Born in Egypt, raised in England, and living in Israel his whole adult life, Elie Joseph, 67, has been arrested in Israel and detained in Russia. He has been thrown out of political meetings and the Knesset. A creative educator, he has been using his skills to teach young Jews and Israelis about the value of compassion in order for the Jewish people to remember who we are. And tomorrow, on 17 January, the anniversary of Raoul Wallenberg’s arrest, he is beginning his 5th hunger strike campaign against the sale of weapons to genocidal countries.
I asked him if there had been much media interest in his earlier campaigns.
“No,” he answered. In the past, there were a few articles about what I was doing but they concentrated on the fact that I am ‘strange’. I might go to an MK and ask him a question and get thrown out. They write on that part and once they did the bit about my strangeness, that’s it! There’s nothing left to cover because they are not ready to deal with the real problem behind it.
Sitting across from me on Zoom, Joseph comes across as a serious, joyless man, passionate about the battle he has taken on. He did not need much prompting from me to talk about his mission. The one word that is a thread woven throughout the discussion is “abandonment.” Toward the end of the interview, I searched for the relevance of abandonment in his childhood, expecting that it was a theme from early life that plays out in his goal of fighting Israel’s abandonment of those who saved Jewish lives and abandonment of an essential part of what he sees as Jewish ideals and identity when Israel sells weapons to murderous dictators.
However, once the conversation reaches back into memories of his youth and early adulthood, the ambiance changes entirely as he smiles and relaxes. I get the sense of a happy and healthy foundation in life. I ask him about that.
My parents were very, very loving parents. I was lucky to have parents like that. And I believe that when there is that inner joy, inner stability, you can go to places of darkness. In other words, if I have light and I have love, I can go to a place where there is hate. I can face it.
I have re-arranged the order of the interview, leading up to his current campaign rather than starting with that because I want readers to be able to put his plea to the Israeli government within the context of the man’s life, the battles Joseph fought along the way for the sake of the Jewish People, and to show how the theme of “abandonment” figures large throughout.
QUESTION: How did you first become aware of the idea of abandonment and what did that mean for you?
I was 16 when I heard the founder of Women for Soviet Jewry, Barbara Oberman, speak. She said: ‘Our parents’ generation was silent about what happened in the Holocaust; we cannot be silent about what is happening with Soviet Jewry.’
That hit me, and after I read Arthur D. Morse’s book, While Six Million Died, I realized that it was much bigger even than what Morse had written. America had abandoned -- the nations of the world had abandoned -- Jewry. Then I learned about the Kastner affair [the Hungarian Israeli journalist accused of corroborating with the Nazis] and afterward, I found out what had happened in 1919-20 when 120,000 Jews were massacred in Ukraine.
The British allowed 80,000 Jews to come to Palestine and we Jews refused them. We did not want those Jews in Palestine; they were not the Jews that we wanted. Eighty thousand Jews, survivors of the pogroms in Ukraine, were refused aliyah by the Zionist movement because, in their words – we cannot build a national movement on compassion and empathy.
That was the opposite of everything that I believed in. When the Holocaust happened -- and we knew everything that was happening from the first day on -- we didn’t even warn our brothers. For me, that is the abandonment of the Herzelian dream. I did not believe that six million could be massacred and we could not have saved them. Until today, I consider that we first of all abandoned our brothers, and then Hitler killed them.
The sense that this was fate or that there was nothing one could do, this feeling of powerlessness is completely foreign to me. It got much stronger when I got involved in the Soviet Jewry campaign. That’s when it became really strong, but even beforehand I felt something was wrong here—the message was not right.
Today I can back it up with facts.
Then I heard about what happened in 1970 when a group of Jews wanted to hijack a plane to fly it to a nearby country and from there to Israel. They knew they had no chance of succeeding, and they decided to go ahead with that nevertheless – they had one purpose: to shout out in the courts of the Soviet Union: Let my people go!
In other words, they wanted to awaken world Jewry. They wanted to take us out of our fear and apathy, the sense that we can’t do anything for our brothers because the Soviet Union is so powerful that we dare not do anything.
They were prepared to go to prison, including the possibility of a death sentence. Eduard Kuznetsov told his wife that morning that he and Mark Dymshitz would get the death sentence and the others 15 years. They knew that!
And they basically woke me up. They educated me. What is a Jew if he abandons his brothers?
Joseph was a self-professed troublemaker in school from about the age of 11-12 and held a youthful dream of becoming a professional footballer. This changed dramatically with the awakenings above. In 1973, at age 17, he created Betar UK, a branch of the international Betar movement. That same year, they began campaigning on behalf of Soviet Jewry.
In 12th grade, I got a message to go to the headmaster’s office. My parents were there and I was told by the headmaster that either you stop your activities or you leave school. I told the headmaster, no! There’s no way. I went out and closed the door and I never went back to school. That was the year that was important, the year of A levels. I expelled myself from school that day.
