The following interview was conducted via e-mail with Dr. Yuri Pines, professor of Pre-imperial and Early Imperial Chinese History at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. Dr. Pines has graciously agreed to share with G21 his views on Israel, the Israeli army, and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
G21: Could you tell us about your background, and how you arrived to Israel from the Ukraine?
DR. PINES: I was born in Kiev in a middle-class Jewish family (both parents are doctors). My mother's family was strongly Zionist, and they emigrated to Israel in the early 1970s, but we did not join them due to my father's parents' objections. My family, thus, was not entirely Zionist, but it was strongly anti-communist and anti-Soviet. I grew up with a strong feeling of alienation from the Soviet regime, and oddly enough this critical attitude toward the authorities might have influenced my anti-Zionist stand adopted just upon arrival to Israel.
By the late 1970s worsening economic conditions, fears of anti-Jewish discrimination, as well as my mother's desire to reunify with her kin finally made my parents opt for emigration. I welcomed the idea of going to Israel - the country which was so anathematized by the Soviet media that it could not but entice my curiosity. I was not happy with leaving my home country, but the desire to see the unknown Promised Land was much stronger.
G21: Why did you object to serving as a soldier in the occupied territories? Do you ever feel that you [had] betrayed Israel?
DR. PINES: Soon upon arrival to Israel at the age of 15, I learned that much of the Soviet criticism was not based on pure lies, but had solid background. Prior to coming here I could not imagine the phenomenon of Jewish nationalism or chauvinism -- after all I never encountered this phenomenon among our friends in the USSR, particularly among the Jews.
I always identified myself as a national minority, and developed since ... early childhood strong sensitivity toward any kind of national discrimination and oppression -- not only against Jews, but against other minorities as well, such as Ukrainians or Tatars. Besides, I was brought up in a very internationalist spirit, and believed that the world split along ethnic lines belongs to the remote past of the World War I.
Suddenly, all these beliefs were challenged not only by Israeli officials, but by many of my relatives and acquaintances in Israel, who -- to my astonishment -- strongly favored the idea of the Jewish nation's priority over the Arabs.
Understandably, my reaction was strongly negative. I was -- and remained heretofore -- disgusted with official propaganda which portrayed Palestinians as a backward nation incapable [of] producing anything but coward terrorists.
I was even more disgusted and astonished by the belief in Jews being the "chosen people", in the "eternal Jewish rights" and in the need of all Jews to gather in Palestine.
My refusal to accept all this brought me to the only political organization which was strongly anti-nationalistic, namely, the Communist Party of Israel. Even my anti-Communist background in the USSR could not prevent me from joining the party which rallied under the slogan of "Jewish-Arab brotherhood" and "two states for two peoples."
Quite soon upon arrival, as my understanding of Israeli problems increased and I learned enough of the nature of Israeli occupation of Palestinian lands, I reached the conclusion that I would never take part in this. My education was extremely anti-militaristic (I admired Hasek and Remarque), and unlike many ... Israeli teenagers of that time I never respected the army very much.
I felt that the entire system of occupation is morally and politically wrong, and that it is my duty as an Israeli citizen to contribute towards dismantling this system. Thus, even before I joined military service I informed the IDF (Israeli Defence Force) authorities that I would not serve beyond the "green line," i.e. [I would not serve] in the occupied Arab territories.
My refusal, and my struggle against the occupation in general, never gave me a feeling of "betraying" Israel.
First, politically I believe that ending the occupation and achieving a just (or at least a fair) peace with [our] Arab neighbors is [in] the best interest of Israel, and any action which promotes this goal is by definition not "treachery".
More philosophically speaking, I believe that the real loyalty is due neither to the country nor to the government, nor to any kind of imagined community, but primarily to one's own moral and ethical principles. One must do whatever is just, and not whatever is demanded by some government, even if this government is democratically elected.
A French soldier in Algeria, a US soldier in Vietnam, an Israeli soldier in the West Bank or in Lebanon may claim that he is serving his country, but in fact he is a criminal, and serves criminal ends. Wearing a uniform does not absolve you from thinking and considering what is appropriate to do, and does not absolve you from the highest sort of responsibility. In some cases it is better to "betray" one's country, and not one's self. Of course, you must be prepared to pay the price of your decision.
G21: Could you tell us about your own experience in the army? How did the other soldiers treat you?
DR. PINES: Generally, my experience was quite good. Although I spent altogether six months in military prisons, I cannot say that this was a harsh challenge. In a small country like Israel, the army is really the people's army, where every commander may be your student, or your subordinate in civilian life. Hence, mistreatment is the fate of Palestinians, not of Israeli soldiers.
Of course, I had some difficult moments, being cursed or threatened by some officers, but generally, the treatment was remarkably fair and the terms in jail (35 days each time) were very short. Most of the fellow soldiers did not share my views, but respected my willingness to pay the price and spend some time in the jail.
As a matter of fact, I hoped to provoke the army into a harsher action, which would focus the public opinion on the cause of refusal to serve in the occupied territories. I demanded to face a military tribunal which could jail me for a longer period of time, but would also provide an excellent tribune to state my views. The army authorities were fairly confused, as they faced increasingly critical public opinion at home and abroad. Hence they preferred to settle the matter peacefully: after several months in jail they opted to place me in Negev, inside Israel, where I finished my regular service. I was imprisoned twice again as a reservist, after which my unit dropped me off.
G21: With an obligatory military service, would you say that, in Israel, democracy ends at the age you are drafted?
DR. PINES: No. A military service is a normal obligation in any country, and the army by definition cannot be a democratic institution.
