Confronting militarist mindsets in Israeli society: interview with New Profile founding members

In an increasingly right-wing political environment, addressing the place of the military in Israeli society means going through the cracks rather than lobbying government. International connections help, but it's outreach, not funds, that count.

Are Israeli peace movements moribund? So say a number of analysts, including Tamar Hermann in her excellent overview of the contemporary peace sector in Israel. However activists involved in various aspects of peace work in Israel, while echoing this general pessimism about the future of the peace process and Israeli politics, point at promising directions for rejuvenation. International networking is one of them, but it rests on a specific strategy.

New Profile is an Israeli NGO focusing on the demilitarization of Israeli society, which includes providing support for refusers but also questioning the heavy presence of the army in civilian life and culture. I met with two founding members of the organization, Ruth Hiller and Dorothy Naor, who told me about the current state of the movement and their involvement in international action.

Ruth Hiller manages international networks for New Profile. Dorothy Naor's action focuses on circulating relevant information on Israel/Palestine on a well-read listserv. So, two generations of activists provide their viewpoints on the current state of Israeli civil society and its peace movements.

A focus on Israeli civil society

New Profile, so says Dorothy, is not doing great:

“New Profile wants to transform Israel from a military society into a civilian society, and we've been doing very badly on that, but that's not the fault of New Profile. We are doing quite a bit, but the overall change we were hoping for has gone in the opposite direction. It's more militaristic, more fascistic, more right-wing than it's ever been before”.

New Profile is hardly the most visible of Israeli peace movements since unlike most other movements, its work is not cross-border and does not concentrate on ending the occupation, although it emphasizes that in order to maintain an occupation one needs to have a very militarized society. Instead, it focuses on changing Israeli societyand in particular the Israeli militaristic mindset. This does not only concern Jews, far from it:

“It's not only for the 80% of the Jewish population but also for the 20% of the non-Jewish population, because they are also living in a militarized society”.

Mobilizing in a shrinking space for protest

Israeli society is becoming more racist as it focuses on the well-being of Jewish citizens only:

“Of course this is going to be true of any country that grounds itself on one thing, whether it's one religion, one race, one ethnic group. From that standpoint, there are many differences in means, but there are really no difference between a pure Aryan state and a pure Jewish state”.

Israelis seldom question media narratives on the conflict and easily feel victimized. When there is a bomb attack, very few try to understand the chain of events leading to it or ask why, and the public generally avoids thinking about Israeli accountability in the current state of affairs. Israelis on the whole remain the prisoner of media narratives, especially those carried out by free newspapers which carefully avoid issues that may be of critical concern and should be discussed. Critical though is hardly given any visibility in the Israeli press which as a whole tends to present bombing Gaza or building settlements as a legitimate response in a situation where the Other is framed only in this way: “They're out to get us”.

Otherism is becoming more common throughout the political spectrum, including amongst peace movements, which tend to fall into the trap of dividing between the good work focusing on the occupation, and the rest. Other social movements, such as the 2011 tent movement protesting against increased prices of basic goods and housing, steer clear of issues related to the occupation and fail to address how it is really connected to the current socio-economic situation in Israel:

“The occupation costs a great deal of money. People are encouraged to go settle in the West Bank, where there are over 500 000 settlers; also in East Jerusalem the movement is growing very fast. Over 50% of public money for public housing goes for the West Bank”.

However, for fear of appearing 'political', the leaders of this movement encouraged everyone to get involved - including right-wingers - and did not put forth specific aims, so the movement was for the most part easily recuperated by the Israeli government.

New Profile has had to face the ongoing repression of Israeli protest movements. They were put under investigation in 2010 for inciting refusal, which is illegal in Israel. They were cleared of this offence, but are “still considered one of the most dangerous terrorist organizations” since some of its members were interviewed for the Goldstone report. New Profile is now prohibited from going near schools but has opted for a policy of complete transparency in order to prevent further investigation.

Building critical perspectives and going through the cracks

Indeed, for New Profile, personal stories matter in building critical thought. Such is the case for Ruth, who often begins her presentation of the organization with her own personal story as the mother of a refuser:

"I have six children and my two daughters went into the military. I never gave any kind of analysis or critical thought to why I was not happy with that, why I didn't have that same sense of national or parental pride than my colleagues did. Our third child, my first son, when he was 15, said that he couldn't come into the military because he had come to recognize the fact that he is a pacifist. My children watched the first Intifada on Jordanian television when it wasn't shown in Israel. And one thing my son said is that he knew he didn't want to be that soldier. And we had to learn. We had to consider our strategy, we had to decide how we are going to help him.

