How our childhood games prepared my sister for military prison

After completing a prison stint of twenty days, my sister Atalya Ben-Abba was given another chance to enlist, to which she has refused again, and sentenced to thirty more days of military prison. Apparently the menial chores, the boredom, and the general oppressive atmosphere is starting to get to her, and she could really use some support. I’ll visit her on Wednesday (March 15), and I’d like to deliver support letters from you. If you’d like to please send letters via email to mrmalabi ~at~ gmail -dot- com, and I’ll print and deliver them for you. This kind of solidarity is crucial to help her stay strong as she stands up for her values. Thank you!

I’m adding below the English version of the piece I had written before her first imprisonment – published on Haaretz (in Hebrew) and on +972 Mag, where it was the most read piece of February.

Israeli conscientious objector Atalya Ben-Abba. (Yona Benstein)

Israeli conscientious objector Atalya Ben-Abba. (Photo: Yona Benstein)


Tomorrow, Tuesday February 6, my sister Atalya Ben-Abba will refuse to join the Israeli army and will likely be sent to prison.

Atalya has seen more of the reality of our troubled region than most Israelis her age. She volunteered for a year of national service with her youth movement, Hashomer Hatzair, to work with kids on the margins of Israeli society in the city of Hadera. She began to witness the occupation with her own eyes when she was 15 years old on a tour to Hebron. Over the past several months she started to volunteer with Israeli anti-occupation group Ta’ayush in the Jordan Valley, one of the various front lines of ethnic displacement in Palestine.

I look on proudly as she joins us to rebuild demolished homes in the West Bank. She says that the military cannot solve a problem that is fundamentally moral and political. “We built a wall,” she says as she picks a still-usable wooden plank out of the rubble. “But behind this wall are people who suffer, people whose reality is a prison. They don’t have the freedom to live, they don’t have things that we take for granted, their land is being taken, their houses destroyed.”

On Monday I will accompany her to her own chosen prison. She will not go alone — two other refuseniks, Tamar Alon and Tamar Ze’evi, will be there, imprisoned with her for their fifth term, after a total of 74 days on the inside. These young women are ready to take more risks for a just peace than any of their government officials.

Of monsters and men

Atalya was only three years old and I was almost 10 when she started taking on larger opponents.

I would pretend that monsters were taking over my body in order to kill her. Every monster had his own fighting techniques, and she would defeat them by figuring out their weaknesses. If she cried, the monsters would get stronger, and sometimes she would sustain quite serious blows — I confess — without a whimper.

I always let Atalya defeat the monsters in the end, even when they were really terrifying. You don’t always win in so-called real life, though. I find myself worrying about that. What if they break her spirit in prison? What risks will I be prepared to take for what I believe in?

It is that very same bravery that drives her to conscientiously object today. Atalya could avoid army service in other ways, but she wanted to make a statement against the military regime that systematically deprives Palestinians of their basic rights. She is prepared to face the consequences.

A Palestinian shepherd herds her sheep, behind her is parked an IDF armored personnel carrier, Jordan Valley, West Bank, December 8, 2016. (Keren Manor/Activestills.org)

Life in military prison is boring. Days go by languidly. Prisoners are drilled and marched in circles as they wear surplus U.S. Army uniforms. The guards, soldiers often not much older than the inmates, are expected to be particularly brutal. Yet Atalya doesn’t fear them — she is used to people pretending to be monsters. No, she says she fears the resultant reaction of people she loves more than anything else. There is little support for conscientious objectors in Israeli society.

Atalya wrote the following in her statement of refusal: “I grew up in Jerusalem, so fear is no stranger to me. I know what it means not to take a bus because there’s an alert against an attack, what it means to hear gunshots and later learn of a terrorist attack on the other side of the street. That’s why I know so deeply that we cannot let this situation last.”

It is an uphill struggle against the very big monsters of well-oiled war machines and racist government propaganda. But when I see Atalya’s friends from high school and her youth movement rallying to support her, I feel a rare sense of hopefulness. Perhaps this is already a kind of victory.

