By Jim Miles
Last week (2021-11-04), Independent Jewish Voices (IJV – Canada) presented a webinar titled “From IDF to IJV”, telling the story of three Jewish members who were former Israeli Defence Force (IDF) participants, but over the years and through similar yet varying experiences, ended up working with IJV Canada.
The host for the show, Aaron Lakoff, indicated IJV’s “uncompromising solidarity” with the struggles of the Palestinian people for humanitarian rights and civil equality in Palestine, in essence, all of historical Palestine. IJV was one of the first organizations in Canada to recognize and support the BDS campaign. In summing up the overall aspect of a person’s recognition of having been lied to by family, government, and mainstream society, a reference from the radical Jewish writings of Kokzter Rebbe was made, “There is nothing so whole as a broken heart.” Its meaning did not really strike until I heard the three histories “From IDF to IJV.”
All three participants tended to have similar yet varying experiences, the main commonality to start was their secular Judaism, with their religion of being Jewish replaced with the religion of Zionism. Participation in the IDF was assumed and was a course of action supported by much propaganda. It was an army like no other, the most moral army in the world.
The host for the webinar, Lia Tarachansky, indicated the army has changed in three significant ways: first, the majority of effort put into Unit 8200, the Army Intelligence Unit and its massive surveillance and hasbara efforts; next she mentioned the increasing use of a “remote control” army, using modern AI and robotics to challenge any created enemy; and – most surprisingly, although in line with US efforts perhaps not – the privatization of army functions in an attempt to absolve the government of responsibility for blame.
While accepting their involvement with the IDF at first, over time – sometimes rapidly – the IDF members became more and more disillusioned with the IDF and with Israeli policy in general. For Daphna Levit, a Mizrahi Jew, the military as presented in schools, was “always something we looked up to” and the role of the IDF was a “glorious, heroic effort” to the degree that it was “good to die for the country” – God had become Zion. Her function in the 1967 war was to escort media personnel to different war zones, and in the process, “create a narrative” that was different from what she saw. In particular, she mentioned watching as Palestinian refugees were crossing the Allenby Bridge into Jordan, watching a scene her delivered narrative did not describe accurately.
Yom Shamash ventured to Israel in 1971, feeling “confident” in Israel, and that it was at peace as Egypt was “neutralized.” Describing himself as “a terrible soldier” he was posted in the Sinai Desert when the Yom Kippur war took “everyone by surprise” and he indicated “my unit was decimated”. He began to question the sense of it all, asking “what did they die for…sand?” It struck home harder when he learned that Golda Meier had rejected Anwar Sadat’s desire for peace talks. Previous to that, during his training, he recalled being out on night patrol training, and became aware that the funny feeling under his boots came from “stepping on vegetables” – their training had trampled on Palestinian gardens.
Arriving a touch later, Rafi Silver emigrated to Israel in 1971 and settled into a Kibbutz (where the soldiers “were revered”) in the Golan Heights. From a strong Zionistic family, he was “caught up in army myths” and had his beliefs “chipped away by reality.” When deciding where to enlist, the common theme was “how to get into the most elite” units; it was a sign of shame to not prove yourself. He got over that within the first fifteen minutes of basic training.
He described a “final incident” that turned his beliefs strongly towards peace. In 1996 he served in a Reserve Unit imposing a one-week curfew and lockdown on a refugee camp near Bethlehem. In the dark of night, past curfew, he recalled seeing a young boy rise from the squatting position the soldiers had ordered him to take. His reflex, in the dark of night and tense and fearful in the camp environment, he turned with his finger on the trigger of his rifle ready to fire. “I was scared.” Another unit member warned him not to fire – and he finally said “enough…I can’t do this anymore…I almost killed a young boy.”
A strong underlying theme was how the Palestinians were presented. None of the participants had any direct dealings with Palestinians.
Yom indicated he saw Palestinians every day arriving to work in Israeli gardens in Gaza but had no contact with them. He said, “Israeli soldiers were asked to do all kinds of horrible things,” and when he protested, was told “It is the only way to do it…the person over there is not like you,” they were “less than human.” The IDF brainwashing was to create obedient soldiers, asking no questions, emphasizing “the other is not like you.”
Daphna saw them at first only as distant victims of war from which she had to create a narrative to support the state and not the reality. Born in Israel, she had “hear about” but not seen any Palestinians, supplying her definition to the “apartheid” nature of Israel. While working with Physicians for Human Rights somewhat later, she came across a little girl in a clinic where she was working. The girl asked her where she was from, and after saying she was Israeli, the girl’s face showed the shock of knowing she was with the “enemy.”
After his service, Rafi returned to Gaza as a civilian to the Jabaliya refugee camp – and saw what he did not see as a soldier – human beings. He was “astounded” that although every Palestinian knew he had been in the army, he was “not met with hostility or the hatred I expected.” It became, at last, a human connection, and not an ideological one.
“There is nothing so whole as a broken heart.”
After an upbringing inculcating a particular ideological dogma, it can only be traumatizing to some degree to have those beliefs either shattered or slowly chipped away.
These former IDF members made the emotional journey from a strong belief in the superiority of their religion – Zionism – and the superior morality of their military to become activists against Israeli war crimes and humanitarian crimes in Palestine. Many others have also taken this journey and it can be hoped that many more hearts will be broken in order to be made whole.
– Jim Miles is a Canadian educator and a regular contributor/columnist of opinion pieces and book reviews to Palestine Chronicles. His interest in this topic stems originally from an environmental perspective, which encompasses the militarization and economic subjugation of the global community and its commodification by corporate governance and by the American government.