Israeli activist Eitan Bronstein Aparicio: “Serving in the Jewish army shaped me as an anti-Zionist today”

Eitan Bronstein Aparicio left Tel-Aviv for Brussels in 2019. He went from serving in the Israeli army for years to becoming one of the most prominent voices in the anti-Zionist left. Through organizations like Zochrot and De-colonizer, he organized political education in Israel, raising awareness of the Nakba (The expulsion of Palestinians by Israel during the 1948 war, ed.), and the roots of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. De Moeial had the opportunity to meet with him, and learn about his history with the Israeli army and his evolution towards anti-Zionism: “The soldiers fighting today make me furious, but at the same time I still identify with them. I feel for them.”

Text: Tessa Cacciato and Isla Howie

Image: Tessa Cacciato

You lived and grew up in Israel, and even served in the Israeli army for years. Can you tell us how you evolved  towards resistance?  

“I served in the Israeli army for a long time, and even became a commander in the artillery. In 1983, I was called up to serve in the war against Lebanon, but after a lot of hesitation, I refused. I had always been a good soldier, and up until then I had never refused an order. But I opposed this war from the beginning. It was the first time that a substantial and controversial refusal-movement arose amongst soldiers, and while only 200 people refused in total, each one of them got media attention. This sparked a lot of controversy: is it okay to follow your conscience rather than to obey your state obligation? I decided that the latter doesn’t have any justification in a war, my own conscience was more important. So I opposed it. 

“During the first Intifada in 1988, when the Palestinians rose up for their independence, I refused for the second time. But all the other times I did serve, every year until I was forty. I wasn’t a pacifist nor an anti-Zionist. I only refused a few specific missions. I’m not very proud of it today, but it’s a part of my life. It was only later that I understood that it was wrong.”

What are the consequences for someone who refuses to fight?

“You are sent to jail for a few weeks. That experience was essential for my understanding of the situation, because I met other soldiers who refused. But most people didn’t support my decision – even some of my close family and friends didn’t understand. Some appreciated that I did what I believed to be right. In the army, some soldiers even told me they agreed with me. But they were too afraid to do it themselves. Money also played a role. If you don’t serve, you don’t get paid. That’s literally the price you pay.”

At what moment did you change your mind about the missions that you did serve as a soldier?

“I’ve always been interested in political education and I did many educational projects in Israel. In a place called The School for Peace, I organized encounters between Jews and Palestinians in Israeli schools. Sometimes we even worked with the West Bank and Gaza. As an organizer and moderator in these discussions, I went through a long personal process of formation. I started realizing that I was the colonizer. And even now, after I have left Israel and moved to Brussels, a big part of me still is a colonizer. My memories remind me that I will forever share my culture and language with the oppressing force . I’m still connected to Israel, and I can’t run away from my past, even though I consider myself to be an anti-Zionist today. 

“During the second Intifada (The uprising of Palestinians against Israeli occupation between 2000 and 2005, ed.), I was part of the Jews demonstrating in solidarity with the Palestinians. When I saw the Israeli army kill 13 demonstrators, citizens of Israel, I realized that the Jewish state would never cease to repress its opponents. It’s as simple as that. Arabs are allowed to live in Israel, but the moment they identify as Palestinians, the Jewish state repudiates them. Right now, there are no explicit demonstrations in solidarity with Gaza, because people are afraid and oppressed. When I understood all of this, I reflected on my life in retrospect, and realized I would have done things differently if only I realized earlier. For example, when my oldest son joined the Israeli army, I was very proud.”

Does your past bother you?

“Yes, of course it bothers me. I remember taking part in things that were very problematic. But that is what shaped me into the anti-Zionist I am today. The horrible videos that are now being published showing proud Israeli soldiers drawing on bombs before they shoot them, are familiar to me. I used the same bombs. I am a part of it. When I see these soldiers, in a way I see myself. I could have met them, and maybe we would have been friends. They make me so angry, yet I still identify with them. I feel bad for them. It’s a very deep form of understanding the problems.”

With the organization ‘Zochrot’, you raised awareness of Palestinian history –  especially the Nakba –  in Israel. Why is it important to inform Israelis on their history with Palestine?

