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Refusenik Jonathan Ben-Artzi: Taking sides


Jonathan Ben-Artzi: Yes, apartheid

Longstanding refusenik – and Netanyahu’s nephew – Jonathan Ben-Artzi is currently studying for  doctorate in mathematics at Brown University. He has just contributed this article to the university newspaper.

By Jonathan Ben-Artzi, 22 April 2010

In their recent columns, Simon Liebling ’12 and Ethan Tobias ’12 debated the comparison of the contemporary struggle against the Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territories and the struggle for divestment from the apartheid state of South Africa in the 1980s (“The right side of history” and “No apartheid here,” Apr. 16).

Today, apartheid is considered to be a low point in South African history. In the 1980s, however, those who fought against it faced fierce resistance. Dissent, unfortunately, is a lonely business.

As an Israeli, I had to start planning for my military service during my senior year of high school. In Israel, interviews, medical checkups, examinations and forms are all a routine part of one’s 18th birthday. However, long before scheduling my first interview, I had already made up my mind: “I will not join the military.” I decided that I had to take a stand in the face of policies of segregation and discrimination that ravaged (and still ravage) my country and the occupied Palestinian territories.

Within Israel, these acts of segregation include towns reserved for Jews only, immigration laws that allow any Jew from around the world to immigrate but simultaneously deny displaced indigenous Palestinians that same right, and national health care and school systems that receive significantly more funding in Jewish towns than in Arab towns. Even former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert described the situation as a “deliberate discrimination,” and added that “governments have denied [Palestinian citizens of Israel] their rights to improve their quality of life.”

The situation in the Occupied Territories is even worse. Nearly 4 million Palestinians have been living under Israeli occupation for over 40 years without basic human and civil rights. Examples include roads that are for Jews only, discrimination in water supply (Israelis use as much as four times more water than Palestinians, while Palestinians are not allowed to dig their own wells and must rely on Israeli supply) and the collective punishment of Gaza, where 1.5 million Palestinians have been living in the largest open-air prison on earth for over four years.

What should one call this situation? The International Criminal Court defines the crime of apartheid as “inhumane acts […] committed in the context of an institutionalized regime of systematic oppression and domination by one racial group over any other racial group or groups and committed with the intention of maintaining that regime.”

Refusing to join the military had its consequences. After a long legal battle, the Israeli military prevailed and incarcerated me for a total of a year and a half, ignoring calls for my release issued by Amnesty International, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights and the International Federation for Human Rights.

Being a conscientious objector placed me in the minority not only in Israel, but within my extended family as well. Both of my parents were born in Israel. Both my grandmothers were born in Palestine (when there was no “Israel” yet). In fact, I am a ninth-generation native of Palestine. My ancestors were amongst the founders of today’s modern Jerusalem. Both of my grandfathers fled the Nazis and came to Palestine in time to take part in the war of 1948. My mother’s only brother was a paratrooper killed in combat in 1968.  All of my relatives served in the Israeli military for extensive periods of time, some of them in units most people don’t even know exist.

Much as the struggle for equality and freedom in South Africa required international support and motivation, so does today’s struggle for justice in the Holy Land. Americans, unfortunately, are complicit in the situation: The U.S. is heavily involved in the conflict through means ranging from funding (by providing Israel with roughly $3 billion annually in military aid) and corporate investments (Microsoft has one of its major facilities in Israel) to diplomatic support (by vetoing 32 UN Security Council resolutions unsavory to Israel between 1982-2006).

There’s much that Brown students can do. The first step is to refuse to accept the prevailing “pro-Israel” narrative, and to learn about the situation through means other than mass corporate media. Being “pro-Israel” does not mean blindly supporting anything that Israel does.

The next step should be involvement in groups on campus that promote unbiased discussion and that call upon Brown to divest from companies that profit from the Israeli occupation of the Palestinians — such as Brown Students for Justice in Palestine.

Their agenda is not “pro-Palestine” or “pro-Israel.” In fact, it is not a nationalistic agenda at all. Rather, it is a “pro-human” agenda, seeking to help Brown end its association with unjust practices. In the end, only this path will be the true savior of Israel from its otherwise inevitable decline into an outcast, rogue society.

Jonathan Ben-Artzi is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Mathematics from Jerusalem. He can be contacted at

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