by Naomi Foyle
Dancer, choreographer, angel therapist and ex-IDF soldier Daniel Vais gave an extraordinary and compelling performance at the Friends Meeting House in Brighton last night. For over an hour and a half he spoke about his traumatic experiences as an Israeli army conscript in the early nineties, and his subsequent efforts not only to heal himself of the resultant anger, humiliation and shame, but also to find solutions to the racism and hatred pervading his culture of origin.
A sensitive, artistic, flamboyant gay teenager, Daniel first ignored his call up papers; then he tried to fool the interview panel into thinking he was stupid, a prostitute, a drug addict and, finally, suicidal. But at that time, psychological frailty was not sufficient reason to be excused from military service, and to be a refusenik was unheard of. Daniel’s parents, an Iraqi Jewish mother and Hungarian father, delivered him to his captors, proudly waving him off to what he thought would be his death. That day, he told us, a crack opened up in his heart. He realised that his country and his family were making a willing sacrifice of his youth, and possibly his life, all to fight an ‘enemy’ he knew did not exist. To serve one’s country, he has always believed, is to farm the land, or help those with special needs; not to kill one’s neighbours.
Daniel’s account of his training period and continued attempts to rebel against the indoctrination and strict discipline was both funny and chilling. While the thought of him pleading with his officers to let him bring his own hairdresser in to shave his head had the audience in giggles, we were also acutely reminded of the process of dehumanisation that aims to turn naïve and vibrant young people into cogs in a killing machine. Some soldiers, as Daniel reported, take to this process willingly, enjoying the power a gun and uniform brings them. Some, like Daniel, go numb, hide their feelings away. But faced with a sadistic punishment for daring to look an officer in the eyes, Daniel found strength in himself he did not know existed. He redoubled his efforts to sabotage the whole project in as many ways as he could, including putting sand in the engines of tanks. But to no avail: though it was recognised he would not be a good bet on the front lines, he was posted to Gaza as a sentry.
At this point in his story, Daniel said many things that were hard to hear – his reports of Palestinians subjected to beatings around the head with rifle butts, or victims of cruel games played at checkpoints by bored teenagers with guns, were painful examples of the endemic abuses many at the event – co-hosted by Brighton and Hove Palestine Solidarity Campaign – are committed to resisting. He also described a moment of great anguish, when, hearing the screams of women and children he thought were being tortured and killed, he felt so overcome with fear and horror he thought he would die. Only the intervention of a voice in his head, telling him to dance and sing, saved his body and soul from shutting down. The experience gave him spiritual beliefs that sustain him to this day. And hope was evident in other aspects of this narration too: it was always clear to Daniel that the Palestinians were human beings suffering a grave injustice at the hands of Israel; even confronted with order after order to collude with this abuse of human rights, he refused, obeying instead the dictates of his conscience. At one point he threatened to hand his weapons over to the Palestinians.
In his performance, Daniel also said things that perhaps some activists, accustomed to looking at the conflict in the Middle East predominantly at a political level, might find challenging. Describing his futile efforts to help an old Palestinian man with seven children to get a pass to cross into Israel to work, he stated that he, a young man forced to carry a gun and enforce arbitrary restrictions, was more of a victim than the desperate father. This might seem at first unlikely, but thinking about it more I thought I understood what Daniel meant: despite his desperation, humiliation and hunger, the old man at least had nothing to reproach himself about. Daniel was being forced to be an agent of oppression, to perform acts he would feel deeply ashamed of, and spend two decades trying to expunge. Existentially speaking, one could argue that it is infinitely worse to be the perpetrator than the victim of a crime. And without comparing levels of suffering, it is important to remember that ordinary Israelis also are victims of the conflict, their very humanity damaged by the vicious ideology of their state.
