Intimidation and Interrogation in Tel Aviv
Mirjam Hadar Meerschwam of New Profile, May 2009
My computer, today, is still at Tel Aviv police headquarters where it stayed after my two-hour interrogation last week. I am not given, I believe, to conspiracy thinking but the thought crossed my mind, comically rather, whether I’d ever written anything unkind about my neighbor or his family.
This morning, when I brought my girl to school, the neighbour on our left just came out of his house. We greeted each other. I have known for years that he does something vague “in computers” and has lived abroad, doing something vague in diplomatic service.
Following the “raid” on our house by two non-uniformed policemen, Miki and Eytan, at 7:15, last week, just as I was helping our daughter to get dressed for school, it occurred to me that our house, in a regular, boring suburb, is actually surrounded by “security” related individuals and organizations. On the left, there’s D., whom I just mentioned, and on the right it’s Y. who has a fairly senior job in the military industries and stopped being friendly once he understood our family were leftists. Very near is the ugly “duplex” – an ungainly two-family house which after standing empty for years was recently let to a nameless firm. Its windows are still as shuttered as they were during the empty times, and its front yard remains a garbage strewn desert as before – but casually dressed young men carrying various types of briefcases and rucksacks come in and out. It is common knowledge by now that this is what they locally call a “shoo-shoo house”: the army’s secret services use civilian property, everybody knows that. Nobody asked or informed us. At the bottom of the road is a huge, pastoral looking area – disenchantingly protected by electronic fencing and a number of forbidding guard dogs. This no-go park belongs, again, to Israel’s military industries: they develop explosives here – underground. At times our buildings shake with the impact. Much has been said and agitated about the way these underground adventures have affected our environment – there are fearful rumors about cancer incidence. Meanwhile work has not stopped.
I’ve often thought and spoken about these things, one way or another. For instance during the recent attack of the Israeli army on Gaza, when the Israeli public was told about the cruelty of Hamas who presumably placed themselves squarely among Gaza’s civilian population.
But this morning, in the context, now, of my own and my friends’ recent interrogations I thought specifically about the more subtle work of intimidation, delegitimization, social ostracizing.
An Israeli feminist antimilitarist group and registered non-profit organization, New Profile, the group of which I am a member, is these days subject to an unprecedented attack carried out by means of the state and the police. New Profile addresses itself to Israeli society. It is our aim to raise public consciousness to what militarism is and how it affects civic society. We also give moral and legal support and information to young people who contact us having decided not to enlist in the military. This is information about the army’s own accepted and legal routes toward exemption. Typically, such information is not part of the eye-catching display in my son’s former high school. On that poster the various army units vie to win the favors of the not-yet recruits with promises of their various “challenges”. Across the entrance hall, facing it in sinister unselfawareness, the national flag gives permanent honor to a list of former pupils who lost their lives in military service.
I am 52 years old, I work as a freelance translator and writer. I was born and raised in Amsterdam, the Netherlands. My partner teaches psychology at the university, and works as a psychotherapist. I have two children and live in a small town north of Tel Aviv.
It is simple: even if you are as convinced as I am of being innocent, of being on the right side of the law; even if you have nothing to hide – now the police has picked you up as if you belonged to a dangerous underground network, now you have been interrogated by a man whose questions were formulated and asked as if you were a felon, now your computer has been confiscated as if it carries texts that encode a national threat. Words you and your friends formulated thoughtfully are stated back to you in a flat, accusing voice: you realize they are a half or quarter sentence that fails, even grammatically, to articulate what they accuse you of. But their ineptness is not what worries you – it is the arrogance that allows them this deep, enraged misreading. No wonder that nearly a week afterwards your “surrounded” position in the street flashes out at you. If you were given to such sentiments you would feel alone in the street, horribly alone.
Intimidation, I am learning these days, is when you find that the law can turn against you: This does not come as a surprise to me: I live in a security-dominated country in which Palestinian citizens already live under a different interpretation and dispensation of the same law that still mostly protects someone like me. But now that I have been interrogated by a man called Amichai (literally: “My people live”) my knowledge has an added dimension: It takes a while into my interrogator’s list of questions until I figure out that this exchange is not conducted under the usual rules of conversation, of civilian communication. Nothing in my life has prepared me for this: every word I say not only freezes immediately (later I’ll have to sign the protocol and it feels as though I sign my words away, cut their lifeline) – it can and may well be used against me. In view of the misreading I mentioned before, I stand warned: even grammar stops counting here.
Painfully, in Israel citizens are trained not to ask certain questions. This is what New Profile tries to open up to public consciousness. Questions about cancer incidence in your neighbourhood (“Our army is the most moral army in the world.”, “a people’s army”), questions about class, ethnicity and gender, and their interrelations with conflict and the abuse of power – the way these categories are blindly assumed to “order” the world, so that “the world” can then order you efficiently, without entering undue discussion or soul-searching.
On the day after our brief detentions (some eight fellow New Profile members were subjected to the same treatment, and even today, as I am writing this, another member of New Profile is being examined at police headquarters), a friend, a successful academic, and non-activist dropped in and told me that she was delighted with the “progress” her newly enlisted son was making in the army. Only two weeks into a military service he was not at all sure he could cope with. On the eve of the national holiday, the new conscripts, who were all hoping to go home for a short break, had been lined up by their commander. Though they would soon be dismissed, he said there was just one little problem: two volunteers were needed to stay behind in camp. My friend was pleased because her son was one of the volunteers. Her self-centered, messy, irresponsible adolescent had undergone a sea-change in two weeks. “The army,” she says, “is what will straighten him out. And you know what, he came home, because it turned out to be a test, this thing about volunteering!”
My heart and head ache for all of us. The machine works efficiently and fast, even on intelligent, privileged middle class boys. Capable, educated mothers are gratefully applauding it for teaching their children to become adults and law abiding citizens. The workings of authority and order make short shrift with doubt, reflection, and personal vulnerability.
Israel, as Hannah Arendt envisioned at the state’s inception, has condemned itself to being (in) a state of perennial, iron fear.