Last Passover, for the first time in his life, Eli Yosef, who is religiously observant, lives in the settlement of Ma’aleh Adumim and is active in Habayit Hayehudi, the party of the religious-Zionist movement, chose not to hold a seder or to read the Haggadah. Instead, he staged a sit-down hunger strike outside the Ohel Ari Synagogue in Ra’anana, where Education Minister Naftali Bennett, the leader of Habayit Hayehudi, worships. He spent seder night in his car next to the synagogue.
Yosef’s actions were part of his extraordinary solo campaign – activist, bold, quixotic and, some would say, obsessive – against Israel’s sales of arms to murderous regimes around the world. He has devoted his life to this cause for the past three years, demonstrating almost daily, disrupting meetings organized by politicians and rabbis, taking blows from security guards and occasionally being arrested. But he refuses to despair, nor does he tire in his efforts.
Yosef draws his inspiration from those “who sacrificed of themselves for the sake of compassion” – his description of the Righteous Among the Nations – non-Jews honored by the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem for assisting Jews in the face of the Nazis.
“For me, Bibi is not responsible,” he says, referring to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. “It’s I who am responsible. I am aware of the suffering, therefore I am responsible, and therefore I position myself opposite the synagogue. I was unable to read the Haggadah this year, because the authors of the Haggadah left out the main point: namely, Pharaoh’s daughter, who rescued Moses.
“She acted from compassion, she is one of the Righteous Among the Nations,” he continues. “When someone sets out to rescue you without any obligation, and endangers himself, he comes with a universal message. That is the power of compassion.”
Yosef has developed a systematic doctrine about the “power of compassion,” which begins with Pharaoh’s daughter and continues on to Raoul Wallenberg and the rest of the Righteous Among the Nations. “The whole way we’ve been brought up allows us to push under the table the sale of arms to murderers, as though it weren’t happening, as though it’s on another planet. Exactly what was said about Auschwitz – that it’s another planet. The press doesn’t tell us how the girl was torn from her mother and thrown into the fire. I feel the mother’s pain,” he says, “and I knew that if I were to celebrate this Pesach, it would be as though I were a free man, when in actuality I am complicit in crimes against others.”
As in the meetings he disrupts, there were many among the Ra’anana worshippers who spoke to him during his Passover protest. “Some told me, ‘You’re right.’ Others said, ‘You’re off the wall,’ or ‘What’s it to you – they’re not Jews.’ There is something basically flawed in our education. We are obliged to reach a level at which we feel someone else’s sorrow. In the holiday I recited the Shehekheyanu prayer [thanks uttered on special occasions] not over a glass of wine or new clothes, but because Hashem [God] gave me the opportunity to cry for the sorrow of another. Crying is not something wimpish, it’s power: At that moment I know who I am.”
Yosef won’t reveal his precise age, for fear that someone in his reserve army battalion will get the idea to discharge him, as he’s past service age. He was born in Port Said, Egypt, to a Yemenite father and an Italian mother. In 1956, the family moved to London, where he grew up and attended Jewish schools. At the age of 17, he was involved in reviving the British branch of the Revisionist Betar movement and in the 1970s he began his protest activity. It was also then that he developed his method of disrupting festive events as a means of political protest, a method he has elevated to an art form in recent years.
Yosef’s most famous act was the disruption of a performance by the Bolshoi Ballet troupe at the London Coliseum in 1974. That was part of an ongoing and historic protest that spanned both sides of the Iron Curtain. Yosef and his colleagues from Betar ascended the stage, released dozens of white mice and scattered flyers calling for the release of Prisoners of Zion – Russian Jews who were being denied the right to make aliyah. In response, the Soviet ambassador threatened to cancel the rest of the Bolshoi’s performances.
A few months later, Yosef flew to Moscow with a friend, Gilad Freund, where they demanded to be exchanged with one of the Jews who were being denied permission to immigrate to Israel. The two were arrested by the KGB, and after being taken to the woods outside Moscow and subjected to threats, they were deported.