In looking for a support community, I joined a study group focusing on feminism, militarism and the effect of militarism on Israeli society. And while we were trying to help him, we were also beginning to understand that there was no information available to the public, and there was no legal aid, and that we'd have to create something that we'd maintain if we wanted to keep him out of jail”.

Ruth explains that this way of presenting her involvement in New Profile somehow manages to prevent harsh reactions from political opponents. Like Ruth's son, many youth or reservists are expressing doubts about going into the military. Refusal is growing, but as a silent movement in which people begin by questioning, “Is my country here to serve me or am I here to serve my country? Is Israel a state with an army or an army with a state?”. Ruth sees the signs of a growing activist community amongst youth: “There is a growing curiosity, very rebellious, that is coming from underneath”.

In this unpropitious context, New Profile activists focus on what is doable, projects which received funding: legal aid, summer camps, and four youth groups - including a women's group in Haifa which for the first time has Israeli and Palestinian women meeting together. They are not meant to focus on refusal but on building awareness and allow youngsters to ask questions. New Profile also maintains a counselling network on refusal. The latter does pretty well and receives around 200s applications a month for information coming from pre-conscripts, conscripts, reservists, and parents asking questions.

Not all of them, far from it, will follow through with the refusal process and New Profile has no way to know how many people eventually get out of the military. The fact that New Profile maintains projects which are funded creates dependency vis-à-vis its donors, since it receives no governmental funding. It has a long-lasting relationships with them, but this may be affected by a general trend in budget cuts. Funders' requirements also have an impact on the organization. New Profile's main funder is the Christian German organization Bread for the World , and it requires that New Profile maintains a paid staff, a stipulation which has caused contradictions with New Profile's anti-hierarchical feminist values:

“That was interesting for us because all of a sudden we had a situation in which we had to create a hierarchy of salaries. So what we do is that we rotate: every two years, the coordinators that receive salaries change, so that's how we solved that problem. Those are discussions that go on for years , because being a feminist organization, things are up for discussion”.

New Profile at any given moment has between 40 to 60 members, and the work is done in teams. Ruth also sees the imprint of feminist values in how the organization reaches out to partners:

“Something I have learnt about the way women work in particular, is that we do circular motion. We network out, we don't necessarily look for hierarchies, but we look for the similarities, where we can work together so that we have created dialogue”.

This applies to other Israeli NGOs. New Profile does not aim at reaching out to governments directly, but relies on other organizations which, like ICAHD, do that work:

“Jeff Halper has no problem going to talk to government. He does this very well, talking about the price of Israeli occupation on Israeli society, and what the occupation is doing to us. But I feel that once international audiences learn about Jeff and about ICAHD, they will want to know about the other organizations”.

New Profile is happy to call itself a fringe organization and to go through the cracks: “We plant seeds. And we create discussions about militarization, and what it means to be a militarized society”.

International connections

Despite the fact that it focuses on Israeli society, New Profile is tightly connected to international networks focusing either on the Israel/Palestine conflict or on refusal. After having reached out to international civil society organizations for many years, New Profile decided that international networking and organization should become an actual function of the organization, designated to a specific person who should undertake the task in rotation. A new emphasis was put on this aspect of mobilization aimed at exposing Israeli accountability, and putting pressure on Israel through foreign governements.

For instance, Israel restricts residency rights in the West Bank. Dorothy tried to address this issue as a member of Israeli Committee for Residency Rights (ICRR) but realized little could be done from Israel proper. Activists talked to all the embassies, in some cases to the ambassador, in most cases to secretaries. But they realized that embassies do not make policies but carry out the policies of governments. For Dorothy, this calls for international action:

“People abroad should pressure their governments, for instance if Israel won't let citizens or residents from your country enter the West Bank or Israel, then your country should not let Israelis enter”.
Personal links may here be key:
“If you have anyone in government or anyone who knows someone in government, this is something to work on”.
Such campaigns as Boycott, Divestment, Sanction (BDS) - which both Dorothy and Ruth support even though New Profile as an organization only endorses selective divestment - may force such international actors as the EU to acknowledge the fact that there is violence, or that their involvement in Israel/Palestine is not helping.
“Even if it means that they are anti-Israel or that Israelis must suffer from Boycott, Disinvestment and Sanctions, in the long run, I understand that this is something that has to be done”
says Ruth. BDS also offers great opportunities for everyone to participate, adds Dorothy:
“You have to know your audience. But if you believe they're likely to do partial or selective divestment, instead of divestment as a whole, then you should use that, because it's better to do something than to do nothing”.

