We Are All Journalists

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March 17, 2010

It’s Not For Me

I met Sean sitting on the curb at bacum – the IDF induction center. He was in his mid-30s, slender, had a high forehead, a neat clipped mustache, and a clipped accent on his English. We were both putting on army boots we had been issued.

Speaking English, Sean advised me in a low polite tone to lace the boots as he did – a knot at the end of the lace and then a single continuous lacing up the boot. I listened and did not respond.

I was in a foul mood. I dislike armies, uniforms and all that goes with them, boots included. So – dimly thinking what could someone who did not even speak Hebrew know? – I laced the boots as I had since childhood, in a criss-cross pattern.

A drill sergeant lined up the company of shlav betniks – older, short-term draftees – to inspect this unimpressive sight. A mixture of immigrants and religious men. I managed to avoid the draft for years but it finally caught up with me.

The sergeant looked at me and told me to re-do my boot laces like his own were done. Like Sean had told me to do. As I sat re-lacing my boots, Sean looked at me, but his face betrayed no emotion.

I was directed onto a bus. We sat for hours, at first just Sean in the rear and myself in the middle gazing out the window, lost in my unhappy thoughts. Slowly, other new soldiers climbed aboard the bus and it began to fill.

Evening approached, we still sat on the bus, and no food had been served all day. I had been warned about the last problem and had brought along a bag of my homemade granola and a couple apples. The bus finally left as darkness fell.

Our trip was to a small base in central Israel, where we were told to sit with our duffels in outdoor shelters and wait. One by one we were summoned into an office and questioned. I was called at about 3am. A panel of officers sat at a long table facing the door. They were speaking with each other and ignored me entirely. I saluted and waited.

A young heavyset colonel focused on me. He consulted a list, asked my name, then asked “Would you like to do your service as a military policeman?”

I answered “No. Lo matim li. It’s not for me.”

The colonel’s eyebrows beetled slightly. “And why not?”

“Because the military police training base is outside Nablus. I refuse to serve in the Occupied Territories.”

The colonel looked at me with cold eyes. He was angry. But after 10-15 seconds of glaring at me, the colonel said only “Dismissed.” He had enough problems – I was going to be someone else’s problem. I saluted, turned and left. The other 7-8 officers had not stopped talking and did not notice the scene that took place in front of them.

At dawn, the religious soldiers formed a minyan and prayed shacharit, the morning prayer. They were as unlikely-looking soldiers as me. Shortly afterwards, we were again distributed between buses and loaded aboard. Sean was still on my bus.

When we climbed down, we were in an infantry training camp closer to Ramallah than Jerusalem. It was training for unpromising soldiers. Although it was several kilometers into the occupied territories, I considered myself fortunate. Friends in Yesh Gvul, the resisters organization, cautioned me against refusing service assignments until after basic training was complete. Only then do you make whatever statements are needed.

It was an old English military base, turned Jordanian base, turned Israeli base. I recognized the maadon (soldiers club) from a photograph in John Bagot Glubb’s autobiography, A Soldier with the Arabs. It was the house where ‘Pasha’ Glubb stood erect with his fellow Arab Legion officers in front of what was then his home as the Legion’s commanding officer. The site of an older colonialism still served a newer colonialism.

Cracking Cuban Bases

We were divided into platoons, and began training under some reasonably competent non-coms. Sean did not speak Hebrew, and several of us took turns translating quietly. The trainers treated Sean quite respectfully, and as we learned more about each other, it became clear why. He knew more about military life than the entire training staff. Until 6-8 months previous, Sean served as a front-line infantry major in the South African army.

Apartheid still ruled South Africa. It would be another two years before Nelson Mandela was released from Robben Island, another six years before he became president. The lengthy battle of Cuito Cuanavale between South African, Angolan and Cuban forces was still going on.

