The 40-year-old woman heckling former Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon is probably the least likely advocate you could imagine calling for restrictions on Israel’s arms sales to morally questionable regimes like Myanmar.
Esther Merchavy, an Orthodox mother of six, is not subtle as she wages her war on Israel’s arms industry. Looking Ya’alon dead in the eye, at a public event in Tel Aviv last month, she defiantly asks him: “Why does Israel send arms to a country known for its human rights abuses against the Rohingya minority?”
Ya’alon ignores her question and the roving microphone is soon wrested away from her. But that proves no deterrent to Merchavy, who continues to fire off questions, yelling over the crowd. Event coordinators scold her for promoting her own platform, while others in the audience shout “You made your point!”
Someone calls Merchavy selfish, to which she responds: “I’m not selfish — the people in Myanmar are more important than him,” referring to the Kahol Lavan Knesset candidate and former Israel Defense Forces chief of staff on stage.
For the modestly dressed activist, part of the reason this issue is so vexing is that it violates her Jewish beliefs. According to Merchavy, Israel’s arms sales to murderous regimes falls under the halakhic principle of pikuach nefesh: The duty to save human life, which overrides almost all other obligations in Jewish religious law.
“For me, there is no Torah at all and no believing in God at all — this is worthless if you’re doing such a crime,” she tells Haaretz at the event. “It’s not only for the children who are getting killed in South Sudan, Myanmar, Cameroon, Burundi, Congo and the Philippines. It’s pikuach nefesh for us, because we are killing our souls.”
Merchavy is a member of No 2 Arms, an activist group that wants increased regulation over Israeli arms sales in order to prevent trade that it believes perpetuates war crimes and violates human rights. Formed in 2017, the group is comprised of about 20 activists from across the political spectrum.
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Its founder is Eli Yosef, a religiously observant settler from Ma’aleh Adumim. Yosef began his own protests in January 2015 with the goal of combating an industry that totaled some $9.2 billion in export sales in 2017, according to Defense Ministry figures.
Although the group is small in number, it has made its presence known in recent years — for example, by interrupting Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s speech at the annual Bible quiz last year, regular demonstrations outside the Knesset and countless interruptions of events attended by politicians.
Merchavy recounts how she was removed from a different event this month after confronting former Education Minister Naftali Bennett, Habayit Hayehudi Chairman Rafi Peretz and Yamina leader Ayelet Shaked. After she was asked to leave the premises, Merchavy quickly went to a nearby shop, bought a T-shirt and removed her head scarf, in order to reenter and resume her protest. She was then removed for a second time.
One politician who has become a major target for the group is Ehud Barak, who has faced allegations — which he has consistently and strongly denied — that he took millions in bribes from arms dealers while serving as the Israeli defense minister earlier this decade.
The activists point to their success in persuading former Likud lawmaker Yehudah Glick and Meretz MK (and former leader) Tamar Zandberg to raise the matter in the Knesset in 2016. They also boast of getting rabbis from the religious Zionist Tzohar organization and Beit Hillel — which envisions an Israel governed by Jewish religious law — to support their cause.
Their next goal is to organize a large demonstration on the first day of the new Knesset following next week’s election — which No 2 Arms’ leader, a former member of the religious Zionist Habayit Hayehudi party, says he will not be participating in.
“I personally am right-wing, but I will not vote in this election for nobody [sic], because there’s not one single political party that’s prepared to give me the feeling that I’m a human being,” he says.
Researcher Yair Sheleg, head of the Israel Democracy Institute’s Religion and State Program, explains that activists such as Yosef and Merchavy are trying to appeal to the religious Zionist belief in the Jewish right to return to Israel after 2,000 years of exile. This right, Sheleg explains, is part of the mentality that “the Jewish people will be examples for all nations in moral behavior.
“If the Jewish people will not behave morally, so the right to be the rulers of this holy land will be in question,” says Sheleg. “Part of this moral behavior is not selling weapons to violent regimes.”
In May, the regional branch of Amnesty International released a Hebrew-language report in which it slammed Israel’s arms sales as a “global, not a local issue.” Israel is the eighth-largest arms exporter in the world, accounting for 3.1 percent of global arms exports in the years 2014-2018, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute.
