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.
In some cases, Israel was the only Western country that continued to sell arms to countries, even when the United States and other like-minded states refused to do so. The reason Israel was able to do this is that the United States failed to get arms embargo resolutions passed in the Security Council, in the wake of opposition by Russia and China. “This means that we’ve subordinated our morality to the morality of Russia and China,” Yosef says.
Israeli arms, accompanied by military training, likely continue to some extent to serve the murderous regime in Myanmar (Burma), the government of Cameroon, which is accused of serious human rights violations, and dozens of other governments suspected of crushing human rights and perpetrating war crimes. Last year, the Movement for the Freedom of Information in Israel revealed that over the preceding five years, the Defense Ministry had approved 99.8 percent of the requests for Israeli arms exports. Attorney Itay Mack, acting on behalf of activists in the field, has submitted a large number of legal petitions in an effort to uncover information about Israel’s arms trade, but these requests have almost always been denied, on the grounds that security and state interests are involved.
“Even when we accept the appellants’ argument that the publication of the requested information is in the public interest and of possible public importance, we do not think that in the circumstances this outweighs the damage to the state’s security or to Israel’s foreign relations, if the revelation is permitted,” three Supreme Court justices – Menachem Mazuz, Yoram Danziger and Uzi Vogelman – wrote two years ago. They were ruling on a request for documents to be made available relating to arms exports to Bosnia during the civil war there in the early 1990s. A small but determined group of activists has been trying to generate awareness of the issue for several years. Nearly all are identified with the political left. The exception is Eli Yosef.
He became interested in the obscure world of security exports by chance. “It was three years ago, just before my granddaughter was born. I was doing reserve duty and read an article in [the newspaper] Makor Rishon about a group of rabbis who went to the facility in Holot [in the Negev desert] to examine the situation of the Eritreans [who were incarcerated there as part of the government’s policy on asylum seekers from Africa]. There was one sentence at the end of the article that appalled me. It said that they could not be deported back to Eritrea, because they were liable to be murdered there with Israeli weapons. After reading that, I spent a whole day on the internet. I got to all kinds of sources that I found harrowing.
“I don’t agree with everything that is happening in Israel,” he continues, “but this is an undermining of foundations. We absorbed hatred for 2,000 years, and then we come and arm evildoers? That is something fundamental: If I can’t love, and all that interests me is money and I am ready to sell my soul for money, then it’s all over. It’s spiritual suicide. And that is the prelude to actual suicide. If you think you can sow evil and not reap evil, you must be blind.”
Yosef’s first step was to launch a hunger strike outside the home of Agriculture Minister Uri Ariel (Habayit Hayehudi), in Kfar Adumim two years ago. “That’s because he got my vote in the election and also because it was close [to home],” he explains. “He came to me and asked, ‘What does it have to do with me? I’m the agriculture minister.’ I said to him, ‘You have to cry out, it’s Jewish values.’ He invited me to his office and said, ‘I heard you, I’ll look into it.’ Then the bill sponsored by [Meretz MK] Tamar Zandberg [for heightened supervision of arms sales to regimes that violate human rights] came up before the Ministerial Committee for Legislation. The committee’s chairperson, Ayelet Shaked [the justice minister, from Habayit Hayehudi] urged that the legislation be blocked, and Uri Ariel voted in favor of Zandberg’s bill – he was persuaded that there was something wrong here. Shaked held a second vote, and the bill did not pass the committee. With that, Uri Ariel said, ‘My efforts are over, I did the maximum.’”
Yosef did not accept Ariel’s position and continued with his protest. During the next two years, he went to the settlement of Kfar Adumim, in order to demonstrate outside Ariel’s synagogue. He hoped to make Kfar Adumim the first settlement in which everyone would mobilize for the fight against dubious arms sales, but for many in the community he became persona non grata. Finally, after two years, at his daughter’s request and “for the sake of domestic tranquility,” he ended his protest opposite the synagogue.
“It wasn’t easy for my children, because at the start of the struggle, they were the targets of insults. Now they see that it’s beginning to catch on a little and they know Dad is right,” Yosef explains. “I tell my daughter that I am doing it for Alma, her daughter, so she won’t inherit these crimes. In Rwanda 800,000 people were killed, and even while the massacre was going on planes were leaving here carrying arms. The Supreme Court refuses to allow the publication of the documents from that period, on the grounds that the public’s right to know does not override the state’s political interests. That means that you and I have no right to moral stocktaking, because the diplomatic interests with a tiny country of 24 years ago are supposedly more important.”