“In a way it’s the same as the Dutch learning about their colonial past with Indonesia, or the Belgians learning about the colonization of Congo. If people don’t learn about the roots of the conflict, they accept it as normal. Growing up in Israel, you don’t learn about our colonial history. We didn’t know anything about the oppression of Palestinians, except that Palestine and the Arab countries objected to the partition plan of 1947, and that this resulted in a short war where Israel lost some important battles. “They started a war and we fought back”, is what they teach you in school. 

“Studying the Nakba, the expulsion of Palestinians out of their homes and the complete destruction of most of their cities, reveals a completely different side of history. . We’re talking about systematic military operations by armed units, well trained and equipped, against civilians. There was very little resistance from the locals. The Zionists just kicked them out. If we understand this, the Right of Return (The  principle that Palestinian refugees have the right to return to their homeland after their 1948 expulsion and flight, ed.) becomes an obvious right. It must be fully acknowledged by everyone, even by the Israelis, in order to talk about reconciliation. Without this prospect, we’ll end up fighting forever. 

Do the people of Israel refuse or deny this information?

“Not exactly. Before we started the project, a google search about the Nakba in Hebrew would have gotten zero results, now there are millions. So it’s safe to say that we raised a lot of awareness throughout the Israeli community. Israel is seen as the startup nation. Zionists were able to create their own language, state and culture in only 120 years. This was a huge revolution: a whole new culture. Israelis are initiators, and very curious to understand things. 

“So putting a different focus on their history obviously raises a lot of interest. Many Israeli communities are based in cities and villages that used to be Palestinian before the Nakba. Some of them know this, but they have no idea what it used to be like. One kibbutz (A communal farm or settlement in Israel, ed.) wanted to connect with Palestinians, and asked me to bring them in contact with each other.  

“We organized a meeting between the two groups, who lived barely two kilometers from each other. Somehow they had never met or talked before. The communities are totally disconnected from the place they live in. After this meeting, many were interested to know more. It was very provocative and also raised some media attention. ”

Was there any pushback to the education you guys were trying to give to the people of Israel?

“The government passed a law to prevent people from learning about the Nakba, which made people question why they felt the need to have such a law. It had the opposite effect of what the government wanted.”

The opposition to Netanyahu is growing in Israel. Does this mean that the population  does not support what he is doing in Gaza right now?

“If there was an election now, Netanyahu’s government would lose in an unprecedented way.  Most of the population consider him responsible for the defeat on the 7th of October and the lives lost that day. They do, however, mostly support the war in Gaza, as they consider it a war against the Hamas terrorists and a justified reaction to the October 7th attacks.

“Of course there are some people who support the existence of Palestine as a nation, but the majority will never accept a two state solution (The establishment of Palestine and Israel as two independent states, ed.). It’s a very tricky situation.”

Recent history for the Jews has been one of huge collective trauma and pain. Many people wonder why they would accept the genocide of other people, after they have gone through this same pain last century.

“The Israeli understanding of the Holocaust is that it is a terrible, generational trauma for Jewish people. The lesson they learned is not that it will never happen again, but that it should never happen again to them. They believe that they can prevent this from happening by creating a strong Jewish state.

“Every high school in Israel travels to the camps in Poland to talk about how terrible the Holocaust was, and how Israel is now strong enough to prevent it from ever happening again. They are given a speech by the chief of command about this strong army, as well as about Hamas.

“Conversely, Hamas is taught to be the new nazis: “If we fight Hamas, we are fighting the nazis.” It doesn’t matter that Palestinians had nothing to do with the Holocaust. Israel has to defend themselves and only themselves. That is also the reason why many Jews proudly proclaim that there is currently a second Nakba going on in Palestine. They are proudly repeating 1948. They didn’t draw the same lessons from it that you and I might have, but rather see it as the event that created two nations.  Israelis believe that Israel can only exist because of the Nakba. Everything is created by it. It’s the core of the state.”

Universities around the world are calling for an academic boycott. Do you believe this is important?

“Yes, it’s very important. Boycotts –  such as  not letting Israel join the Eurovision competition –  would have  a huge impact, since Israel holds initiatives like this in high regard. ”An academic boycott is not aimed towards Israeli scientists personally, but towards Israeli institutions. It’s not anti-academic, nor anti-semitic, it’s anti-genocide. The students mobilizing and educating themselves and their peers are doing amazing things, and I appreciate that students do what they can, even if the university doesn’t accept the boycott. It does make an impact.”

 

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