From ‘Zionist Dream’ to Dissent: An Interview with a Former IDF Captain on Israeli Military Culture, Personal Transformation and Advocacy for Change – Part 2 Features
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From ‘Zionist Dream’ to Dissent: An Interview with a Former IDF Captain on Israeli Military Culture, Personal Transformation and Advocacy for Change – Part 2

Yonatan Shapira is an ex-captain and pilot in the Israeli Air Force. In 2003, he helped coordinate the circulation of a letter that was signed by 27 Israeli Air Force pilots expressing their refusal to engage in Israeli military actions targeting Palestinians. Additionally, Shapira has endorsed the domestic Israeli movement supporting Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS), which is commonly referred to as “Boycott from Within.”

Shapira spoke with JURIST’s Deputy Managing Editor for Interviews, Pitasanna Shanmugathas, about his life growing up in Israel, his activities as a soldier in the Israeli Air Force, his disillusionment with Israel’s policies, his activities as a dissident within and outside Israel, and his thoughts on the mindset of Israeli soldiers and society since the October 7 attacks.

This is part two of a three-part interview. You can read the first part of Shanmugathas’ and Shapira’s conversation here.

Shanmugathas:  What prompted you and 26 others to publish The Pilots’ Letter? Was there a specific incident or was it just a collection of events that happened which caused you and 26 others to come together and publish this letter?

Shapira: The bombardment that I described was instrumental. It was a very strong event for many people because the commander of the Air Force said in an interview that [the bombardment] was perfectly executed, and everything was done within the moral envelope of the Israeli Air Force. He said in that interview that the Israeli Air Force pilots should sleep well at night because everything that we do is good and moral. Sometimes you need someone to tell you to sleep at night in order to not be able to fall asleep.

Then there were many other attacks like that. Each one, I guess, was part of this chain of events that helped me and other people to realize that something here is extremely wrong. There were many things that happened to me and to other people in this group. It’s a long story for each one of these pilots that were convinced to sign. Some of them realized some time before but just didn’t have someone to come and offer them a chance to participate. Some of the pilots were repenting of things that they did; I think they felt that they were part of something wrong, and they wanted maybe to find a way to repent, but practically, it was a very small group. Together, we drafted the letter, and then we went from pilot to pilot and checked if they were interested in signing, but of course it’s not something you can do in a public way because we knew that we would have a harsh reaction from the commanders, from the government, from society.  So, we had to be very cautious in the way we approached people and be very careful in slowly going through these kinds of stations in the conversation, and only when someone seemed fit for this kind of decision, only then you ask them to join because we didn’t want it to be revealed before we were ready. So, I think I can estimate that we talked to about 100 pilots in the Air Force. Some of them were very high in the system. We had one of them that was the former commander of the Air Force. He was already retired, but I knew him through my father, and I was in school with his son. So, I felt comfortable to just go and sit on his balcony and talk to him about it, and he didn’t want to join, but he kept it a secret. So, in a way, he was on our side in not revealing the initiative. I had many other people that were the same. They didn’t want to put their name for various reasons; they were afraid of society’s reaction, they were afraid to lose their job, or they were just not sure about it, but as far as I know, it was not revealed.

Shanmugathas: What was specifically mentioned in The Pilots’ Letter? What was the substance of it?

Shapira: It was very general. You know, it’s not something that I would sign today because back then, I was still a Zionist and not very well informed about reality. So, it was from a very Israeli-centric position. First, we stated that we were dedicated to Israel and raised to love and to protect it. Therefore, we were not willing to follow illegal and immoral orders from the Israeli Air Force that harm civilians. We refused to participate in anything that directly or indirectly contributed to harming Palestinians, as everything resulted from the ongoing occupation and oppression of the Palestinians, which corrupts Israeli society. It was a statement of refusal, of course, but not very radical in many ways, just saying, “This is our line, and we are not going to cross it.” We refused, and it was enough to make them go bananas, because it was really upsetting.

Shanmugathas: What year was The Pilots’ Letter published?

Shapira: 20 years ago, September 2003. It was actually the eve of the new Jewish year, at the end of September 2003. So, we kind of timed it with the holidays as a gift to the people.

Shanmugathas: Once it was published, could you talk a little bit more about the reaction of the Israeli military and the Israeli public to The Pilots’ Letter?

Shapira: Of course, they were furious and really upset. It was kind of an organized campaign because we managed to convince the major commercial channels to publish the initiative without revealing it beforehand. So, it was timed with the biggest newspaper and most popular commercial TV channel that had an exclusive interview with us. It was kind of a combination of print and TV. The commanders and the government felt that someone was orchestrating it, and they actually said it publicly to other pilots in the Air Force not to believe [us], that we were not just a bunch of pilots but were actually serving some big and powerful organization that was using us.

