by Elissa Rashkin
"We want to send a message: you don't have soldiers for this war." —Tamir Sorek, 1 April 2002
Tamir Sorek is one of over 400 Israeli reserve soldiers who have now signed a letter expressing their refusal to serve in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Their organization, Courage to Refuse, has ignited a small flame of hope in the otherwise unrelenting darkness of violence, terror, and repression in the Middle East.
Sorek believes that his government's occupation of the Palestinian territories is wrong and must be ended. Although he knows that this stance is seen by some Israelis as an unpardonable betrayal, Sorek is very clear about his allegiance to his country. As a scholar with degrees in
anthropology and sociology, he is equally clear in the analyses that led him to his present position. Addressing a Portland, OR, synagogue in April, he argued that his countrymen live in a state of denial about the Palestinians' very existence. Most Israelis, he said, define the borders of their country as including the occupied territories, yet when asked the country's population, they will say about six million. The 3.3 million Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip simply disappear from memory. They are only recognized, said Sorek, when there is resistance.
Since Israel's 1967 takeover of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, these "forgotten" people have lived a colonial reality of inequality and exploitation. "This is an undemocratic reality-we create an undemocratic situation between Jews who are masters and Palestinians who live without the same rights." It is the unjust conditions under which the Palestinians have lived that have created the current climate of violence and terror. "For instance, if a [Jewish] settlement is built on the road to a
neighboring Arab village, and there are shootings of settlers, what is the solution? We have to realize that it might be the only road to that village, and that people cannot enter and leave their own village [because of Israeli security forces], even when they are ill and need treatment in the city. People die because of our efforts to save the lives of settlers. I do not say that the lives of settlers are not as important as the lives of Palestinians…what I do say is that the way to save their lives is to take them back to Israel."
Current military actions in the territories, he said, have made the situation worse. He cited an incident in which Israeli soldiers searching houses for bombs and other weapons blew up a family's door, injuring a woman inside. Because of the military blockade of the area, she could not get out and an ambulance could not be brought in, so she died there in front of her children. "Israelis say there is no choice-we have to fight against terrorism. But by acting this way we produce more antagonism and more terrorism."
Sorek commented that both Palestinians and Israelis "are so good at counting our victims…but our memories are very selective about the victims of the other side." It is precisely this selective memory, this distortion of history, that allows the conflict to continue-and Sorek worries that censorship recently imposed by the Israeli government will make matters worse. He said that the killing of the woman mentioned above, although only one of hundreds of civilian deaths, was well known because it was shown on Israeli television-but that immediately afterwards, TV
journalists were banned from covering Israeli military activities in the West Bank.
Sorek made it clear that he did not condone Palestinian acts of terror, "but it is not my role to oppose, it is the Arabic role to oppose
terrorist acts-it is my role to speak about the actions of my own
government." The acceptance of personal and collective responsibility represented by Sorek and the other members of Courage to Refuse is tremendously compelling, and has received significant support within Israel. Sorek explained that the testimony of combat soldiers, unlike that of Arabs and outside observers assumed within Israel to be biased and unreliable, has forced the media to pay attention and has helped produce the kind of coverage of Israeli violence described above. Although there has long been an active peace movement in Israel, it has received little attention. But the existence of the conscientious objectors, 36 of whom (as of this writing) are now in jail for their refusal to serve, makes it impossible to ignore the reality of division and dissent within the country. "To defend Israel" can no longer mean unconditional support for the actions of the government in power, however repressive; according to Sorek and his colleagues, the best defense for Israel would be withdrawal from the Occupied Territories, the establishment of a Palestinian state, and equal rights for Jews and Arabs within Israel's borders.
University of Florida
Assistant Professor, Sociology
Ph.D. Sociology, Hebrew University of Jerusalem, 2002
Areas of Interest: Nationalism, Ethnic Conflicts, Sports, Collective Memory
Office: 3108C Turlington
Mailing Address: PO Box 117330, Gainesville, FL 32611-7330
Voice: (352) 392-0265 ext. 257
FAX: (352) 392-6568
Individual Web Page: http://plaza.ufl.edu/tsorek/
Tamir Sorek received his Ph.D. from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem in 2002. His interests center on the production of ethnic and national identities, as well as ethno-national conflicts. His study of these processes focuses on socio-historical dynamics, power relations, and the juncture of culture and politics. In his book on Arab soccer in Israel (Cambridge University Press, 2007) Sorek illustrates how a seemingly innocent arena like sports is in effect a powerful political sphere, which has implications for ethnic, religious, civic and national identification and even political behavior. In his work, Sorek combines both quantitative and qualitative methodologies. His current project deals with the culture of commemoration of the Arab-Palestinian citizens of Israel and its dialogue with Zionist commemoration.