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It seems that the one-size secular-fits-all protest against the occupation may be outdated.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?