Posted in Atalya Ben-Abba, Conscientious Objection, Jordan Valley, Occupation, Palestine, Ta'ayush | 1 Comment

איך משחקי ילדותנו הכינו את אחותי לכלא הצבאי

[Click here for English]

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Atalya and Amitai on the way to military prison.

ביום שני ה-6.2.2017 אחותי עתליה בן-אבא סרבה להתגייס לצבא ונכלאה. עתליה ראתה יותר מהמציאות המורכבת של ארצנו מאשר מרבית בני גילה. היא עשתה שנת שירות בשומר הצעיר ועבדה עם נוער מהפריפריה. היא ראתה את מציאות ההפרדה במו עיניה בירושלים המזרחית ובחברון. בחודשים האחרונים הצטרפה לפעילות ליווי רועים וחקלאים פלסטינים בבקעת הירדן ובדרום הר חברון, וראתה במו עיניה אורח חיים שהשלטונות מנסים למחוק מעל פני האדמה.

אני צופה בה בגאווה כשהיא מצטרפת למאבק בפינוי הריסות בתים בגדה המערבית. היא אומרת שהצבא לא יכול לפתור בעיה שהיא ראשית כל מוסרית ופוליטית. “הרי בנינו חומה“, היא אומרת בעודה שולפת מההריסות קרש ראוי לשימוש חוזר, “אבל מאחורי החומה הזאת יש אנשים שסובלים, אנשים שהמציאות שלהם היא כלא. אין להם את החופש לחיות, אין להם את הדברים שלנו נראים מובנים מאליהם, אדמותיהם נגזלות, בתיהם נהרסים.”

היום ליוויתי אותה לחוויית הכלא שלה. לא היינו לבד, שתי סרבניות נוספות — תמר אלון ותמר זאבי — נכלאו בפעם החמישית, וכמאה מפגינות ומפגינים הגיעו לתמוך. בעוד השלטון ממשיך בדרכו הלא מתפשרת להמשך הסכסוך האינסופי, הנשים הצעירות האלה מראות נכונות לקחת יותר סיכונים עבור שלום צודק מכל נציגיהן הממשלתיים.

עתליה הייתה בת שלוש, אני כמעט בן עשר, כשהתחילה להתעמת עם יריבים גדולים ממנה. באחד המשחקים שלנו, נהגתי להעמיד פנים שמפלצות משתלטות לי על הגוף והיא היתה צריכה להכניע אותן. זכורה לי פעם אחת בה ציפורניה הקטנטנות ננעצו בבשרי ומכת הקרטה המאולתרת שלי הלמה בה חזק יותר מבדרך כלל. שנינו קפאנו. ראיתי הלם בעיניה, שאיימו להיסדק בפרץ של דמעות. אבל אז היא נזכרה בכְּלל — בכי מחזק את המפלצות — והרטט התחלף בנחישות. היא דחפה אותי, הרימה כרית והרביצה לי איתה, ואני נפלתי ארצה בזעקות כאב מפלצתיות.

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Antisemitism And Its Useful Idiots

All over the world people who challenge Zionism are being accused of antisemitism. You might imagine the one group of dissidents who are safe from this kind of delegitimization is the Israeli Jews—we are not. This cruel irony, when exposed, may actually play a productive role in decoupling antisemitism and anti-Zionism. As actual antisemites take positions of power in the US government while maintaining a pro-Israel stance, the need to oppose the false accusations of antisemitism becomes ever more vital.

I was recently accused of antisemitism over an article I wrote about resistance to Israeli apartheid in the Jordan Valley. Continue reading

Posted in Analysis, Antisemitism, Occupation, Palestine | Tagged , , , , | 9 Comments

Homage to Niemöller

Homage to Niemöller

First they came for the Arabs, and I was not concerned–
because I was not an Arab;

Then they came for the Mexicans, and I did not speak out–
I was not a Mexican, so I was not concerned;

Then they came for the queers, and I said nothing–
because I was, of course, no queer;

Then they came for the blacks, the natives, the anarchists, the Jews, all kinds of brown people, Asian migrants, and all dissidents,
and I did nothing–
because I was not any of those things.

Then they came for me–
and there was no one left

to stop them.

