Three Women Writers, One War

Article excerpt

Three Women Writers, One War

New Israeli Refusenik Literature

* Breaking Ranks: Refusing to Serve in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip by Remit Chacham. Other Press, 2003.

* Reporting from Kamallah by Amira Hass. Semiotexte, 2003.

* Israel/Palestine: How to End the War 0/1948 by Tanya Reinhardt. Seven Stories Press, 2002.

It's not that there aren't sadistic commanders, there certainly are, but that's not where the problem is. The problem is the good-hearted leftist commander. The one who doesn't beat people and doesn't curse, but does only what he is told. The one who is ordered "uproot that orchard today," and does just that.

So writes thirty-year-old Staff Sergeant [Res.] lshay Rosen-Zvi in Ronit Chacham's Breaking Ranks: Refusing to Serve in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. An observant Jew and a doctoral student in intellectual history at Tel Aviv University, Rosen-Zvi's concerns are shared by the majority of the nine Israeli "refuseniks" who contribute to and are interviewed by Chacham in one of the most unorthodox and compelling collections of Israeli writing to come out of the alAksa Intifada.

Appearing on the heels of an intensely productive year for English translations of left-wing Israeli literature, Breaking Ranks does more than document the reasons given by refuseniks for refusing service in the Occupied Territories. It also breaks rank, so to speak, with the translation monopoly exercised by the elite Israeli progressive intellectuals associated with the liberal/left daily Ha'arelz, such as Amira Hass and Aluf Benn, and academics identified with the New Historians movement, such as Benny Morris and Avi Shlaim.

The new (for lack of a better term) "refusenik" literature being translated into English is largely dominated by Ashkenazi intellectuals with either academic or journalistic pedigrees, strong English publication records in Ha'aretz, and, to a lesser extent, Le Monde Diplomatique. This genre of literature had its symbolic inauguration with the September 2002 release of The Other Israel: Voices of Refusal and Dissent (New Press), edited by Roane Carey and Jonathan Shainin. As Joe Lockard noted in his review in Bad Subjects (2002), there was a conspicuous absence of Mizrahi, Israeli Arab, and Haredi voices in the collection.

While never fully making up for such typically Israeli left-wing deficits, Breaking Ranks certainly goes a long way towards doing so in its focus on the voices of ordinary soldiers, all of whom arrived at their conclusions about the injustice of the Occupation through their experiences in the Israel Defense Forces. Keenly aware of the ethnic and class makeup of the Israeli Left, Chacham almost goes too far out of her way to point out such problems in the introductions to each reservist's chapter she is careful to include at least one Mizrahi Jew, Tal Belo, and one holdover from The Other Israel, Shamai Leibowitz-the son of the late, albeit early, critic of the Occupation, Rabbi Yeshayahu Leibowitz-in the volume.

What characterizes each soldier's contribution to Breaking Ranks is an explication of how their tours of duty forced them to their moral limits: that at a certain point, rather than becoming desensitized by killing children and destroying private homes, they could not stomach the violence anymore, and began actively refusing to perform their reserve service in the Occupied Territories. What is equally inspiring is how these reservists' testimonies speak to a future moral exhaustion for Israel. As a microcosm of Israeli society and as battle-hardened soldiers, one wonders whether the settlers will eventually have equivalent scabs removed from their eyes and decide to leave, for the same reasons Chacham's reservists have decided to stop defending them.

It would be nice to think that, from a progressive Jewish perspective, one could ascribe an old-fashioned Zionist heroism to these soldiers' decisions-here being examples of the peace-loving Israeli warrior only wishing to take up arms when it is truly necessary. …