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Israel’s clanging prison bars

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This is part of Marc H. Ellis’s “Exile and the Prophetic” feature for Mondoweiss. To read the entire series visit the archive page.

It seems that the one-size secular-fits-all protest against the occupation may be outdated. Increasingly, Jewish diversity is the name of the resistance game.

While it’s true that Orthodox Jews who sacrifice for those on the other side of Jewish power aren’t found in great numbers, those who do are underreported. As with secular Israelis, Orthodox Jews are a mixed bag. How could it be otherwise?

Daniel Beller reports of an Orthodox Jew who recently refused military service in Israel – and has been jailed for that refusal:

When Uriel Ferera was born in Argentina 19 years ago, democracy in the South American country was an established fact, and no one was being jailed for having left-wing views, not to mention being a pacifist. On April 27th, in Israel – a country that likes to call itself “The only democracy in the Middle East” – he will be jailed for refusing to serve in the Israeli army. Uriel, who comes from an ultra-Orthodox family from Be’er Sheva and was one of the first to sign the latest refusenik letter, says that he objects to serving in the IDF on the grounds that military service in any role contributes to enforcing the occupation.

Ferera’s story is interesting and contains a number of reversals. As Ferera puts it:

People may see a Haredi Jew and think “he’s lazy, hence he doesn’t want to serve the country” and that’s not the case. I want to do national service, just as my sister Yael did. But the IDF has decided that I will go to jail for being a pacifist.

In jail, Ferera’s experience is contradictory and telling:

On Sunday night (April 27, 2014) I went into Prison 6 in Atlit. At first, I refused to put on a uniform, and as a result, I was left without clothes aside from underwear, socks and a shirt. I panicked and cried – I felt horrible. I didn’t want to put on a uniform even though they were yelling at me and told me to stop playing around… I couldn’t get up and I was shaking; the only thing I was able to do was to pray and to recite psalms.

They physically dragged me to the [prison] wing, where they left me and pressured me to put on the uniform. Despite it all, I didn’t stop praying. They also laughed at me and [told me] to stop praying and said God can’t hear me because he’s too busy, and that he won’t get me out of there. It was then that I realized that if they are humiliating a Jewish boy — like them — in such a way, one can only imagine what they do to Palestinian youths in the territories.

To me they’re like robots; they don’t think, they don’t feel, and they even got pleasure out of the fact that I cried that night. There was no point in continuing to argue with them so I put on the uniform…
They only let me bring in religious books. I couldn’t sleep at night. I didn’t have an appetite the next day, nor did I want to shower. I was anxious all day and I studied Torah and prayed all day.
I was only in the isolation wing for a day and a half, and afterward, they transferred me to Company C. [Now] I am passing time by joking with the rest of the guys. We can read newspapers, there’s television and we can listen to music… I took a book from the military library. On the weekends there’s an atmosphere of Shabbat. I read from the Torah and we all sang Shabbat songs in the mess hall.

What are we to make of Ferera’s refusal to serve in the IDF and his description of prison life? It’s a strange mix to be sure – from total isolation and diminishment to Torah readings and Shabbat. All within the state of Israel that seeks to enshrine Jewishness in its foundational law.

Yet the question begging to be answered is the meaning of that Jewishness. Netanyahu certainly has a Jewish point of view. So does Ferera. In this case, it’s not about religion, it’s about justice.

Being sent to prison on the grounds of conscience – in a Jewish state – is part of the sea-change in Jewish life that began with the birth of the state of Israel. As a religious Jew, Ferera is willing to serve justice but unwilling to participate in an occupation that denies and demeans others. Is he part of another sea-change in Jewish life?

The discussions about God in Elie Wiesel’s Night are devastating. Where was God in Auschwitz? But the discussion Ferera has with his guards about God is relevant, too. Here the jailors aren’t German in service to the Nazi state – they’re Jewish in service to a Jewish state. The jailors of each era thought that either God was on the side of the state or God was uninterested.