Yosef’s weekly routine includes two or three demonstrations that he organizes, or meetings he goes to as an uninvited guest. Sometimes he’s accompanied by a handful of activists, usually he’s alone. He says he can no longer count the number of meetings and conferences he’s interrupted: “There were three meetings of Bennett, three of Shaked, three of [Tourism Minister] Yariv Levin, at least three of [Environmental Protection Minister] Zeev Elkin, there was one of [Defense Minister Avigdor] Lieberman and two meetings of President [Reuven] Rivlin, and [Transportation Minister] Yisrael Katz three times.”
Over the years he’s developed a tactic of infiltrating and disrupting various public gatherings. “I put on glasses, act in a way that I won’t be recognized and I pray beforehand.” Once inside, he sits in the audience and, “I start to shout a second before [the speaker begins], just as he’s about to open his mouth. Because once he starts, his voice overcomes mine. And then I ask, ‘Who gave you a mandate to arm child murderers?’ ‘Who are we – a light unto the gentiles or weapons for murderers?’ I turn to the audience. They’re silent, they don’t know what to make of it. They come up to me outside and say, ‘You’re right, but we couldn’t speak out.’
“It’s unthinkable that a minister comes to speak before an audience and no one asks him this question. They think they can evade it, but then some crazy guy comes and says they can’t evade it. The arms sales is a case that’s a million times worse than all the crimes of Bibi. It’s arming murderers. What is bribery? How does that compare to assisting mass murder? It’s a whole other level. For bribery, you have 50 commentators working from morning until night, and on this, nothing.”
Yosef pays for his protests. Often he’s pushed, dragged about and beaten by security guards, sometimes he’s put under arrest for a few hours. After he called the office of Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan (Likud) a few times, an investigation was begun against him and police officers came to his mother’s house; he was arrested and his phone was confiscated for three months, but he’s never been charged with a crime. “I get little warnings like that,” he acknowledges. “Since then I’ve been careful not to call him anymore.”
His struggle is aimed almost completely at the religious and right-wing public. He meets with rabbis and tries to persuade them to speak out on the issue. “All the rabbis tell me that I am right. So why don’t they send their students into the street? I met with the deputy defense minister, Rabbi Eli Ben-Dahan [Shas], and he told me, ‘We are not selling arms to South Sudan, we are transferring them through another country.’ I said to him, ‘You are a rabbi! It’s aid to mass murder. They enter the villages and commit murder.’ He said, ‘It’s not exactly like that’ – but it is exactly like that! They tell me that Israel’s security is holy, and I believe that Israel’s security is truly holy, but this has nothing to do with Israel’s security. This has to do with money, with greed, not with Israel’s security.”
Last week, he went to a lesson taught by Rabbi Zalman Melamed, head of the yeshiva in the Beit El settlement. The lesson took place in a synagogue in Jerusalem’s ultra-Orthodox Har Nof neighborhood. “Excuse me for intervening, Rabbi, but how long is religious Zionism going to remain silent about us arming murderers in South Sudan, Myanmar, Burundi and others? Our silence is blasphemy,” he shouted. The audience was silent; Yosef was evicted from the synagogue.
Two years ago, he attended a lecture at the pre-military academy in the settlement of Eli. The head of the yeshiva there, Rabbi Eli Sadan, is a friend from the reserves. “At the end of the talk, I give the story about the weapons. One guy gets up and says, ‘I am joining the struggle,’ and then 40 more get up and say they are joining, too. The next day, all the rabbis in Eli get on their case and not one joins the struggle.
“Why were they so afraid? I have the highest regard and admiration for Rabbi Sadan, but he calls me and says he spoke to Bogie [Moshe Ya’alon, the defense minister at the time] and to Bibi, and they both told him, ‘We transfer the arms to another country, which transfers them to South Sudan,’ so maybe we are not all that responsible. I said to him, ‘Eli, you are hairsplitting yourself to death. If we are the first station and South Sudan is the last station, as far as I’m concerned there can be 10 stations in between – what difference does that make?’”
Evidence of the conversation that Yosef and his few fellow activists are spurring in Orthodox society can be found in a resolution passed by the national leadership of the religious-Zionist Bnei Akiva youth movement two weeks ago, calling on Israel not to sell arms to countries that perpetrate war crimes.