I was arrested in Russia by the KGB together with Gilad Freund, a friend from American Betar. We left the tour we were on and went to the Interior Ministry to offer to each serve four years of Dr. Mikhail Shtern’s eight-year sentence for applying for emigration to Israel. We were deported instead.
In 1974, together with the camp director of Betar France, Joseph brought English youth to a summer camp in Israel and was responsible for English programming. Then in 1975, he made aliyah, going directly into the IDF, serving in Golani, and later as a paratrooper.
It was a big shock for my parents,but they saw this coming and they hugged me all the way.
Following his army service, he studied Social Work in Israel; then he worked in the prison system and on various social projects. In 1988, at the age of 32, he created a high school for French girls. It functioned for 12 years.
On my initiative, with an agreement from the Jewish Agency to cover the costs of the school if I could recruit enough students, I traveled around France using my own funds. After six weeks I had gathered a group of 10th to 12th graders and created a school. There was a similar school for boys but nothing for girls.
I wanted to bring them on aliyah and give them a strong Jewish background. I took kids from all backgrounds including those who had failed to pass the level to move on to the next grade. This was a source of tension with the Jewish agency. I took them nevertheless, even knowing that some of them would not be funded. It was inconceivable for me to refuse someone the right to study in Israel.
I did a lot of unique activities – I used to write plays on historical subjects and the kids used to perform them in the Jerusalem theatre in front of 1000 people. One of the plays was about Elyahou Hakim and Eliyahou Bet Tzuri, two boys from Lehi who went on a mission to Egypt in 1944 to kill Lord Moyne, who was responsible for not letting the boats of illegal immigrants into Palestine. They were caught and hung. The play was attended by Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir, who sent them on their mission, and over 100 Lehi veterans. It was an extremely emotional evening.
We did a big play on Raoul Wallenberg, and his brother attended. It was performed in Israel in Hebrew on several occasions and they even went on three tours of France to do the play in French.
The Jewish Agency used to complain because I was using school time to have them perform these plays.
I did another project where I took the kids to Dimona [a development town] for a month where they used to work with kids there. They had classes in the morning and helped the kids in the afternoon. I believe that to grow up you need, not only intellectual maturity but also emotional maturity, and kids have to learn how to give in a real way to other people and I believe that has to be part of the curriculum.
This was the only school that took kids that wouldn’t have advanced to the next grade in France. Having gained confidence from participating in the plays, most of them passed the French matriculation exams. Nevertheless, they closed me down in 2000 because I did things my way and not their way. My educational philosophy didn’t go with what they wanted.
It was sad when it closed down. It was my baby.
In 1994, he brought Raoul Wallenberg’s brother to Israel.
And, of course, I’ve been active on behalf of the person who was my inspiration for all of this – Raoul Wallenberg. In 1994, I brought his brother to Israel. This is my number 1 trauma, crisis, you could call it. Raoul Wallenberg’s brother was the only person on earth who was still looking for his brother, the man who had saved tens of thousands of Jews. And no one wanted to help him.
He told me the tragedy of his life – his mother took her own life in 1979 after years of begging and having the phone hung up on her. How she refused to receive a medal from Yad Vashem. The family was begging for years and years and years and no one wanted to listen to them.
In 1997, Joseph founded a military preparation program for new immigrants who wanted to serve in the IDF.
As one who had been a lone soldier himself, I had this dream: I wanted to help people from abroad go to the army in Israel as I did and I created this program. Unfortunately, it was never recognized, so after two years, I ran out of the money that I had managed to get from here and there, so I closed it.
There were about 20 kids in the program each year. They all went to the army and they completed a full service and were commended, but I was never recognized so I couldn’t carry on.
In 2000, Joseph began campaigning for the release of Jonathan Pollard.
I was very active on the Jonathan Pollard campaign, part of which was a 100-day hunger strike. I traveled to Washington and met with the aides of Senator Lieberman who was the prime activist AGAINST Pollard’s release and I organized demonstrations in Israel, going all around the country to speak about Jonathan Pollard and we organized big demonstrations for him. At the time, the Israeli public was not aware of him.
You could say that the overwhelming majority of members of Knesset abandoned him, completely abandoned him. Obviously, I was very opposed to that abandonment.
I asked how his campaign against Israeli sales of weapons to genocidal countries began.
It was only eight years ago when I learned that the very year that I brought Wallenberg’s brother to Israel, planes left Ben Gurion Airport to go to Rwanda and we gave them arms. The coincidence of this struck me.
So, basically, when you abandon somebody who was so good to you, then you go and meet up, join up, with the very wicked people who lead these nations who do genocide until today and you give them arms. You don’t think twice about it; you just close your eyes without looking at the consequences of what you’re doing.
