Magazine: Meet Israel’s boycotters

Israeli members of the BDS movement and pro-Palestinian activists explain why the world should stop supporting Israel.

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Correction8 Jun 2015
An earlier version of this article suggested that all of those profiled are members of the BDS movement. While this is true of most, some are, instead, affiliated to other groups and movements, such as Anarchists Against the Wall.

Israeli members of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement and Israeli pro-Palestinian activists explain their positions.

Deb: ‘It’s a basic human right to refuse to slaughter each other’

 Deb says: 'Without justice, there is no reconciliation' [Carlo Gianferro]
 Deb says: ‘Without justice, there is no reconciliation’ [Carlo Gianferro]

“The first time I came to Palestine I was 17. I was part of an exchange programme and I noticed right away that there was some confusion between the terms ‘Jewish’ and ‘Israeli’ in Hebrew. So if you were Jewish but not Israeli, as I was, or Israeli but not Jewish, like many people, somehow your identity wasn’t 100 percent.

That really interested me: the relationship between Jews and Palestinians, although nowadays we say Jews and Arabs because the word Palestinian is too friendly. Of course, before 1948, the Jews were also Palestinian.

I’m not an activist who goes to the barricades, although I did when I was younger and worked for a programme that brought Jews and Arabs together. At that time, in the early 1980s, I thought that you could work towards reconciliation but not think about politics. Later on, I realised that without justice, there is no reconciliation. So the question is: ‘Whose justice and what does it consist of?’

If you don’t come out and support this boycott movement your real motivation will be fear: fear of what people will think of you, fear of ostracism, fear of your friends not speaking to you.

I think that we have to understand human rights today as interactive; it can’t be about ‘I worry about my human rights, you worry about yours’. That doesn’t work anymore. The basic human right we need today is the right not to be enemies, the right to refuse to slaughter each other. We can’t actualise this right by ourselves, we need others to do it with us.”

Yaar: ‘In that moment I knew I could never be a part of the Israeli army’ 

Yaar says: 'Israeli society is more violent and right-wing than it has ever been' [Carlo Gianferro]
Yaar says: ‘Israeli society is more violent and right-wing than it has ever been’ [Carlo Gianferro]

“My family returned to Israel from Antigua when I was six years old. I’d been used to a place that was warm, welcoming and non-violent, and where all religions are studied and even young children are taught about the importance of human rights.

Then suddenly I found myself in a country where everyone seems brainwashed and they don’t accept you unless you are exactly like them. So, I felt far removed from the violence and militarism of Israeli society.

Then, when I was 15, I went to my first demonstration.It was close to a settlement and I remember very vividly that a child of about my age was shot in the head with a rubber bullet. That experience changed me forever and I knew then that I would not go into the army.

Before that, I had thought that maybe I’d be a paramedic, a soldier without a uniform who’d work in a hospital and do something good. But in that moment, when I experienced the violence, the tear gas, the rubber bullets, the attacks of the Israeli soldiers who beat me and my friends, I knew I could never be a part of that organisation.

I felt completely alone. And I still feel alone because our group is so small. A couple of hundred people within Israeli society support the BDS movement.

Perhaps there are 10 or 20 core people who are really active. Even people who believe the occupation of 1948 was good but that we should not occupy the land from 1967 are considered traitors.

Israeli society is more violent, right-wing and extreme than it’s ever been so our voices cannot be heard.”

Haggai – ‘I was sentenced to two years in prison’

Haggai says: 'What the separation has done is make it easier for one side to demonise and dehumanise the other' [Carlo Gianferro]
Haggai says: ‘What the separation has done is make it easier for one side to demonise and dehumanise the other’ [Carlo Gianferro]

“I grew up in a very leftist house, but I got involved in activism myself at around the age of 15 or 16. I just started asking questions and went looking for answers about local politics.

I went to a summer school that brought Palestinians and Israelis together.

And then, after the second intifada broke out, I served in the army in the Occupied Territories, and that’s how I got involved. I saw life inside the West Bank and realised that it’s not something I can be a part of.

At first I said: ‘Okay, I don’t want to serve in the Occupied Territories.’ But as time went by, I realised it wasn’t just the Occupied Territories, it was the army; I couldn’t be a part of the army. The more I went there, the more I got involved and the more I realised I couldn’t be a part of it and had to do something active against it.

When I refused to serve in the Occupied Territories, I did it with a group of friends. We did it openly and declared that our refusal was because of the occupation. I was sentenced to two years in prison.

