Things were getting worse for the Palestinians, Haggai Matar said earnestly. Innocents were being killed, beaten, starved and made homeless: all under the heel of the Israeli Defense Forces.
Matar, 17, reed thin and red ponytailed, was outraged by Israel’s growing military operations last summer.
So with the intifada that began in September 2000 growing more violent and no end in sight to Israel’s occupation, he took action.
Matar recalled an old Israeli tradition of students writing to the prime minister and co-authored a letter to Ariel Sharon. The Senior’s Letter, as it is now known, was sent on Aug 19, 2001. Sixty-two other young adults signed on.
They criticized Israel’s "pounding of human rights, land expropriation, arrests, executions without a trial, house demolitions, closure, torture and the prevention of health care." They also proclaimed they would not serve in the military.
"We will obey our conscience and refuse to take part in acts of oppression against the Palestinian people, acts that should properly be called terrorist actions," the letter declared. "We call upon persons our age, conscripts, soldiers in the standing army, and reserve soldiers to do the same."
They would rather serve time in jail, the objectors said.
Matar’s letter shook up Israeli society, said Aaron Trauring, an Israeli peace activist who spoke with Matar at Brooklyn’s historic Dutch Reformed Church in Park Slope Monday night before about 200 people, mostly longtime social activists and far-left liberals.
Trauring, 48, a former New Yorker who made aliyah in 1983 and served several tours as a reservist, credited Matar with instigating a letter a few months later by several Israeli officers who declared in their own letter to Sharon that they would refuse to serve in the West Bank and Gaza.
These officers, who have come to be known as refuseniks, constitute a very small movement in Israel, with some 400 having signed the letter. Virtually all reservists called up in Operation Defensive Shield reported for duty.
"You can’t underestimate the bravery of these students and the impact they had," Trauring told the audience, standing in front of a large poster declaring "End the Occupation, Start Negotiation."
"For Israelis, serving in the army is a sacred duty. To say you are not serving is blasphemy," Trauring said. "Haggai really created an earthquake in Israel."
Yet the soft-spoken Matar, speaking with a slight British accent, painted an extremely pessimistic picture of the peace movement in Israel during a two-hour gathering that ended in an emotional debate with some audience members brought together by Brooklyn Parents for Peace and the Brooklyn Society for Ethical Culture.
He called the peace movement in Israel nearly invisible: It is "small and growing smaller."
In the last two weeks Matar, who grew up in a small town near Tel Aviv called Ramat HaSharon, has been on a tour of the United States with other objectors trying to raise the consciousness of Americans about Israel’s policies in the territories. He believes America is the key to forcing Israel to end the occupation and dismantle settlements.
Upon his return to Israel he expects to be jailed (as early as July, or in October) when he plans to categorically refuse to serve in the IDF.
While in America, Matar is also trying to raise money for struggling Israeli peace groups including Courage to Refuse, a newly formed Arab-Jewish partnership called Ta’ayush, and the refusal groups Yesh Gvul and New Profile.
In the last two weeks he has spoken in synagogues, churches and schools in Chicago, Minneapolis and Indianapolis. But he has also been disinvited from one Midwestern synagogue, and Jewish parents at a Chicago school threatened a teacher with legal action if they allowed Matar to speak to their class.
The Brooklyn gathering was curiously mixed.
The audience enthusiastically applauded when Matar called on Americans to "pressure the U.S. government to end financial aid to Israel which is very important, until such time they end the occupation and dismantle the settlements."
Yet one organizer said the questions written by audience members on cards read at the end of the program were largely hostile, questioning his failure to address the increase in suicide bombings of Israelis.
Asked about his perception of the terrorist groups Hamas and Hezbollah (who routinely claim responsibility for the suicide bombings of innocent Israeli citizens) Matar said: "All these people, with no exception, say they are doing this as a direct result of losing hope, knowing no other Israel except soldiers and settlers." He painted these Israelis as violent neighbors who damage or destroy Palestinian property, like uprooting olive groves from which the Palestinians make their living.
Matar said there is "no single hour of a single day that a Palestinian can live a normal life," noting they must go through checkpoints, searches and other humiliation.
Harriet Malinowitz, a professor at Long Island University who sat in the front pew at the landmark church, said she came to listen because "the occupation is obscene. I don’t believe in nationalism or fundamentalism," she said.
But Naomi Katz, a grade-school teacher, sharply criticized Matar and Trauring as unbalanced.
"It’s true that the occupation needs to end," she declared. "At the same time it is true that suicide bombings need to end. We cannot accept the suicide bombings as acts of desperation. Palestinian children are being taught that their lives are worth less than a political cause. A society that does not value the lives of its children needs to reform in order to be a partner for peace."
Matar, who said his values come from humanistic-oriented parents, said he would continue the struggle to make a difference, even if it is only securing some food for a starving Palestinian man.
"Courageous or brave, I’m none of those," he said. "The thing that keeps me going is necessity.
"I do believe, my last hope for the human race is that if people know the truth, they would stand up and fight."
Haggai Matar will speak at Manhattan’s Congregation B’nai Jeshurun at Saturday-morning services.