Wednesday, June 18, 2014

An Israeli Adolescent speaks

A Piece by Raffaella Benedetti

Take an 18 year-old-girl in a known developed and democratic country.

How do you think her life should be?

Hold onto that idea.

This is Sahar’s story.

Image (c) Sahar Vardi
“I was born in Jerusalem in 1990 into a middle-class secular Jewish family. I was my parents’ second child after my brother who is 3.5 years older than me. Both my parents were born in Israel, as well as my grandparents. We lived in Oxford, England for a couple of years from when we were three, as my father was teaching there and my mother started her business of doing patch-work. It was also when their marriage started to fall apart and about a year after we came back to Israel when I was 7. They got a divorce, and my brother and I kept living with both of them in joint custody. Both my parents served in the army since they were 18 and my father, who was drafted as a combat soldier into the war in 1973, continued to serve in the reserved service through the first Lebanese War (in 1982) up until the first Intifada (in 1987).

After performing a few terms of reserved service during the Intifada, he decided to refuse his reserved service in 1991. My mother would always say that he missed my first birthday for it - he was imprisoned for 28 days in military prison for his refusal.

Other than that, I didn't grow up in a very “political” house. I knew we were a left wing family, that we were against the occupation, that my mother went to the big peace rally where Rabin was assassinated, but it didn't have much bearing on our lives. At least, until the second Intifada started.

Growing up in Jerusalem during the second Intifada there was no way to ignore what was happening around us. Buses and cafes blowing up, and we all had our stories that we would tell among friends - about how we were supposed to be in a particular coffee shop before it blew up, but didn't in the end, or that if we would have left a little later to school that day and luckily escaped being blown up. All these "almost" stories, I think, were a form of a game, almost a competition. It was just a kid’s ways of dealing with a reality he couldn't really understand. 

Back then, Peace Now was holding weekly vigils against the occupation my father decided to partake in, and as a 12-year-old was happy to join him for that. I think it was in one of those protests that I made friends with a few other Israeli-Jewish kids my age and together, with the assistance of the parents of one of them, we organized to meet with Palestinian kids our age in the Old City in Jerusalem.

We met a few times, but the group fell apart very quickly. By the end of that year, at the age of 13, I joined my father (who had started to become more politically involved) in visiting a small Palestinian village south of Jerusalem. I would like you to read a letter of refusal that I wrote a few years later that explains about that day as part of my decision to refuse the military service. (For those who might not know anything about, military service in Israel has duration of 2.5 years and is compulsory for boys and girls, with no official chance to deny it.)

Image (c) Sahar Vardi
I joined a youth group of one of Zionist-left political parties and through their activities, I was exposed to many more issues. Between ages 14 and 17, I was going to weekly protests against the separation wall, where I got shot at, tear gassed, arrested, to the point that being an activist became part of my identity. I then joined New Profile's youth groups at the age of 16, and that also exposed me further to feminist theories, queer theories, and how they are connected to militarism and other issues.

When I was 16, I came out to my family and friends with my first girlfriend who I met within the world of activism through the alternative summer camp for youth, and directed actions towards protesting against sexual violence against women. 

2008 was probably the craziest year of my life. I was trying to finish high school and was still active in different protests. In the meanwhile my mother was in the last stages of living with cancer. That year, together with a group of friends, I organized the writing of a refusal letter, declaring that we would refuse joining military service as a group because of the occupation. Personally I was also trying to be recognized as a conscientious objector by the army knowing very well that I would fail, and then I would still refuse and be imprisoned. 

In April that year, my mother past away, and my brother and I decided to move out and live together with my girlfriend. Two months later, I graduated from high-school, and two months after that my draft date came up: I refused it again, and I was imprisoned. I was sentenced 7 times for a total of 2 months in prison and 3 months in military detention until I was officially released on mental health grounds. 

A month or two after I was released and looking for a job, I started working for a Jerusalem City Councilman who was working on issues of house demolitions and discrimination of East Jerusalem. At the same time, there was a big protest movement that was just starting out that I had the chance to be in from the beginning. We were protesting against evictions of Palestinian families from their houses in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah. East Jerusalem became my main life. I was working and active on things around East Jerusalem. 

Image (c) Sahar Vardi

Lately most of my activism has been around countering militarism in Israel. It's what the organization I work for is focusing on, and is also something that I personally really relate to. It is the main form of activism in my life that focuses on my own community, and not just in solidarity with Palestinians.”

My following question might have sound a bit prosaic: I ask her about future.
The future... hmm...  As far as being confident about the future: Yes, I am confident that the conflict will end. They always do. It's just a question of how much time and suffering there will be on the way, and as a result of that, what kind of bases peace will be built on, and what will happen after. This part, today, doesn't look promising. In ten years, Jerusalem will probably still be the undivided capital of the Jewish people with by then probably almost 50% of its residents (the Palestinians) not being treated as equal citizens because they are only residents and not citizens, and the settlements in East Jerusalem will probably be even bigger. Hopefully, I'll be teaching by then: history in a high school, trying to develop critical thinking among the students, so that one day, when the occupation does end, there will be some kind of base to build the future on.”