Between a 1980s Soviet Gulag and 2015 Israel
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Just hours before 120 Israeli Knesset members went on a lengthy summer break, they dedicated hours to one of the most controversial pieces of legislation with which Israel has ever had to deal: a force-feeding bill aimed at the increasing number of hunger- striking Palestinian prisoners.
Opinions on the proposal differ. Some right wingers claim hunger strikers equal suicide bombers. They are right. The new bill will explode in the face of Israeli society and its fragile democracy. Surprisingly, some on the far right oppose it. “Let them die”, they say. The left argues that forced feeding is illegal and immoral, and its motivation is purely political. Others simply claim that a country that forbids the forced-feeding of geese, cannot allow it for people.
The Israeli medical establishment, often as divided as the political one, voices almost unanimous disgust: “It’s simply insane,” states Prof. Avinoam Reches, a former chairman of the Israeli Medical Association’s Ethics Bureau. “The state cannot move its political problem to the doctors’ court.”
There is one Israeli for whom force feeding is neither a philosophical nor a political question. For Michael Rivkin, 61, who immigrated to Israel in 1989, it’s a chapter in his painful history as a political prisoner in a Soviet gulag from 1982 to 1987. He was force fed five times and the trauma is still there when we discuss it in a cozy Tel Aviv coffee shop. Rivkin, a Conservative rabbi, is not the only ex-Soviet prisoner now in Israel who has experienced this form of torture, defined as such by several international conventions.
But an eternal dissident and ardent leftist in a right-leaning community of Russian speakers, Rivkin is the only one who is more than willing to speak up. “Don’t do it,” he urges Israeli lawmakers in an exclusive interview with i24news. “Force-feeding is very much like rape, the invasion of an autonomous human body. Those who care about the image of Israel don’t want it in the club of dictatorships which use force feeding as a political tool. I realize those who promote the law believe it will serve as a deterrent; yet they have to bear in mind they might achieve just the opposite - mass hunger strikes by prisoners who know they won’t be allowed to die. Any way you look at it, it’s an abomination and a terrible mistake.”
Rubber hose through the nose
The forced-feedings are the worst memories of those long years in Soviet prison. It all started when young Rivkin, employed as a research fellow by the Academy of Science in Moscow, joined a leftist intellectual group, later nicknamed “Young Socialists”. Their goal was to prepare the ground for a new political system and to that end they issued a publication called “Variants”, 100 pages of machine-typed articles and analyses - with five copies only. Among the avid readers were some KGB officials. Rivkin was first detained, then put on trial and sentenced to seven years in prison and then another five in exile. He was released after five years thanks to Andrei Sakharov, the iconic human rights activist who demanded it from then-President Mikhail Gorbachev.
He first went on a hunger strike while still in detention, waiting for his constantly postponed trial. On the third day, a colonel showed up in his cell and said: “You think we’ll wait for you to get really sick? It’s not going to happen. We start force-feeding through the nose, and believe me, you’re not going to like it.” The colonel was right. The next day a bunch of guards and someone in a white gown came to his cell, tied him to the bed, and stuck a rubber hose in his nose. The pain was excruciating; once they left, there was blood everywhere. Force-feeding through the nose was illegal even in Soviet Russia, but not in the KGB central detention facility.
The other four cycles of force feeding in the security prison in Chistopol in the Republic of Tatarstan, were a bit easier. Over a cup of hot chocolate, Rivkin demonstrates the procedure: the mouth opened brutally, a device placed inside to keep the teeth apart, and then a hose pushed in as deep as possible. Rivkin, kept in a dungeon, did not even have a bed on which to lie, and no clothes to keep away the unbearable cold.
Much later his physician confirmed what he sensed at the time, that some unidentified substance was added to the “food” inserted into his body through the horrible hose. But worse of all was the humiliation. “The first time I really fought back, tried desperately to keep my teeth clenched; they almost broke. When they came back for the second and third time, the resistance becomes more symbolic. You know it’s unavoidable. And you learn to expect the warmth that spreads through your body. That’s the naked truth,” he says sadly. “In a hunger strike you use your own body as a weapon. And then they take it away from you.”
Having described the physical and mental stages of a hunger strike, Rivkin goes back to the futility of the force-feeding law. “I know they say it will be different here, controlled, careful. But the consequences are often unexpected,” he warns. “I knew an Estonian dissident on a hunger strike who was about to be transferred to another facility. To make sure he survived the journey, they fed him a double dose for the road. His stomach literally exploded. Every human body is different, and no precautions can predict that. The first case of force-feeding under the law will taint Israel with an irremovable stain.”
Lily Galili is a feature writer, analyst of Israeli society and expert on immigration from the former Soviet Union. She is the co-author of "The Million that Changed the Middle East."
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