New Profile works in partnership with internationally connected umbrella organizations such as the Coalition of Women for Peace. International networks are particularly strong within the Jewish Diaspora, and have been since Jews for a Just Peace was in operation. In 2007, Ruth met with their staff in the Bay Area at a moment when they were undergoing deep change, having restaffed and grown their mailing list from 9000 members up to 30 000. When New Profile was being investigated for illegally inciting to refusal, it managed to put pressure on the Israeli government and the attorney general's office thanks to this international connection. A newsletter was drafted about what happened to New Profile and sent out to different organizations and individuals, who in turn sent it out and published it on their own listserv. And immediately, largely because of Jews for a Just Peace, 5000 protest letters were sent to the Israeli Ministries of the Interior and of Justice – all of this prior to the wide use of Twitter and Facebook.

'I'm not leaving Israel'

New Profile makes use of social media, mostly to circulate relevant news to keep people updated about the local situation and help them make connections between different aspects of the conflict. Ruth tweets and retweets about civil society in Israel and about refusal movements in particular. Dorothy manages an impressive mailing list, and sends out information about Israel/Palestine and the militarization of Israel that may not be in the regular media, not necessarily focusing on New Profile. Ruth manages her own smaller private list where she sends out material about refusal only or New Profile itself. But she calls herself a “Facebook refuser”, calling it “too open” and does not aim for the largest Twitter following :

“I'm very cautious how I dispense information. It's not about being the most popular, so I keep things in proportion”.
But there are other ways to dispense information: just the past year, she met with at least thirty researchers, which she thinks is encouraging because that means her ideas are “getting into academia through the backdoor”.

This illustrates New Profile's focused strategy, which fits into a larger array of political actions carried out by diverse organizations in a shared effort:

Peace Now, Yesh Gvul, the Women's Coalition For Peace, ICAHD, there are all sorts of organizations, we are all part of something, a mechanism working for almost the same goal, one way or the other”.
Even if Ruth disagrees with Peace Now's policies which she thinks are “still very Zionist, very middle of the road, conservative left”, she appreciates their watchdog activities on the occupation. From New Profile's perspective, there will be a great deal of work to do even after the occupation is over:

“The occupation is the first thing, but it's not the only focus. When you look at the occupation you have to look at the economics of the occupation, at the borders -1967 or 1948-, at discrimination, at segregation”.
This interconnectedness between themes for mobilization requires a “circular movement”, and any connection may be valuable:
“What I meet on the way is what I meet on the way, if somebody can introduce me here, or there, I really feel that's the way to go. Because I think that when you're working in hierarchy, from top to bottom, you're not getting anywhere”.

Because of this strategy, New Profile does not apply for major EU funding. Since it is not a staffed organization its team of fundraisers is composed of volunteers, while EU grant applications are very complex. Rather than that kind of funding, Ruth believes, “What we do need is exposure, to meet with the European Parliament or the committees, what I do need is some kind of outreach”. New Profile is growing its network of contacts in Europe, amongst Jewish organizations in Spain, with the Italian branch of Women In Black, and has a history of strong connections with Germany and left-wing organizations contesting conscription. It also nurtures connections with Christian peace networks, from the Quakers to the EAPPI:

“But it needs to be worked on all the time: it's not a given. Those connections, those are people on the ground. Those are communities, the community leaders, the community organizers, the Churches, the organizers for community centers. Here is a good example of something that happened to us recently. There is a Union of Progressive Jews in Belgium. One of our members was in contact with them, then she got invited to a conference to come and talk, and in October 2011 they had a conference with Breaking the Silence. And they found funding, and took our exhibit and translated it into French, and they are going to have it printed out and to invite another member of New Profile, who is a French speaker, to come to Belgium and do a tour with the exhibit. And maybe no money will come out of that, but absolutely exposure, on the most civil level that could be”.

Ruth does expect strong opposition from pro-Zionist right-wing organizations, but she hopes that New Profile's voice from Israel shall get through:

“I'm not leaving Israel, you know, I'm still here, trying to make a change, and this is a very strong message”.

 

About the author
openSecurity Editor: Ph.D. in Sociology from the Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales. Among her latest publications: La créativité altermondialiste : discours, organisation, action directe, Lille, Presses Universitaires du Septentrion (2012) ; « Continuities of fascist discourses, discontinuities of extreme-right political actors? Overt and covert anti-Semitism in the contemporary French radical right”, in Ruth Wodak et John E.Richardson, Analysing Fascist Discourse: European Fascism in Talk and Text, London, Routledge (2012).