Jonathan Ben-Artzi reveals a perspective on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that is completely missing from the discourse in the U.S.
Jonathan Ben-Artzi, a mathematician at Cambridge University, is a young Israeli who refused to serve in the Israeli Defense Forces, and was imprisoned for over a year for doing so. Ben-Artzi echoes the views of many Israeli peace activists – a view almost totally missing from the discourse in this country. He laments the fact that, in his view, the country has indeed become an “apartheid state,” and supports the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement (BDS) – positions that are considered way beyond the pale in the U.S.
Although brave, Ben-Artzi's story is not terribly remarkable. Refuseniks, as they're known in Israel, are few in number but not unheard of. What makes Ben-Artzi's experience especially noteworthy is that his uncle is Israel's right-wing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Jonathan Ben-Artzi appeared on this week's AlterNet Radio Hour (he said he didn't want to talk about his family's private affairs, and we respected that wish). A lightly edited transcript is below (you can listen to the whole show here).
Joshua Holland: Jonathan, you chose to become a conscientious objector rather than serve in the military. You’ve written about how your family has a tradition of service going back to Israel’s War of Independence in 1948. How difficult was this decision for you? I’d have to assume you were under a lot of pressure to conform and go into military service.
Jonathan Ben-Artzi: No, actually not. My close family was very supportive. Moreover I was always one to make my own decisions and not pay too much attention to what others thought.
I always knew that for me it was the right thing to do and there was no doubt that I could not join the military. The only question was what precisely to do, but that too was, for me, pretty straightforward at the time. I didn’t see any other way. In fact there isn’t really any other way for anyone who sees things differently in Israel but to do this. There are only two or three options I guess. One option is to be ultra-orthodox, in which case you’re exempt. That’s something that might be changing now, so it’s not clear. Another option is to go to a psychiatrist and try to convince them by actually portraying yourself as someone who is in bad mental health -- or paying enough money to the psychiatrist to give you a note that will release you from the military. Or you can say what your conscience tells you; what your beliefs are. Then you face whatever consequences there are.
JH: So you say that you always knew. I assume that means going back to your childhood that this was going to be the course you would decide to take. So there wasn’t a crystalizing event or some defining moment that made you decide to take this course of action?
JBA: I mean, when one grows up there are all sorts of events happening. We’ve always had close family and family friends living in occupied territories, mostly in Bethlehem. I’ve always been politically aware. More generally, I regard myself as a pacifist, which sort of transcends, as far as I see it, the specifics of the Israeli-Palestinian situation.
Something that really influenced me was when I was in high school I visited France and saw some of the battlefields of World War I. You see these crazy, endless graveyards of people who died for nothing. These kinds of things led me to these beliefs.
JH: After a protracted court fight, you were actually incarcerated for a year and a half for these beliefs. You wrote that the army imprisoned you despite calls for your release by Amnesty International and the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. We don’t hear a lot about refuseniks in the American media. How prevalent are conscientious objectors staying out of the Israeli military?
JBA: Well, to be honest, not so much. In fact now it’s almost exactly 10 years to the day that I first was incarcerated. That time was sort of the height of the Second Intifadah, and there were more movements of people who were different shades of refuseniks. It was more of a hot topic around then, around 2001-2003. To be honest, even when I say there was a movement, it was really just a few dozen people.
These movements did, in fact, have some influence, according to the politicians. The chief advisor of [Ariel] Sharon, who was prime minister then, said after the unilateral withdrawal of Israel from the Gaza Strip that that decision was made to counter these movements – to throw a bone at people who were disgruntled with how things were going. It was to show some small movement toward supposed peace. At least according to him, that was a direct influence. That was in a big interview with our newspaper at the time. He considered this as the trigger for the withdrawal from Gaza.
JH: And that withdrawal was an immensely painful experience for Israeli society. It threatened to tear the fabric of the society apart. Israel of course withdrew ground troops from Gaza in 2006, I believe. Under international law it is still in effective control -- Gaza is considered occupied territory, but Israeli leaders deny that and claim that Gaza is actually a hostile sovereign power.
You studied at Brown University. I’m sure you’re familiar with our political discourse here in the United States. Comparing Israeli policies toward the Palestinians with apartheid in South Africa inevitably invites charges of anti-Semitism and extremism.
It has always seemed like a correct analogy to me, in that Israel is facing demographic pressures, and has set up a quasi state with no real sovereignty. They’re pretending that that quasi state is in fact independent. In apartheid South Africa these were called Bantustans.
You’ve written that apartheid exists for Israeli Arabs -- that is, Arab citizens of Israel -- as well as in the West Bank. Can you unpack that? In the US, we often hear that Israeli Arabs enjoy the same rights as Jewish Israelis.
JBA: In the US you hear a lot of things. You get much more precise and true information in Israel. If you go to Haaretz, you'll get much more accurate information than if you went to New York Times. That’s just a side note.
In Israel, very briefly, there’s at least two types of Palestinians. There are those who have Israeli citizenship, and those who do not. Those who have Israeli citizenship are those who were there after 1948 and were not driven out. They’ve consistently been roughly 20 percent of the Israeli population. While there’s always been discrimination against them, it’s been less than anyone who is not an Israeli citizen. They participate in elections and things like this. A large portion of African Americans do not participate in elections in the United States for various reasons.
There’s definitely discrimination. Throughout the 1950s they were living under military rule. You just need to go to Israel and see. Look at their villages and you see that there’s no planning. Planning has to be done by the state. You look at any Jewish town and you see urban planning. You see nice schools, parks, well-built streets and all that. You drive to a village that’s not primarily Jewish and all of a sudden you’re in a third-world country.
