our IDF boots. I know. I’ve been there. I was taught how to do this, back in the mid-1980’s. I did and witnessed as a matter of fact, deeds that I’m ashamed to remember to this day. And fortunately for me, I did not have to witness or do anything truly “pornographic”, as some friends of mine experienced.
Since 1987 (the beginning of the first Intifada), this cruel, impossible, unnatural, insulting reality in the Territories has been exploding in our face. But because of our unshakeable belief that the Palestinians are monsters who want to throw us into the sea, we reacted by trying to maintain what we’ve created at all costs. This meant of course employing more and more and more force, with the natural result of receiving more and more and more force in return. When a fledgling and hesitating peace process tried to work its way through this mess, one major factor (perhaps THE factor) that undermined it and voided its meaning was our establishment’s endless fear and suspicion of The Other. To resolve this fear and suspicion, we chose the insane route of demanding full control of The Other throughout the process. When this Other finally decided that we’re cheating him out of his freedom (and having too many mental disorders of his own to accommodate ours as well), violence erupted, and all our ancient instincts woke up. There they are, we said in relief, now we see their true face again. The Arabs want to throw us into the sea. There’s no one to talk with (no partner’, in our beloved ex-PM’s words), and they understand only force. And so we responded as we know and love, with more and more and more force. This time, the effect was that of putting out a fire with a barrel of gasoline.
And that’s the moment when I said to myself, NO, I’m not playing this game anymore. But what about the existential threat, you may ask? Well I ask you, have you not eyes? Don’t you see our tanks strolling in Palestinian streets every other day? Don’t you see our helicopters hovering over their neighbourhoods choosing which window to shoot a missile into? What type of existential need are we answering in trampling the Palestinians? Prevention of terror, I hear you say. Let me use the wonderful words of my friend Ishay Rosen-Zvi: “You are fighting against terror’? What a joke. The Israeli government, in its policies of Occupation, has turned the Territories into a greenhouse for growing terror!!! We have sown the seeds, grown them, nurtured them – and then our blood is spilled, and the centrist-right-wing politicians reap the benefits. Indeed, terror is the right-wing politician’s best friend. You know what? When you treat millions of people like sub-humans for so long, some of them will find inhuman strategies to fight back. Isn’t that what the Zionists, and other Jewish revolutionaries, argued about a hundred years ago in order to explain the questionable strategies of survival that Jews used in Europe? Didn’t our forefathers say, “Let us live like human beings, and see how we’ll act just like other human beings? So here’s the deal.
I hope that the first part of this letter made it clear that I don’t buy the “they want to throw us into the sea” crap. It’s just a collective self-delusion of ours. But more importantly, I don’t see tribes. I see people, human beings. I believe that the Palestinians are human beings like us. What a concept, eh? And before everything else, before EVERYTHING else, we must treat them like human beings without demanding anything in return. And no (to all die-hard Barak fans), throwing them a couple of crumbs in which they can set up pitiful, completely controlled Bantustans in between our settlements and bypass roads, and believing it to be a great act of “generosity”, does NOT come close to answering this basic requirement. This requirement is NOT negotiable; moreover, in a perfect demonstration of historical justice, it is a vital requirement for the survival of our own State. After that, and based on the lessons of modern history, especially that of the Arab-Israeli conflict (as was briefly described above), I do believe that the Palestinians will calm down, and that the elusive Security’ and peace will finally come upon us (as it did, incidentally, for almost two whole years between Wye 1998 and Camp David 2000).
I don’t have any insurance policy for that (well—almost none, except the solemn promise of the entire Arab world), but remember – I have this funny notion that they are human beings. In any case, we are seeing now all too well what type of insurance policy the opposite paradigm is providing us. In the meanwhile, I refuse to be a terrorist in my tribe’s name. Because that’s what it is: not a war against terror, as our propaganda machine tries to sell. This is a war OF terror, a war in which, in return for Palestinian guerrilla and terror, we employ the IDF in two types of terror. The more visible one are the violent acts of killing and destruction, those which some people still try to explain away as ‘surgical acts of defense’. The worse type of terror is the silent one, which has continued unabated since 1967 and through the entire Oslo process. It is the terror of Occupation, of humiliation on a personal and collective basis, of deprivation and legalized robbery, of alternating exploitation and starvation. This is the mass of the iceberg, the terror that is itself a long-term greenhouse for counter-terror. And I simply refuse to be a terrorist and criminal, even if the entire tribe denounces me.