(~November 2016)

January 2017 update:

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“First they came for the Muslims, and we said NOT TODAY MOTHERFUCKERS!”
Image from the San Francisco Airport blockade.

 

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A Funny Thing Happened in the Jordan Valley Last Thursday

[This post was published on Mondoweiss and in French on Paris-luttes.info]

I found myself standing in front of a military bulldozer like this:

Cat and mouse, the Jordan Valley, 10/13/2016. Photo: Guy Hirchfeld, Ta'ayush

Cat and mouse, the Jordan Valley, 10/13/2016. Photo: Guy Hirchfeld, Ta’ayush

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Posted in Accompaniment, Jordan Valley, Occupation, Palestine, Ta'ayush | Tagged , , , , , | 3 Comments

“Death to the Fascist Insect Preying on the Life of the People!”

Back in Jerusalem again. The Western side of the city keeps on pacing in elephant steps towards its realization as an overly populated messianic Zionist capitalist dystopia, Continue reading

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“The Term Has Become Meaningless To Me”: On Violence, Social Change, and Nonviolent Communication

[This piece was originally published on Counterpunch. More to come!]

“Paying your taxes is violent.” I signal to both ends of the hall and say, “This side is ‘totally agree’ and this side is ‘totally disagree.’”

The workshop participants spread across the spectrum and stand at places that best signify their level of agreement with the statement. One participant sighs in frustration as he stands in the same place somewhere in the middle, clenching his fists as if unable to move.

A Palestinian participant stands at the far edge of the spectrum showing she totally agrees. “Would you like to explain your position?” I ask.

“When I pay taxes to the Israeli government,” she says. “I contribute to the occupation and to all of the violence against Palestinians. So in my opinion paying your taxes is violent.”

I hand the microphone over to the participant who sighed in frustration earlier. “I can’t move.” He laughs. “I am torn by my wish to express my political position to the rest of the group and by the understanding that the term has become totally meaningless to me.”

This workshop comes at the beginning of the very last section – the social change section – of a March 2016 two-week residential training in Nonviolent Communication (NVC) at EcoME Center in the occupied West Bank. The conclusion of the (Dis-)Agreement Spectrum described above is clear: violence means different things to different people. While some people find it important to show their opposition to acts like touching someone against their will or supporting an oppressive regime, others mill about in confusion around the middle of the space when facing supposedly unambiguous statements such as “murder is violent.” Participants from the same family or the same activist group disagree on the classification of certain acts as violent.i In our context, two important questions arise out of this apparent incoherence of the term: what are the implications for Nonviolent Communication? And, what does this mean about nonviolence as a political strategy for social change?

Let’s start with the latter. After the last statement of the (Dis-)Agreement Spectrum – “linking up arms in front of a police line is violent” – I read a statement from a UC police captain as quoted in The San Francisco Chronicle justifying the use of force against students at the University of California at Berkeley:

The individuals who linked arms and actively resisted, that in itself is an act of violence… linking arms in a human chain when ordered to step aside is not a nonviolent protest.

We then try to come up with a collective definition of violence. A participant suggests that one way to understand violence is in terms of the threat perceived by other people. In this light, if police perceives a line of protesters as a threat, then they could define the protesters’ actions as violent. Building on top of that, I suggest that violence is a floating signifier which shows the emotional disposition of the person using the term with respect to acts which they do not like. I express a concern that in the broader political discourse, the term often narrows down to a hegemonic framework in ways which de-legitimize any action which challenges the powers that be. The state can define anything which challenges its power as violent, whether it involves protesters linking arms or consumers calling for boycott, as exemplified by the UC police captain or by the way Israeli officials categorize the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement as “economic terrorism.”