I don’t know if I would have done it if I’d known I would get that long, because I went to prison saying: ‘Okay, three months, it’s not a problem, I can do three months.’

I don’t know if I would have said: ‘Yes, two years, no problem.’

It wouldn’t have been so easy to make the decision but I’m not too sorry that it happened in the way it did, because the fact that we spent so long in prison had a big impact on people: we got more media attention and a book was published about our trial, which students of philosophy and law now study. So I know the things we said about the occupation got out there.

We get a lot of support from Palestinians; they were and still are happy to hear our story. When I go there and tell people my story, they say: ‘It’s amazing that Israelis are also willing to go to prison because of this.’ That’s a very strong bridge builder for solidarity and action.

Sometimes I’m really optimistic, especially when there are demonstrations taking place. It feels for the first time like, perhaps, civilians are willing to stand up and fight and say: ‘We are not going to be silent for ‘security’ reasons and we are not going to just do what the government tells us.’ 

What the separation has done -with its walls and laws and checkpoints- is make it easier for one side to demonise and dehumanise the other.

So, younger people here have probably never even met Palestinians, unless it was while they were in the army when they are in a fighting situation. And it’s the same on the other side.

That makes it much easier for Israelis to say that all of the Palestinians are monsters and terrorists and for the Palestinians to say that all of the Israelis are killers. It’s a very basic matter of human contact.”

David – ‘If you step on the necks of the Palestinians you feel stronger’

Of his time in the Israeli army, David says: 'I felt the evil and saw those affected by it' [Carlo Gianferro]
Of his time in the Israeli army, David says: ‘I felt the evil and saw those affected by it’ [Carlo Gianferro]

“I grew up in a family where politics wasn’t discussed. I knew nothing about the history of Israel. Well, I knew the history but not in terms of what really happened. There was never any discussion about the Palestine issue.

But when I was 18, I enlisted in the army. By the time I was 19 I had seen what happened to the Palestinians and had a change of heart. I felt the evil and saw those affected by it.

Palestinians are abused, they are a sort of medium for abuse, they are dominated. If you step on their necks you feel stronger; it’s a sort of self-aggrandisement through abusing people.

So after one or two years I read a book by Mokuza, which was about how people are brainwashed into doing the things that ‘big brother’ wants.

I was very interested in how this happened. I couldn’t understand how society could be convinced so quickly to do insane things. I saw that when I was in the army, I saw it in my friends, in my unit; how they obey the orders they are given automatically, without thinking.

I decided not to be in the army any more.

Since about 2010, I’ve been involved in demonstrations in the Occupied Territories, in all kinds of activities. I’ve been involved in the demonstrations at Bil’in since the beginning, since 2005.

I look at the activists I really admire like towers of justice. But there are too few of them in Israel. We’re far below the critical mass needed to change anything. We’re just like a child putting a finger on the wall.

But I think only outside pressure by the international community, by international activists could have an impact, as it did in South Africa.” 

Michal – ‘This is starting to look like a fascist state’

 Michal says of the first demonstration she attended in Bil'in: 'It was like when Alice fell into the rabbit hole' [Carlo Gianferro]
 Michal says of the first demonstration she attended in Bil’in: ‘It was like when Alice fell into the rabbit hole’ [Carlo Gianferro]

“I was born into a very Zionist family. My parents were born here, they fought for this country, they’re devoted Zionists and they’re also right-wing. They’re a bit militant: my father is a colonel in the army.

I could have been a normal Israeli – loving my country, being proud of it and supporting it by hook or by crook. I like my parents, but I know what’s going on. I know that Palestinians also have rights.

I heard about the demonstration in Bil’in and I thought: ‘Come on, you can’t be a supporter of Palestinian rights and a Palestinian state and peace and love and everything and just not do anything.’

The first time I went to a demonstration in Bil’in, I was by myself, and it was like when Alice fell into the rabbit hole and found herself in a strange and alien land. That was exactly how I felt because nothing was normal.

My first time was kind of extreme, because the violence inflicted upon the peaceful demonstrators by the army was really extreme: they went into the village and started shooting tear gas and stun grenades.

That was the first time I was shot by a stun grenade. I was shocked and started to wonder how people had been going on with this uprising for so long. I began talking to people- leftist activists and Palestinians – and started looking for the truth myself.

I realised that for my whole life the truth had been hidden from me; I was intoxicated, I was lied to. I’d heard about people being driven out of villages in 1948 but I’d always heard it from one side alone: ‘Yes, we had to do it because they started it’ or ‘they weren’t really afflicted’.

