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.
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.
Still, Israel has few pacifists — only a fool would argue that the nation has no right or need to defend itself. Conscientious objection is highly problematic, and those who judge its validity case by case are army men, not civilians as in most countries. Refusal to serve, let alone conscientious objection, was practically unheard-of until 1982, when the Israeli invasion of Lebanon transformed the military from an army of defense to an army of occupation, prompting 168 soldiers to go to jail for refusing to serve in the campaign. Out of this group was born Yesh Gvul, whose name is a politically charged pun meaning both “There is a border” and “There is a limit.” In the 1987 Intifada, a further 200 soldiers, many of them officers, were imprisoned. The actual number of refusals was much higher, but the higher they got, the more reluctant became the military to attract publicity by jailing them.
Over the years, for reasons that have little to do with politics and everything to do with Israel modernizing into a prosperous, pluralist Western-style capitalist society, commitment to army service has seriously weakened. Today (or at least until the current Intifada), roughly a quarter of all conscripts avoid the draft, while only one-third of Israeli soldiers show up for the annual monthlong reserve duty. Many of the absentees are Ultra-Orthodox Jews, who are automatically excused; just as many are draft dodgers. Until the Intifada, the army had a manpower surplus and was in a position to tolerate no-shows. Now the country is effectively at war again, and the stakes are high, not so much for army avoiders as for dissenters of conscience who mobilize around the flag of selective refusal.
Trying to raise a live voice at Ometz Lesarev is only marginally easier than landing a private audience with the queen of England. The group has placed an embargo on talking to the international media, in part because its message is directed inward to Israelis, in part because most of them are ardent patriots and decorated officers who fear being co-opted by the anti-Zionist international left, many of whom have never really given the time of day to the Israeli opposition or the peace movement. Encouraged by broad hints that the embargo will soon be lifted, I persist. My e-mail contacts — mostly refuseniks who are getting ready to tour the United States and their Jewish-American supporters in the peace movement — politely direct me back to the group’s media spokesman, Amit Mashia. When I finally track him down on his cell phone, he tells me two days in a row that he can‘t talk right now. On the first day, he’s about to take part in a Memorial Day event for Israel‘s fallen soldiers. On the second, he has to report for reserve duty — hopefully, he notes wryly, this side of the green line.
Ram Rahat, a 45-year-old Canadian-born activist with the more explicitly political Yesh Gvul, explains that though there are differences of nuance between his organization and Ometz Lesarev (the latter is younger, more mainstream, and does not advocate refusal to enlist at all), the two movements are united by the principle of selective refusal (usually to serve in the territories), and by their efforts to persuade soldiers not to take part in the occupation. “We are not negating the need for the army, we’re saying that the army cannot be used for political purposes, whether it was in 1982 with the invasion of Lebanon, or now with the occupation,” says Rahat. “Beyond that we see the whole framework of the occupation as one flagrantly illegal act, and if you go there you have no choice but to take part in order to take orders that are flagrantly illegal.” From his point of view, doing guard duty at a settlement may not be illegal from a minimalist point of view. “But if you look at it on a larger scale, being there is guarding something that is illegal as determined by international law.” Yesh Gvul believes that seeing the suicide bombings as the cause and the occupation as the result is going backward. “You have to drain the swamp,” says Rahat, “in order to get rid of the mosquitoes.”
For their part, most of the signatories to Ometz Lesarev justify their actions in moral rather than political terms. Their Web site (www.seruv.org.il) and the more enlightened Israeli newspapers carry heartfelt testimonies from the soldiers, 36 of whom are currently serving prison terms, about how they became, as one reservist torn between the “ethical code” and the “tribal code” he internalized in his youth puts it, “perfect occupation enforcers.” An infantryman tells how he finally cracked when a pregnant Palestinian woman was barred from passing through an Israeli roadblock because her stomach was not big enough, and later gave birth to a stillborn child. A paratrooper describes his revulsion when Israeli soldiers placed a sack over the head of a 4-year-old boy arrested with his father.
Minuscule as this group is, it has earned not only the scorn of the right, but the respect of unexpected sources in high places, including a former head of the Shin Beth, Israel‘s intelligence agency, as well as former Attorney General Michael Ben-Yair. In an op-ed piece written for the Israeli daily newspaper Ha’Aretz, Ben-Yair noted that “The Six-Day War‘s seventh day has transformed us from a moral society, sure of the justice of Israel’s creation, into a society that oppresses another people, preventing it from realizing its legitimate national aspirations.” Of Ometz Lesarev, Ben-Yair had this to say: “History‘s verdict will be that their refusal was the act that restored our moral backbone.”