I had written a couple lengthy op-ed pieces in the Jerusalem Post against Israel’s close relations with South Africa. I used the pseudonym ‘Joe Franklin’ in order not to imperil my job at a social research unit of the Joint Distribution Committee. The absence of any coherent organized anti-apartheid voice in Israel disturbed me greatly. Only Katya Gibel Azoulay, then living in Israel, was notable for her anti-apartheid activism.

My father repeated often to me – “Nobody ever learned anything with their mouth open. You learn with your ears open.” There was no point in making my opinions known, so I listened.

Sean had a winning personality. It was easy to see why he had risen as an officer. The man had an inexhaustible stock of dirty jokes that drew listeners among the several English-speakers in the platoon, but he was wise enough to limit his joke-telling. He kept a hip flask of whiskey well concealed in his duffel bag and, after offering a drink, handed me an antiseptic chicklet to mask the smell of alcohol. Sean knew how to survive and thrive in army life.

He had left South Africa just over a half-year previous, had settled his wife and four daughters on a kibbutz, and arranged to do his army service early (normally there would have been at least a three-year wait). He left South Africa because his reserve service was getting too onerous, ranging from six to eight months a year. I suspected that Sean, with his acute perceptions, understood that he was fighting on the losing side and was searching for a better future for his family.

His Jewishness opened a door out of South Africa, and the Jewish Agency bought plane tickets for the whole family. For someone who had spent most of his adult life in the army, he could not have had much money. When he went for a pre-induction interview, he said, officers spent hours debriefing him on details of his military activities.

Sean had seen a lot of combat “cracking Cuban bases in Angola.” “Do you realize that there are 50,000 Cuban communists on South Africa’s northern border?” he asked. I did indeed – and I was cheering for them. But I said nothing of the sort.

Instead, I took instruction from his expertise. Sean gave me basic instruction in combat ballistics. Despite slower muzzle velocity than an assault rifle, I learned, a Colt 45 with appropriate ammunition could carry greater kinetic energy and do more damage. “I was once standing beside a police sergeant during a demonstration,” Sean told me. “The sergeant aimed his 45 at a demonstrator running alongside a low wall, a young African guy. The impact of that 45 round picked him up and knocked him clear over the wall.”

“Did he die?” I blurted out. A silent look from Sean told me the answer and not to ask such questions.

Wole Soyinka for Basic Training

Sean probably wondered about me, especially when he saw me reading Wole Soyinka’s autobiography, The Man Died. It was the only book I took to basic training. A thick prison memoir seemed appropriate reading to accompany my new life in uniform.

Others in the platoon wondered about me too. There were 8-10 Ethiopians, one of whom wandered over as I lay reading Soyinka one afternoon during a break. “Why are you reading a book by a black man?” he asked, pointing to the author’s photograph on the back cover. “It’s a good book and the author won the Nobel Prize for literature.” That did not impress Itzhak, especially as he did not know anything of the Nobel Prize.

Itzhak, who I came to know and like, had been a lieutenant in the Ethiopian army. He told me of going AWOL from his base, selling his AK-47 for $90, and using the money to finance himself and his family walking out of Ethiopia to Sudan. They walked at night and hid in the daytime, travelling for over a month. Itzhak became an officer because he was a literate draftee; Sean became an officer because he volunteered to become a proficient killer. I contemplated the improbability of two such different African army officers now serving as privates together in Israel’s army.

A couple months before entering the army, I quit my much-hated job at the Joint Distribution Committee and began writing journalistic essays. The First Intifada was beginning, and I was anxious to learn and write about the Palestinian revolution. I sent off a couple early essays to potential publishers in the United States. One of them went to In These Times, the progressive Chicago weekly.

The editor, Sheryl Larsen, called my brother, whose name I provided as a contact, to ask how she could get in touch with me. “I have no idea,” my brother responded, “Joe is off on a tank someplace in the middle of the desert.” A slight exaggeration, but the In These Times editors were fascinated to find someone wearing an IDF uniform writing with political sympathy towards Palestinians in revolt.

