A man who really saw people: A farewell to Noam Kaminer

Remembering the life of Noam Kaminer is a journey through the history and memories of the radical Israeli Left.

By Anat Saragusti (Translated from Hebrew by Matan Kaminer)

Noam Kaminer (Courtesy of the Kaminer family)
Noam Kaminer (Courtesy of the Kaminer family)

How often does one get the chance to participate in a non-political event in which people of different walks of life and circles of activity, young and old, Palestinians and Jews, congregate around a common denominator that is known and beloved by all? How many Israeli Jews have sat with Israeli Palestinians for an entire evening outside the context of a political event? How many of us Israeli Jews have Israeli Palestinian friends? Real friends, with whom we share social experiences?

This rarest of occurrences took place at a recent memorial for Noam Kaminer, who died of cancer a month ago. In a nutshell, the Noam we encountered during this evening is a charming epitome of the values of Israeli humanism, tied up with universal values of equality and fraternity across national lines – not clichés in his case. He was born on a kibbutz, grew up a communist, went to summer camp in the Soviet Union, enlisted in an elite commando unit in the Golani Brigade, participated in the legendary conquest of Mt. Hermon in 1973, was a port worker, earned a PhD in information science, and supported a son who refused to enlist in the IDF and went to prison.

I am writing from a personal perspective, because Noam Kaminer is also part of my own biography. We met in the seventh grade, in Jerusalem’s most elite school, the Hebrew University Secondary School. “He’s a Communist!” whispered well-wishers behind his back, and I — a young girl with little political knowledge, who had no idea what Communism was – went looking for his tail and horns. It was 1966, and everything behind the Iron Curtain was considered suspect. Years later, when I came to visit the Kaminers at their home in Kiryat Yovel, Jerusalem, I met a warm, friendly, and very ordinary family. No horns or tails to be seen.

Noam was born in 1953, a first child to parents who immigrated from the United States to Kibbutz Sa’ar. Upon joining the Communist Party, they were ejected from the kibbutz and settled in Jerusalem. Unlike most of us, Noam was politically well-formed by the time he reached high school. In 1970 he was already a signatory to the Seniors’ Letter sent to Prime Minister Golda Meir in protest of the occupation (which was then only three years old; but the signatories already understood its destructive potential). For a brief while we marched together in the Black Panthers’ demonstrations in Jerusalem, and then we were mobilized and thrown into the melee of the Yom Kippur War.

Eitan Tzadok, a deputy commander of the Golani commando unit and who served alongside him in the war, told those present at the memorial about the deep impression that Noam, a paramedic, left on his comrades. Eitan told us about the war, but also about the political battle that the army tried to wage against Noam, whose opinions it considered a danger to the unit. According to Tzadok, the senior command tried to block Noam’s participation in a secret mission behind enemy lines due to his convictions. Tzadok clarified to his commanders that if Noam could not participate in the operation, neither would he. In the end the mission was cancelled and his ultimatum was not put to the test; nevertheless it speaks volumes about the trust that Noam inspired in his surroundings.

The Yom Kippur War scarred our entire generation, and the soldiers who fought in its horrific battles did not often speak of their close encounter with death, or of the pain of losing comrades along the way. Noam, like Eitan Tzadok and others, stayed in touch with his fellow fighters and with the bereaved families, since the war and to the present day.

When we left the army, under the era’s banners of “make love not war” and “sex, drugs and rock’n’roll,” Noam and I lived together for a year with friends in a Jerusalem commune. Noam was one of the commune’s mainstays. At the end of the year, four of us left for the “big post-army trip” to Europe. When we ran out of money we set up camp in Amsterdam, in a showerless attic — undocumented migrant workers. Noam and Mikey worked in the port. Amal and I were maids in a hotel. The next stage was the Hebrew University, then still at the Givat Ram campus in Jerusalem.

Those were crucial years of political struggle in Israel, and Noam was a central player, especially in the founding of the joint Arab-Jewish student group Campus. Among other activities, the group organized demonstrations which were often viciously attacked by the Right. Noam fought alongside leftist students such as Jamal Zahalka, Azmi Bishara and Muhammad Barakeh against right-wing student leaders like Avigdor Liberman, Israel Katz and Tzachi Hanegbi.

During that period, Noam began to work with at-risk youth. His boss was Rami Sulimani, today the CEO of Ashalim. Sulimani told the audience at the memorial how working beside Noam enabled him to connect with these youths and understand them. He remembers their confusion when they found out that their beloved teacher was incarcerated. The reason: his refusal to serve in the First Lebanon War. When Noam was called up into the reserves, he saw the ugly sides of that war and struggled to fathom its destructive impact on Lebanese citizens and Palestinian refugees. Sulimani told us how difficult it was for him to explain to the boys with whom he worked why their teacher had chosen to go to prison. For those boys, prison meant criminality, but Noam was there for reasons of conscience.

The human mosaic present at Noam’s memorial was also there for his funeral. Anat Matar, an old friend of Noam’s, described it aptly. “I’ve been to many funerals in my life,” said Anat. “Sad ones and painful ones, huge ones and initmate ones. But I’ve never been to a funeral where so many people from different walks of life were present. And I’ve never been to a funeral where I felt that a blanket of love covered all those present.” The Kaminer and Matar families go way back: their sons Haggai Matar (a contributor at +972) and Matan Kaminer were imprisoned for a long period together with four other young men when they refused to enlist in 2002.

Our picture of Noam emerged from these memories, and so did the events of his lifetime: between the Six Day War and Operation Protective Edge, between the “flower children” of the 1960s and the technology sector in which he worked, between his own refusal and that of his son, between his strongly held convictions and his ability to accept others and avoid clashes, his avoidance of the ideological missionary stance and his care not to preach and condescend, but also not to compromise his principles.

The funniest story of the evening was told by Eitan Khay-Am, a childhood friend who accompanied Noam through to his final days. On his way back to Israel from the United States, Noam met Eitan in Paris. In his pocket Noam had US $100 — a hefty sum in those days. With his typical self-conscious communist humor, Noam said: “I’ll be damned if I contribute any hard currency to the Zionist entity! Let’s spend all this money tonight!”

Goodbye Noam, and thank you. From you we have learned how to accept others and how to live out our principles of equality; I owe much to you for my own humanistic worldview. You have helped so many others to push forward, to struggle, to express themselves, to go out into the streets, to raise their voices. You were human and warm, you were a man who really saw people.

Newsletter banner 5 - 540