It follows that nonviolence as a political praxis – or pseudopraxis, in Ward Churchill’s words – is easily co-optable, and intentionally used by states in order to contain and control social movements. This process is documented in great detail in the book How Nonviolence Protects the State by Peter Gelderloos. One way in which it manifests is with the nonviolent rewriting of history. The film A Force More Powerful, which was screened at our NVC training, is a good example. The first part presents the three historical processes most often claimed as examples of the power of nonviolence – the decolonization of India, the Civil Rights movement in the US, and resistance to Apartheid South Africa – as purely nonviolent movements. There is a pattern of deceit in this narrative. All of those movements had armed factions, and all of them had widespread organized rioting (or “ungovernability,” as the ANC called it). No success can be attributed solely to nonviolent efforts.ii In fact, different methods informed each other in a diversity of tactics. It is no coincidence that the film was funded by the United States Institute of Peace, an Orwellian-named Reagan-era institution with close ties to American intelligence services and whose administrators championed counterintelligence and outright genocidal programs in Central America, Iran, and elsewhere.iii

Upon reviewing the literature challenging the hegemonic role of nonviolence, another pattern emerges with the way the discourse for and against nonviolence flows up and down the social hierarchy. While corporate media, big labor unions, NGO’s, and celebrated authors ignore and whitewash at best and at worst vilify and demonize people who choose to engage in more combative tactics, the latter can respond only from the margins of empirical discourse,iv or with anonymously written self-published pamphlets,v or with graffiti on city walls. The debate normally stalls after the unheard response, and the proponents of nonviolence repeat the same old dead-horse arguments, misquoting Audre Lorde on the “Master’s Tools” over and over again and so on, as if no one has ever pointed out their mistakes, ad nauseum. To use a term from NVC – these proponents of nonviolence don’t “reflect back” when confronted with critique. From their position on the hierarchy, they can meet their needs quite well without engaging in conversation, empathic or otherwise.

Many activists have had the experience of knocking on the doors of the people in power, begging them to acknowledge grievances and change their ways. When the powers that be smile and turn the activists down, many still return with even lengthier petitions and more colorful banners. The problem with this form of communication, however, is that it is not communication, at least in the NVC sense of the term. In this format, empathy really goes only one way up the hierarchy.

Thankfully for us NVC enthusiasts, Marshall Rosenberg, the founder of Nonviolent Communication, articulated a way out of the stalemate. In his classical book A Language of Life, he briefly describes the idea of “the protective use of force”:

In situations where there is no opportunity for communication, such as in instances of imminent danger, we may need to resort to the protective use of force. The intention behind the protective use of force is to prevent injury or injustice, never to punish or to cause individuals to suffer, repent, or change. (2003: 169)

His main point is about differentiating between protective and punitive use of force towards the abolition of the latter. The concept of protective force is left perhaps intentionally vague. There is no clear articulation of injustice, nor is there a generalization for the protective use of force in the larger political context.vi The concept is open for interpretation, and may have place for the use of force or self-defense the way it is understood by popular and resistance movements the world over. As I insinuated elsewhere, is it not the protective use of force to pelt an occupying army with stones and Molotov cocktails? And isn’t the lack of decisive action in the face of genocidal injustice inherently violent in and of itself?

It is nigh time to introduce the concept of structural violence, defined by Johan Galtung in terms of universal human needs, as a form of violence in which some social institution or structure harms people by preventing them from meeting their “fundamental human needs” (1993). Or, as David Graeber claims, structural violence is “systematic inequality ultimately backed up by the threat of force” (2009). In Palestine/Israel examples abound. Structural violence allows for Jewish citizens to speed past checkpoints while Palestinians squander hours and days. In less dramatically visible manifestations, it governs and enforces implicit gender roles, like the Hebrew news on TV given in the male form and the kitchenware commercials in female. Structural violence is the invisible billy club which keeps the penniless out of the supermarket when they hunger for food. It is the lack of Arabic characters on police cars, silently showing for whom lies their allegiance.

Which leads us to answer the first question I raised earlier – there is little chance of nonviolent communication in situations which are structurally violent. Some basic human needs remain invisible to the party higher up on the hierarchy. An effort to hold that kind of dialogue without observing, acknowledging and attempting to meet those needs simply normalizes the structurally violent power dynamics. Calls for reconciliation without an end to injustice evoke the image of one person beating up others to a pulp, while demanding them to accept his feelings and needs. That is, indeed, the essence of “normalization,” meaning a process in which the inequality between occupier and occupied is made “normal” or invisible. EcoME and many other coexistence projects in Palestine/Israel are often accused of “normalizing” the conditions which perpetuate apartheid by facilitating dialogue on the level of the occupier without actively undermining the power structure.