In the course of his activity, Yosef learned about young people who complete their service in elite combat units and receive tempting offers to work as military instructors in other countries. “I was contacted by a family whose son had served in the Duvdevan special-ops unit. Their kid had been persuaded to go work in such jobs abroad. They had educated him in Zionism and love of the homeland, but not everyone asks Mom and Dad. If you can earn 25,000 shekels [$6,900] a month, why not go?”
In his campaign to aid civilians in Africa, is Yosef shutting his eyes to the suffering being caused by Israel to another people, who live much closer to Ma’aleh Adumim? After all, the Palestinians also suffer from Israeli weapons, and many on the left discern a symbiotic relationship between the arms industry and the occupation. The occupation provides a testing ground and publicity for new weapons and technology, and the industry pays them well and even compensates officers and soldiers for their years of service. Asked about this, Yosef says he is not in full agreement with Israeli policy.
“As a fighter, as a right-winger, I recognize that there can be humanitarian problems with the neighbors,” he says. “There is a different way, based on the understanding that your life is sacred and my life is sacred.” In the “State of Jerusalem” film he adds, “I don’t feel comfortable with our bombing of people’s homes, I am against the humiliation of any person, whether he is a Palestinian or from South Sudan.”
To understand the force that drives Yosef, one needs to comprehend his worldview, which is rooted in the Holocaust. “The abandonment of European Jewry is the trauma of my life, even though I wasn’t yet born,” he says. “How could we [Zionists] abandon six million? We could have done things that we didn’t do, there were simple things that could have saved tens of thousands, millions. You know, if [Theodor] Herzl had been alive he would have taken money from the till and bought an island, a haven for the night. That’s what Herzl would have done. That’s a basic thing that could have been done, but they weren’t even thinking in the direction of rescue. It’s a terrible failure.”
Isn’t it possible that the Zionist movement didn’t really know what was happening in Europe? In response, Yosef he mentions the name of another World War II figure, Witold Pilecki. “He is the greatest hero of World War II and the greatest investigator of Auschwitz, and no one has heard of him. He was made to disappear from our history as though he never existed.”
Pilecki, a non-Jew, was an officer in the Secret Polish Army resistance who, in 1940, after his comrades had been captured and sent to Auschwitz – which originally housed Polish political prisoners – volunteered to be sent into what was to become the most notorious of Nazi death camps. In Auschwitz he organized a resistance group and managed to convey valuable information about the facility to the Polish underground, to the country’s leaders in exile and eventually to the Allies, and he even built a radio and broadcast from the site. After two and a half years, during which he sent out intelligence, which was used to try and persuade the Allies to attack Auschwitz, he despaired and escaped from the camp. Outside, he continued to fight and survived the war, only to be tried and executed by the Polish communist regime in 1948 on various charges, including “foreign imperialism.”
“That man did something marvelous. He went there for his friends, the Poles. But when Elie Wiesel arrives in Auschwitz, in 1944, the person in charge of the hut, a Pilecki disciple, says, ‘We have to help each other like a family.’ The moment it’s your family, you do everything you can to save them; the moment it’s strangers, far away, you don’t need to make an effort. There should be a statue of Pilecki at the entrance to Yad Vashem, but no one has ever heard of him. Why not? Because in order to hear a person like Pilecki, you need to be on the compassion frequency.”
Sowing and reaping evil
During his lengthy protest in the synagogue of Kfar Adumim, Yosef sang a Hebrew adaptation of “Blowin’ in the Wind”: “‘How many times can a man turn his head / Pretending he just doesn’t see? The answer my friend is blowin’ in the wind.’ But what is the answer that is blowing in the wind?” Yosef asks. “The answer is that we were all born in the image of God and we are all human beings, and if I understand that all of mankind is family, then I can’t arm a person who is going to enter a village and murder women and children.
“When Wallenberg arrived in Budapest, he was asked how he would rescue Jews. He said, ‘I have a weapon: my imagination. He related that when he got to Budapest he saw Jews getting on the train and he asked himself what they were feeling. If I get on the train and I am hated – what do I feel? If I were to get on the train, I would want to meet someone who loves me, who wants to rescue me. Wallenberg hears people shouting to him, ‘My brother, when are you coming to rescue me?’ He felt what a person feels in time of trouble.
“So I can’t feel what a mother feels when her child is kidnapped? When a person feels, he goes to rescue, he takes people off the train. Seventy-five years ago, it was me on the train, and in another 50 years it could be my grandchild. I am not willing for it to be him. If I sow evil, I reap evil, and I am not willing for that to happen.”