[News] "Speak Hebrew or shut up."

News at freedomarchives.org News at freedomarchives.org
Wed Aug 11 11:35:30 EDT 2004


'Speak Hebrew or shut up'

Israel's official code of ethics says troops can only use force if 
threatened. But at a checkpoint near Nablus, Israeli author Etgar Keret 
witnessed another code of behaviour in operation...

Wednesday August 11, 2004
The Guardian

A few days ago, the philosopher Assa Kasher, who had just finalised the
Israel Defence Force's Code of Ethics, paid me a visit on the television
screen in the dentist's waiting room and explained to me, in a nutshell,
how it really works.  The Code of Ethics, if I understood it right, says
that a soldier can exert force and, under certain circumstances, can even
cause suffering if he does it to protect his own safety or the safety of
the citizens of Israel.  An elderly woman sitting next to me, even more
bored than I was, stared at the screen and said that was very good and if
she wasn't mistaken, the IDF was the only army in the world to take the
trouble to "commission", in her words, a code like that, and not from just
any hack, but from a university professor.

If, two weeks earlier, I hadn't gone to the Haware checkpoint, not far
from Nablus, I probably would have been quick to agree with her. After
all, I was brought up to agree with elderly women. But during that purely
chance visit to the checkpoint, more the result of a weak character and my 
girlfriend's nagging than anything else, I saw a different, rival code,
one that might be a little less ethical, but works like a charm. We can
call it Udi's Practical Code.

Udi was the checkpoint commander at Haware that day, and his Code was very 
simple - smiling people don't get through. Of course, he didn't formulate 
it as a Code - it worked more as intuition - but more than once I heard him 
and his buddies at the checkpoint exchanging intelligence information on 
all sorts of smilers in the queue. "You see that guy over there, the tall 
one with the tie?" I heard a soldier say to Udi, "Do you see how he's 
laughing at us? Don't worry, I'll wipe that smile off his face." Udi nodded 
his agreement, and the smiler was in fact detained for more than an hour. 
When he tried to show them the permit that would justify his smile -  he 
was just a man on his way to his own wedding - it was already too late.  A 
happy father who had bought his three-year-old son a birthday cake 
imprinted with a picture of the child had also violated the code and was 
detained. The official reason - he didn't wait in line like everyone else.

When I tried to explain that the people in the queue had let the father
get ahead of them because the cream cake would spoil if he waited in the 
heat, Udi gave me a smile, and from behind the barrel of his gun, which was 
pointed in the general direction of my chest, explained that he didn't give 
a shit. Not a very surprising statement considering that an hour earlier he 
had been just as stingy with his shit when he ignored the distress of a 
70-year-old man who had been discharged from the hospital that day after 
heart surgery and was finding it difficult to stand in the
hot sun for such a long time.

There are a lot more clauses in Udi's Practical Code. When a Palestinian 
student tried to explain to him in English something about a permit he had 
in his hand, Udi clarified, "This is Israel, so you either speak Hebrew or 
you shut your mouth." The student immediately recognised the Code he had 
come up against, and because he didn't know Hebrew, he took the second 
option, shut his mouth, and was detained for four hours.

Udi's Code, by the way, also has a few pointers about Hebrew-speaking
Palestinians, especially the ones who argue. I saw him cock his gun, point 
it at the head of a Palestinian who was talking without permission, and 
say, "If you don't shut your mouth, you'll get a bullet in the head." And 
the talkative Palestinian shut his mouth, too, because a Code is a Code.

The day after the interview with Professor Kasher on the daily TV news
magazine, the host on that programme talked about a soldier who had hit a 
Palestinian he claimed had called him a liar and then shot and wounded him 
while he was trying to get away. I don't know that soldier's name, but I 
can assure you it's not Udi. Because Udi's no idiot. And like a few other 
soldiers, he knows how to put his Code into effect so it doesn't conflict 
with the IDF Code. If you are a decent, sensitive person, the IDF won't 
force you to torture people unnecessarily, but if you are an asshole and 
you have a good enough grasp of how the system operates, you can abuse to 
your heart's content without exceeding accepted levels of detaining and 
cursing, or threatening with a cocked gun, and without getting on the TV 
news magazine.

When I mentioned everything Udi had done that day to his commanding
officer - the one the Palestinians called "the good officer," mostly
because of his thin-framed glasses and his psychotherapist tone of voice - 
he nodded empathetically and said that the soldiers have been under
terrible pressure the past couple of days. "But the minute I got here,"
the officer tried to see the good side, "it all started moving like
clockwork, didn't it? Almost half the ones they detained went through."

I won't be going to the Haware checkpoint any more. But if one day
Professor Assa Kasher gets tired of sitting at his desk and mulling over
the Code of Ethics of the most moral army on the planet, I would heartily 
recommend that he take half a day off and visit a place where Immanuel
Kant has never set foot.

· Translated from Hebrew by Sondra Silverston. Etgar Keret is the author, 
with Samir El-Youssef, of Gaza Blues: Different Stories, published by David 
Paul, priced £8.99

Guardian Unlimited © Guardian Newspapers Limited 2004

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