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A Conscientious Objector's Thoughts From an Israeli Military Prison

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Prison Six, an Israeli military prison located near Atlit.
Prison Six, an Israeli military prison located near Atlit.Credit: Eyal Toueg

In military jail, before the girls know your name, they want to know why you’re there. It’s the first question asked of any girl who joins the complex, and her answer, and more importantly, the way she answers, allows the others to understand something about her. Is she angry or afraid? Does her imprisonment seem justified? Is this her first time in jail, or does she know the way things are run here? Is she staying for a while, is it worth getting to know her? When a girl enters a cell at night, the others sit on their beds and watch her carefully, closely, and try to understand what sort of person is going to share their cell and their lives for the next few days or weeks. But after the customary questions are answered and the girl explains why and how long she is there for, the conversation quickly softens and returns to normal.

On the surface, my experience with these meeting is no different. I’m asked why I’m in jail and how many days I was sentenced for. But here ends the typical experience. When I say that I am a conscientious objector, that I’m a pacifist, I am immediately asked to explain and elaborate. After explaining that I don’t believe that wars lead to long-term solutions and that I cannot take part in an organization that uses violence and aggression in general, and in one that takes part in the occupation specifically, I am always asked the same question: “So, are you a leftist?” I say that leftism and pacifism do not necessarily overlap, but that yes, in my case, I am both. And then I am met with shock. And then, questions.

During the first time I was sentenced, these questions were baffling, shocking. Girls would ask me why I was on “their” side and not “ours,” why I believed Israel didn’t belong to us, even why I wanted all soldiers to die. I didn’t know how to respond to these questions, because I had never imagined that anyone would ever ask them of me. The first few times, unable to formulate a logical answer to a question I thought was completely unreasonable, I simply didn’t answer. I thought they were trying to bait me, make me angry. As the time passed, I realized that these girls were not trying to annoy me, but that they genuinely believed that was the way I and all other leftists see life – that our worldview commands that we seek an impossible, illogical, alternative way of living, and that the lives of Israel’s citizens and soldiers mean nothing to us. In short, that we are concerned with strangers’ lives more than those of the people we know.

This assumption was difficult for me to process. Forced to convince others that I didn’t believe in the beliefs they had associated with me, it was difficult not to feel defensive. But soon I realized that these conversations made me uncomfortable because I had never been forced to have them. I had never been forced to explain the roots of my beliefs. I never had to lay out the facts and narratives that built my own worldview, never had to sketch out the foundations of every opinion I have.

Israeli soldiers in Hebron on June 17, 2014.Credit: AFP

Up until now, I had discussed politics and history and current events and religion with people who, for the most part, saw things the same way as I did. Some thought differently about this topic or that event but in terms of general worldview, we were similar. Sure, during middle school I met many people who completely disagreed with me. But we never engaged in more discussion than screaming matches. Now, suddenly, I was sitting across from girls who were demanding answers to questions I had never imagined before.

For instance, one conversation that kept repeating itself centered around the difference between murderers and terrorists. During my first week in jail, I was in a cell with seven other girls, and at one point we were locked in for some time during the day. One of the other girls, when she heard me say that I believe Palestinians deserve the same human rights that are afforded to Jews in Israel, asked me a question that caught me by surprise. “What if a terrorist walks into your home and stabs your father? Would you stand there and ask him to ‘please stop’? No, you would kill him, because he’s just killed your father. Right?” This question was so intensely personal. The girls sat and watched me as I struggled to formulate a response that I felt was honest, and not just automatic. I replied that I believe that every person, and every country, has the right to defend themselves. If a murderer were to enter my house, obviously I would do everything in my power to stop their attacks. But, I added, our country is based on laws and processes. I would let the police and the courts decide this person’s fate. My response was met with laughter. A terrorist, I was told, does not deserve anything except death. It doesn’t matter what some judge says – any person who sees a terrorist has every right to kill him. If a Jew murders another Jew, that’s a case for the courts. If an Arab kills an Arab, let them deal with it. But a terrorist is a terrorist, and he deserves death.

Up until this conversation, I hadn’t spent time thinking about the line that divides a killer who deserves a trial and one who does not. But this girl had. She drew the line at terrorism – that is, as she saw it, the murder of a Jew at the hands of an Arab. After our conversation and several others on the same topic, I was forced to map out my opinion on the subject. A concept of equal justice before the law that had been so obvious for me that it didn’t require any extra thought suddenly became more complex. My opinion did not change, but my perspective did. I live in a society where what I see as reasonable is considered completely unreasonable by some, and I had never stopped to realize that. I had never ventured out of my own worldview to explore what was so different outside of it.

So I began to rework my automatic response. I was more careful, more precise with my words. And things became easier. When we established some common ground in our worldviews (the “situation” here is causing suffering and pain for everyone, including Israelis, including me and you), it was easier to have a discussion about our options, our future, and our roles in shaping that future. This is not to say that we agreed about most things. Generally, we agreed on little. But the conversations were respectful, insightful, genuine.

Once, while talking to two girls who both disagreed with me, I brought up the attack on a Palestinian house in Duma, where an 18-month-old child was burned to death, as an example of Jewish terrorism. One girl replied automatically, saying, “I don’t care.” The second girl replied before I did. “Wait. Stop. I don’t agree with her,” she said, gesturing toward me, “but no child deserves to die. There is no excuse for that.” I remember that I felt that it must have taken courage for her to say this. She had made a point of saying that in general I wasn’t right, but that the other girl wasn’t either. The Duma incident required a more complex approach. The idea in our conversations in jail was to understand why the other could believe what she believes, not to convince her she was wrong. This was a new experience for me – a welcome one.

I realized that I had never had such earnest discussions about Israel’s “hot topics.” I realized that they compelled me to collect my thoughts, and that when I had to explain myself carefully, my own opinions became more clear. Furthermore, and most welcome, these conversations weren’t held in order for cellmates to attack one another. When they ended, we went on with our days, almost always unburdened by lingering anger or disgust.

Of course, prison is not some perfect, tolerant, fairy-tale world. Girls would yell and curse. Girls would throw out inflammatory comments when I was around, to see how I would react. But the thing about jail is, no matter how much they hate it sometimes, the girls all have to live, eat and sleep together. Twenty-four hours a day, they are surrounded by other girls, and sooner or later, they learn that they have to live with them, whether they like it or not. In my conversations with such girls, both sides were forced to not only hear things they disagreed with, but to stay relatively calm (remember, politics are not allowed in the Israel Defense Forces), and later, continue living together. I walked away from many of the conversations still thinking about the points that were raised, and how I saw them. I think other girls did too, because it was not uncommon for us to pick up a conversation that had been seemingly put to rest several days earlier.

It was only after I spent time in jail that I realized how much we are missing this process in Israeli society. In our society, we can spend our entire lives agreeing with, and being agreed with, by our friends and family, whose opinions are similar – if not identical – to ours. We can demonize the other side, put words and beliefs in their mouths, but never give them the opportunity to explain themselves, or rebut our preconceptions and prejudices. We can feel enlightened, educated and realistic without actually engaging in productive talk with those who disagree with our perceptions. Israeli society desperately needs a more comprehensive, honest conversation, one that is conducted with respect and open-mindedness. Maybe it can learn a thing or two from the girls in Prison Six.

The writer is an 18 year-old, and is serving a fourth sentence in military prison as a conscientious objector

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