Noam Gur is 19 years old. In 2012 she was jailed by the Israeli Defence Force for publicly refusing to enlist in protest against Israel’s occupation of Palestine.
She is currently taking part in a speaker tour of the UK with Workers’ Liberty, and spoke to Solidarity. (This is a longer version than in the printed paper).
I grew up in a small city called Nahariya. I come from a fairly normal family; both my parents served in the army and expected me to. When I was very young I thought I would serve in the army, and try to do it in a good way. But when I was 16, and studying for national exams, I spent a lot of time at home doing reading, and started to learn what we hadn’t been taught in school – the history of the 1948 war and the Nakba [the ‘catastrophe’ which befell the Palestinians]. I learnt about the real history of massacres and mass deportations, and from there I started to try to find out about what’s happening in Palestine now. I was a vegan, and through vegan circles I met activists who took me to demonstrations in the West Bank, in the village of Bil’in. It was a very shocking experience for me, because of how violent the army were, with tear gas and rubber bullets.
So I decided to refuse to serve in the IDF. Through my activist friends, I had contact with New Profile, which is a feminist anti-militarist group which supports people in this situation. I was denied conscientious objector status, because the Israeli army only gives you that if you’re a pacifist, and their definition of pacifist is extreme. If you speak about the occupation, then you’re not a pacifist, for sure.
I was in jail for a month and then got out on psychiatric grounds. That was good, because usually it is more like six months. I’ve tried to make sure I used my freedom to do as much activism as possible.
How common is refusing to serve?
There have been refusers ever since the foundation of Israel. In 1970 the first group of Shministim [sixth form students] published an open letter, not refusing but calling on the government to end the occupation. In 1979, the first group refused. There were small groups after that, for instance during the 1980s Lebanon War, but in 2001, during the Second Intifada [Palestinian national uprising], 27 signed a letter refusing. Five were jailed for two years, and it was a very big deal. Ever since then there have been Shministim letters, sometimes signed by more people, sometimes by fewer. The year I was jailed I was the only one, for various complicated reasons. There have also been other more specific groups, for instance a group of pilots who refused to serve during the 2006 Lebanon War. And there have been soldiers who served but spoke out afterwards, for instance the group Breaking the Silence.
It's very important to say that in addition to these high profile cases of refusing for explicitly political reasons, many, many people do not serve and are imprisoned for it, but are rarely spoken about. Only 50 percent of those not exempted actually serve. In addition to the thousands not conscripted for health reasons, religious reasons or because they have children, many thousands desert to go back to their families, for economic reasons, because they can’t live on a soldier’s wage and so on. These refusers are predominantly working class, and often Sephardi [Arab-background Jews] or Ethiopian. I was in prison with many of them.
Many of those working on the frontline to impose the occupation are poor or working-class Israelis, typically from a Sephardi background like me - but the people at the top who began the occupation and who are continuing it, the generals and the politicians, are overwhelmingly rich and white.
What kind of struggles have you been involved in since your release?
My main activity is with New Profile, fighting against the militarisation of Israeli society and supporting young people in the way I was supported. New Profile was founded in 1998. It has seven local youth groups it works with, spread across the country. Through those, but also through a phone line, internet presence and in others ways I'd say we probably support about 2,000 people out of 14,000 conscripted every year. We run a summercamp for a hundred kids aged 14-18 every year, where they discuss not just anti-militarism, but feminism, queer ideas, animal rights, the environment. The organisation is not explicitly anti-capitalist but its activists mostly are.
I’m also part of Ta’ayush [Arabic for ‘co-existence], which is a group of Jewish and Arab activists taking direct action in defence of the Palestinians against the police and the army, mainly in the South Hebron Hills, where there are many small villages vulnerable to attack from a large number of very extreme Israeli settlers. We do a lot of work helping shepherds and farmers get to their land and go about their business safely. And I’m part of Anarchists Against the Wall, which is a radical left group that takes activists to the West Bank almost every week for demonstrations. Not all the members are anarchists.
What response do you get from Palestinians, generally, when you go over?
With the work Ta’ayush does, people get to know each other quite well, and relationships develop. With the demonstrations Anarchists Against the Wall go to, people are very pleased we’ve come and keep inviting us back. We get a good reception, not much hostility. If people don’t want Israelis to come, they just won’t invite us. There is a growing tendency saying do not cooperate with Israelis, but many Palestinians still do. Unfortunately, we don’t get that much opportunity for political discussion with Palestinian activists, because we’re usually working together on the ground and don’t end up in the same meetings or social situations so much.
What’s the feminist dimension to the anti-occupation struggle?
Most Israeli radical left activists believe that all struggles are connected. And some of us try to work in a feminist way, which means in a non-hierarchical way. We do this while highlighting the militarisation of society, in terms of militaristic ideas in schools, soldiers going into schools, and soldiers with guns everywhere in the streets. I believe women’s rights cannot be upheld while society is so militarised. And if that’s true in Israel, it’s even more true for Palestinian women, who are doubly oppressed.
