I told him myself he was a war criminal but I was still surprised when his name appeared on the list. Not because I thought for a moment that it wasn’t fair, but because it’s always different when you know someone personally, and the color of his eyes, and the certain way he greets you and lightly touches your shoulder. And although I didn’t want to, I thought of his mother. And I thought of his mother because I know she didn’t want him to enlist, although she kept her silence. Not because for her Palestinians are human and it would be terrible to hurt them. Only because she didn’t want him to endanger himself. And still she didn’t try to talk him out of going. Because she, too, grew up in the same place and absorbed the same values and clichés. She too was stamped. So all that was left for her was to worry. That was her symbolic role. Hers and all the other mothers’. Be proud, worry, then mourn. She does know that. What she didn’t know was about this.
The list. Just as he didn’t. And something big happened in the lives of A. and his mom and his little brother who has been waiting for the moment he could enlist and become a combatant like his brother.
What happened was that, recently, a list has suddenly shown up on the internet, headed “Two hundred war criminals”. The list provides names, photos, ranks, military unit assigned, dwelling, date of birth and ID number of two hundred male and female Israeli soldiers who had taken part in various but specific ways in what Israel knows as “Operation Cast Lead”, otherwise known throughout the world as the Gaza massacre.
This is not the first time Israel is accused of perpetrating war crimes. Nor is it the first time certain politicians and generals must seriously consider whether they can afford to travel to countries where it is legally possible to prosecute them for this.
The special thing about this list, in the context of ‘war criminals’, is that this time not only high-ranking officers or politicians are named, but rather junior officers, non-commissioned officers, sergeants and even lower-ranking servicemen and women. These are young soldiers, some of whom are still in their regular term of duty..
The drive to do what everyone does is deeply ingrained in human nature. Imitation or conformity is crucial as a means of learning, and a socialization tool containing the evolutionary assumption that what everyone does is the thing to do, is worthwhile, and vital for survival. This is mostly a reasonable and wise assumption. No wonder it has been ingrained as an instinct in the process of natural selection. Man adjusts to society by this means, and learns from the experience of others, from early childhood throughout life.
Thus people imitate the customs of their time. They choose their clothes and shoes in the line of fashion and like what is fashionable to like and want everything that everyone wants and does - whether Nike or Adidas are the fashion hits, or other brand names. They travel to the same destinations because this is what everyone does, and behave politely or not, push in line or not, interrupt each other or not – all depending on how and what everyone does and wants. What is customary and generally accepted. For that is what ordinary people do. What everyone does.
And so in Israel ordinary people go to the army because that is what everyone does. And they commit routine crimes in their army service because that is what ordinary people do, what everyone does, whatever that may be. And if it is commonly accepted to ‘serve’ in the army and oppress another people and dispossess it and torture it and harass it and cage it, then that is what they do, no matter what it is, if that is what everyone does. Because that is what ordinary people do. (see also “conformity and us”)
The two hundred war criminals posted on the list making its rounds on the internet are ordinary people. They followed the customs of their time, neither more nor less than anyone else. They are not exceptional, and they are not especially worse than anyone. They are everyman. Ordinary everyman. And it is by chance, merely, that this is the military operation selected by the creators of this list, and that these persons were in the army at the time. And any one of Israel’s young men and women who enlist in their turn might have been on that list. And would have done more or less the same thing, (and indeed – do it, one generation after another, everything they are told to do, be what may), because that is what ordinary people do.
Incidentally, the list does not say anything other than what has been said by the perpetrators themselves. Nor are there any facts on this list that the listed persons would deny. On the contrary. They are indeed soldiers, they all say without shame, usually even proudly, and they did, indeed, participate in this military operation, they’re the first to admit it.
The only way in which Israel and the people listed differ in their point of view from the people who put together this list – is not the question whether these soldiers committed the acts themselves, but only in calling these acts ‘war crimes’.
In other words, the only thing that the list does is to re-organize naming. The lexicon. What means what. Through this intentional selection, it is actually claiming that Israeli soldiers commit war crimes, and – furthermore – that by selecting random junior-ranking servicemen and women too, it makes the point that war criminals are not the exceptional, high-ranking or policy-making persons alone, but rather any soldier serving in the Israeli military forces.
And this is the outstanding wisdom embodied in this list, its uniqueness and its subversive power.
Indeed, soldiers and their parents might protest and say that it is not true that their children – merely doing their duty to their state and carrying out its missions – are war criminals. They could say they are young. And this is the law of the land. Or that they defended their homeland, and that the 1,400 people murdered deserved to be killed, and that they were killed because they threatened to kill ‘us’.
We killed in order to live, the soldier might still be saying, to defend our homeland under attack.
Killed the four hundred children.
Killed the one hundred police cadets.
Killed The Samouni family.
Destroyed the UNRWA building that had to be destroyed, there was no other way about it.
“They started”. Because “they teach their children to hate”. And it’s their fault. The fault of 10-year old Fadi. And Marina and her little brother.
Indeed they could say this or that, and they do. But something has happened in the world, in reality, which they cannot undo. For this list – unlike the Israeli habit of kidnapping or forbidding or execution-ing, or firing white phosphorus at it or dropping a one-ton bomb on it – has been absorbed in the world, and this time Israel has no control over it.
