The Madison-Rafah Sister City Project

An Israeli Refuser’s Message for Peace

Ruth Conniff, The Progressive, March 7, 2005

On Saturday I sat with other members of the conservative synagogue in Madison, Wisconsin, listening to Yonatan Shapira, a pilot in the Israeli Air Force since 1991 before he was dismissed after refusing to serve in the Occupied Territories.

It was a controversial event. Shapira calls the bombing of the Occupied Territories illegal and immoral, and he makes a point of bringing his views to ardently pro-Israel groups, as well as pro-Palestinian activists. Tempers run high all around him. But the soft-spoken Shapira hits notes people on both sides seem able to hear. And this is perhaps the most compelling thing about him. As one of the members of Brit Tzedek v’Shalom (, the Jewish peace group that brought him to town, said, “Hearing him humanizes the Israeli side. And that’s important because getting beyond dehumanization is critical in getting to peace.”

Shapira sees the humanity of Palestinian civilians–the children who are “collateral damage” of missions his fellow pilots are asked to fly as no different than the humanity of Israeli civilians. And many of his colleagues in the Air Force feel the same way.

In October 2003, Shapira and 26 other pilots signed a letter refusing to participate in aerial attacks on populated areas of Palestine, saying the attacks did not serve Israel’s security. “These actions are illegal and immoral, and are a direct result of the ongoing occupation which is corrupting all of Israeli society,” the letter states. “Perpetuation of the occupation is fatally harming the security of the state of Israel and its moral strength.”

(For the full text of the letter see

I was impressed by Shapira’s answer to one of the members of the Madison congregation, who told him he had every right to make his appeal to Israel’s conscience at home. But here in the United States, especially in a liberal university town, he may be bolstering noxious anti-Israel and anti-Jewish sentiment.

Shapira listened, nodding, and then he explained: He has spoken to many groups of Europeans and Palestinians and others hostile to the Israeli government. Afterwards, audience members came up to tell him how much better they felt toward Israelis after hearing “a regular Israeli guy” like him. It makes sense. After all, refusing to admit doubt about the justice and morality of bombing civilians is hardly a path toward reconciliation or understanding.

Among Israelis, as a pilot, Shapira was a rock star. “Girls like you. Their mothers and grandmothers like you,” he joked. He and his 26 co-refusers traded in this popularity to speak their conscience. Because of that, they are uniquely effective messengers.

Yonatan Shapira’s decision to refuse orders is hard to argue with. The grandson of Holocaust survivors, he says he loves Israel and believes he must uphold the Jewish values he was raised with. That means, he says, the deliberate bombing of civilian residential areas, in order to kill suspected militants, is out of the question. He also says that he was taught in the Air Force that it is every soldier’s duty to disobey illegal orders, and so he feels that he is acting not only within his moral rights but within the law. So sure is he, he says he has invited prosecution, believing that the Israeli courts would find his refusal to be correct. The government has avoided a direct legal confrontation, which he takes as a sign that it feels its case is weak.

Israeli soldiers who are putting their lives on the line to defend the settlements are increasingly aware of both the strategic and the moral unworkability of the occupation, Shapira said in his talk. The doubts of the soldiers about the morality of their mission undermines Israel’s strength, he went on.

But his audience of American Jews demanded to know about the threats to “drive the Jews into the sea” and the refusal of many Palestinians and surrounding Arab countries to acknowledge Israel’s right to exist.

Shapira replied that Israel still has the strongest Army in the region. “We could take over Syria in three days,” he says. Abandoning the occupation will not make the Army suddenly weak.

Ultimately, most Israelis believe that a two-state solution, with the border between Israel and Palestine roughly tracing the 1967 borders, is inevitable, Shapira pointed out. The only question is how long will it take, and how many more people will die.

For his part, Shapira is determined to do what he can to stop the killing sooner, rather than later. Hearing him gave me hope.

Ruth Conniff is Political Editor of The Progressive.