Our upbringings could hardly be more different, but the kinship I’ve found with an Israeli military veteran makes me want to bring him to my next family reunion. Yonatan Shapira was born on an Israeli air force base one year before his father flew fighter jets in the 1973 Yom Kippur War against Egypt and Syria. He dreamed of following in his father’s footsteps. Upon complying with Israel’s military draft, his dream came true when he became an air force helicopter pilot.
My sister was born the same year as Shapira while my parents served as schoolteachers in Botswana with Mennonite Central Committee. My father had received a teaching deferment from the draft during the Vietnam War. Raised with my family’s Mennonite values, at age 18 I refused the draft by writing on my Selective Service form: “I am a conscientious objector to participation in war in any form.” I, too, served with MCC—in Palestine and Israel—finishing my term last year.
I was born into a tradition of peace. Shapira was born into a place of violence. Last year, Israel’s 51-day assault on Gaza killed some 2,200 Palestinians, most of them civilians. At the same time, Palestinian militants killed 66 Israeli soldiers and six civilians in Israel. I first met Shapira in Norway a month after the ceasefire. We’ve both married Norwegian citizens, though Shapira and his wife live in Tel Aviv. In the home of the Nobel Peace Prize, the Oslo Peace Accords and now my home as well, his story challenged me to consider new paths to peace.
I wish our paths had crossed sooner. At a family reunion shortly before our MCC term, Ingrid, my wife, and I were invited to share about our upcoming assignment. On the day of our presentation, a cousin who had recently returned from a Holy Land prophecy tour happened to be wearing a souvenir “Israeli Air Force” T-shirt. One of my first photos, from an MCC freelance assignment the previous year, showed 6-year-old Ali Badredin of southern Lebanon—a triple-amputee who had lost a hand and both legs to Israeli bombs.
My cousin asked, If MCC helps those injured by Israeli violence, does it also help Israeli children? A fair question. My answer: Because Israel has world-class socialized health care, Israelis have access to the care they need. MCC partners with several Israeli organizations, but, as anywhere else in the world, aid should always go where it’s needed most, since all sides do not have equal resources.
My cousin and I may wear our politics on our sleeves, but Mennonites of all stripes typically want to hear from “both sides” in the interest of balance. But there are always more than just two sides in any conflict.
Shapira is a veteran of the air force emblazoned on my cousin’s T-shirt, and I wish he could have been there to respond to my cousin’s question. After 12 years of military service, Shapira joined 26 comrades in signing what became known as “The Pilots’ Letter.”
“We decided we are no longer willing to be obedient soldiers in what we see as a criminal action against innocent civilians,” says Shapira. “I dedicated my life since then to the struggle for peace.”
As Shapira explains in his characteristically soft and understated tones, this decision put him and his friends in “an uncomfortable position.”
“We are seen as traitors, as lunatics, as crazy people,” says Shapira. “I’m living there with my family, and I have people from all the spectrum of political views. My sister’s husband is a military guy and I have to see him.”
At my family reunion, Shapira could have also answered a more basic question from my oldest uncle: “What are they fighting about?”
“I want to break notions that it’s an ongoing conflict of religions,” says Shapira. “It’s true that religion has a lot to do with what’s happening now and it’s getting more extreme. But this conflict between Israel and Palestine is a land dispute. It’s a colonial power struggling against native people who want to be free and equal.”
As a Jewish Israeli, Shapira decided to “join the struggle of the colonized against the colonizer in order to have everyone living as equal—Jews, Muslims, Christians, atheists.”
Acknowledging that some struggle is violent and some struggle is nonviolent, Shapira’s first step was to help start a group called Combatants for Peace, which brings together Israeli ex-soldiers with Palestinian ex-militants. According to Shapira, stepping into a room with people who once wanted to kill you—and you were supposed to kill them—was “one of the most significant experiments I ever had in my life.”
After hearing each other’s stories, says Shapira, “the ‘we’ and ‘them’ you had before cannot exist anymore.”
But though this experience was transformative, Shapira came to see the implied symmetry of such dialogue groups as problematic.
“It’s not a conflict of equal parties,” says Shapira. “It’s not that you have two countries fighting each other. So there is a problem when you create something based on equal power balance—which it’s totally not.”