Ever since then I’ve felt I had to do something. It wasn’t moral for me to go on with my life without devoting it to ending this wrongdoing on one side and the misery on the other.

I’m not very optimistic. There are all these laws against NGOs and leftist organisations; this is starting to look like a fascist state. Saying that we need the world to boycott and sanction Israel is like saying: ‘World, please help. We can’t do it ourselves, we need your support, we need your action because we can’t do it on our own.’

It’s not that I think nothing will change; things will change, they have to change. I’m doing my best to change things. There is no other choice. What would I do – go on with my life, do my job, look aside like nothing’s going on?

There are things going on. Every day, land is being confiscated from Palestinians in the West Bank and given to Jewish settlements. Every day, the rights of Palestinians in the West Bank -to move from one place to another, to visit their relatives in Israel, to live wherever they want – are being eroded.

We’re now in Jaffa. It’s a very ancient city and a very touristic place. There is a big board with the history of Jaffa: Arabs are not mentioned. There is a beautiful and exciting Palestinian culture and Israelis are missing so much in denying it.”

Ronnie – ‘As an Israeli Jew I have an extra responsibility to fight this system’

 Ronnie says of the BDS movement: 'This is something I take on because it is the moral thing to do' [Carlo Gianferro]
 Ronnie says of the BDS movement: ‘This is something I take on because it is the moral thing to do’ [Carlo Gianferro]

“I am a conscientious objector to military service in the Israeli army, an activist with the Israeli group Anarchists Against the Wall and a member of Boycott from Within, an Israeli group that is part of the global, Palestinian-led BDS movement.

This is something I take on because it is the moral thing to do, it’s the basic thing to do if you’re Jewish. I am here as a privileged Israeli Jew and the state gives me extra privileges as it takes away rights from non-Jewish people.

So as a human being I must boycott, but as an Israeli Jew I have an extra responsibility because it is this system that gives me extra privileges. So I have to fight against this.

I see that change is happening. I don’t know when we’ll win. But we have to look at this as a global movement, to connect all of the struggles around the world into one unified struggle to re-give the most basic thing: justice.

Human rights are what we want. It should not be difficult.”

Aital – ‘There will never be reconciliation without acknowledgement of the Nakba and the right of return’

 Aital says: 'Without acknowledgement of the Nakba, there will never be reconciliation' [Carlo Gianferro]
 Aital says: ‘Without acknowledgement of the Nakba, there will never be reconciliation’ [Carlo Gianferro]

“I founded an organisation called Zochrot. It means ‘remembering’. We work to raise awareness of the Nakba and to support the right of return for Palestinian refugees.

Israelis know almost nothing about the Nakba, but we believe it is essential to know what happened and to acknowledge our responsibility for it.

We organise tours for Israelis and Palestinians in Israel where we show them signs of Palestinian life and Palestinian villages and listen to the tales of Palestinian refugees from those places. They tell us about their lives there, about the Nakba and how they were expelled or ran away and prevented from returning.

We also publish booklets about these places in Hebrew and Arabic and teach about the Nakba in high schools and universities.

We have to acknowledge what we did to Palestinians – we expelled them, we prevented them from returning home. We believe that without the acknowledgement of the Nakba, without support for the right of return for Palestinian refugees, there will never be reconciliation between Israelis and Palestinians.

I was born in Argentina and came here when I was five. My family went directly to a kibbutz. I was quite left-wing, but when I turned 18 I went into the army without any hesitation. There was no question about it for me because to be a good citizen you have to serve in the army; it’s part of citizenship here.

I am more proud of the fact that my two oldest children have refused to serve in the army and I hope the next two will also refuse to go.

I’m not very proud of it, but I was an excellent soldier. But when my time in the army was just about coming to an end, the war in Lebanon began in 1982. I was called up as a reservist to fight there. I was against this war from the very beginning so I thought a lot and decided to refuse to serve there.

I was sent to jail. This was a very important moment for me because it was the first time I put a line: ‘This is my limit. I won’t cross it. I don’t support this war at all.’

I was 23. I met many great people in jail; some of them are still friends today. It was important for me and my political formation and understanding.

Then, when the first intifada began, I knew I would not fight. If I believe Palestinians should have their own state and Israel should withdraw from the West Bank, how can I go there and suppress a Palestinian uprising? So I refused again, and was jailed again.”

This article first appeared in the February issue of the Al Jazeera Magazine. For more compelling stories, download the magazine for iPads and iPhones here, and for Android devices here.