Mocking God is typical for those who have power. Has “Where was God for Jews in Auschwitz” become “Where is God among Jewish prisoners of conscience?”

Interesting, too, that Ferera’s question of God shifts directly to the issue of justice.

“It was then that I realized that if they are humiliating a Jewish boy — like them — in such a way, one can only imagine what they do to Palestinian youths in the territories.”

Ferera’s willingness to suffer for his principles is admirable. But we know of this willingness to suffer for principles outside of Israel, too.

Jails come in many forms and the Jewish establishment’s attempt to limit the practice of conscience is ongoing. Refusing military service and religious and intellectual subservience to unjust power are the only avenues left for Jews of Conscience. As this becomes more and more obvious to Jews inside and outside of Israel, the power exerted against them increases.

Apparently, it’s a struggle to the end. The middle path, whatever that could have been, is foreclosed.

State Zionists wanted Israel to be a place where Jews could be professors and janitors – Jews could be everything and anything across the board. But few if any Zionists predicted that Jews of Conscience would spend time in jail for refusing to serve the state they dreamed of. Nor did they anticipate Jewish refuseniks like Ferera reading from the Torah and singing Shabbat songs as a prisoner of conscience.

Jews have a history of objection to unjust power and to military service when force is being used to subjugate innocent people. But conscientious objection to military service in Israel is a different animal altogether. In the service of other powers, Jews knew the fight could be shared but wasn’t ours alone. In Israel, the fight is ours alone.

God only knows if there a future beyond what is in Israel/Palestine. But, then, who would have thought that the clanging of Israel’s prison bars would be accompanied by Torah readings and the singing of Shabbat songs?

Marc H. Ellis

Marc H. Ellis is Professor of History and Jewish Studies and Director of the Center for the Study of the Global Prophetic. His latest book is Finding Our Voice: Embodying the Prophetic and Other Misadventures.

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16 Responses

  1. Walid on May 13, 2014, 12:14 pm

    What’s so special about a Jew being imprisoned by other Jews for whatever reason? There are over 2 million Americans imprisoned by other Americans and nobody is writing essays about it being abnormal. We’re back to the never-ending essays revolving around Jewish exceptionalism. Ferrera’s beef is not so much about having been jailed because he was a conscientious objector to the occupation; it was because he was a Jew being jailed and laughed at by other Jews. In his (and Marc’s) book, Jews aren’t supposed to do these things to other Jews. In the days of the US draft, were draft dodgers or objectors sent to Club Med or to jail?

      • Walid on May 13, 2014, 4:56 pm

        Karl, I didn’t mean that nobody cared about so many people being in American jails, I meant to say that Americans aren’t writing essays about those millions simply because they are American. Of course everyone is concerned about the wild number of the incarcerated. Here, Ferrera and Marc are making an issue of Jews that are being jailed by other Jews.

      • ofern on May 13, 2014, 5:53 pm

        “Here, Ferrera and Marc are making an issue of Jews that are being jailed by other Jews.”

        Of course, a big issue, and rightly so. The precise issue is the moral power that an anti apartheid Haredi Jew has in the face of secular Zionist thuggery. There’s a great deal of symbolism here, and this can be used to promote the anti apartheid cause.

    • ofern on May 13, 2014, 5:48 pm

      Hi Walid, it makes perfect sense to expect to be imprisoned for conscientious objection and also to expect NOT to be abused in prison.

      No wonder Uriel has a beef with this sadism.

      And in the WIDER context, his beef is precisely with what Israel does to the Palestinians, not with what the wardens do to him.

      • LeaNder on May 13, 2014, 6:33 pm

        thanks Ofer,

        the central sentence for me was this one:

        How could it be otherwise?

        Can there be an ideal conscientious–the light unto the nations–state? We had someone here that suggested, Yes! Israel only needs a little more time. Or can there only be a conscientious individual, no matter what from what camp?

