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Paths to Peace

Refusenik and Zionist, he raises a different voice from Israel


Israeli paratrooper Guy Grossman believes the actions of his own military in the West Bank and Gaza Strip are endangering his country. Calling the occupation immoral, he said it is eroding Israel’s most important asset: international support for a Jewish state and land.

Grossman is one of 430 reserve combat officers and soldiers within the Israeli Defense Forces who have publicly stated their refusal to serve in the Occupied Territories. Firmly committed to protecting Israel, the dissenting soldiers, popularly known as refuseniks, say they will not fight the war of the settlements nor will they continue to fight beyond the 1967 borders in order to dominate, expel, starve and humiliate the Palestinians.

In April, Grossman, a founding member of the group’s organization, Ometz LeSarev, or Courage to Refuse, traveled to the Boston area to make their message known to American Jews. The Boston visit was Ometz LeSarev’s first foray abroad.

Grossman told The Boston Globe he wanted to raise a different voice from Israel, that you can be a Zionist and call for an end to the occupation without being a self-hating Jew.

The soft-spoken, scholarly soldier, who lectured at three universities and two synagogues, drew large crowds and received prolonged standing ovations at every venue. His tour was organized by the Boston Workmens Circle, a progressive Jewish organization, and Friends of Ometz LeSarev with support from the Shefa Fund.

A few loud boos and thumbs pointing down followed Grossman’s presentation to an audience of 800 at Temple Israel April 28. Nevertheless, organizers of the event said they were dumbfounded at the high turnout and the degree of sympathy shown for Grossman’s position. “I was very pleased,” said Jewish educator Martin Federman. “He presents a very powerful, moral and strategic point of view.”

A lieutenant within an elite paratrooper unit, Grossman spent 18 months in the territories during the early ’90s. He was a fulltime soldier for four years and remains a reservist. He was the 11th officer to sign the reservists’ declaration “Courage to Refuse.” The statement, published in the Israeli daily Ha’aretz, evoked fierce debate within Israel, where every male citizen must serve in the military for three years. Many stay on as reservists, serving four to six weeks annually. This year, military enlistment increased dramatically in response to the suicide bombings of early spring.

While peace talks were going on, Israeli sympathy for withdrawal from the territories was high, Grossman said. But the last two years have been hell for Israelis and Palestinians, he said. “As the violence escalated, [Is-raelis] began talking more and more about the occupation as a given fact. The [Courage to Refuse] letter came to remind people that the continuation of the occupation is not an option because it is immoral, because [Israel’s security] has nothing to do with pouring more and more money into the land, because the Palestinians have a right to the land.”

Grossman supports Israel’s longstanding policy of granting immediate citizenship to Jews seeking asylum while withholding the same status from Palestinians who have resided there a long time. “It might be unfair, but as a Zionist I think the Jewish people have to have a home.”

Still, he favors a dem-ocratic notion of a Zionist state. While a law student at Tel Aviv University, he volunteered with B’tselem, the Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Territories. He was a coauthor of a report on the use of excessive violence and torture against Palestinian prisoners.

“There is not and there never will be a benign occupation,” he said. “When you have 3.5 million people without basic human rights, you are bound to be in a situation you can’t live with.”

He called the settlements a historic mistake made by human beings and said they can be undone by human beings -- but not without forcible evacuations. He estimates that of the 200,000 settlers currently residing in the West Bank and Gaza, about 25 percent will never leave willingly.

About a dozen people protested the soldier’s talk at Temple Israel. The demonstrators, many of them Soviet Jews, held placards that said, “Israel is Bleeding,” “Do Not Refuse to Protect Jewish Children,” and “Do Not Build Your Image on Israel’s Damage.” They demanded that Grossman and his group stop using the name refuseniks, a term originally coined for Russian Jews who tried to leave the Soviet Union but were denied and severely persecuted.

“This is not refusenik. This is traitor,” said Ilya Magad.

“Mr. Grossman is advocating ‘Let’s leave the territories, and the troubles will stop,’ ” said Evgeniy Itkis. “But Israeli withdrawal will create a base for terrorist infrastructure.”

There are currently 41 refuseniks imprisoned in Israel. Although their sentences are light -- under 30 days -- many are being jailed repeatedly. Recently, the case of Yigal Bonner, a refusenik who is a professor of Sanskrit, drew international attention because of the harsher-than-normal treatment meted out to him. Bonner has been forced to work 14 hours a day, is not allowed to speak during that time, and is being jailed with conscripted military officers, contrary to military regulations.

National Catholic Reporter, January 17, 2003