Sahar Vardi is an Israeli woman who has come to speak to us on a panel with two Palestinian women from another organization, Just Visions. She has long, sandy blond hair, and is wearing jeans, a plaid shirt, black tie shoes, and sports a playful laugh, expressive hands, and a forehead that wrinkles up when she is saying something serious. She is a few years younger than my daughters.
Sahar was born and raised in West Jerusalem in a Jewish, Zionist environment. She wants to explain how militarism infects much of Israeli society and begins by telling us that military education begins in kindergarten with a counting book where students match a number to a symbol: one… soldier, four… tanks, six… planes, etc. Soldiers come to primary school and high school to talk about army life, and in eleventh grade the entire class does basic training together, a powerful bonding experience. (I think my kids were bonding over marshmallows in New Hampshire at that age.) By 18, she says, it is very clear that it is totally normative to be joining the army.
Sahar explains that young Israelis get used to carrying their M16’s with them, in and out of uniform, that fear is part of both formal and cultural education. In April the Passover message is basically, “in every generation someone tries to annihilate us,” and then a week later there are military celebrations that lead into Israeli Independence Day. And then of course there are all the tragic and traumatizing personal experiences: a suicide bomb blew up outside of her school during the Second Intifada.
But something happened to Sahar’s indoctrination. In 2003 at age 13, she joined her father in a Palestinian village in Jerusalem for an action day, planting olive trees, changing water pipes, painting a neighboring school. Each year they returned, witnessing the building of the separation wall, (dividing Palestinian village from Palestinian village), the uprooted olive trees they had planted, the broken water pipes. She watched Palestinian children waiting at checkpoints to go to school. She went to her first protest at 14 in the village of Bil’in, marching to the site of the proposed wall, running from the tear gas and rubber bullets shot by Israeli soldiers, finding herself protected by Palestinian villagers. These experiences challenged the “us versus them” paradigm around her and by 18, she felt she could no longer join the army.
She and a group of friends known as the Shministim decided to publicly refuse their mandatory army service and wrote a public letter explaining their intentions and their critical message regarding the army and the military system. She was imprisoned for several months and was ultimately released for mental health reasons.
Now, deeply committed to the struggle against directions within Israeli society, she has worked with the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions and New Profile, (a feminist anti-military organization that supported her through her refusal). She currently works with the American Friends Service Committee, focusing on the demilitarization of Israeli society.
Sahar notes that as long as she can produce concrete small results, in New Profile helping a soldier get conscientious objectors status or just getting out of the army for whatever reason, (often mental health), then she stays hopeful and does not burn out.
But the work is challenging. Sahar mentions her grandmother who asked her where she will go after the end of the State of Israel. She reassured her,” I’m here, this is my culture, but society has to change.” I am reminded that while we are focused on the military culture in Israel, this is happening in our society as well. This is partly the byproduct of the increasingly ubiquitous culture of fear, whether it was the red scare of the 1950s or the terror that seized the US after 9/11. This fear is a commodity used well by our politicians and global corporations, producing our huge military budget with a $3.4 billion subsidy to Israel. Let’s remember that 75% of this money must be used to buy arms in the US. Somehow, it looks to me like our congress is subsidizing our military companies, while Israeli defense companies build our drones and their subsidiaries build our wall with Mexico. Meanwhile most Jewish Israelis are too afraid to venture into East Jerusalem and Jewish settlers in the Old City walk around with armed guards, stepping to avoid the clergy of every denomination, the nuns, the tourists, the children in a variety of school uniforms, and the Palestinians who have lived there for centuries.
I feel my weariness and cynicism going global. I try drinking from the well of Sahar’s youthful energy when I hear the resonant voices of Dorothy Cotton and Vincent Harding, restoring us with the inspiration and passion of music they have been singing since the 1960s civil rights struggles. My heart soars as the delegates join them in song: “Ain’t gonna let nobody (or wall, checkpoint, exhaustion) turn me around, turn me around, turn me around. Ain’t gonna let nobody turn me around, marching onto freedom land.” Another day in the long march towards a better society begins again.
Reports reflect the views of the individuals writing them and do not necessarily represent the Dorothy Cotton Institute, the Center for Transformative Action, Interfaith Peace Builders or other delegates or the organizations with which they are affiliated