Three stories from International Conscientious Objectors’ Day

Last year, during the first lockdown, the national ceremony to mark International Conscientious Objectors’ Day was held online. On 15 May this year we met again online. The video of the ceremony can be found here: http://www.co-day.org

We met this year with harrowing images of a new outbreak of violence in the Israeli / Palestinian conflict on our screens and in our minds. The outbreak lasted from 10 May to 21 May 2021.  In those eleven days it was reported that 256 Palestinians (including 66 children) and 13 Israelis (including 2 children) were killed.  More than 1,900 Palestinians and at least 200 Israelis were injured (i).

The online ceremony included many moving contributions, and the names of many individual conscientious objectors from different countries and through the ages.  Sometimes with glimpses of their stories. In this blog I have focused on three contributors’ stories. They are in chronological order of the events they describe.

The first story was from Rebecca Johnson.  I remember Rebecca vividly from Greenham Common Women’s Peace Camp in the 1980s, nonviolently protesting against nuclear weapons stationed at the United States Air Force base near Newbury in southern England. In the online ceremony Rebecca appeared in an inspiring video put together by the Women’s International League for Peace & Freedom, Brighton Quakers, and XR Peace. (39.19 minutes into the video).

Rebecca spoke about her parents; ‘This is an article from May 1940 and it was when my father successfully managed to get himself out of prison and given the exemption as a conscientious objector.  He and my mother both had been conscientious protectors of children who were brought out of Germany by the Kindertransport, and they set up a school, and they also tried to find homes for people and families for the Jewish kids, um that were being brought out, really from as early as 1934.’

The Kindertransport, or children’s transport, was ‘the informal name of a series of rescue efforts which brought thousands of refugee Jewish children to Great Britain from Nazi Germany between 1938 and 1940’ (The Holocaust Encyclopedia) (ii). Wikipedia says; ‘The United Kingdom took in nearly 10,000 predominantly Jewish children from Nazi Germany, Austria, Czechoslovakia and Poland, and the Free City of Danzig. The children were placed in British foster homes, hostels, schools and farms. Often they were the only members of their families who survived the Holocaust’ (iii).

The children of Polish Jews from the region between Germany and Poland on their arrival in London on the “Warsaw”. February 1939 (iv).

The second story was from Penny Stone, a singer and composer. She sang a song, ‘Take Back The Sky’ , which she wrote in 2010 (2.20 minutes into the video). Penny spent time in Palestine and listening to Israeli conscientious objectors. Here she introduces her song:

‘A lot of kids along the beach part of the Gaza Strip made kites and flew them and they broke the world record for the most number of kites flown in the sky at the same time, which is such a beautiful human image, lots of kids being able to do this.  And of course it needed the support of adults in this case, clearing the shells of bullet cases off the beach.  You know, it wasn’t as safe as perhaps it looked for us in the pictures.  But it was a huge act of humanness, cos it just said, ‘Hello, we’re kids’.  And that’s it.  That’s why people are refusing to fight, it’s because we hurt other humans, we hurt other adults, we hurt other kids’.

Here are the first verse and chorus of ‘Take Back The Sky‘:

In Gaza City, Palestine, just standing by the sea,

Here I was born a refugee, but no refuge could they find for me.

Well I’ve been trapped here all my days, three borders closed surrounding me,

And soldiers sitting in the sea and bombs a-falling down on me.

And there’s no place to hide, my home isn’t even safe inside –

Nowhere to run, to play, where I can be a child:

Just for one minute, just an hour of my troubled days,

Let this flying kite take back the sky for me (v).

On 30 July 2009 children in Gaza created a new world record for the number of kites flying simultaneously in the same place (vi)

The third story was from Atalya Ben-Abba (17.12 minutes into the video). Atalya is an Israeli conscientious objector from Jerusalem.

“Five years ago, in 2017, I refused conscription to the Israeli military. Because conscription is mandatory in Israel I was sent to military prison where I spent 110 days. I refused to serve in the Israeli military because I chose to not take part in the Israeli oppression of the Palestinian people.”

“It is seen as treacherous to stand in solidarity with the Palestinian people.  Hence this is the exact reason why it was so important to me to be loud and bold about my decision.  I felt as though I had to take a personal responsibility for being on the side of the occupier.  I could not just keep on living my peaceful life while these injustices are happening.  Even though I was scared of being sent to military prison and of the consequences of being an outcaste, I thought and still think I made the right choice.”

In an article by Amnesty International in 2017, Atalya said, “My objection to serving in the army is grounded in reasons of conscience; I believe that in order to bring security to all people in Israel and Palestine, government policy must change and the occupation must end (vii).” Later in the article she said: “A Palestinian activist spoke to me about his experience with Israelis; as a kid, all he saw were foreign soldiers speaking a language he didn’t understand, entering his village and demolishing houses. He was afraid of them and was angry. Only years later did he meet Israelis who showed him a different side to our society. Listening to him made it clear to me that we live in an endless cycle – violence begets violence and is not the answer. Cooperation between Israelis and Palestinians will pave the way to peace and allow us all to live in safety without fear and hatred (vii).”

Thank you Rebecca, Penny and Atalya.

References

(i) https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2021_Israel%E2%80%93Palestine_crisis

(ii) https://encyclopedia.ushmm.org/content/en/article/kindertransport-1938-40

(iii) https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kindertransport

(iv) Photo: Arrival of Jewish refugees, London Great Britain: The children of Polish Jews from the region between Germany and Poland on their arrival in London on the “Warsaw”. Photographed February 1939. Kindertransport – Wikipediahttps://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kindertransport#/media/Datei:Bundesarchiv_Bild_183-S69279,_London,_Ankunft_j%C3%BCdische_Fl%C3%BCchtlinge.jpg

(v) https://singlouderthanguns.files.wordpress.com/2020/03/take-back-the-sky_lyrics.pdf

(vi) Photo: https://www.unrwa.org/newsroom/photos/flying-high

(vii) https://www.amnesty.org/en/latest/news/2017/05/conscientious-objector-atalya-ben-abba-sentenced-to-a-further-30-days-in-military-detention-following-her-refusal-to-serve-in-the-israeli-military/

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