Haaretz: A left-wing life revisited

Kaminer, who died recently, was a communist in his youth, clashed with right-wing future MKs at university, and was jailed for refusing to serve in the IDF during the Lebanon War.

By Haaretz, Jan. 1, 2015

In 1985, after completing his second jail term for his refusal to do military service in Lebanon, left-wing activist Noam Kaminer talked about his family.

“My wife and son visited me. The boy knows that his father is in the army, in reserve service. He doesn’t yet know how to say kele [prison], but he can say Yesh Gvul,” Kaminer said in an interview with the newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth, referring to an Israeli peace group – of which he was one of the founders (and whose name means “There’s a limit”) – that supports Israel Defense Forces soldiers “who refuse duties of a repressive or aggressive nature,” according to the group’s website.

Two decades later, that child, Matan Kaminer, had already learned how to say kele and had been imprisoned himself under similar circumstances, as one of five peace activists who refused to be drafted into the IDF in 2003.

The Kaminer family represents three generations of left-wing activists. “Radical left, not Zionist,” Matan, the member of the third generation, emphasizes now. His grandparents, Reuven and Dafna Kaminer, who immigrated to Israel from Detroit in the 1950s, have been longtime, leading activists in various local radical-left movements. These include Siah (New Israeli Left), Shasi (Israeli Socialist Left), Moked, Sheli (Peace for Israel) and Hadash (the Democratic Front for Peace and Equality).

In 1986, Reuven Kaminer made headlines when he joined a group of activists who traveled to Romania to meet with representatives of the Palestine Liberation Organization, when such meetings were illegal. When they came home, they were put on trial and eventually acquitted. Dafna Kaminer was a founder of the antiwar Women in Black group, and continues to take part in the group’s protest vigils against the Israeli occupation.

Their son, Noam, was born in 1953, on Kibbutz Saar in the western Galilee. The family moved to Jerusalem after being expelled from the kibbutz for joining the Communist Party. Noam became active politically as a teenager, joining a communist youth movement by means of which he attended summer camps in the Soviet Union.

He was anti-establishment as a student at the Hebrew University Secondary School. The family archive contains a letter of reprimand sent to his parents by the principal, Dr. Shmuel Kneller, in 1969. Noam’s behavior, which he termed “impolite” and “impertinent,” was said to be in “conflict with all the rules of courtesy that the school expects of its students.” Kaminer was temporarily suspended.

A year later, in 1970, he was one of the signatories on “the letter of the high-school seniors.” The letter, sent to Prime Minister Golda Meir and published in Haaretz, was drafted by pre-induction students who protested the occupation and the War of Attrition, and it stirred a huge furor in the country.

“We and many others doubt that we will be able to fight in a perpetual war… while our government is directing its policy such that prospects for peace are missed,” the students wrote.

In 1971, Kaminer signed another letter of high-school students, this one to then-Education Minister Yigal Allon, calling on him to work for peace. “You told the teachers that it’s not fair to hold talks during a strike. We say: Holding negotiations while creating facts [on the ground] is also not fair.”

Turbulent period

In the 1970s, Kaminer took part in demonstrations of the Black Panthers, a protest movement of second-generation Jewish immigrants from Middle Eastern countries. He was also a founder of an Arab-Jewish group that was active at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

The late ‘70s and early ‘80s were a turbulent period at that university. Violent clashes erupted regularly between Arab and left-wing students and a right-wing students’ organization called Kastel. Arab students such as Mohammed Barakeh, Jamal Zahalka and Azmi Bishara, who would later become Knesset members, faced off against students such as Tzachi Hanegbi, Yisrael Katz and Avigdor Lieberman, who later served as ministers in right-wing governments.

In 2009, Kaminer recalled his encounters with Lieberman: “He would come to our table on the campus, always with a briefcase, and argue with us for hours. Already then he held extreme views. He demanded the removal of the Arab students from the dorms and objected to their right to organize.”

Kaminer served in the IDF as a paramedic in the reconnaissance unit of the Golani infantry brigade. He fought in the 1973 Yom Kippur War, taking part in the capture of Mount Hermon. In 1982, he was called up for reserve duty in the Lebanon War. His letters from the front attest to his frame of mind, which after the war led him to refuse to serve anymore in Lebanon.

“It is absolutely shocking to hear the tip of the iceberg of the destruction being inflicted on [the Lebanese],” he wrote. “Six hundred-thousand homeless people… The press (Haaretz) is starting to explain that [Defense Minister Ariel] Sharon has additional goals, such as hooking up with the Christians, and to that end many more Palestinians and Israelis will be killed and nothing will be achieved. This whole story is leaving me ever-more disgusted… The war in Beirut is apparently one of the ugliest things Israel is doing, and will certainly be talked about for a long time… Our actions are starting to boomerang against us.”

And, elsewhere: “It is totally unclear to me how they want to hold on to all these conquests… [Prime Minister Menachem] Begin’s obstinacy might yet pay off for him, and the world will let him march to Beirut as he pleases. The Palestinians have remained completely exposed and are apparently enduring a serious, long-lasting blow. It’s a blow that has cost thousands of lives, but no one cares. The main thing is ‘our safety.’ Is there any public awakening against this, besides our guys [other radical left activists]?”

In another letter Kaminer described the sequence of events that followed his unit’s entry into a Lebanese village: “The horrors continue. Today I joined recons who entered the villages in the region here. We went into a village that is effectively a refugee camp, to collect weapons. Actually, there are only children in the village… An old woman approached us and said a few words in Hebrew – it turns out she’s from Jaffa.”

He added, “Afterward, we did what the newspapers always report: We gave out candies to the frightened children. Then a few people with bandages arrived who had already been treated, and I had to change the dressings. Again it was supposed to be a humane act, like the candies. And there was an illusion that in general they welcome us, which is of course total bullshit. At one point, someone – a boy – brought a flower to one of the soldiers and to me. At the suggestion of the soldiers, I put the flower in the gun barrel. The stunt of ‘flowers in the barrel’… The whole time I was humming Palestinian songs to myself, which I heard from friends in Jerusalem. In any event, the picture of a small force that makes a small village do what it wants is absolutely amazing. How does that work?”

Afterward, when Kaminer was called up to serve in Lebanon again, in 1983 and 1985, he refused, and was jailed.

“Physically, this place turns out to be not so rough and definitely tolerable,” he wrote his family from prison. “But mentally it is really irritating in regard to the detainees and the very fact that we are in here. But never mind that. The worrisome thing is that we are continuing to sink in the Lebanese morass and there’s no end in sight.”

In time, Kaminer and his family rejected the Soviet Union’s version of socialism. For his part, Noam was active in several left-wing groups in addition to Yesh Gvul: Shasi, Hadash and Ta’ayush Arab-Jewish Partnership, which was established in 2000. He was also one of the founders of The Left Bank, a website (in Hebrew) that provides a central platform for left-wingers.

Kaminer earned a living as a librarian in the Histadrut labor federation-owned Pinhas Lavon Institute for Labor Movement Research. In the 1990s he and his family spent time in the United States in the wake of a job in high-tech held by his partner, Smadar. While there, he completed a PhD in information science at the University of California, Berkeley. He later worked for Ex Libris, a company that manufactures cataloguing programs for libraries.

Noam Kaminer died on November 28, aged 61, from a prolonged bout of cancer. In a death notice his family wrote: “He has left us and the struggle for a just society for the two peoples.” He is survived by his partner, Smadar Nehab, founder and associate CEO of Tsofen, which works to integrate Israeli Arab citizens into high-tech, their children Matan and Carmel, his parents Reuven and Dafna, and a brother and sister, Micha and Tali.