Among the examples of arms trades worrying activists are the smart bombs sold to India that were reportedly used in airstrikes on Kashmir earlier this year; $21 million-worth of Israeli arms exports during Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s “war on drugs,” according to Amnesty International; as well as guns, grenade launchers and shoulder-fired rockets provided to militia groups during the civil war in South Sudan.
The United Nations’ 2014 Arms Trade Treaty demands that countries evaluate if the weapons they sell could be used to violate international human rights, be complicit in war crimes or used by terrorists or organized crime; it also requires nations to consider whether the sale would undermine peace and security.
Although Israel signed the UN treaty, it was never ratified by the Knesset — as opposed to the European Union and the United States, which have since implemented it.
No 2 Arms is not alone in seeking to introduce greater control of Israel’s arms exports. A key activist in the battle is attorney Eitay Mack, who has represented activists and petitioned the High Court of Justice to uncover information about the industry.
There’s already a lot of information publicly available, Mack says, as someone who has compiled research for numerous petitions. As an example Mack cites his recent petition to the High Court to halt Israel’s sale of Tavor assault rifles to Ukraine. Those weapons are often used by the country’s far-right Azov militia, which espouses an openly neo-Nazi ideology.
Mack says Israeli journalists have failed to bring these issues to the public’s attention with follow-up stories on the legal proceedings.
While legislation to regulate Israel’s arms sales was proposed in July 2016 by Glick (then a Likud lawmaker) and Zandberg, no law has been enacted and activists complain that the cause has largely been ignored by politicians across the board.
Part of the reason for that may be financial, says Merchavy. “They’re afraid, because a lot of [businesses and organizations] have donors that have somehow some connection to the weapons industry. It’s bad for business,” she says.
Yosef concurs, citing the case of Kahol Lavan leader Benny Gantz. Yosef accuses him of being in denial about Israel’s deals with murderous regimes, and fears that he will let the arms trade go on unchecked if he forms a government after the September 17 election. Yosef urges the public to recall that Gantz’s former defense company, Fifth Dimension, was in talks to be bought by controversial Israeli cyber company NSO, which reportedly sold technology used by the Saudis to spy on the slain journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
“Everybody is scared of the Defense Ministry. Everybody is scared of the defense establishment. Everybody is scared of all the money involved here,” Yosef charges. Since many Israeli arms companies are run by former Israeli generals, heads of intelligence and secret services, “they have tremendous power,” he says. “And they are also backed by people who have a lot, a lot of money.”
Yosef believes politicians and rabbis fear that taking a stance will mean “political suicide,” so he takes it upon himself to make “sacrifices” for the cause. “I’m proud of the fact that I was fired from a job [in a school] that I had because of my position,” he recounts. “If I’m prepared to be silent on this, then who am I?”
Although he never received an official reason for his dismissal, Yosef adds that he “heard through the grapevine that they weren’t happy with what I was doing, to put it mildly.”
Merchavy’s strategy is to use Israel’s religious voice to start a conversation. For instance, in late August she met with Rabbi Haim Meir Druckman, a former lawmaker and representative for the religious right, and asked that he condemn the issue as a violation of Jewish principles and morals.
She says Druckman agreed, but told her he would only do so after the election, claiming it wouldn’t be pragmatic before the results are known. She is unhappy with that pledge, because she wants the rabbi to pressure politicians to pick a side and refuse to sit in a government that refuses to introduce legislation on the matter.
Yosef says that “99 percent of the rabbis completely ignore the issue as if it’s not important [to] us as Jews, as human beings and as people who believe in the basic values of the Torah. “Religiously,” he adds, “this is completely out of order.”
Yosef has organized weekly protest vigils every Saturday night for the past four and a half years, many of them outside the homes of ministers across Israel. The vigils are held to recite Selilot and seek forgiveness for the crimes the state has committed, he explains.
“The essence of teshuvah,” adds Yosef, referring to the Jewish idea of repentance, is “that you feel a change of what you did, good or bad. This is not bad — this is really bad.”
He adds: “We’ve got to bring that feeling that we’re ashamed. Only then can we have compassion and start changing.”