I consider this to be related to Jewish values, the basic feeling of gratitude, the fact is that we don’t understand people like Wallenberg, people like Witold Pilecki, who is another person I lecture about. He volunteered to get arrested in order to go to Auschwitz in 1940; he stayed there for three years before escaping, getting information out of the camp, and trying to organize a resistance.
The fact that these people are unknown to our students, to our kids, shows that we are ungrateful.
The midrash [rabbinic teachings] says that amongst those who were supposed to die in the plague of the firstborn was the daughter of Pharaoh who had saved the baby Moshe. Moshe found this unacceptable and he prays for her and she is saved. When Wallenberg’s niece was in Israel, she had a meeting with the chief rabbi. I suggested that she ask the chief rabbi to make a prayer for her uncle. No prayer, nothing.
A complete lack of gratitude.
But how is this related to the sale of arms to murderous dictators?
For Jews, the lesson of the Holocaust is to learn how to bring love to the world. How to bring peace to the world. The lesson is to know that I can use my guns to defend the Jewish people and that is a very big mitzvah but I understand that my battle is to defeat the hate in the world. If that hate continues after I’ve won one war or two wars or three wars or four wars, I’ve got to find additional ways to destroy that hate.
So what you are saying is that there is no legitimacy for Israel selling weapons to anybody.
Israel cannot sell weapons to anybody who does not respect ‘purity of arms’. I use the arms against people who threaten my life. I do not use the arms to kill innocent women and children. Under no condition can Israel sell their arms to regimes that use their strength to persecute innocent people. Wherever there is persecution of the innocent, Israel cannot be involved. They say that if we don’t sell, somebody else will sell... No. We have to lead the battle in the world against arming murderous regimes.
In a session of the Knesset Defence and Foreign Affairs Committee whose purpose was to tell us how well the Defence Ministry was supervising arms sales, I talked about Niki Haley’s speech in the UN Security Council asking for an arms embargo against South Sudan, how they give arms to children and have them kill their own parents and how she shouts, “I am a mother and I cannot live with this.” So I said, ‘We’re not mothers and fathers and we can live with this?’ Then I gave numbers of people murdered and we still sell them arms. The head of the committee threw me out for telling a true story, saying ‘you’re not supposed to talk about specifics.’
[Joseph gets most passionate at this point] How can you understand the gravity of what we’re doing without talking about specifics? That is the extent of our own denial.
I cannot help the dictators. When I help them I am telling them, ‘Go and kill.’ Instead of what we’re told, ‘You shall not kill.’ When I arm murderers, I’m basically committing spiritual suicide because I am taking away the base of the whole of Judaism which is that God created man in his image. The sanctity of the human being. And there is no Judaism once I am involved in mass murder. It doesn’t matter if I keep Shabbat and keep kashrut. If I’m involved in mass murder, my Shabbat is not Shabbat, my kashrut is not kashrut. Nothing I do is a mitzvah.
The majority of mass murderers, they are not doing mass murder all the time. Before we armed Rwanda they were just killing a few tens of people. When did it become tens of thousands? In the spring of 1994. But we KNEW they had the potential to go from hundreds being killed to thousands being killed.
As a nation that went through mass murder itself, we cannot even give a chance...saying we didn’t know they were going to kill thousands afterward! Well, that’s what they do. When it’s okay to murder a few hundred, it will be okay to murder thousands.
Joseph says a judge forbade him from speaking about what happened in Rwanda to the election committee when he registered his political party, The Jewish Heart.
There was a court case over the public’s right to know which, the judge decided, does not exceed the political interests of the State of Israel. The people of Israel do not have a right to soul searching. Not only have they decided that it’s okay to arm these mass murderers, they decided that the people of Israel do not have the right to question that decision. How can you question a decision you don’t even know about? The majority of the public does not know what is going on.
In the last two years, there was a genocide in north Ethiopia (among those being raped and killed were some of the 5800 Jews in Tigray) and we armed Ethiopia and Eritrea. We helped commit that genocide. At the moment we also arm Rwanda and they use their arms to arm a group called M23 in Congo that massacre women and children. We also arm Azerbaijan and they are starving people in Nagorno-Karabakh and killing women and children.
We have taken upon ourselves the right to be silent, not only when people are being massacred, but when we’re actually helping in the massacre of innocent men, women, and children. And I consider this a stain on myself. I consider myself to be totally responsible for this, not because I gave the order to give the arms, but because I know what is happening and that is enough to take total responsibility. And the fact that I know that it’s happening, I’m not prepared to turn a blind eye.
And so, this man whose parents gave him unconditional support, who let him leave school to continue his social activism, has, throughout his life, stood by those society has abandoned. It began with Soviet Jewry, continued with French high school girls, Raoul Wallenberg, Jonathan Pollard, and now he stands by the multitudes massacred by weapons sold by Israel.
On behalf of those without a voice, he raises his impassioned cries -- so far, often alone.