Sheryl and I talked by telephone the following Friday, after I arrived home in Jerusalem on a weekend pass. I returned to the army that Sunday morning with the purpose of writing as much as I could during training breaks.

While we marched, fired at the range, or did menial tasks around the base (we whitewashed an astonishing number of pine tree trunks in an absurd beautification campaign), I mentally composed as many paragraphs of political analysis as I could remember. Then on weekends, after I put the children to bed, I sat up late to transpose my barrack notes and write essays that could be faxed to Chicago on Sunday after I left for the army. Once again I used a pseudonym, this time to avoid a court-martial.

I observed dispassionately the symptoms of dissatisfaction and rejection of official army knowledge around me, just as I observed dispassionately the black flags flying over Palestinian homes nearby when Abu Jihad was killed in Tunis that April.

One of the other training companies was for truck drivers. They were a rowdy group, heavily Mizrahi, and frequently got marched off in handcuffs. At one assembly for an abach (atomic, biological and chemical warfare) lecture, the responsible officer gave a lengthy talk on the field use of chemical agents. The problem with the lecture was obvious and ugly. He discussed situations that presumed not defensive measures, but rather the contingency of Israel’s offensive use of gas – that is, a crime against humanity.

At the end of his talk, the officer asked “Are there any questions?” There were none until one of the young truck drivers raised his hand. “Sir, doesn’t what you just described involve violation of the Geneva Conventions?” Like the officer some weeks before, this one too remained silent for several moments. He then replied “Are there any other stupid questions?” The well-educated in the hall, including the university lecturer in psychology sitting in front of me, said nothing. They were tame middle-class pigeons. My respect for working-class army truck drivers soared.

Censoring Apartheid Collaboration

My policy remained to keep my opinions to myself, to keep my dissent for a later time. A time and place to all things. I listened.

It was that listening which would eventually get me into trouble. I listened to a knowledgeable discussion with Sean concerning a tour of South African military officers interested in check-point operations during the intifada, then mentioned it as a minor point in an In These Times article on population control of Palestinians. When I went to obtain press credentials after my release from active duty, the Government Press Office requested the Chicago consulate to review what I had been publishing.

A consular official read through my articles and reported back that I had provided information on Israel’s military relations with South Africa. Without being aware of a censorship ban on this subject, I had violated the law. A GPO official notified me in a phone call that the file was being turned over for police investigation. There would be no press credentials until the investigation was complete.

Somewhat upset, I notified my editor at In These Times, Miles Harvey, since they were sponsoring the credentials. Miles was appalled and promised moral support, but there was little the paper could do. After a week, the GPO got back in touch and told me to bring everything I had published to the military censor. I arrived with a 70-page pile of single-space print-out and handed it over to the censor, hoping he would suffer acute eye strain.

Within a few hours, the military censor called back and asked me to come visit. Returning to the office, I saw Michel Warschawski about to leave, and wondered how closely an anti-Zionist Trotskyist journalist got his copy eyeballed. The censor put the pile of my assembled essays on the counter and called several page numbers and passages for blacking out. He nailed the South Africa references buried in the middle of the manuscript. Afterwards, with retroactive and officially-cleansed prose, I received my press credentials. The chief censor declined to lecture me.

I had finished infantry basic training months before. On the final day, I turned over a letter of service refusal for my personnel file in order to initiate a record. The company commander was gentle, thoughtful, wished me well and shook hands. The squad sergeant, a tall Maccabee Tel Aviv fan, was less pleasant. “You took an oath to obey orders. What is this?!” A Talmudist could drive an entire truck fleet through the logical and legal openings, and I could too. But I just shrugged and did not bother answering.

I did not see Sean again but heard he had been attached to a team that trained elite units in hand-to-hand combat. I headed off to patrol bleak expanses of desert. It suited me. I was never the killer type.

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