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Brit Tzedek v'Shalom

Jewish Alliance for Justice and Peace

Chapter Activities

Madison, WI

The Capital Times

Dissenting Pilot Captures the True Spirit of Israel
By Michael A. Gelman
March 19, 2005

In the Israel Defense Forces, pilots hold an elite status above that of other soldiers. The concept of "a Jewish air force," which brought tears of joy to many eyes when it was first uttered in 1948, still elicits an outpouring of pride from Israeli and American Jewish hearts alike.

It was thus heartening to see, one week ago, that this proud, courageous and quintessentially Jewish spirit lives on in Yonatan Shapira and in the 26 of his fellow pilots who, in 2002, co-signed a letter refusing to fly on attack missions into civilian population centers.

Shapira, a second-generation pilot and a grandson of Holocaust survivors who has rescued battlefield casualties and terror-bombing victims, spoke this month at two Madison synagogues and on campus. His soft-spoken demeanor, nuanced message and clearly stated love for Israel earned the respect of listeners from across the political spectrum.

He cited both the Jewish values of his upbringing and an Israel Defense Forces policy requiring soldiers to refuse illegal orders as justification for his actions, and is ready to risk jail time in order to defend his decisions in court. So far, the Israel Defense Forces has declined to prosecute, choosing instead to duck the issue of whether these attacks are illegal by dismissing him and his colleagues for "unauthorized use of flight suits" at a press conference announcing their stand.

The implications of misappropriating a flight suit represent only one area in which Israeli and American policies differ. Many among Shapira's audience, recalling the Vietnam era, were moved to wonder whether things would have been different if Americans had felt free to refuse to participate in the atrocities of that conflict.

Nowadays, when the word "Israel" conjures for many images of tanks and bulldozers, rubble and fleeing children, Shapira's message is needed to dispel the new anti-Semitic caricature and to demonstrate that Israel's spirit of tolerance and "purity of arms" lives on in every generation. He told stories of European and Palestinian audiences who, upon hearing him speak, saw Israelis humanized for the first time.

Shapira's questioners noted that Israel fights against enemies who ignore the rules of war; he responded that, if Israel's soul is to survive, the nation cannot continue on a path that leads it away from the commandment "Love thy neighbor as thyself." Devoting myriads of soldiers, and degrading over a million Palestinians, to protect a few thousand settlers in Gaza is a devil's bargain, said Shapira, but many Israelis have until now been so paralyzed by fear that they cannot see a way out.

For too long, American Jewish organizations have similarly been treating the conflict as a zero-sum game. Moderates on both sides know that the final settlement must be close to the model laid out in the unofficial Geneva Accord, but extremists are bent on creating "facts on the ground" to destroy the possibility of peace.

With the new Palestinian administration, a true opportunity to achieve a long-sought peace is upon us, but if we continue to live in fear, the moment will pass us by. It is our responsibility to seize that moment, inspired by the courageous spirit of Yonatan Shapira.

Michael A. Gelman is co-chairman of the Madison chapter of Brit Tzedek v'Shalom, the Jewish Alliance for Justice and Peace (www.btvshalom.org), a national organization of American Jews committed to Israel.

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