Hell No, They Won’t Go: Israeli Youth Refuse
At 19, Maya Yechieli Wind was forced into a battle with her conscience. Last December she joined other high school seniors (Shministim in Hebrew) who have refused Israel’s mandatory draft since 1970. In an open letter to the Defense Ministry, they explained: "We object to Israeli ‘defense’ methods: checkpoints, ‘targeted’ killing, roads for Jews only, sieges and more, which serve the land-seizing policy, annex more occupied territories into Israel, and trample on Palestinian human rights…. It is impossible to harm and imprison in the name of freedom; thus, it is impossible to be moral and serve the occupation."
But Shministim, and other refuseniks, have paid heavily for rebuffing Israel’s army, a source of State pride since 1948. Wind spent weeks in detention and 40 days in a military prison. She was sentenced four consecutive times before being disqualified as "mentally unfit" for armed service in March 2009.
Speaking in Berkeley, California on September 16, Wind identified the turning point in her attitude towards the Occupied Territories as a conversation with a Palestinian teenager like herself. "It changed my perspective on the conflict 180 degrees," she told her audience. "It opened my eyes to the fact that Israelis can do bad things. That seems elementary, but at [the age of] 15, I had been taught our soldiers were the good guys, that everything Israel did was for self-defense.
"Everyone I knew was a soldier," said Wind, "my friends, my father. It was shocking that our soldiers could be abusive." For Wind, the only moral choice was not to serve in the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF), not an easy choice. "Israelis automatically ask a 19-year-old, ‘What do you do in the army?’ When I answer that question, it often provokes a heated and angry response."
Face to Face is the dialogue group for Palestinian and Israeli children that changed Wind’s feelings about her Arab neighbors. Four years later, she works full time for Rabbis for Human Rights in her native Jerusalem. Recently, she and fellow Shministim Netta Mishly, 18, spent 3 weeks touring U.S. college campuses from UC Berkeley to Brown University. They spoke persuasively about the role Americans play in maintaining Israel’s occupation. "We hope to empower people our age to take responsibility," say Wind and Mishly, "and to suggest ways they can work to end the occupation and promote a just peace" (see whywerefuse.org).
Wind and Mishly—photo by Thomas Good/NLN
Wind and Mishly aren’t the only Shministim traveling the globe to speak against Israel’s policies that flout international law. On October 6, 88 high-school graduates sent a new letter to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announcing their refusal to serve in an occupation army. Three of them—Yuval Ophir-Auron, Omer Goldman, and Sahar Vardi—toured South Africa in October, sponsored by the South African End Conscription Campaign (ECC).
The Seniors’ Letter reads: "We, the undersigned young women and men, Jews and Arabs from all parts of the country, hereby declare that we will toil against the occupation and oppression policies of the Israeli government in the occupied territories, and in the territory of the land of Israel, and therefore refuse to take part in actions related to such policies, which are carried out in our name by the Israeli Defence Force."
This year’s seniors identify themselves as community activists and conscientious objectors (COs), whose refusal of military induction "stems directly from our volunteer experience, from the values we believe in." They specifically attack their country’s settlement policy as "racist in principle," and the claim that Israel is "the only democracy in the Middle East." Can a government that controls the lives of millions of people who did not take part in elections be called a "democracy?" Can military rule of a civilian population be considered anything other than a dictatorship?
To Palestinian youth, the new crop of Shministim argues "there is still hope" and to Israeli youth "there is an alternative to fighting and hating." Supporting this year’s seniors is the feminist group New Profile. This ten-year-old group has been so effective in spreading its pacifist message to high school refusers and potential IDF recruits that its offices were raided by police, computers confiscated, and members arrested for "inciting desertion at war."
Like the U.S. War Resisters League, Veterans for Peace, and Iraq Veterans Against the War, New Profile tries to counter IDF propaganda by explaining to young Israelis that even Israeli law recognizes pacifism as grounds for conscientious objection. In 2002, the Israeli High Court of Justice ruled that refusal to serve was legal on the grounds of unqualified pacifism, but "selective refusal," which accepts some duties and not others, was illegal. The court also ruled that refusal to serve in the territories is not conscientious objection.