During the 1973 war – in protest of Britain’s refusal to send spare parts for weapons to Israel – Yosef threw an Israeli flag at the British foreign secretary in Parliament. In the view of the filmmaker Natan Odenheimer, who directed a short movie earlier this year about Yosef as part of the internet series “The State of Jerusalem,” it was the success of those struggles that is imbuing him with the strength to conduct his current campaign. “It’s quixotic, but he has memories of success. The struggle for the Prisoners of Zion also looked hopeless in the 1970s,” Odenheimer notes.
Yosef immigrated to Israel in 1975 and was drafted into the Golani infantry brigade. After his discharge, he joined a reserve unit of the Paratroops and trained as a parachutist. And he continues to serve as a combat soldier in the reserves to this day.
Thereafter, Yosef studied social work but didn’t obtain a degree. “I was missing one course. I quarreled with the lecturers, I didn’t agree with the theories, so they wouldn’t let me complete the degree. I had a heart-based approach and they didn’t understand me.”
Subsequently, he held positions as a social worker, without a degree, in various prisons, and established a school for new-immigrant women in Moshav Beit Meir, outside Jerusalem, which he managed for 12 years. The school eventually shut down due to confrontations and financial problems involving the Education Ministry. “They closed the school on me, they were against me as a person, and they objected to my educational approach,” he explains.
Currently Yosef earns a living teaching English, lecturing and working as a real estate broker. Divorced, he has two children and two grandchildren.
Yosef persisted with his protest activity in Israel. He went on a hunger strike and organized other activity calling for the release of the Israeli spy Jonathan Pollard in the mid-1980s; he demonstrated on behalf of people who lacked housing and against the use of violence on both sides during the evacuation of the settler outpost Amona in 2006. But none of these campaigns have been as long-lasting and committed as the effort to end Israeli arms sales to dubious regimes.
Haunted by facts
Yosef speaks quickly, in a slight accent, and jumps from one subject to the next, from the Holocaust to the ancient Jewish sages to the president of Honduras, who almost got to light a torch in the Independence Day-eve ceremony, and back to the Holocaust. But his principal tenet is that every Israeli citizen has a moral interest in his country’s ceasing to arm forces that attack innocent people. “There’s no way we’ll lose this fight,” he says, “because it’s impossible to live like this.”
The feeling one gets in a meeting with Yosef is that the facts to which he’s been exposed in the course of this campaign haunt him continuously and truly prevent him from living as a Jew, as a proud Zionist, as a human being.
According to him, Israeli-made weapons have been and are being used in civil wars, in war crimes and in the violation of human rights in almost every corner of the world. That argument is not unreasonable, even if it’s difficult to find much information on the subject – this is one of the less transparent realms of the Israeli economy. What can be said is that Israel’s security exports constitute a vast industry worth 6.5 to 7.5 billion shekels ($1.8 to $2.1 billion) a year, according to estimates. According to local reports, Israel sells weapons, knowhow and means of combat to no fewer than 130 countries. Other than enemy states, that leaves very few countries in which Israel hasn’t made arms sales inroads. In addition, in a number of well-documented cases, Israeli companies have sold weapons via third-party states to countries to evade international arms embargoes and the like.
Israeli arms and security expertise are in use in numerous countries in Africa, Asia and South America. Israeli firms sold arms to the government of Rwanda in 1994, even after the onset of the genocide that took the lives of 800,000 Tutsis. It was not until at least six days after the start of the mass murder that the director general of the Defense Ministry at the time ordered a halt to the arms deals, according to a letter from the state prosecution published in Haaretz by Gili Cohen a year ago. According to a UN Security Council report, Israeli arms also passed through Uganda to reach South Sudan’s government during the vicious civil war there, and weapons were sent directly from Israel just before the war began there in 2013. It is not at all clear if such sales are being made at present, but if so they would be conducted through indirect channels.