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A Letter to the President of Israel’s Supreme Court

 

Supreme Court President, Aharon Barak,

My son, Jonathan (Yoni) Ben-Artzi, is a pacifist. He refused to enlist for military service and asked for an alternative civil service. As a student of Physics and Mathematics, he believed he could best serve the Israeli Society by tutoring children in underprivileged schools, for example.

Yoni’s request was rebuffed by the Army. He was called up for service on August 8, 2002. He came to the Induction Center, refused to wear uniform and was immediately incarcerated in Military Prison 4, for a one-month term. Here is the statement he made to the officer who sentenced him that day:

“I, Jonathan Ben-Artzi, am refusing to join the army on grounds of pacifism. My deep belief in non-violence began when I was still a small child, and developed over the years into a broad political and philosophical perception. Because of my beliefs, my own country is going to throw me in jail, in defiance of all international laws and basic moral values. I will go to prison proudly, knowing that this is the least I can do to improve the face of this country.”

Yoni has been consecutively sentenced seven times, for the same crime, and has spent over 200 (two hundred) days in Military Prison 4. I am sure that in your capacity as President of the Supreme Court the tough reputation of this prison has reached your ear. However, I suspect that you have never visited the place, neither in the blistering days of August nor the freezing nights of January. I shall spare you details of the life in prison, only to tell you that the Army did not succeed in breaking Yoni’s spirit or making him change his mind. Quite contrary, he was heartened by knowing that the prison has since added to its inmate list seventeen conscientious young men, who, resenting the purposeless violence of the Israeli military, have asked for alternative civil service.

Alarmed by the growing number of such courageous boys, the Army decided to do what it knows how to do best: To use more force. On February 19, 2003, Yoni was ordered to stand trial by Court-Martial. The logic underlying the Army’s decision was simple: The military court is only authorized to deal with soldiers and Yoni is already a soldier who refuses to sign the papers that will render him a soldier… After so many months of arbitrary detention, Yoni was ready to face the challenge. He had only one condition: He wanted real justice.

He therefore petitioned to you, the President of the Supreme Court, asking for his case to be transferred to the consideration of a civil court. The appeal was drafted by Adv. Avigdor Feldmann, a prominent human rights lawyer, and Adv. Michael Sfard, a young lawyer specializing in International Law.

You surely agree that the document submitted in Yoni’s name was a scholarly work worthy of its authors, and even more so, worthy of the presumed spirit of our society. It reminded you that no military tribunal is empowered to decide whether a person is a soldier or a civilian; that matters of conscience should be debated within the framework of the civil society, by their very nature; that all aspects of civil service are under the jurisdiction of the civil system. It recalled foreign court rulings (so well familiar to you) indicating that these principles are universally accepted in all democratic countries, since many decades.

The hearing of the case was set to April 8, 2003. It was an early morning session, and the two Justices that accompanied you seemed quite sleepy and never uttered a word. You, on the other hand, were very active. Indeed, so much so, that you saw to it that the attorney representing the Army had nothing much to do. First, you concurred with the Army that Yoni was already a soldier. Then, you argued that the military judges were perfectly qualified to deal with questions of pacifism, fairly and knowledgeably. Perhaps you do not know, but two of the three judges in Yoni’s tribunal are officers who have no college degree and have never attended a course in either Law or Philosophy. Finally, when Yoni’s lawyer pointed out that conscientious objectors were always tried in civil courts, you retorted by mentioning that Dreyfus (!) had been convicted in a military court (and then finally acquitted in a civilian one…). Yoni stood no chance. You handed him over to the Army that had already sentenced him seven times.

Yoni was sitting right in front of you during the hearing, but you did not seem to have noticed him. Let me tell you a few things about him. His maternal grandfather Moshe had managed to escape Nazi Europe and to arrive in Palestine just in time to fight in Israel’s War of Independence. He was wounded and spent six months in hospital. While in hospital, his son Zvi was born. Two years later Ofra, Yoni’s mother, was born. Twenty years later Zvi, a paratrooper, fell in battle. Yoni’s older brother was named after him. He too served in the Army. When Yoni’s turn came, he drew the line beyond which he would not go. No more futile wars, no more bloodshed.

It may sound ironic that Yoni and you studied in the same prestigious Hebrew University High School. When you came to the school to deliver a speech on human rights, he was deeply impressed. Unfortunately, this experience helped set him on a path that carried him to your Court last week.

You seem to like your image as a judge who epitomizes the most revered values of human rights. It serves you well here and abroad, among your peers. You never miss a conference dedicated to this issue. At the latest one, last week, at the Hebrew University, you preached to our Parliament (and I translate from the Hebrew text):
“The Knesset should establish, loudly and in clear voice, the principles of equality, freedom of expression, rights of defendants and all other human rights-civil, political and social. I deeply regret the fact that the Knesset is not doing that”.
The annals of our Supreme Court tell a different story. During your tenure as Justice (and President since 1995) human rights in this country have been severely eroded. Your Court has shamefully succumbed to every whim of the military. Innocent youths were kidnapped in Lebanon to be used as bargaining chips-and your Court approved it. Administrative detentions were imposed by the thousands-but all the appeals to you were dismissed. Targeted killings that took the lives of hundreds of innocent bystanders, cruel closures that wreaked havoc among millions of Palestinians (so that Jewish fanatics could be unabated in their festivities), inhumane destruction of the livelihood of tens of thousands of families–all these have been repeatedly legitimized by your Court.

You gave the Army Generals a free hand, wrapped in a deceptive shield of enlightenment. And when a few boys dared to express their conscientious objection to those evils-you denied them a fair hearing, their basic right of legal defense.

Yoni and his friends, in their young age, have demonstrated their humanity. You did not see it fit to protect their rights.

With due respect,
MATANIA BEN-ARTZI

 

PS. During the Week of Human Rights last December (yes, here we celebrate a full week, not just a single day) you were scheduled to appear at the Van-Leer Institute, alongside the Chief Military Prosecutor, General Finkelstein. On this occasion Ofra and I handed out a flyer to the participants. I am attaching it herein, for your convenience.
***********************************************************
Aharon Barak and Menachem Finkelstein,
You are celebrating here today the “International Week of Human Rights”- a hypocritical and sanctimonious festival.
This same week: Millions of people are subjected to a cruel and brutal occupation.

**YOU PUT ON IT A FACADE OF JUSTICE AND ENLIGHTENMENT**

This same week: More than seven thousand people are locked up in detention camps, deprived of minimal humane conditions. They have never been brought to court.

** YOU ARE RESPONSIBLE FOR THAT **

This same week: And since many years, the ewe-lamb of the poor is robbed by an evil, war seeking hand. Across the fields of Samaria, the dogs lick up the blood of Naboth.

** YOU NEVER STOPPED THEM **

This same week: YOU threw in jail clear-eyed and pure-hearted boys. Their only sin was that they followed their conscience.
YOU know that you will not silence their voice. YOU know they will win.
The Chronicles of Mankind will tell you that.
When the prophet Isaiah said:
“He eagerly looked for justice, but see, bloodshed! For righteousness, and lo, a cry of distress”, HE WAS REFERRING TO YOU.

YOU WILL NOT ESCAPE THE DAY OF REQUITAL.

“ALL THAT IS REQUIRED FOR EVIL TO TRIUMPH IS FOR GOOD MEN TO DO NOTHING” (Edmund Burke).
“The world stands on three pillars: The truth, the justice and the peace. And these three are indeed one. When justice is served, truth is served, peace is served” (Rabbi Shimon Ben-Gamliel, Talmudic sage).
***********************************************************

 

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