That leads me to the first specific subject: are we, the refuseniks, being persecuted and denounced, or are we enjoying the wonderful Israeli tolerance and democracy and exploiting it to make trouble? Well, I must admit that this is not yet the USSR or Pinochet’s Chile, and at least the Jews here enjoy a relative democracy (describing it as vibrant or tolerant would be a gross error, but that is a different subject altogether; maybe in another letter). I first must point out that the government and IDF also enjoy the image of ‘letting us speak’, and it serves them well. Secondly, in a rather sophisticated manner the establishment (with the generous and voluntary help of the mass media) is effectively shutting us up.
The media has decided for us that there is no opposition. Thus, a demonstration of 20,000 is reported in 5 seconds at the late-night edition, and a demonstration of 500 outside a military prison is completely ignored. The fact that right now there are over a dozen refuseniks in jail – the largest number in twenty years – is hidden from the Israeli public. The story of Captain (res.) Itai Haviv and Sergeant (res.) Yair Yeffeth, who demanded a full military trial in which they could prove that refusal is innocence and that the order to serve in the Territories is illegal, was not told anywhere except for a brief mention in the back pages of Haaretz. So the public, of course, didn’t learn that the IDF evaded answering these demands, and that Itai Haviv will spend the Seder night in prison following a ‘disciplinary hearing.’ I hope the readers are intelligent enough to know that if the media wanted, these stories would make the headlines.
Still, you keep hearing about us. That’s the key word, ABOUT us. But you don’t hear us. You just hear people explaining, analyzing, mostly (in a ratio of 99 to 1) attacking us. We have become the perfect ‘hate hour’ figures, to reunite the tribe against (have you read1984?) Petty volunteer’ groups who organized against us, a mayor who called upon local governments not to hire us, and a group of industrialists who called employers to fire us, have all won their moment in the spotlight. No one cared to mention that these are blatantly illegal calls (no, the law’ is remembered only when we ‘break’ it). No one has tried to set limits to this discussion. Moreover, the prime minister in one of his rare public addresses blamed us for the wave of terror (us, not his catastrophic policies). The IDF chief of staff can’t stop talking about us; he sees us as a bunch of inciters with a hidden agenda. So, ironically, the only thing protecting us from long-term gulag’ imprisonment and from losing our jobs is public opinion – the rather large pockets of support and sympathy among key sectors in the Israeli public, and yes, support ads such as the one published by Tikkun. The moment the government or IDF will think the lights are out, and no one sees or cares – they will find or invent the ‘legal’ clause (Israeli politicians are experts in this) and throw those they believe to be our leaders’ to jail for long terms. Remember, even poor Abie Nathan was thrown in for two years, just because he dared speak with PLO personnel about peace.
But that’s nothing, because the moment our government will sense a “lights out” situation, there will be a horrible bloodbath in the Territories, compared to which the last year and a half will be remembered as a happy picnic.
And that brings me to the second specific issue, that of the Nazi allusion. Some readers thought that the way the Tikkun ad said “obeying orders” was an allusion to Nazi murderers’ claim that they were “just obeying orders.” Rabbi Lerner has rightly pointed out to these readers, that automatic execution of orders is a characteristic of all dictatorship, not just the Nazi one, while refusal on moral grounds is a sign of democracy. I agree, but let me be less polite and politically correct. After all, it’s just my country that’s going up in smoke as I write. What is this? Does Israel have the exclusive monopoly of labelling all its rivals as Nazis, and everyone else has to shut up, even when reality starts speaking for itself? Parties that support the essentially Nazi idea of deporting all Palestinians from the country, have been part of our Knesset and our “legitimate” political map since 1984. Recent opinion polls show that 35% of the Jewish public now supports this ‘solution’, as it is sometimes called. Leaders, Rabbis, and just plain folk feel free to call openly in the mass media to eradicate Palestinian cities with or without their tenants.
