Last month, Itai Swirski, a lieutenant in the Israeli army reserves, went to report for duty at his local army headquarters and ended up in a military jail. Folks in the Triangle may remember Swirski from a speaking tour he did here last fall sponsored by the activist group Jews for A Just Peace North Carolina.
The 28-year-old labor lawyer is a founding member of Ometz L'Sarev (Courage to Refuse), a group of Israeli soldiers and officers who've refused to serve in the disputed West Bank and Gaza. During the past year, even as violence has flared in the territories and in many Israeli cities, the number of "refuseniks" has grown to 520.
On Jan. 20, when he learned that his unit was headed for the West Bank, Swirski once more said he wouldn't go--a decision that landed him a 28-day jail sentence at a minimum-security barracks. Jews for a Just Peace members say Swirski is the first refusenik to be incarcerated twice. But others are likely to follow as reservists continue to be called up for missions in the West Bank and Gaza.
When Swirski spoke in Durham last fall, he drew sobering parallels between his government's reaction to suicide bombings in Israel and the Bush administration's response to the Sept. 11 attacks. In both countries, the atmosphere of a wide-open war on terrorism makes it hard for critics of military solutions to speak out without being seen as unpatriotic.
That's a charge that can't be levied with any seriousness at Swirski, who has a distinguished record of service in the reserves and who says it took him "many, many years" to reach the conclusion that military occupation of Palestinian areas is wrong and will not help to make Israel safer.
"Itai feels that the unique position of Courage to Refuse is that it's made up of people whose great love for Israel gives them a platform to go into the mainstream Jewish community and bring some different ways of thinking about the occupation," says Stav Adivi, a fellow refusenik now living in Carrboro who also belongs to Jews for a Just Peace. "He wants to make sure people know that we are not against Israel or the army. We are very much patriots. We are just against the occupation."
When Adivi talked to Swirski by phone recently, he was upset about the landslide reelection of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, who has promised to continue the military crackdown in Palestinian towns. But Swirski was also buoyed by the increasing number of reservists and regular soldiers who are speaking out against the occupation. He says there are now four or five a week who are refusing missions in the territories. At the facility where he's now confined, there are a half dozen other refuseniks serving out month-long sentences.
Swirski hopes American Jews will also begin raising their voices for new solutions to the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. "Itai would like Americans to write to the Israeli embassy and consulate and indicate that they are very fond of Courage to Refuse and the end of occupation that is not good for Israel," Adivi says.
Members of Jews for a Just Peace North Carolina--including The Independent's founder, Steve Schewel--are raising money to help pay the $1,500 monthly salary that Swirski will forfeit while in jail. Checks can be made out to Jews for a Just Peace North Carolina and mailed to Adivi at: 114 Jasmine Court, Carrboro, N.C. 27510. Write "refusenik" in the memo line. For more information on the group's activities, visit: www.jfajpnc.org.