        Do Israel’s foundation myth tell us anything about its reality? Oh, I see David Ohana has moved on from Political Theologies in the Holy Land to The Origins of Israeli Mythology: Neither Canaanites Nor Crusaders

        Idealism versus human reality. Uriel no doubt does not face myth, but reality. The reality of state that needs every single soldier, given its genesis and the Iron Wall theory, how could it be otherwise.

        In any case this contribution is not about exceptionalism, but idealism versus reality and the individual as the only place were consciousness can originate.

      • Walid on May 14, 2014, 1:19 pm

        Ofer, I think that in general, wardens aren’t the nicest people, whether in Israeli, Arab or US prisons. I understood Ferrera’s beef was about being jailed because of his conscience; he happened to reflect on what the Palestinians must be going through in Israeli jails. It’s about Marc’s beef that I mostly wrote about and it had nothing to do with Palestinians but about what the Israelis were doing to their own if they objected to the occupation.

    • Inanna on May 13, 2014, 7:12 pm

      Walid, you’re right. I’m just as tired as you of the ‘never-ending essays revolving around Jewish exceptionalism’. However, what is refreshing about this essay is that it is about a boy who actually thinks that the crimes done against Palestinians are wrong in and of themselves rather than solely something that stains the Jewish ‘soul’. He can generalize from his own religious education as well as the experience of his own suffering at the hands of his co-religionists to empathize with Palestinians. I don’t think the question to be answered is the ‘meaning of Jewishness’ as Ellis states. I think the question to be answered is do Jews and Israelis see Palestinians as equals and therefore deserving of the same treatment they give themselves? And that’s a pretty simple question that has lots of data points that can be used to answer it that does not need these endless essays.

      Furthermore, if we are going to talk about the ‘meaning of Jewishness’, it’s pretty clear that far too many Jews and Israelis conflate their Judaism with their Zionism and those don’t conflate them are get punished. It’s pretty clear to me as an Arab Christian who grew up in probably the most overtly sectarian state in the Middle East that this is the use of politics in the service of sectarianism/identity politics. And that’s only news to the virginal eyes of those who believe in the whitewashed view of Israeli and Zionist history in the Middle East.

      As an aside, I see these Jewish exceptionalism essays as part of an effort to drive attention away from the oppression of Palestinians. While they do seek to expose how Israelis/Jews behave/think about Palestinians, it’s far more about honoring themselves as being concerned about Palestinians rather than actually being concerned about Palestinians. Noone wants to be the bad guy. But the focus is still on the oppressor rather than the oppressed and it’s still the narrative of the oppressor. It’s a nicer version of shooting and crying. I often think that the way I feel when I read these essays is how a black person would’ve felt under segregation reading about how white people feel.

      • RoHa on May 13, 2014, 9:08 pm

        “I don’t think the question to be answered is the ‘meaning of Jewishness’ as Ellis states. ”

        Actually, Ellis says “Yet the question begging to be answered is the meaning ofthat Jewishness.” (My italics.)

        The Jewishness in question is not Jewishness in general, but the Jewishness referred to in the previous sentence: “All within the state of Israel that seeks to enshrine Jewishness in its foundational law.”

        (If we are going to discuss the meaning of Jewishness in general, I will be characteristically rude and say there is no meaning.)

        That said, I think there is a lot of truth in your comment.

      • Walid on May 14, 2014, 1:53 am

        “As an aside, I see these Jewish exceptionalism essays as part of an effort to drive attention away from the oppression of Palestinians. While they do seek to expose how Israelis/Jews behave/think about Palestinians, it’s far more about honoring themselves as being concerned about Palestinians rather than actually being concerned about Palestinians.”

        That’s what I was trying to say in my awkward walk across eggshells. At the end, this article is back to making the Jews the victims one more time and every time..

