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   Israeli Major Brings Message of Peace to Baltimore

Refusing to Serve in the West Bank:

Israeli Major Brings Message of Peace to Baltimore

by Elissa Thomas

"It was safer in jail. And the alternative would have been morally unacceptable to me."
Ishai Menuchin, chairman of the refusenik organization Yesh Gvul and a major with the Israeli Defense Force, spoke at Beit Tikvah Synagogue in Baltimore on April 6.

Major Menuchin does not identify himself as a pacifist. He has served in the Israeli army for 26 years and has been promoted twice. However, he opposes the actions of Israeli soldiers in the occupied territories.

"The occupation, by definition," said Menuchin, requires "acts that every soldier must refuse to take part in," as well as "acts in which a responsible democratic country should not participate." He insisted that all responsible people—citizens and soldiers alike—could not uphold the actions of a government that resulted in the oppression of an entire people.

Menuchin was in the United States to receive the Rothko Chapel's Oscar Romero Award for Commitment To Truth and Freedom. His lecture was sponsored by Beit Tikvah Congregation, Baltimore Jews for Israel-Palestinian Peace, the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF), the American Friends Service Committee, and Veterans for Peace.

Menuchin's first encounter with the occupation occurred in 1980, when he was a lieutenant with the Israeli Defense Force. He related it as follows: On orders to arrest a man suspected of throwing grenades at Israeli soldiers in Gaza, Menuchin and his platoon crept through the refugee camps late at night to carry out a surprise attack. Seeing firsthand the sewage, grime, and squalor of the Palestinian living conditions was an eye-opening experience for him.

Menuchin's platoon successfully detained the suspected grenade-thrower, arresting him in the middle of the night in front of his terrified wife and children. However, before he could be turned over to the proper officials, a veteran Israeli soldier began taunting the Palestinian. The soldier told the man to run away (a sure death sentence). The Palestinian, unsure of what else to do, slowly stretched out on the ground, while the Israeli soldier repeatedly kicked and berated him. Menuchin and his platoon were shocked and revolted by the dehumanizing violence but did not intervene.

A few days later, the platoon was informed that they had captured the wrong man. Apparently, the real grenade-thrower was the arrested man's cousin. Major Menuchin expressed the deep shame and regret he felt, and still harbored to this day, for having failed to stop the humiliation and brutalization of an innocent man.

Two years later at university, Menuchin found other discharged soldiers with similar stories. They founded Yesh Gvul ("There is a Limit"), a support network for soldiers refusing to serve in the occupied territories. By the time of the war with Lebanon in 1982, over 3,000 soldiers had joined Yesh Gvul, with 150 men opting for jail time rather than fighting in the occupied territories.

Menuchin himself spent 35 days in prison. "It was safer in there," he quipped. "And the alternative would have been morally unacceptable to me."

The refusenik movement, according to Menuchin's philosophy, is a healthy response from a democratic society that refuses to commit atrocities against other human beings despite the sanction of violence by its government. He explained that refuseniks contradict the military chain-of-command by insisting that Israeli soldiers (not just generals or Prime Ministers) must evaluate what is right and wrong in times of war. Therefore, since they cannot hide under the guise of what is legal or publicly acceptable, they must always hold themselves personally accountable to universal standards of decency and fairness.

According to Menuchin, it is the breakdown of the soldier's moral center and the muffling of his individual conscience that has led to the bulldozing of homes and shooting of civilians in Gaza and the West Bank. The violence is not intentional, Menuchin stressed, but evidence of the systemic disregard for human life that is the hallmark of the occupation.

"Corruption has infiltrated society's moral infrastructure," he said, citing Israeli soldiers in the occupied territories who, constantly dodging bullets and ambushes, respond brutally to all Palestinians instead of behaving judiciously. He added that the Israeli people do not think through the implications of the occupation; instead they cling to strong leaders who promise peace and security yet ensure further bloodshed.

"There is a 60 percent chance that giving back the land [to Palestinians] will bring peace. But not ending the occupation will result in a 100 percent chance of war. I will do anything for that 60 percent chance of peace."

Menuchin noted that during the 36 years of occupation, Israel has warred with Egypt, Lebanon, and the Palestinians. Eventually, he argued, Israeli citizens will have to acknowledge that peace cannot be achieved through force and that it is time to give back the occupied territories. He realizes the violence might not stop, yet he remains hopeful. "There is a 60 percent chance that giving back the land will bring peace," he said. "But not ending the occupation will result in a 100 percent chance of war. I will do anything for that 60 percent chance of peace."

Major Menuchin concluded by urging his audience to speak out in support of the refuseniks since those who have been jailed and branded as traitors by conservative Israelis and many Jewish American communities often feel very alone and unsupported. Similarly, members of organizations such as Jews for Peace are slammed by some American Jews and Israelis. Menuchin insisted it is crucial that individuals—including soldiers—not be ruled by government dictates or "the tyranny of the majority," but answer only to the universal values of freedom and democracy.

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This story was published on May 7, 2003.
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