Just Saying No 

Israeli soldiers vote with their feet

Wednesday, May 8 2002

Last September, as the present Intifada was gearing up, a group of 62 Israeli high schoolers approaching their army call-up wrote an open letter to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.

We protest before you against the aggressive and racist policy pursued by the Israeli government and its army. We strongly resist Israel’s pounding of human rights. Land expropriation, arrests, executions without a trial, house demolition, closure, torture, and the prevention of health care are only some of the crimes the state of Israel carries out, in blunt violation of international conventions it has ratified. These actions are not only illegitimate; they do not even achieve their stated goal -- increasing the citizens‘ personal safety. Such safety will be achieved only through a just peace agreement between the Israeli government and the Palestinian people. Therefore we will obey our conscience and refuse to take part in acts of oppression against the Palestinian people, acts that should properly be called terrorist actions. We call upon persons our age, conscripts, soldiers in the standing army, and reserve service soldiers to do the same.

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The letter is not entirely without precedent. In 1970 a group of Israeli teenagers wrote a prescient memo to then--Prime Minister Golda Meir, warning her of the bloodshed to come if she did not hand back the territories conquered by Israel during the 1967 Six Day War. Three years later, on Yom Kippur, 1973, Israel’s Arab neighbors took the country totally by surprise in a war that Israel won only at great cost to human life and the national psyche.

The difference between then and now is that none of the signatories to the 1970 letter was threatening to boycott the army. According to Haggai Matar, one of the group‘s founders and the son of a prominent Israeli peace activist, one member of the group, which calls itself the Shministim and now numbers 125, is currently serving his third month in jail for refusing to enlist, and Matar expects the same fate when his number comes up in July.

Though it’s been easy enough to dodge army service on a wide range of personal grounds, at least until the latest Intifada began, the Shministim (a reference to the graduating year of high school) are far from shirkers.

In the current climate of support for Sharon among an Israeli public freaked by suicide bombings and the escalating violence in the territories, the Shministim might simply be dismissed as youthful absolutists with a simplistic view of war in general, and this war in particular. Except that they‘re not alone.

In the wake of the Intifada and the Israeli army’s incursion into the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, a group of reservists calling themselves Ometz Lesarev, or Courage To Refuse, have been signing up soldiers to refuse to serve across the green line dividing Israel from the occupied territories. And both groups are supported by Yesh Gvul, an older generation of refusenik soldiers formed in the early ‘80s when Israel invaded Lebanon, and by New Profile, a feminist organization that works against the militarization of Israeli civil society. Despite their tiny membership -- together Ometz Lesarev and Shministim number no more than 550 -- the two groups’ actions touched off a firestorm in the Israeli media. The right tells them they are traitors; the mainstream center tells them they‘re violating the concept of the military in a demo-cratic society. Sharon, in a leap of logic only he could follow, blames the latest wave of terror on the refuseniks. Even the higher echelons of the Peace Now movement, which advocates a two-state solution to Israel’s standoff with the Palestinians, has held aloof from the refusal movement as undemocratic and illegal.

The significance of the refuseniks is that they‘ve put their finger on the tension between two incompatible Israeli self-images: the nation as tribe, and the nation as open, pluralistic democracy. It’s not as though Israel has no political left: The state was founded on socialist principles, and for many years both the political and army elites were drawn from the ranks of idealistic kibbutzniks. Leftist parties of various stripes, including Arab ones, are well-represented in the Israeli Parliament; the country‘s obsession with democratic process results in sessions, broadcast daily on national television, whose length would do credit to a Soviet Socialist Assembly. There are also movements like Peace Now; a number of civil rights movements; and the human rights organization B’Tselem to keep the politicians on their toes.

Traditionally, however, the army -- whose public standing is the most potent bellwether of Israeli sociopolitical consensus -- has been off-limits to most forms of dissidence. In the siege mentality that bloomed after the establishment of the state in 1948, Israel‘s conscript “people’s army” defined itself primarily as an army of defense, and public commitment remained near total, along with the belief that in a democratic society the army must command complete compliance. When I was living in Israel in the early 1970s, a low army profile, for whatever reason, could cripple a male soldier‘s employability, not to mention his social reputation. School curricula were (and still are, though not without criticism from groups like New Profile) openly shot through with reverence for the military, and high schools transitioned their pupils into the army through Gadna, an on-campus quasi-military youth movement. At the same time the army prided itself on its commitment to justice, equality (it has been a great social leveler for the country’s myriad immigrant groups) and peace. In 1970, as the jubilance of the Six Day War victory began to give way to doubts about the occupation, the wildly successful army band‘s “Song for Peace,” an homage to the song “Let the Sun Shine” from the musical Hair, was top of the pops.

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