However, after the NVC intensive at EcoME, I am hopeful that NVC has the potential of transcending these structural boundaries. As a participant in one workshop early in the program, I raised a concern that introducing NVC to the region may be a pacifying force in a situation which really warrants a decisive resistance movement. I pointed out that radical proponents of Palestinian dissent aren’t heard in the space, because they don’t attend in the first place out of objection to normalization (of course, some of them are also physically excluded from this geographic location). This triggered a long and tearful conversation. One Israeli woman expressed deep feelings of hurt, frustration and anxiety, and a need for acceptance of her differing views and background in Israeli settlements. When members of the group applied “emergency first aid empathy” – meaning they attempted to hear her observations, understand her feelings, and help meet her needs – I noticed the conversation oscillated away from the concerns I raised. Radical voices of Palestinian dissent were not introduced to the conversation, as it was consumed by the facilitation of the occupiers’ experience. In my mind I saw that image I mentioned of the crying man expressing regret and asking for reconciliation while repeatedly striking blows at another person prostrated at his feet. Although I left that conversation spent and frustrated, having given empathy without fully expressing my observations and anger, I noticed that the person went through a very deep process over the course of the retreat, really listening to grievances expressed by Palestinian participants, and really transgressing their enemy images. The question of whether she will actively participate in a decisive movement against Israeli apartheid (or in other words – whether this transgression will develop into the protective use of force when communication is impossible) is yet to be answered.

In conclusion I would like to offer two new premises: 1) that NVC can and should integrate a more refined understanding of violence, and an analysis of systemic inequality; and 2) that NVC should not be conflated with nonviolence as a political praxis. This framework can help NVC practitioners to avoid the implicit re-enforcement of structural violence, and give space for change-seeking activists to use NVC as a process of compassionate communication, without the sense that they’re being asked to give up their uncompromising fight for a livable planet. After this two-week NVC session in Palestine, I believe that NVC can be divorced from its curious wedding with state-sponsored nonviolence, and be a useful tool for activists in terms of prefiguring a harmonious society, solving inner-conflicts, and assisting group processes, among the rest. The ways in which a fundamental-needs-based worldview can inform social movements and political strategising is a topic for future analysis.

Notes

iOne can imagine that if different family members have different notions of violence, then the polarization will be much more extreme across different cultures. In our falafel context, as acutely noted by the anonymous interlocutor of this CrimethInc interview, most Palestinians see “nonviolent” simply as “unarmed,” or “popular.” Popular struggle with use of stones and Molotov cocktails is widely accepted as a legitimate form of protest. A similar observation is made by anthropologist David Graeber with respect to Egyptian revolutionaries during the Arab Spring.

iiGelderloos mentions how those movements were not nonviolent, nor were they really successful. With a deeply entrenched neocolonial system of inequality in India, an unfathomably elaborate prison industrial complex replete with a racist police force in America, and a status-quot in which a white minority controls the flow of resources and most of the land in South Africa, one can’t help but wonder whose interests are served by the nonviolent historical narrative.

ivSee, for example, Peter Gelderloos, an ex-political prisoner and college dropout writing from the squats of Barcelona, in his latest The Failure of Nonviolence, published by the esoteric Left Bank Books, carefully dissecting Chenoweth and Stephan and other establishment proponents of nonviolence who were published and endorsed by high academia.

vOne such noteworthy pamphlet was written in an attempt to explain the window smashing at the anti-WTO protests in Seattle at 1999, an event which triggered a media fiasco around the smashing of windows, regardless of the harm to individuals: “When we smash a window, we aim to destroy the thin veneer of legitimacy that surrounds private property rights … The number of broken windows pales in comparison to the number of spells—spells cast by a corporate hegemony to lull us into forgetfulness of all the violence committed in the name of private property rights and of all the potential of a society without them. Broken windows can be boarded and eventually replaced, but the shattering of assumptions will hopefully persist for some time to come.”
viAlthough he directs us to an out-of-print book about the topic: Irwin, Robert. Nonviolent Social Defense. Harper & Row, 1962.
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