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Brit Tzedek v'Shalom
Jewish Alliance for Justice and Peace
St. Louis, MO
Refuser Pilot Speaks to Crowd at Shaare Emeth
Discussions of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict often stir strong emotions, and such was the case on March 8, when close to 200 people attended a presentation on the subject at Shaare Emeth. The event, sponsored by Brit Tzedek v'Shalom and the Refuser Solidarity Network, featured a talk by Yonatan Shapira, a former captain in the Israeli Air Force who was removed from his position after authoring the "Pilot's Letter" declaring his refusal to participate in air attacks on populated areas in Palestinian sections.
"When (Brit Tzedek) called to ask about using the temple for this event, we were excited to say yes. We wanted to present a voice that is not generally heard in St. Louis. We want to see a safe Israel and we each have different ideas on how to reach that point, but we have to be respectful of everyone's ideas," said Rabbi Andrea Goldstein of Shaare Emeth.
Brit Tzedek describes itself as the Jewish Alliance for Justice and Peace. According to local member Ken Schechtman, the organization has 10,000 members nationally, and "tens of thousands" of others who support the group and have signed petitions supporting its ideas. Schechtman stated that the group's goals include a "secure Israel and a prosperous Palestine" as part of a two-state system with Jerusalem as the capital of both. In order to accomplish this, the group advocates complete withdrawal of Israeli settlers from the Gaza Strip and most of the West Bank, except for some of the more highly populated areas.
"Just like friends don't let friends drive drunk, friends don't ignore decades of self-defeating occupation. We are seeking a renaissance in Jewish thinking. We need to change the [U.S] from uncritical cheerleader to a true friend who will support Israel when it is right but will speak up when it (Israel) is wrong. Our vision is that the president can express support for Israel, but can also speak out against Israeli governmental policies that he disagrees with," Shechtman said.
Shapira, who was eventually joined by 26 other pilots, talked about his background and the events that led up to his writing the letter.
"My English is basic, but a year and a half ago, I learned to say no. With what I say and do, everything comes from a place of love for country, my people and Jewish tradition. I hope to change reality for all, not only my religion. I want o contribute to the future of my family and neighbors. I was brought up with a Zionist, Jewish background, with a secular education. I learned the values of our tradition, of equality, freedom and justice. I was proud to be a part of my nation, but at the same time, the country and army controlled 3.5 million people who are living without any of those things," said Shapira who served as a rescue and assault pilot in the Israeli Air Force's Black Hawk Helicopter squadron.
"Both myself and Israeli society suffered from a mental disorder, a split personality. I was against the war in Lebanon and the radical settlements, and all of my friends were against it, but as a soldier, I must support Israel. That's how the system works. I once flew a mission and a few hours later, I was at a protest in Tel Aviv," said Shapira.
Shapira condemned the Israeli policy of "targeted assassination" of terrorists suggesting that in "the Orwellian method... the assassinations were not targeted at all," and often resulted in numerous civilian injuries or deaths. He stated that as the missile and bomb attacks on cars of terrorists far outside of towns moved closer to towns, and then into towns, the results were that more than 50 percent of those harmed or killed would be innocents. He believes that while many of the intended targets were terrorists, bad people guilty of committing crimes, he questioned if the resulting injury to civilians justified the attacks.
Shapira described the "last straw" as coming in a series of events in July 2002. Early in the month, he helped fly survivors from a suicide bombing to a hospital in Tel Aviv. During the eight-minute flight, he flew over a wedding.
"I saw the chuppah and the dancing, and I thought that these people are not aware of what is going on (nearby)," Shapira said.
Three weeks later, Israeli forces responded by dropping a one-ton bomb on the Gaza home of a Hamas leader. In the process, Shapira claims, the bomb killed 14 innocents, including children.
"As a soldier, I was taught to fight the enemy, not children, babies or women," Shapira said.
These events led to him writing the letter, which "objects to illegal and immoral actions which are the result of the occupation." Shapira and the 26 other soldiers who signed the letter stated that they were willing to follow orders and every mission, and would serve in the Israeli Defense Force, but not in the "occupation force."
All were subsequently removed from their Air Force positions.
"Israel is a great democracy, where the freedom of speech is more than you have in the U.S., but once you cross the 1967 borders, it is not a democracy. We are obligated to speak for the Israelis and Palestinians who cannot speak for themselves. It is not a war between races or nations. It is a life [to say that it is]. Israel has the strongest army in the Middle East. If it was a war, we could end it in two days. We are fighting to continue the occupation," Shapira said.
While many in the audience expressed their approval of Shapira's message, with applause during the speech, and with comments during a question and answer session, the event was not without controversy or critics.
"There were members of the congregation and in the community at large who were concerned that this would lead to a lot of public criticism of Israel and of Jews, but in the same way that he prefaced his talk by addressing his love of Israel, they feel that their displeasure also comes from a love of Israel," said Rabbi Goldstein. "It's just that people have different ways of expressing their ideas, and they can agree to disagree. We wanted a place that was open to different voices, and hopefully it can be used as a way to move ahead."