Nonetheless, this does not mean that a soldier should give up his basic human rights. One may fight for his views, and be prepared to pay the price. In the final account, an individual with a reasonable degree of self-confidence and resoluteness may always overcome the military authorities. With all due criticism of the military, I do not think they should be demonized. I do not think that military service significantly reduces the rights of the Israelis. The victims of the IDF are Palestinians and Lebanese, and only to a very small extent Israelis.
G21: Last summer, you participated in a documentary with Arte Television called 'We shoot and we cry'. Could you explain the meaning and use of this expression?
DR. PINES: This expression was borrowed from an essay by [an] Israeli journalist, who wanted to depict what he perceived as a humanistic side of Israeli occupation soldiers. This saying epitomizes the so-called moderate left-wing approach toward Israeli wars: "We must do our jobs, but we regret the bloodshed and yearn for peace."
I, and persons like me, behave differently. We do not want to shoot and to cry afterwards, and we do not want to participate in any unjust and criminal acts, even if these were ordered by the government and by IDF headquarters. This saying may serve, therefore, as a demarcation line between Israeli moderates and [the] radical left, between those who participate, albeit unwillingly, in the occupation, and those who refuse to take part in it.
G21: In 1982, you refused to participate in the occupation of Lebanon. What would be your standpoint if you were called to participate in quelling the present Palestinian uprising?
DR. PINES: In 1988 and 1991, as a reservist, I was jailed for refusing to serve in the West Bank during the previous upsurge of Palestinian uprisings. Naturally, I refuse quelling the uprising today. I would never join the forces who shoot the demonstrators, and would never perform any other kind of dirty job, such as serving at the checkpoints aimed to prevent the Palestinians from moving on their land, and so on.
I believe that the renewed Palestinian uprising is morally and politically just, and I wish it a success. As an Israeli citizen, I believe that whatever steps that would shorten Israeli military presence in the West Bank and Gaza are in the best interest of [the] Israeli people. The system of occupation, of settlements which rob Palestinian land, of everyday humiliation of the Palestinian citizens -- this system is disgraceful for me as an Israeli, and I try doing my best to dismantle it. Naturally, I would never join the IDF to suppress the uprising, and to the contrary I hope to contribute -- in the ways appropriate to [an] Israeli citizen -- to the uprising's ultimate success.
G21: Throughout the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Jews, no matter where they live, have strictly been identified by the West, by the Arabs, and by Israel itself, with the Zionist State. Do you think that Jews and Judaism in general (as the peaceful religion that it is) have become "hostages" of Zionist goals and dreams?
DR. PINES: Of course, misperceptions are very common in ethnic conflicts throughout the world, and Israel is not an exception. Attaching yardsticks such as "Zionists", "Islamic terrorists", "imperialists", etc. is an old game.
Every sensitive analyst knows that not all Israelis, and not all Jews are Zionists, just as not all Arabs support [the] Palestinian cause. The situation is naturally much more complicated.
Today many young Israelis have only [a] vague understanding and support of Zionist goals (such as Jewish immigration to Palestine/Israel), and may well be called "post-Zionists." This does not imply, however, that they necessarily become peace-lovers and support the Palestinian cause. To the contrary, many of them share European/American anti-Arab and anti-Islamic prejudices, and hence support a peace of segregation, of the renewed "iron fence" between Israel and the Palestinians.
Zionism as a petty nationalistic ideology is in the process of decay, as it happens to petty nationalism in the developed countries in the age of globalization. It is still a powerful political force, but its appeal is irreversibly lost.
I think today Zionism is no longer a major problem in [the] Israeli-Palestinian confrontation. The problems are much deeper. What is the future of Israel? Would it pursue the policy of alienation from the Arab world, emulating the Crusaders' Latin kingdom? Or would it search for the ways to integrate itself into the Middle East? What would its policy be toward the Arab minority within the state of Israel? Continuous discrimination or integration? Would it become a normal state, the state of all its citizens, or would it continue the petty nationalistic policy of being an ethnic state, a state for the Jews where all the others would be the second-rank citizens?
These issues derive from [the] Zionist legacy, but do not belong any longer to Zionist discourse. The future of Israel is evidently post-Zionist, and whatever course its people choose, the old yardsticks would lose their relevance. I believe that an old simplistic formula Jews=Zionism=Israel is becoming increasingly irrelevant and misleading. But I am afraid this is a broad issue which does not belong to this specific interview.
G21: In the United States, the media and consequently the majority of people tend to think that Israel is protecting its people rather than protecting the occupation. What do you think is the best way for Americans to become conscious of what is really going on in the Occupied territories without risking a new rise of anti-Semitism ?
DR. PINES: I am not in a position to give an appropriate answer. The US media is more often than not very simplistic, depicting every ethnic or political conflict as a confrontation between the bad and the good guys.
So is it possible that when they realize that Israelis are not "good guys" they will turn every Israeli and every Jew into a "bad guy"?
I hope this would not be the case.
What is important for me, and for peace-loving Israelis, is to let the West understand the complexity of the current situation. Today, pressing on Israel to agree for the deployment of multi-national forces in the occupied territories, pressing to dismantle the settlements and threatening to cut economic ties with Israel are not anti-Israeli steps, but serve the long-term interest of the Israeli people. It is better to make certain painful steps today and prevent the great pain of the war in the future.
So, you may be pro-Jewish, and even pro-Israeli, and still anti-occupation, anti-war, anti-Israeli government. The sooner the West realizes [this fact] the better for all of us here, Israelis and Palestinians alike. [Emphasis ours. --- Ed.]