Had the pleasure of meeting Yonatan Shapira for lunch in Evanston yesterday. If you’ve never heard of him, Yonatan was an officer in the Israeli Air Force and flew hundreds of missions over the territories in a Blackhawk helicopter squadron during the course of his eleven year career. Following a targeted bomb assassination of a Hamas leader that killed fourteen civilians in Gaza, he became a prominent Israeli “refusenik,” authoring the Pilot’s Letter – a 2003 statement signed by 27 Israeli pilots who publicly refused to fly missions over the Occupied Territories.
Since that time, Yonatan has gone on to co-found “Combatants for Peace” a prominent organization in the growing Israeli Refusenik movement. A few years ago he gained some more notoriety for writing and performing “Numu, Numu,” a powerful protest song written in the form of an ironic “Lullaby to Pilots.” (More recently, he’s become the object of a pop love song that’s currently making the rounds on Israeli radio – Richard Silverstein has the story on that in Tikun Olam).
I had known of Yonatan’s refusenik activism, but during our lunch conversation I was surprised to learn that he is also very active in supporting non-violent Palestinian actions in Sheikh Jarrah, Bi’ilin and throughout the Occupied Territories. (He was, in fact, arrested last January at a demonstration in Sheikh Jarrah.) He told me that this work has been transformative for him, explaining that as an IDF officer and even as a leader in the Israeli peace movement he has always been socialized to step forward and lead the way. He said he’s come to realize that the most important way he can serve now is to “stand behind” Palestinians in their non-violent campaign for liberation.
He told me numerous stories about his experiences at demonstrations. He mentioned that the IDF is increasing their crackdown on protesters, that they hire infiltrators to throw stones at the army to given soldiers the a pretext to open fire. None of it succeeds, of course: quite the opposite. The Palestinian non-violence movement is growing steadily – a “White Intifada” that Yonatan believes has already begun. As a IDF officer himself, he explained the Israeli military mentality – that army commanders truly believe they have the power to “outlaw” these protests through the sheer force of their military might.
Yonatan also mentioned that as part of his support of non-violent Palestinian activism, he has also signed on to the internal Israeli movement for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) known as “Boycott from Within.” Now that is the new definition of bravery: a high ranking Israeli Air Force veteran who comes from a military family (his father was a fighter pilot during the Six Day War) has now firmly put himself on the front lines of a global non-violence campaign initiated by the very people he himself had once been trained to attack.
I assumed that Yonatan would be made a virtual pariah for his public stands. He replied that as a military man he understands how soldiers think and generally knows how to engage them in dialogue even when they strongly disagree with him. He also mentioned that his family is supportive of his work – his father “is not quite there yet” but respects his activism and his mother is “the most active of them all.”
Click below for Yonatan’s “Lullaby for Pilots:”