In fact, according to Wind and Mishly, about 40 percent of Israelis who could serve elude the draft. Orthodox Jews and married women are exempted; others claim physical or psychological problems. How many dodge the draft because they are uncomfortable with Israel’s role as "occupier" is hard to quantify. Opting out of military service is even more widespread among reservists, whose intentional avoidance of duty is called "twilight refusal."
Tali Lerner, a member of New Profile, served only a few weeks in the IDF before she quit. "I could see the army’s brainwashing," she says, "treating Palestinians as nonhuman. They don’t speak about killing people but about hitting targets as if [Palestinians] were cardboard. Israeli society doesn’t recognize the rights of Palestinians to defend themselves and have a strong army, but it insists on its rights to the same security."
Rela Mazali, who joined New Profile at its inception in 2000, says the crackdown on dissent has been more severe since the bombing of Gaza, but that New Profile’s activism is legal. "Rising numbers of young Jewish Israelis," said Mazali, "as well as the Druze minority who are also subject to conscription, find themselves unwilling to accept the Israeli dictate ‘There’s no other choice.’ Four generations and over six decades of failed ‘military solutions’ have engendered a broad social movement of young people who have severe internal struggles when asked to serve in the military," she says.
Israel’s 1982 war in Lebanon precipitated an anti-war movement of which a major component was thousands of soldiers (especially reserve soldiers) refusing combat duty in Lebanon. Anti-war actions continued during the First Intifada, the Second Intifada, and the Second Lebanon War of 2006. Groups opposed to Israel’s policies in the Occupied Territories include There is a Limit, Courage to Refuse, Combatants for Peace, Breaking the Silence, and New Profile.
As more Israeli youth decide to enter the ranks of refuseniks rather than the IDF, war resisters in the U.S. have recognized that their struggles are connected. On August 7, 1990, 22-year-old Marine Cpl. Jeff Paterson refused to board a military plane in Hawaii heading to Saudi Arabia. He was the first active-duty military resister in the first U.S.-led attack on Iraq. Today Paterson is project director for Courage to Resist, which organizes political and legal support for war resisters. "For decades now," says Paterson, "courageous Israeli youth have been resisting service in occupied Palestine. It’s exciting to see the growing GI resistance movement in the United States, not only drawing strength from this example, but now creating direct solidarity."
Solidarity between anti-war groups in Israel and the U.S. targets the link between the occupations of Palestine and Iraq and a refusal to serve based on the military’s human rights abuses. Those issues will be explored—and filmed—when members of Dialogues Against Militarism (DAM) travel to Israel and Palestine in November. DAM was created by Bay-area COs, community activists, and veterans inspired by a 2008 letter in support of Shministim signed by 29 U.S. military resisters.
Former Marine Stephen Funk is a member of DAM, Courage to Resist, and serves as San Francisco chapter president of Iraq Veterans Against the War. He was also the first enlisted person to publicly denounce the current Iraq War and refuse to serve. He applied for CO status and traveled the country to speak out against the war, encouraging military personnel to examine their beliefs about the war, informing others about conscientious objection, and warning young people to think twice before enlisting. For his actions, he was sentenced to six months in military prison, demoted to Private, fined, and given a bad conduct discharge.
"The first international support I got in 2003," says Funk, "was from Israeli resisters and anti-war activists. It’s natural for me to work with these groups because of the money and support our country gives to maintain Israel’s occupation."
Before Funk was sentenced, he received a public letter on August 12, 2003 from Israeli Matan Kaminer, age 19, who was on trial for refusing to join the IDF. Kaminer expressed both the anger of those who stand alone and the longing for affirmation: "Stephen, people our age should be out learning, working and transforming the world. People our age should be going to parties and protests, meeting people, falling in love and arguing about what our world should look like. People our age should not be moving targets, denied their human and civil rights; they should not be military grunts, exposed to harm in mind and body, lugging around M-16s and guilty consciences; they should not be thrown behind bars for not wanting to kill and die.
"Your trial is set to begin soon. Mine has already begun so maybe I can give you a few pointers…. Look the judges in the eyes. Use every opportunity you have to explain why you stand there. They are human just like you, but they try to deny it to themselves. Don’t let them. War is shit and they know it. They should let you go and they know it."
Lisa Mullenneaux’s journalism has appeared in magazines and newspapers for over 20 years. She reported on the "Art of Palestinian Children" in Z, July 2009.