JH: Are there villages where Israeli Arabs are not allowed to live?
JBA: So this has been a contentious issue. There are these sort of gated communities. There used to be gated communities in the United States that didn’t accept Jews, for example. That no longer exists, but I think that used to be the case. In Israel there are all these communities that don’t accept non-Jews. On paper this was ruled illegal, but in effect it’s still going on. There are many of these communities -- mostly in the north, in the Galilee area. There was actually an official policy of the government even before the formation of Israel, in the 1930s or before, to try to Jew-ify various areas that have a majority percentage of non-Jews. Primarily this is in the Galilee in the north, and the Negev in the south. This continues to this day.
JH: You’ve written a piece in the Christian Science Monitor. You wrote, “If Americans truly are our friends, they would shake us up and take away the keys. Because right now we are driving drunk. And without this wakeup call we will soon find ourselves in the ditch of an undemocratic, doomed state.”
Can you unpack that for us? What do you think the American government should be doing in terms of trying to advance a real peace in this region?
JBA: There’s a hidden assumption in your question. When you say, "What should the American government be doing to promote peace?" you’re assuming the American government wants peace.
Among liberals who give a lot of thought to American and Middle East issues there are two competing views. There are some, like Chomsky, who would say that the US is the dominant power, and within that there are various interests, like corporations. Any other player around the world basically does what the US bids them to do.
There’s this competing view which is at least primarily raised by two professors from Chicago and Harvard [Steven Walt and John Mearsheimer]. It’s about the Israel lobby, and it holds that Israel has a lot of control over US politics. I lean more towards the Chomsky point of view. In that sense I’m taking back some of the things I actually wrote, because I think that a lot of what Israel does is with the consent and pushing of the US.
The US is fully complicit in everything. What I still think holds is that the American population has a lot of influence, but they don’t know many things. The American population has it in their interests to have good health insurance, or to have a controlled Wall Street. That is not happening, because that’s the way the political system is designed.
JH: I want to move on to the BDS movement. Here in the United States, this is seen as anti-Semitic unto itself, which I think is kind of ironic because we’re always being told that Palestinians should engage in non-violent activism. Now when they do, it suddenly becomes beyond the pale. You support boycotts, which I see as a somewhat natural expression of the lack of a real peace process.
First let me ask you. Do you support boycotts against Israeli products in general, or just the ones manufactured in occupied territories? I think this is a split among BDS supporters.
JBA: I think the concept is complicated. One has to be very cautious with it. I always kind of sway. I’ll give an example. People discuss boycotting universities. That’s always a very difficult thing. So you boycott Tel Aviv University or the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, where I did my undergrad. Then let’s consider an institution like MIT. If you talk to Noam Chomsky, who works there, he will tell you that MIT receives millions of dollars in funds from DOD and all sorts of governmental agencies. It has all sorts of collaborations with armament development and all sorts of things that promote what’s happening in Afghanistan or Iraq, or wherever else the US ships arms around the world. Nobody can really boycott MIT. So this becomes a really difficult question. If you say you need to boycott Tel Aviv University then you’re just picking a university that’s easier to boycott.
Obviously, any product that’s made in the occupied territories of course should not even be sold anywhere. That’s clear. That’s like stolen goods to me. With anything else, it’s a complicated question. The answer has to be complicated. Certain things yes, and certain things no.
Divestment I definitely think yes. At Brown, I was involved in various groups that were trying to promote information of the Brown investment funds -- where their money goes. Not just investment that has to do with the Israeli occupation, but also funds that are involved with American firms and illegal activity anywhere around the world.
JH: Some have argued that the occupation is such an integral part of the Israeli economy that it’s almost impossible to disaggregate what is from the occupied territories rather than what is domestic production.
JBA: Even if I agree with that -- and it may be true -- it then becomes very problematic to follow up on that. For example, Microsoft and Intel have some of their biggest facilities in Israel. So are we going to buy any Intel product or Windows?
JH: Right. Not only is the West Bank integrated in the Israeli economy, but then of course we have a global economy.
In that same Christian Science Monitor piece, you wrote, “We must give equal rights to all, regardless of what the final resolution will be. The so-called one-state solution, the two-state solution, or any other form of governance.”
In American public discourse the "one-state solution" is associated with the annihilation of Israel. Of course we effectively have one state, but with a big chunk of the population under occupation. That will remain the case as long as a two-state solution seems out of reach.
I wanted to ask what your views are of the fundamental demographic problem? The fact that, if the projections are right, demographics will eventually force Israel to make a choice between being a Jewish state and a democratic state. What is your view of that?
JBA: Presently, I don’t exactly know or understand how the Israeli leadership is really leading Israel. Certainly if you ask me how I see Israel in 50 years, I don’t see in that geographical area an entity that resembles at all the entity that we have today. I don’t think Israel can survive in its current form. Hopefully, steps will be taken to have some kind of survival of whatever entity that benefits everyone who's there, without too much further bloodshed beyond what we’ve had so far.
That’s what I can hope for. I already have learned not to try and predict anything. You keep being surprised by what happens. Unfortunately, so far we’ve learned that Israel -- with the support of the US and much of Europe -- has been able to maintain the so-called status quo for years now, since 1967. With this so-called peace process from 1991-1993 we’ve been able to keep this situation without it going anywhere very successfully as far as the right or the military establishment is concerned. And at least for the near future, I don’t see how that’s going to change. There were there high hopes from Obama and they completely crashed.
In the end, as per Chomsky’s point, as far as I see it, the US dictates what will happen on behalf of various domestic interests.
Joshua Holland is an editor and senior writer at AlterNet. He's the author of The 15 Biggest Lies About the Economy. Drop him an email or follow him on Twitter.