Not only because is it diffused on the internet, but because all it does is cite facts over which there is no dispute or disagreement. Visibly. It merely challenges local values that stipulate the axiom: being a soldier = doing good. It rattles the common assumption that if someone followed the law, he/she bears no personal responsibility. Thus also saying that in the world there is a different kind of conformity, “like everyone”, a different sort of ‘normal’, of ‘ordinary’, of being ‘in’ or ‘cool’, a different standard of popularity. A different law. And values. It says that when all those ordinary youngsters do what is common, blessed and accepted in Israeli terms – in terms of this list (and of the world) they have committed war crimes.
Fair or not, anti-Semitic or not, this is what the list says.
No longer the State, says the list, nor the army, nor the Occupation, nor top brass, and “everyone” nor “we” but the soldier him/herself. And this normal ordinary soldier, says the list, has a name. A proper name. And with that personal, proper name comes personal responsibility. And personal guilt. And a personal appellation.
Something immeasurably important has happened. This is how I see it. Through this list and many others that I hope will follow, something new and powerful has infiltrated Israeli terminology, a space that constantly reaffirms itself. A tiny virus. An autoimmune
failure. Which to my mind has a chance to change something that to date has remained unchangeable.
I assume that its effect will be felt first and foremost among the more “conscience-ridden”. Those who claim they oppose the policy, that the Occupation is criminal, unjust, but continue to send their sons and daughters serve it. In order to bridge over this inherent contradiction they sanctify the absurd dichotomy presenting the act of Occupation and its perpetrators as two separate entities. The Occupation, they say, is bad, but the soldiers are good. And various other rationalizations that come to justify the true and subversive need that lies deep underneath them – their malignant conformity which makes them do as everyone does, come what may.
I believe that among these particular people, the transition from speaking the language of everyone and the state and the Occupation to speaking me, my son, my daughter will have its effect.
Not that they are conscious of this, not yet. Not they, nor the rest of the youngsters who still passionately flock into the army. They continue - and will continue - to repeat the usual mantras: “We (i.e. Jews) have no choice”. “Someone has to do the job”. And “Better my son do it than another”. “We’ve (i.e. Jews) offered them (i.e. Palestinians) everything”. “We (i.e. Jews) seek peace but what can we do if they (i.e. Palestinians) do not”. And military ‘service’ is a contribution to society. And all the rest of those empty phrases they have learned to repeat.
But I assume the day isn’t distant when - especially if this list be followed by others - without understanding why, with some excuse or other (that is equally empty and hides the truth just as those used to explain why they should enlist), these youngsters and their mothers will be less eager to enlist, less proud of it, less passionate.
And not because Israel oppresses an entire people, cages it in, massacres it, tramples it, harasses it, steals its land and water resources, and has been trying to subject it to ethnic cleansing forever, between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River.
Nor because they’ll suddenly understand that not every law is just. And that there are things that must not be done regardless of their popularity, and that Occupation corrupts – but because all of a sudden it will become less opportune. And it will take its toll.
A personal price. Because when, after their army time, these young people will embark upon their traditional trips abroad, or go off to study in faraway places, they will discover the actuality of their new name which the list has added and merged into their identity.
And something will finally crack the inherent sense of value embodied in military service.
Because no one will call my son a criminal, those mothers will exclaim who, earlier, had kept silent and collaborated and never protested. Not my own son. No way.
When A.’s mother heard of the list, her first sensation was rage that flooded every cell in her body and mind. Her sweet baby was being named a war criminal. She was ready to kill because of this, she said. The gall! Anti-Semites, murderers, she added, beside herself.
You say that too, she lashed out at me. You too want to see him in jail.
I did not voice my answer, yet, but my answer is yes. He should indeed go to jail. And his name should flash on every home computer screen. He should indeed be damned wherever he goes and be called a war criminal. And from today on, I want everyone Googling the words ‘war criminal’ to find his name cited. A.’s name. And all those others’. Because I say no to mandatory conscription’s power to corrupt Israeli society.
It intentionally erases the healthy, important distance between the act of state and its perpetrators, its inhabitants. Because it determines that those who maintain Israel’s policy, come what may, are everyman. Are the ordinary. The people I grew up with, possibly my own relatives, sons and daughters of my childhood friends.
And I refuse this stamping which is meant to impose upon me and everyone else a sense of belonging and connection to Israel’s crimes, and thus - tacit collaboration.
I say no to this system that forces one to collaborate with a flawed regime. That imposes guilt and wrongdoing on me, and hence to be unwilling to call it and its perpetrators by their rightful names, all these ordinary people.
How ironic, I want to say to her further, that precisely from the place where all these youngsters could hurt the other, because the other had no face, no name and no identity, here them, you and your A. and all perpetrators of the act of state, from now on – have a name and a personal identity.
No longer the Occupation, Israel, the generals – it is the particular you and no one else. You are guilty. You, A. You are a war criminal.
Incidentally, A.’s mother no longer speaks to me. She is perfectly right, I think. For her duty above all else is to him who did not choose to be born. And I, her friend, said terrible things about him. I wished him in prison. I wished his name be born everywhere in calumny. I said things that are not said to a mother, not about her son.
How sad and how horrible it is, I think, that it is from me that my friend shields and protects her son, from me and not from the act of state. From accepted norms.
From the corruption imposed on his moral fiber, from the danger to his life and spirit and fate at the hands of a treacherous history whose values change like the colors of a chameleon.
Aya Kaniuk. Translated by Tal Haran