To celebrate International Conscientious Objectors Day this year, one of our members reflects on their experience during a recent study tour meeting a family who refuse to be drafted into the Israeli army..
Maghar is a town of some 20,000 inhabitants: Muslim, Christian and Druze. We were here to visit the Druze family of Zaher Al-deen Saad. There is some uncertainty about the exact ethnicity of the Druze, who are concentrated in the mountains of Lebanon, but most Druze consider themselves to be Arab. The Druze religion is basically Muslim, but incorporating various Jewish, Christian, Gnostic, Neoplatonic and Iranian elements. Israel has tried to exploit the particularity of the Druze by according them a slightly higher status in Israel than that given to other Palestinians. One of these ‘privileges’ is the requirement for Druze males to do three years’ military service. Most Arabs living in Israel are exempt from this, which might seem to be to their advantage. But in order to be considered for a civil service job, to receive housing benefits, educational grants and other passepartouts to the good life, Israelis have to show that they have performed their military service. Thus most Israeli Arabs are condemned ipso facto to second-class citizenship.
– The IDF base in the Galilee which stares down on the Saad family home.
The Saad family – Zaher, his wife Muntaha, sons Mostafa and Gandhi, and daughter Tibah – invited us up to the roof of their home, from where we had a view over Maghar towards the Sea of Galilee. They said that their region was famous for producing high-quality olive oil. The Druze, they explained, had through the centuries lived on the hills, for self-defence. But now the settlers have come along and built on hilltops above them. The Saads pointed out the army base on top of their own hill.
There was another family member, who was not there: the oldest son, Omar. Omar, is well-known for having refused to do his military service. In an impassioned letter addressed to the Prime Minister and the Defence Minister of Israel, he had stated his objections to ‘taking part in oppressing my own people, the Palestinians, or fighting my Arab brother’, knowing that this would result in a jail sentence. He was subsequently imprisoned, and was so ill when he came out, said his father, that he had to be hospitalised. The hospital doctor said that if had been admitted two hours later he would have died. Omar then endured several re-incarcerations, before moving overseas to continue his education. The Saads’ second son, Mostafa, now awaits the call-up, and expects to go through the same experience of serial imprisonment that Omar underwent. And so this continues – Omar has served seven prison sentences so far as a Conscientious Objector, from 20 days to six months in length.
– Here the Saad trio play for members of the study tour at their home in Maghar.
The father, Zaher, told us that what was happening in Israel was like Germany in 1938. People see what’s going on, but daren’t say anything. Police brutality is as inhuman as police treatment of blacks in America. In fact it’s worse here, because the police are just as violent towards children as towards adults. He said there were 120,000 Druze, 130,000 Christians and 1 million Muslims in Israel. Some Christians and Bedouins were ‘invited’ to serve in the armed forces, but not obliged to. Only the Druze were compelled to do so. Israel, he said, wants the world to think that all Arabs hate Jews, but this is not true. Up until 1947, Jews and Arabs lived together as friends.
There is another reason why Omar al-Saad is famous: he’s appeared with Nigel Kennedy at a BBC Proms Concert in the Royal Albert Hall. At the end of the concert, his brother Mostafa returned to the stage to play a duet with Kennedy. Mostafa appeared again with Kennedy at the Bethlehem Unwrapped Festival at St James’s, Piccadilly in January 2014. In fact, all four siblings are accomplished musicians, and have formed their own musical group, the Galilee String Quartet. And, after another exquisite meal of Middle Eastern prodigality, we were treated to an extra delight: a performance of consummate professionalism by the Galilee String Quartet (sans Omar) of a repertoire ranging from Leonard Cohen to Mozart. (For an example of the Galilee String Quartet’s fine work, follow this link).
This was a miraculous way of bringing our tour to its conclusion. Despite all the misery we had seen, all the brutality we had witnessed, the hopelessness with which the very air itself often seemed instilled, here was a group of gifted and dedicated young musicians able to lift themselves and us the fortunate listeners, out of this world ‘where men sit and hear each other groan’, into a sphere where all the petty vindictiveness of Israeli apartheid fell back into the abyss whence it had sprung and to which it will inevitably return.
But not, to paraphrase Macbeth, without our stir. What we had seen on our tour convinced us that passive revulsion was not enough. Something would have to be done, or the last vestiges of Palestinian culture would wither on the vine. Since we were all agreed that violence only begets violence, we would have to appeal to the world’s conscience. The United Nations, with its various resolutions, has already set in place the framework for justice, starting with Resolution 194, the Palestinians’ Right of Return.
The following morning, before taking Salim’s minibus to the airport for our return to the UK, we sat down to discuss our conclusions from the tour, and what we must do to ensure that the lessons we’d learned would bear practical fruit. We acknowledged that it’s up to people like us, fortunate enough to come on a tour of such comprehensive scope, to work indefatigably to mobilise enough indignation back home to compel those people in New York and London to recognise what’s happening in Israel-Palestine and do the right thing at last. It might perhaps be presumptuous, but I hope not irredeemably irreverent, to note that we came to this quasi-evangelical resolution in the town of Nazareth.
– With thanks to John G for his reflections.