On Thursday I set fire to my Israeli military deferral papers across the street from the Israeli Embassy in Washington, DC. This act of civil disobedience took place during a protest organized by a Jewish American peace organization against the atrocities that Israel is committing in the occupied Gaza Strip.
In the first half of May, Israel made homeless close to 2,200 Palestinians through the purposeful destruction of their homes. Since Tuesday in Rafah, Israel has killed at least 40 Palestinians, some of whom were children engaged in nonviolent protest when they were killed. Amnesty International has described these acts of wanton death and destruction as “war crimes.”
Although I am a Jewish American, born and raised in the United States, I am also a citizen of Israel by virtue of my father’s birth in that country. Israel’s laws automatically confer citizenship on the children of citizens regardless of their place of birth. Like all other Jewish citizens of Israel, I am required to serve in the Israeli army.
I decided to burn my military deferral papers, the closest equivalent I have to a draft card, to protest the policies of the government of Israel and to declare my intention never to serve in an army of occupation and oppression.
By doing so, I stand in solidarity with more than 1,300 Israelis who have stated openly, at the risk of jail time, that they refuse to serve Israel’s occupation of Palestinians in the West Bank, Gaza Strip, and East Jerusalem and commit war crimes and flagrant breaches of international law.
Perhaps my burning of these papers constitutes a crime according to Israeli law. But what is my trespass compared to the criminal acts committed by Israel? As a result of the creation of the state of Israel in 1948 and the policy of ethnic cleansing that accompanied it, millions of Palestinians and their descendants have been dispossessed of their homeland and remain refugees to this day because their human right to return to their properties has been denied.
For the past 37 years Israel has enforced a brutal occupation on the Palestinians of the West Bank, Gaza Strip, and East Jerusalem. This military occupation works hand in glove with the government’s plans to transfer its civilian population into Palestinian areas — a violation of international law — and its illegal expropriation of their land and resources to make impossible the formation of a viable Palestinian state. These policies deny Palestinians their internationally recognized human rights, including the right to national self-determination.
Like the woes of Job, the injustices of Israel’s policies are numerous. No amount of rationalization, justification, moral equivocation, brainwashing or sophistry can shake my firm belief: Israel’s treatment of the Palestinian people is a moral outrage and a blight on the soul of the Jewish people. The fact that Jews have been dispossessed and stripped of their dignity and human rights on numerous occasions in the past is not a license for Israel to do so to the Palestinians in the present.
I know that many Jews, both in Israel and in the Diaspora, will view my symbolic act and the political opinions which I have come to hold as being “self-hating” at best and traitorous at worst. Many will chide me for removing myself from the community, as we are admonished not to do in our religious teachings.
So be it. However, let me clear: It gives me no pleasure to have burned my military papers; I derive no comfort from having to condemn the policies of the government of a country that is supposed to embody Jewish self-determination.
I believe in self-determination for the Jewish people. I believe that our common history, our shared language, culture, and religion, and our interwoven destiny constitutes us as a people. And I was raised to believe that Israel is an exquisite manifestation of this self-determination, that our “return to Zion” and the establishment of a new Jewish society there was the culmination of the ethical teachings of our religion. It was only later in life that I realized that such blind adoration for the actions of a state are, in the words of the late Israeli theologian and philosopher Yeshayahu Leibowitz, a modern form of idolatry.
How can I reckon Israel’s settlement program, involving the blatant theft of Palestinian land, with the commandment not to covet the possessions of one’s neighbors? How can I square the fact that Israel has uprooted thousands of ancient olive trees to dry up the lifeblood of the Palestinian economy with the Biblical prohibition of cutting down fruit-bearing tress even in times of warfare?
How can I support the daily humiliations, indignities, and human rights abuses to which Palestinians are subjected living under Israeli occupation with the story of creation, which teaches that human beings are created in the image of God and therefore are due respect and dignity regardless of their ethnicity or religion?
In the Torah, it states “justice, justice you shall pursue.” Rashi, the medieval biblical and talmudic commentator, gave an ingenious answer to explain why the word “justice” is repeated in this commandment since Jews believe that no word in the Torah is superfluous. The repetition of the word is necessary, Rashi explained, to teach us that both the means and the ends have to be just in order to be moral in the eyes of God.
The return of the Jewish people to its ancient land — no matter how noble or how disingenuous were the intentions or motives of the Zionist movement — must be measured by its effect. If we have “returned to Zion” in order to subjugate, humiliate, and dispossess its indigenous inhabitants then we have turned our backs on our religious obligations and should cooperate with this evil enterprise no longer.
Josh Ruebner is the cofounder of Jews for Peace in Palestine and Israel (JPPI) and a former Analyst in Middle Affairs at Congressional Research Service (CRS).