By Rabbi Yehiel Grenimann
The meeting of human rights activists and IDF soldiers in the field in the West Bank is often complex and tense. Lately these meetings have been used as material for campaigns by extremist right wing organizations that are trying to discredit all the activity of those supporting human rights in the occupied territories. These campaigns are infected with cynicism and ignorance, but even without regard to them, the meetings of activists and soldiers in the field indeed raises serious issues regarding correct behaviour and speech, and the appropriate address for protest against the injustices of the continuing military rule there.
As a veteran human rights activist, a religious Jew and a Zionist, I believe that even without reference to the issue of our public image, it is necessary to sharpen our own moral approach regarding what is appropriate and what is not in interchanges of this kind. It is important to be aware of the clear, though thin, line that distinguishes legitimate criticism (mirroring back abusive acts or moral reproof) to soldiers, from throwing insults and other flagrantly unacceptable behaviours. For us, too, as activists this is important. In particular, we must be careful to prevent such behavior from serving as a distraction from discussion about the occupation itself.
Rabbi Yehiel Grenimann of RHR and the border police in the South Hebron Hills (Photo: Ryan Rodrick Beiler/ActiveStills)
When one thinks about our public agenda, as a society it is clear that the most serious moral issues raised are those due to the occupation– the ongoing military rule over two million human beings with limited civil rights, and institutionalized and systematic abuse of their basic human rights. The current campaigns by the extreme right are attempting to distract from the public debate about the occupation, exploiting widespread public confusion between legitimate moral reproof and denunciation based on blind hatred. They are trying to paint a picture of human rights activists as enemies of the soldiers, while playing on the public’s heart strings, exploiting the warm feelings that most Israelis have for the soldiers.
In this context many Israelis don’t perceive that, despite our opposition to the occupation, we see in the soldiers of the IDF our brothers and sisters — our own, flesh of our flesh — acting to defend our lives and safety. I see in them the concretization of our individual and communal rights to self-defense and the right to life. It is impossible to reduce the meaning of these soldiers to only being representatives of the repressive military regime in the territories, and it is totally wrong for us as human rights activists to turn them into an enemy. Beyond that, I personally served in the IDF, as did my children, as did many of the members of the NGO for which I work – Rabbis For Human Rights.
Nevertheless, it is clear that the situation we are involved in is distressing, and sometimes infuriating. As far as possible, we at Rabbis For Human Rights do our best to engage in constructive communication with the army, while taking a clear stance on the right of Palestinian farmers to access their lands – access that is often prevented by settlers and by soldiers in the field. It does happen sometimes that a particular situation in the field makes it impossible to avoid carrying out acts of nonviolent civil disobedience to soldiers’ instructions (sometimes themselves abrogating standing army orders) if we are to insist on the honouring of Palestinian rights. I have personally, as have my colleagues in RHR, spoken to soldiers in the field and called out to them to notice what kind of policy they are enforcing. The objective of such statements is not to accuse the individual soldiers but rather to increase awareness of the unjust reality – in the hope that after their release from army service they too will raise their voices on issues of conscience.
In tense situations there are sometimes activists for human rights who use harsh and insulting words at soldiers. I am aware of this as a peripheral phenomenon. This is not our approach. What we can do is to present an alternative model through the example of our behaviour in such situations. When we go out as an organization to the olive harvest, or to other activities, we make it clear to everyone involved that we have gone out to help Palestinian farmers, not in order to get into confrontations with the army. When new volunteers join us, we warn them against using insulting language against soldiers in the field – amongst other things because of the damage it might cause to Palestinians who are left to deal with the tension created after we return home.
For all these reasons, we should relate to all those we meet in the field respectfully, even if they have been sent to defend a policy that we cannot accept (we are, in fact, not always comfortable with the political opinions of some the Palestinians whose rights we attempt to defend).
In the Book of Leviticus, Chapter 19, verse 17, it says:
“Thou shalt not hate thy brother in thy heart; thou shalt surely rebuke thy neighbour, and not bear sin because of him.”
This means that it is a commandment to raise one’s voice in rebuke and not to nurture a hatred against those who do wrong.
One can understand the anger of those activists and soldiers who sometimes find themselves in situations of confrontation in the territories. The occupation arouses strong emotions. And at whom does one get angry if not at family members? But we must see beyond the anger: the soldier in the field does not decide government policy; when carrying out his/her orders he/she sees in the volunteer activists a disturbing, interfering presence, and often doesn’t understand their importance in a functioning democracy.
Even when being critical we must always remember that human dignity – the dignity of all human beings – must guide what we do and say. In other times and other places religious leaders taught us that nonviolent struggle against injustice can be powerful and effective. We see in these teachings a source of inspiration. Such a struggle can only succeed when all our actions and statements shine with the light of this basic principle of human dignity. Despite the difference between our reality and theirs, nevertheless it is still possible to apply this message here. There is in doing so a concrete demonstration of an important principle that we learn from the Torah – every human being was created in G-d’s image – including our soldiers.
Those who exploit the complexity of such situations in order to paint an image of human rights activists as enemies of the soldiers are making cynical use of patriotic emotions. They do not want to engage in a specific discussion about what is appropriate or not in civil opposition to the occupation, but rather they want to silence all opposition to the occupation. But these extremist elements will find it much more difficult to succeed in this delegitimizing project if we – human rights activists – will clarify for ourselves honestly and sensitively the nature of a determined civil struggle that uses the power of non-violence in its profoundest sense, and realizes its noble theory in the real world of the military occupation regime.
Rabbi Yehiel Grenimann is the Director of Organisational Development at Rabbis for Human Rights
This post appeared originally in Hebrew on the Israeli alternative news outlet Local Call. It has been translated to English by the author.