I kind of made a joke about it during the first opportunity I had to give a public speech. I think it was at Tel Aviv University or something like that. I told everyone that I was going to reveal the big and powerful organization behind us. Then I said, “I’m going to read you two of the main principles of this organization that is behind us,” and then I read from the military ethical code of conduct. I read the principle of “purity of arms” and the “superiority of the value of human life” or something similar, which were some of the things they taught us in training. So I jokingly stated that the real IDF is the big and powerful organization behind us because we actually follow the principles that say you must disobey an illegal and immoral order. I would not use these kinds of references [now], because everything is corrupt from the very root.

Shanmugathas: Did you and the twenty-six others face any punishment for publishing this letter by the Israeli military?

Shapira: Two-thirds of the group were already retired, so they were very high-ranked pilots, with some of them holding almost the highest ranks. They didn’t fly anymore. However, one-third of the group were still active pilots; we were all reservist active pilots who flew regularly in the Air Force. They gave us a few days to think about our actions and realize that we were wrong. There was a rush of calls and meetings from different officials from the Air Force and commanders who tried to convince us that we were wrong. When we didn’t express any regret, we were discharged.

During the meeting with the commander of the Air Force when he discharged me, I asked him not just to discharge me but also to put me on trial and show that I refused an illegal order. I was willing to sit in jail. However, the last thing they wanted was to give us more attention and bring this matter to court. I thought it would be good to have a trial to show that we were refusing illegal orders, and then we could bring the actual actions of the Air Force to be reviewed by the public and the world. But, of course, that was the last thing they wanted; they didn’t want to give us this attention.

So we kept saying that we were not refusing orders but rather following the order to refuse an illegal order, which is part of the orders outlined in the military manuals of the Israeli military. Yeah, so we were just discharged.

Shanmugathas: Was it an honorable discharge or was it a dishonorable discharge?

Shapira: Of course, dishonorable discharge. It was hard for them to legally charge us with refusing to [do] something because none of us got the order after that. It was our declaration that, if given an order to attack or be part of something, we would refuse. Eventually, the first reason they put in the discharge letter, which I have saved somewhere here, is that we gave an interview on TV in uniform without permission. It was a bit amusing to see how the system tried to deal with us by avoiding a real accusation. We were talking about the acts of terror that the military is involved in and the killing of civilians, but they didn’t want to mention anything about that. Instead, they talked about us giving an interview in flight suits without permits.

Shanmugathas: Mordechai Vanunu, who was a former Israeli nuclear technician, blew the whistle on Israel’s nuclear weapons program to the British press in 1986. Then, he was kidnapped, drugged, and abducted by Mossad agents in Italy and then flown to Israel. Presently, Mordechai Vannunu, despite having been released from Israeli prison several years ago, is still forbidden from leaving Israel and is unable to give any interviews to journalists because of the threat that he will likely be re-arrested if he does so.

Shapira: I think the difference here lies in Mordechai Vanunu being way less privileged in the food chain of the Israeli Zionist system. He was a Mizrahi Jew, and Israeli society is still very racist towards non-white Jews. Not always and not everywhere, but that aspect exists. Of course, he acted differently from us and crossed many lines in one action, whereas we organized a group of many pilots. One of the pilots I managed to convince was almost the Commander of the Air Force and had taught the current Air Force Commander back then how to fly.  My own father was actually the deputy commander of the squadron of that Air Force commander at the time of the letter. So we were kind of from the milieu of the most privileged Israelis. It would have been too hard for the Israeli theater of democracy to continue while putting people like us in jail.

As you well know, Israel is not a democracy, but that’s the lie it sells to the rest of the world while oppressing millions of Palestinians, committing genocide, and expelling and destroying villages. Israel has the facade of a democracy, and in order to maintain this facade when dealing with a bunch of upper-class, middle-upper-class pilots who are well-connected to high-ranking individuals in all layers of the establishment in the society, it was too difficult for them to punish us in a brutal way because it would have reinforced our accusations. So, the smart reaction on their behalf was to treat us with kid gloves.

I even remember a diplomat who was a friend of my parents telling them, and I also heard it elsewhere, what the Israeli Foreign Ministry instructed all the ambassadors to say when the news became quite hot globally.  They told the Israeli diplomats around the world to say, “Israel has a great democracy and these 27 pilots that lied to the world and did horrible things are the proof of that, because look, we didn’t kill them. We didn’t put them in jail. They’re still free to go and spread their lies, but everything they say is baseless.” So, in a way, publicly, it was their best approach to bury the story as quickly as possible. To some extent, maybe they succeeded, but it did inspire other soldiers. Just a few months after us, there was a group of Special Forces soldiers who published a similar letter of refusal. A couple of years later, a group of people contacted us and eventually joined with me and other friends to start breaking the silence with soldiers who shared their testimonies of crimes in the occupied territories. So, it did contribute to different protests, and activist groups, but all in all, it didn’t change anything.