      • American on May 14, 2014, 9:04 am

        Inanna says:

        May 13, 2014 at 7:12 pm

        Walid, you’re right. I’m just as tired as you of the ‘never-ending essays revolving around Jewish exceptionalism’

        Exceptionalism is the core problem of the tribe. They keep painting a big bulls eye target on themselves because of this demand to be an exception to all others in the world.

    • pabelmont on May 14, 2014, 8:17 am

      Walid, As I read it, the concern is not about Jews being imprisoned by the State of Israel. It is about conscience, conscientious objection to military service, and ESPECIALLY about the ill-treatment of the prisoner by the guards.

      Israeli society (like most societies, sadly) is hierarchical, conservative (that is, seeks to preserve the unearned privileges of select groups at the top of the hierarchy, especially Jews generally, but the STATE and its concerns are higher on the hierarchy than mere Jewishness. And Israel is a warfare-state (that is, not one that is prepared to resort to war when needed, but one which insists on making war on its neighbors from time to time to keep its weapons sharp adn to keep its neighbors angry and frightened). This means that being anti-war is a high crime, hence the bad treatment of the prisoner.

      I think that various states (perhaps cities then) run by Jews in ancient times may have been warfare states, but Jews have been out of power for 2000 years (until Zionism) and todays Jews (outside of Israel) are for the most part uncomfortable with the idea of Jews-as-warriors.

      • Walid on May 14, 2014, 1:11 pm

        Pabelmont, thanks for the insight. Some Palestinians and other Arabs aren’t clement with their traitors either and they’ve been known to do worse than simply jail them. On the other hand, most of Marc’s pieces here are about his searches into the Jewish soul, roots, prophetic and such things. So you can understand from where I formed my opinion on the issue he presented here. Perplexing that Israel allowed Ferrera’s sister to do civil service in lieu of the military but wouldn’t grant him the same privilege. It seems that in Israel, women are granted by law the right to object because of their conscience or because of their religion.

        More on the subject in Israel:
        Conscientious objection to military service in Israel: an unrecognised human right
        31 Jan 2003 — warresisters
        Report for the Human Rights Committee in relation to Article 18 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights

  2. Kay24 on May 13, 2014, 1:51 pm

    He is right, one can only imagine what the poor Palestinian kids have to go through. The fear, humiliation, and the ill treatment, that Human Rights organization have reported about. To call Israel a rogue nation, is putting it mildly.

  3. DICKERSON3870 on May 13, 2014, 8:52 pm

    This is an incredibly inspiring example of someone “going above and beyond” rather than being satisfied by achieving the average (i.e. splitting the difference).
    I am in awe of that degree of determination!

  4. American on May 14, 2014, 10:04 am

    Why the IDF Bullies children

    Soldiers beat Abu Sneinah when they arrested him. The IDF Spokesperson did not deny or respond to this assertion. Because it’s the norm. Soldiers beat handcuffed Palestinian detainees. It’s part of the dehumanization, of the routine violence. It’s gone on for 47 years (the occupation), for 66 years (the State of Israel), and we’re not done yet. Nor did the IDF Spokesperson issue a response when asked whether the fact that such beatings are the norm meant the commanders support the beating of detainees. The soldiers kept Abu Sneinah handcuffed and blindfolded for an entire night, on a concrete floor with no mattress. The IDF Spokesperson did not deny or respond when asked if this was torture. The IDF Spokesperson did not identify either the commander who ordered Abu Sneinah’s arrest or the commander who was responsible for the atrocious conditions in which he was kept. The IDF Spokesperson also did not respond when asked why, when Abu Sneinah was released, after 24 hours, he was rearrested by different soldiers at the checkpoint near Shuhada Street. He was held for another hour, and the heroic soldiers beat him some more.
    “You son of a bitch, as soon as I get a chance, I’ll shoot you,” a soldier named Effi told Issa Amro, one of the founders of Youth Against Settlements. “Keep your ugly mouth shut,” another soldier told Amro. On the orders of a Russian-accented civilian — a woman — the soldiers raided the organization’s center, ostensibly in search of rock-throwers.”

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