Meet Bibi Netanyahu's Refusenik Nephew Who Says That Israel Is an Apartheid State
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Jonathan Ben-Artzi, a mathematician at Cambridge University, is a young Israeli who refused to serve in the Israeli Defense Forces, and was imprisoned for over a year for doing so. Ben-Artzi echoes the views of many Israeli peace activists – a view almost totally missing from the discourse in this country. He laments the fact that, in his view, the country has indeed become an “apartheid state,” and supports the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement (BDS) – positions that are considered way beyond the pale in the U.S.
Although brave, Ben-Artzi's story is not terribly remarkable. Refuseniks, as they're known in Israel, are few in number but not unheard of. What makes Ben-Artzi's experience especially noteworthy is that his uncle is Israel's right-wing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Jonathan Ben-Artzi appeared on this week's AlterNet Radio Hour (he said he didn't want to talk about his family's private affairs, and we respected that wish). A lightly edited transcript is below (you can listen to the whole show here).
Joshua Holland: Jonathan, you chose to become a conscientious objector rather than serve in the military. You’ve written about how your family has a tradition of service going back to Israel’s War of Independence in 1948. How difficult was this decision for you? I’d have to assume you were under a lot of pressure to conform and go into military service.
Jonathan Ben-Artzi: No, actually not. My close family was very supportive. Moreover I was always one to make my own decisions and not pay too much attention to what others thought.
I always knew that for me it was the right thing to do and there was no doubt that I could not join the military. The only question was what precisely to do, but that too was, for me, pretty straightforward at the time. I didn’t see any other way. In fact there isn’t really any other way for anyone who sees things differently in Israel but to do this. There are only two or three options I guess. One option is to be ultra-orthodox, in which case you’re exempt. That’s something that might be changing now, so it’s not clear. Another option is to go to a psychiatrist and try to convince them by actually portraying yourself as someone who is in bad mental health -- or paying enough money to the psychiatrist to give you a note that will release you from the military. Or you can say what your conscience tells you; what your beliefs are. Then you face whatever consequences there are.
JH: So you say that you always knew. I assume that means going back to your childhood that this was going to be the course you would decide to take. So there wasn’t a crystalizing event or some defining moment that made you decide to take this course of action?
JBA: I mean, when one grows up there are all sorts of events happening. We’ve always had close family and family friends living in occupied territories, mostly in Bethlehem. I’ve always been politically aware. More generally, I regard myself as a pacifist, which sort of transcends, as far as I see it, the specifics of the Israeli-Palestinian situation.
Something that really influenced me was when I was in high school I visited France and saw some of the battlefields of World War I. You see these crazy, endless graveyards of people who died for nothing. These kinds of things led me to these beliefs.
JH: After a protracted court fight, you were actually incarcerated for a year and a half for these beliefs. You wrote that the army imprisoned you despite calls for your release by Amnesty International and the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. We don’t hear a lot about refuseniks in the American media. How prevalent are conscientious objectors staying out of the Israeli military?