Last weekend, Gen. (res.) Effi Eitam, fresh out of the military and all ready to take the leadership of the religious public and become a deputy or alternative to Netanyahu, received a flattering cover story on Haaretz supplement. He unfolded his chilling ideology, calling to expel those Palestinians who don’t want to remain in the Galilee and West Bank as serfs, to Jordan, and from Gaza to Sinai. And he said this: why should us, the country poorest in land resources, bear the burden of solving the Palestinian problem? Well I don’t know about you, but I remember some of the Nazi rhetoric in that dark period between the Kristallnacht of 1938 and the beginning of the War, when Jews were expelled from Germany but could find no safe haven anywhere else. When I see a retired IDF general and rising political star use the exact same Nazi rhetoric on Israel’s most liberal’ newspaper, without any criticism by his interviewer or the editors – my hair just stands on my head in horror.
Let’s move from the political scene back to the ground. My friend, Captain (Res.) Dan Tamir, decided to refuse to serve in the Territories about a year ago, after he realized what he’d done as a reserve regiment’s intelligence officer a few weeks before that. He realized he had laid out the plans to convert a large Palestinian town into a closed ghetto. You can find his full statement on our website, htwtp:// . The vast majority of Palestinians in the Territories now starve in such ghettos; in those days of mercy when they are allowed to leave them by foot and perhaps catch a taxi, these taxis are forbidden from using most of the paved roads in the region.
But why listen to a “leftist”? Let’s hear it from senior IDF officers. One of the top commanders in the Territories was quoted in Haaretz (Jan. 25) as saying that in order to prepare for potential battles in dense urban neighbourhoods, the IDF must learn, if necessary, how the German army operated’ in the Warsaw Ghetto. A week later, the reporter confirmed this quote and the fact that this is a widespread opinion in the IDF, and went further to morally defend it!
A small number of people, including myself, tried to raise a scandal over this. One letter to the editor was published in Haaretz. A much tougher letter, which I wrote, was never published, nor was my plea for a phone discussion with an editor ever answered. The issue just died down. No one in Israel or in the Jewish public abroad was interested. Where were all these holy souls, who now scold Tikkun because they indirectly allude to the Nazi horror, where were they all when a senior IDF officer proudly called, in order to beat the Palestinians, let’s be Judo-Nazis?
In my letter to Haaretz I went further. Knowing the IDF mentality and adding one to one, I concluded that the IDF is operationally prepared to invade refugee camps – an utter, indefensible war crime – – and through this leak to the press it is starting to pressure the government and prepare the public opinion for the invasion. The letter was not published. It was sent on February 2. A few weeks later we all saw the horrors of the refugee camp invasions and the bloody revenge attacks that followed culminating on Pesach eve. And you know what? Army generals and colonels morally and professionally pat themselves on the back, because these invasions “prevented terror”, and killed only dozens and not thousands. (Note: in fact, the major reason limiting the bloodshed was the “terrorists” responsible decision not to turn the camps into all-out battlegrounds. But this may change in the next round.)
In truth, I have little hope that the Israeli public will wake up. The Israeli public, in its fear and confusion, has made a decision (aided by the politicians and mass media) to go to sleep and wake up only after it is all over. But it won’t be over, because while our mind sleeps our muscles tighten the death grip, instead of doing the only sensible thing (which requires an open mind) – which is to let go.
Will you guys join the hypocrite mobs who sing lullabies to Israel and pounce upon the refuseniks, upon Tikkun, to shut us up? Or will you finally take responsibility and be the true friends that Israel needs now – even if it means not being “nice” to Israel for a while? As you sit tonight at the Seder table, please remember the dozen or so refuseniks that spend this Seder in a military jail. More importantly, please remember the thousand or so people, three quarters Palestinians and one quarter Israelis, who were here with us a year ago and have been murdered. Most of them could have been here with us, if you and we had acted sooner. We have now acted, done what little we can do. Please think of the many thousands that may be doomed soon, if you continue sitting on the fence.
May you have a happy Holiday of Freedom, Please help us struggle free from fear, racism, hatred and the deaths they produce.

Assaf Oron