Daniel warned that Israeli intransigence reaches deep into the psyche of its citizens, who are brainwashed into believing that unless they stick together they will not survive. To the average Israeli citizen, the state can therefore do no wrong. He told us, for example, that it is common knowledge in Israel that the assault on the Mavi Marmara was a botched operation: that the commandos had orders not to fire, but the first solider coming down the ropes panicked and shot an activist, leading to the deaths of nine men. Nevertheless, the Israeli public empathises not with the victims of the attack, but with the commando: just a vulnerable soldier doing his job. He cautioned that confronting Israelis with their misdeeds would only inflame their extremist view that ‘everyone is against them’. To call oneself pro-Palestinian, he thinks, implies that one is anti-Israeli, which is not a basis on which to convince Israelis to change. Throughout his talk he emphasized his own refusal to judge others, and his decision to love everyone. Again, this message might frustrate or exasperate some activists, whose role it is to openly confront and challenge injustice wherever it occurs, and who are adamantly opposed to the current policies of the state of Israel. But this would be to miss both the complexity and evolving nature of Daniel’s views and approach.
First, it was clear that Daniel himself struggles with the appropriate response to the sickness that is Zionism. While he wishes to have good relations with his family, he nevertheless does confront them with their racism, and in very personal terms: he asks his sister and brother-in-law if they are good parents to allow their children to grow hating Arabs, or to watch live TV footage of the assault on Mavi Marmara (another shocking revelation). His persistence has had results: his sister has moved from being a right-wing settler to someone who has apologised on her blog for inciting hatred against Arabs, and now buys her vegetables from Palestinians. And while Daniel believes that the boycott movement runs the risk of feeding the right wing Israeli survivalist mentality, he is also encouraged by the South African precedent: he stated that if BDS is taken up by the whole world, and presented to Israelis as a movement that can save lives, it can work. Politically, he welcomes the upcoming Palestinian declaration of statehood, though he envisions that due to transmigration, in thirty or forty years a One State solution will come.
Daniel’s performance starts and ends on the subject of forgiveness. It is hard, and takes a big person, to say you are sorry and ask for forgiveness, he observed, but that is what he, as an Israeli is doing. He also forgives his officers for their brutality, and any Palestinian who may have hurt Israelis. Once more, some activists may argue that this kind of personal transformation is not enough, that we cannot put the cart of Reconciliation, before the horse of Truth. But at the same time, as Joel Kovel argues in Overcoming Zionism, for Israel to acknowledge its crimes against Palestine and ask for forgiveness is an essential part of the political process that needs to occur in the Middle East (p240). And for individuals to do this in their own lives can only aid that process. Ultimately, there are many levels to Truth. That the Occupation is the root cause of the violence on both sides of the Israel-Palestine conflict is one Truth. That we must be the change we want to see in the world is another Truth: one that Aung San Suu Kyi reminds of us in both word and deed. These Truths are not hierarchical; they co-exist and we would do well to remember them both.
Warm, open, and highly articulate, Daniel Vais is a peacemaker, one who is perhaps just beginning to do his most important work in the world. He has always challenged racism in his own family and friends, in ways that he finds effective. Currently, speaking out openly in Israel does not feel like an option for him: if he gave his performance in Israel, he would be branded a traitor. BHPSC and the Brighton Unemployed Centre are to be commended for providing a safe space for him to tell his story and engage in productive and positive dialogue with activists and members of the general public. I came home reflecting on the challenging points that he raised. In my experience the Palestine Solidarity Campaign is actively anti-racist and anti-Semitic, and favours any solution that will bring peace and justice to the region, thus benefit all the people who live there. Perhaps the name of this group ‘British Writers in Support of Palestine’ suggests a hostile partisanship, but that is not the case. BWISP is actively supported by Israelis who share our belief that Palestinians, excluded for so long from mainstream political discourse, need both recognition and outspoken support. I absolutely do not believe that the solidarity movement should pander to right-wing fears, or violate the boycott call, but at the same time I recognise the need to put our uncompromising message across to ordinary Israelis in ways that they can hear. I myself will endeavour to do so more frequently and persuasively in my own work.
Palestine needs far more Israelis like Daniel, and it is to be hoped that Daniel may also be strengthened by his involvement with the solidarity campaign. By making links with other anti-Zionist Israelis and Palestinians he may yet find ways to bring his profoundly anti-racist and anti-war message to the lion’s den that is Israel. Meanwhile, I encourage everyone with an interest in the conflict in the Middle East, and, in general, in peace, to see his deeply honest and gripping performance.
To book Daniel Vais, email firstname.lastname@example.org