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About 34 years ago I willingly walked into the processing center for draftees in Israel. This was after an intense 18-month period of organizing, wherein I helped create a group of Israeli Jews willing to publicly commit to refusing to support the Occupation.
As it happened, I was the first one to be called up from those that signed our official letter. It had 16 names. This was before the first Intifada, a time when Israelis thought the Occupation was cost free and would last forever.
At the age of 16, I was one of a very small number of Israeli Jewish young people with Palestinian friends. That year I visited Jabalia refugee camp in Gaza with a group of Palestinian citizens of Israel. It’s hard to describe how aberrant that was, or how angry my mom would have been had she known what I was up to that day. Jabalia is where the first Intifada, or uprising, would begin while I was serving in the Israeli army.
At the time, I was active in two youth movements that brought Jews and Palestinians together on a regular basis. One of them was about half and half Jewish and Arab. The other one was almost entire Arab, though some Jewish chapters existed where I lived. Through those movements I met adults who had been refuseniks in the past.
After hearing about my experience of refusing, people ask me how I could have grown up in Israel and still make that decision? What could have brought someone to that point of commitment?
Maybe it was what happened to me at the start of 10th grade. My school chose me to attend a Jewish-Arab encounter weekend at Neve Shalom/Wahat al-Salam. That Friday night we all had some free time, and self-organized in different ways. Some kids went to the Latroun monastery to score some wine. Another activity was a “kumzitz” or bonfire with songs, organized by some of the Arab participants. About 20 showed up for that. I was the only Jew. I had never been the only Jew surrounded by Arabs my age. They mostly talked in Arabic, so from time to time someone would translate for me. [In those days, in Israel, everyone was a “Jew” or an “Arab” in everyday speech. Today’s preferred term is “Palestinian citizen of Israel.”]
I kept quiet as they started to sing, with darbuka drums and maybe a recorder. It was my first time listening to Palestinian folk songs. The lyrics had the same themes as Hebrew folk songs that you’d sing at a bonfire: How beautiful the land. How noble its people. The longing to be free and independent. The pride of resistance. Young romantic love. My heart was beating so fast.
How did I fit in with what I was seeing? Who was I, an Israeli Jew, in this little bubble? I was nobody. Or maybe the enemy. The usurper. The oppressor. Little me. And then something broke, and a wave of realization filled me. This was the unspoken truth of my own society.
Imagine looking at the moon, without realizing you only ever see half of it. Then one day you learn, it rotates in such a way as to keep the dark side hidden from human eyes, for eternity. Such was the logic of Israeli education, at least for Jews. Suddenly I got to see the other side.
This kind of experience was, and is, extremely rare. It motivated me to a lifetime of learning about my cousins, the Palestinians. My siblings in struggle. To see liberation as a shared project. After all, an occupying nation is never free. Not really.
Do Palestinians have to be good people? Must they have good strategy? What silly conditions people have, especially defenders of Israel’s rule over Palestinians. They are already all they need to be: a people. They already deserve what they need: your solidarity. And they know that someday, they will be free. Most Israelis know this too, deep down inside.
But they hide it so well, playing for time, spending our moral birthright down, little by little. Day after day. And that my friends, is the criminal enterprise that will haunt us for centuries to come – if not millennia.
Charles Lenchner is on staff at Progressive Hub. He has previously appeared in New Labor Forum, Democratic Left, The Indypendent, and The Real News. Lenchner is a founder of The People for Bernie Sanders and the labor training hub Organizing 2.0.