I’d say that the radical left in Israel is fairly gender balanced, but it’s more often men who go to the West Bank, because of the threat of violence.
New Profile and another group, the Coalition of Women for Peace, have also tried to campaign on the issue of sexism and sexual harassment on the left. Israeli women activists face sexual harassment from soldiers and police, but sometimes also from Palestinian men, and from Israeli men in our own organisations. While you’re risking your life, you shouldn’t have to put up with this from your own side! So we are talking about these issues and fighting for other left organisations to act on them. The Coalition of Women for Peace has just published a report on this which is worth reading.
Israeli politics seems to be moving to the right. Why?
I think the left is tired after a long struggle, and nothing seems to change things. It just gets worse. And the Israeli right simultaneously gains confidence, because it feels it can get away with anything. At the same time, when most Israelis look at the ‘peace process’, all they see is failures and frustration. They think there is violence on both sides, and are worried about security. While this is happening, the militarisation of society deeply affects things too.
What's the attitude of Israelis to the protests and upheavals in the Middle East and North Africa?
At the beginning, in 2011, people were very impressed and a bit inspired. The result was the huge demonstrations for social justice that swept Israel, which were very explicitly inspired by the ‘Arab Spring’ and raised some similar slogans. At their height these protests mobilised 700,000 in one day, including 300,000 in Tel Aviv [about 7 million people live in Israel]. The issues involved were things like public housing, public services, privatisation and living costs. They didn’t raise the issue of the occupation and sometimes the atmosphere was quite nationalistic. Nonetheless, many of us took part, because we thought it was necessary and the logic of the struggle could push things our way.
After some destruction of property, which is unusual in Israel, the media withdrew its sympathy and the police cracked down. Quite quickly the tents were cleared and the movement ebbed away.
A lot of the protesters were quite middle-class, mostly Ashkenazi [European-background Jews, who dominate the Israeli middle and ruling classes]. There were a small group of Palestinian Israelis involved, who set up a ’48 tent’ and distributed literature about their issues. They suffered a fair bit of harassment. Interestingly, those who are still active tend to be more working-class and are mostly Sephardi [Arab-background Jews], for instance in South Tel Aviv. When I can be, I am active with this movement, which has protested against cuts and also raised issues like police harassment and assault on demonstrators.
There are also various small, radical union initiatives operating outside the Histadrut [the mainstream union federation]. You know about Ma’an [the Workers’ Advice Centre, a small radical union Workers’ Liberty has worked with] and there have also been things like attempts to organise a union for precarious and waitresses and waiters.
In terms of the regional protests, people were inspired again by what happened in Turkey. The only thing which could get people frightened is Syria, both because it is nearer and because it is increasingly a different kind of situation, a very bad one.
How do you see the term ‘Zionism’?
I’m not a Zionist, because I can’t accept this nationalistic ideology which says that the goal is a state for Jews. I want a democratic state. And I can’t affiliate with a movement that won its goal through the suffering of another people. Having said that, I’m not particularly an ‘anti-Zionist’ either.
What do you think about comparisons with South Africa?
I think all comparisons tell you something but miss a lot out as well. In terms of this one specifically, many of us use the term 'apartheid' to describe the occupation, but it in some ways that is misleading. The situation in the West Bank is a lot like apartheid, but the situation inside Israel is different - there is racist discrimination, including in the laws, but it is not nearly so radical and all-embracing. Clearly you cannot relate to Israel as if it was South Africa.
What do you think the solution to the Israel-Palestine conflict should be?
I think one state for both peoples would be much better. It would allow us to solve problems like the Palestinian refugees. At the same time, it would be hard to get. I don’t think most Israelis and Palestinians will willingly just dissolve their nations. So maybe two separate states and then federalism can be steps towards this goal.
What can activists in other countries do?
I support boycotting the Israeli government, and of course the settlements. But beyond that I think maybe BDS has gone too far. Boycotting Israeli goods in general - as opposed to the government, the settlements and companies implicated directly in the occupation - will probably hurt the wrong people: working-class Israelis, particularly from a Sephardi or Ethiopian background. It will alienate them. It will not hurt the people at the top, the ones making the decisions, who as I said are responsible for the occupation.
There are lots of positive things that people in other countries can do. Firstly, you should pressure on your own governments to bring pressure on the Israeli government. You should demand no more military aid, no more diplomatic support for what Israel is doing. That can affect our government and it can also have an effect on what Israelis think. Israelis do not simply live in a bunker, they see themselves as part of the world. We need to fight to change the way they think.
A big part of what needs to be done is getting out information about what is happening in Palestine and in Israel, so that more people know and act about it. There are also specific struggles which need solidarity. For instance, on 30 November there will be an International Day of Action in support of Bedouin villagers who are forcibly uprooted from their homes in the Negev. It would be great if groups and activists in Britain can spread the word and take action as part of it.