Shapira’s critique of such dialogue dynamics challenges the Mennonite tendency to say, “ ‘Peace, peace,’ when there is no peace.”
“I am a peace activist and I dream about peace,” says Shapira. “But the word peace was so abused by the international community and Israeli institutions. The word peace is problematic now. Let’s talk about justice. Let’s talk about liberation—and then peace will come.”
This does not mean that Shapira has abandoned dialogue entirely. “I owe my life to dialogue,” he says. “In one of these groups I was able to grow up to be whoever I am today.”
While he was still in the air force reserves, a Palestinian sitting next to him in a dialogue group shared how his sister was paralyzed from the chest down after an Israeli helicopter fired a missile at their house.
“My turn was to speak after and say I’m a helicopter pilot in the Israeli Air Force,” recalls Shapira. “For the first time in my life, with all my convictions and ideas and thinking about myself as a good person, I was super ashamed. I couldn’t even say the word pilot.”
That moment was one of the key experiences that led to “The Pilots’ Letter.”
“So I’m trying to continue to do dialogue,” says Shapira, “but—it’s a very big but—we have to make sure the framework will bring to the room the power imbalance and the reality on the ground.”
Rather than impose his views, Shapira and his fellow facilitators make sure Israeli and Palestinian participants raise the “hard core issues of injustice” on their own. This approach to dialogue can be applied to any number of issues, as can Shapira’s willingness to leverage his position amid unjust structures.
“I enjoy a lot of privilege, and these privileges give me a lot of responsibility,” says Shapira. “That’s why I criticize mostly where I come from. I don’t just blame Israel. But I’m Israeli, and this is my duty to say what many Israelis are afraid to say.”
U.S. Christians do well to follow his example. Pointing the finger at Israel leaves me pointing three more back at myself—for the privileges I’ve inherited from historic injustices and my country’s complicity in global violence.
“Israel gets an unlimited amount of weapons [from the United States] that are being used to kill civilians, and we need to stop it,” says Shapira. “There’s a lot of responsibility that you have. And this responsibility bears with it some uncomfortable situations.”
At family reunions, Sunday school discussions and Facebook debates, I’ve seethed through some of those uncomfortable situations. I wasn’t in Kansas City, Mo., last summer when Mennonite discomfort delayed action on the Palestine-Israel resolution for two more years. That resolution included divesting “from corporations known to be profiting from the occupation” and boycotting “products that enable the military occupation to continue.”
When I met Shapira, he was touring Norway with Rifat Kassis of Kairos Palestine, a movement endorsed by more than 3,000 Palestinian Christians, including the heads of 13 historic denominations calling for “boycott and disinvestment as tools of nonviolence for justice, peace and security for all.”
Quakers, Methodists, Presbyterians, the United Church of Christ and the United Church of Canada have all taken measures to divest from occupation-complicit companies or to boycott products from Israeli settlements, which are illegal under international law.
Shapira supports the global campaign for boycott, divestment and sanctions (known as BDS) as a nonviolent tactic for educating the public.
“With my whole heart I want to change [Israel] from inside while putting pressure from outside,” says Shapira. “Maybe compared with Israeli Jews I’m still a minority, but overall, in the world, there is growing support.”
He also challenges those unwilling to employ such confrontational tactics.
“Say you are doing an amazing peace project of reconciliation between Israeli and Palestinian kids,” says Shapira, “but you struggle at the same time to not let this international pressure of boycott, sanctions and divestment continue. You are an obstacle.”
Though BDS has been accused of being anti-Semitic, Shapira asserts, “It’s not against Jews and it’s not against Israelis. It’s for future mutual existence in this piece of land. The only question is whether it will be an equal place for everyone.”
Goals of coexistence and equality appeal to peacemakers. But to those worried that BDS is one-sided, Shapira says: “I think it’s about time we decide to be on the right side of history.”
While Mennonites rightly try to see the many sides of complex conflicts, we must remain wary of bending over backward to “balance” unbalanced situations. As we listen to the voices of our Palestinian sisters and brothers, we also need examples like Shapira of how to be allies in the struggle for a just peace.
Ryan Rodrick Beiler (www.ryanrodrickbeiler.com) is a freelance photojournalist living in Oslo, Norway. He served with Mennonite Central Committee in Palestine and Israel 2010-2014. All photos by Rodrick Beiler.