Don’t Say We Did Not Know: One Man’s Struggle to Bring the Truth to Light

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The front cover of a small book written in Hebrew.

"Don't Say We Did Not Know" is the defense invoked by Germans after World War II. Activist Amos Gvirtz's mission is to ensure that this excuse cannot be used by Israelis when asked to answer for crimes against Palestinians. Credit: Donna Baranski-Walker.


When accused of being a traitor to Israel, as Amos Gvirtz has sometimes been, the sexagenarian activist author responds by advising caution.
“If I am a traitor,” he replies, “then Israel, by its very essence, is against peace.”
Gvirtz, who is careful to describe himself as an activist rather than a journalist, is the author of a weekly email blast called “Don’t Say We Did Not Know.” This title and concept refer to a common defense invoked by Germans after World War II when questioned about atrocities committed by their country. Gvirtz’s mission is to ensure that this excuse cannot be used by Israelis when asked to answer for crimes against Palestinians.
“I try to tell stories that I did not see in the mainstream Israeli media,” he says. “I think the Israeli media is ignoring the great majority of the daily human rights violations.”
Gvirtz has recently compiled a number of his own essays for a book with the same title as his weekly email. At present, the book is available only in Hebrew, but he hopes to have it translated so that it can reach a wider audience.
“My editor asked me, ‘Who am I writing to?’ and I said, ‘To everybody who wants to know.'”
***
Born in 1946, Gvirtz is a lifelong Kibbutznik and pacifist. In his early teenage years, he underwent what he terms a “moral change” wherein he decided not to lie, fight, steal or eat meat. As he neared age eighteen, he was often questioned how he would act if, during his compulsory military service, he was faced with an Arab soldier threatening his life.
“My answer was that I will shoot twice,” said Gvirtz. “I will shoot to defend myself and if I kill, I will kill myself. I will not live with the fact that I killed somebody.”
Thankfully, Gvirtz was never faced with this situation. His time in the army was marked by his unwavering insistence on passivism. His resolve was bolstered when he discovered the writings of kindred spirits, such as Nathan Chofshi.
While in the reserves, Gvirtz became active in the Israeli Section of War Resisters International. When called for service by the IDF, Gvirtz told the authorities that he would serve his country, but not the military. He struggled with the army for seven years, with the threat of jail time hanging over his head. Gvirtz insisted on four conditions for his reserve duty: 1. No weapons in his hands; 2. No military uniform on his back; 3. No service outside of the Israeli borders; and 4. Only receiving orders from civilian elements.
Throughout his adult life, Gvirtz has been an outspoken advocate for peace, even going so far as to write to the Minister of Defense during the first Gulf War to protest the inclusion of the Moledet Party in the coalition government. In 1983, he founded Palestinians and Israelis for Nonviolence. In the 1980s, he was active in the Committee for the Arabs in Jaffa. He founded the Israeli Committee Against House Demolition in 1997. He has also been active in trying to protect a village of Bedouins in Israel’s Negev-Nagab, near Beersheva.
Gvirtz retired from his day job on the kibbutz in 2013. He has since devoted his time to the peace effort, researching his regular emails and collecting essays into his newly finished book, Don’t Say We Did Not Know.
***
To Gvirtz, the primary struggle lies in the contrast between two types of Zionism: Existential and Zealot. Himself an anti-zionist, Gvirtz sees Zealot Zionists as descendants ofa fanatical group of Jews who refused to compromise with the Romans and thus caused the destruction of the Second Temple. The current situation in Israel is no less dire, says Gvirtz. The Zealot Zionists are steering Israel towards destruction with their unyielding fanaticism, particularly in relation to settlements.
“They are risking our existence as they did 2,000 years ago… ‘God is with us,’ they say. ‘We are fulfilling his big promise for Israel. Anyone who stands against us is against the will of God.'”
Gvirtz’s nonviolent response to Zealot Zionism is to turn the attention of the Israeli public to the abuses being perpetrated in their name.
“One of the important nonviolent weapons is what I call the public eye,” says Gvirtz. “No criminal wants that people will know him as a criminal… I thought that we have to make people know.”
He seeks to redefine the term ‘war’ in such a way that allows people to see that the current situation for Palestinians is a war, whether it is called that in the media or not.
“This is a warzone,” he says. “It is a one-sided war by the Israeli government against defenseless civilians.”
Gvirtz hopes to convince middle-of-the-road Zionists that Israel stands in violation of international law and must reform its policies or risk losing backing and support from countries like the United States. Citing a shift in global morality after World War II, he explains that the global community can no longer stand by while human rights abuses are perpetrated. He fears the time is running out for Israel to convince the world that their methods for dealing with Palestinians are justified.
“If Israel wants to exist, it must stop this,” he says. “The peace and human rights movements must be listened to.”
Gvirtz frequently compares the current situation in Israel to historical phenomena such as apartheid in South Africa and the civil rights movement in the United Sates. One of his motivations in making these comparisons is to point out that Israel is not worse than other countries. Israel has followed a well-worn pattern, he says, but it’s time to be on the right side of history.
“I don’t see Israelis as worse than anybody else,” says Gvirtz. “But [the global community doesn’t] support racism anymore as a legitimate concept. We cannot accept what we are doing. It’s racism.”
A substantial roadblock to Gvirtz’s vision is that many Israelis prefer not to be educated about the abuses committed by the government and the army.
“Nobody wants to see that his/her identity group is on the wrong side of a conflict,” says Gvirtz. “Israelis don’t want to know that Israel is committing crimes as a policy.”
Faced with accusations of being a traitor to his people, the enormous weight of the knowledge of human rights violations and the sometimes seeming futility of the nonviolence movement in Israel, Gvirtz explains this is not about optimism or trying to make a difference.
“I do this because it must be done. The peace and human rights movement always lives with a feeling of failure,” says Gvirtz. “But we impose limits to make it a ‘normal’ war, rather than a genocide. We take the place where morality and ethics are failing… This is the unknown success of the human rights movement. Our mission is wider than achieving peace. It’s also just limiting massacres.”

Amos Gvirtz will be speaking with Rabbi Lerner this Sunday evening, April 19. If you are a member of the Network of Spiritual Progressives or a paid subscriber to Tikkun magazine (and hence get the print version at your home) you are invited. But since there is very limited seating available, you need to send him an email indicating that you want to attend (and if you are bringing someone else, send their name and email as well) and he will then respond with the time and address of this gathering.
*Please Note: Mechapesset Atidis is a pseudonym for a young academic who believes her career in academia would be put at risk were she to be known as someone championing the views expressed by Amos Gvirtz.
Amos Gvirtz is currently on a speaking tour in the United States and Canada, raising funds to help Al Arakib, a village in Israel that has been demolished eighty-two times. He will be in Northern California from April 18 to April 22. For more details, please visit http://www.RebuildingAlliance.org/dont-say-we-did-not-know.