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book review:

My Glorious Brothers

Ronit Chacham, Breaking Ranks: Refusing to Serve in the West Bank and Gaza Strip (Other Press, LLC)

Daphna Baram

9 Jul. 2003

The late Jewish philosopher (he lived more than half his life in Jerusalem and was among the founders of its Hebrew university, but it is still somehow hard to relate to him as an Israeli philosopher), Yesha’ayahu Leibowitz, had only contempt for physical courage. He used to remind his audiences of brave and daring acts by Nazi special units soldiers during the WW II. "They were extraordinarily fearless, they risked their own lives in service of their leader," he shouted at the top of his unique prophet’s voice. "Do we think of them as heroes? No, we do not." The real heroes, according to Leibowitz, are those who speak their minds without fear of scorn, contempt and ostracism; those who do the unpopular thing and follow their conscious, willing to bear the consequences for their beliefs.

Leibowitz was a spiritual leader for refuseniks of my generation in the early 1990s. Before reporting to reserve service in the IDF only to announce a refusal to serve in the occupied territories, the guys would make a pilgrimage to Leibowitz’s modest apartment to receive his encouragement, some would say his blessing. Leibowitz lived a very long and fruitful life, but not long enough to see his own grandson, Shamai, join the honourable club of Israeli refuseniks. There is no doubt he would have been proud to read his grandson’s thoughtful and articulate account of his decision to refuse in Breaking Ranks.

Ronit Chacham’s book comprises of nine interviews with conscientious objectors (or 'refusers'). I was amazed by the strong emotional impact it had on me. I thought I knew everything there was to know about refuseniks. My father refused to serve in the occupied territories when I was 12 years old; his best friend was imprisoned in the same year, 1982, for refusing to serve in the invasion of Lebanon; the vast majority of my male friends are refuseniks. And still, the words of these 21st century refuseniks excited and inspired me, as I’m sure they would affect any reader.

The question what leads a person to dissent may remain unsolved forever. Why was Yaniv Iczkovitz, who used to hold, according to his own account, racist and derogatory views of Arabs in general and Palestinians in particular, driven to dissent after watching -- from atop a watch tower -- the ordinary day to day life of a Palestinian family in a refugee camp, while so many others have watched, and continue to watch worse atrocities remain unmoved? What made Ishay Rosen-Zvi defy the rabbis - the political and spiritual leaders of his community - and turn his back on his peer group of settlers, while most of his contemporaries carry on the oppression of Palestinians without questioning it?

What makes a man like Rami Kaplan, who never wanted a thing in his life but to serve in a combat unit of the IDF, who had his identity defined by being an officer in the Israeli army, wake up one morning and see no choice but to leave his fellow officers and his subordinates and choose the hard ungrateful path of dissent? Those questions may well be unanswerable, but the book provides many hints and small keys to the souls of the interviewees, and to that of Israeli society.

One important observation is offered by an interviewee who notes that most of the refuseniks come from the middle class, and are, for the most part, of eastern-European origins. Those who were raised to see themselves as the salt of the earth, he explains, are less afraid to defy the consensus.

The members of Courage-To-Refuse mentioned above believed that coming from them -- the backbone of Israeli society -- defiance would cause a political and social earthquake. They were not, they knew, a bunch of radical leftists; no one, they thought, would dare to question their patriotism; when they refuse, they had no doubt, everyone will understand that something is fundamentally wrong with government policies. That’s why they strove to maintain a distance from the veteran refusenik organization, Yesh-Gvul, whose members had long ago been labelled ‘radical leftists,’ and marginalized. Courage-to-Refuse and its members did their best to avoid the hug of the radical left. Little did they know that when Yesh-Gvul was formed, 25 years ago, its members harboured similar thoughts. Yesh-Gvul founders also saw themselves as unquestionable patriots. They too believed that no one will dare to call them traitors. They too tried, at first, to distance themselves from the traditional left.

I disagree with Chacham when she writes that the new refuseniks were quickly marginalized by Israeli media. I was working as news editor at a Jerusalem weekly magazine at the time, and followed all other media closely. I remember well the vast coverage given to the new refuseniks group by various papers and electronic media. It stood out against the backdrop of ultra-nationalist collaborative stance adopted by most Israeli media at the time of CTR’s first public appearance. Their lineage in itself called for attention: Leibowitz the grandson, a high court judge’s son.

Speakers for the new group were interviewed by the weekend supplements of all major Israeli newspapers, and managed to embarrass the army profoundly. In those first months they even refused to talk to the foreign press, to bolster their patriotic image. And in spite of all that, CTR has so far managed to mobilize 'only' a few dozen more than 500 other soldiers. The left views it as a huge success, but some of the new refuseniks were disappointed: the earth did not shake, and consensus in Israel did not move much. In that sense, they were indeed marginalized. As was the story of Jonathan Ben-Arzi (not interviewed in this book), a nephew (by marriage) of Israel’s former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu. As were the Shministim (high school seniors) with their truly radical manifesto, school leafleting, and -- scariest of all -- dialogue with Palestinians.

It is fascinating to observe how the process of refusal and the creation of a political organization radicalised these main stream men’s views. Some told Chacham they have lost their faith in Zionism. Others developed critical views regarding Israel’s treatment of Mizrahi immigrants, women, the poor. Having taken one major step outside consensus, other ideological barriers also lost their grip on them.

Chacham conducted the interviews with of sensitivity and wisdom. Her conversations with the refuseniks make a fascinating read. She brings the real heroes, the interviewees, to the fore. All of them are eloquent, intelligent, and honest. The last interview, a talk Chacham had with her own son, David, is especially touching, in spite of, or perhaps because of a lack of any mother-son emotional statements.

It is rare for Israelis to find something to feel proud of in our country these days, but reading the words of these compatriots of mine made me feel proud indeed. Ironically, I was reminded of a poem by the Zionist Chaim Chefer, relating to his brothers in arms of the Palmach, "They are my brothers, They are my brothers." That’s what Ronit Chacham’s book made me feel toward these brave young men.


Daphna Baram is a Senior Associate Member of St. Antony's College, Oxford. She was a fellow of the Reuters Foundation Program in Oxford University, and News Editor of Jerusalem weekly Kol Ha'ir. Her book Disenchantment: The Guardian and Israel (buy from Amazon UK) was published by Guardian Books, in July 2004.