Israelis challenging Israel’s Militarization


In a deeply militarized society it is not easy to question what is seen as the lifeline for the Israeli State — the military itself. Still there are an increasing number of Israelis who want another kind of society, a society which is not permeated by the military. “We are like mosquitoes that keep buzzing this message, because I know that there are a lot of people who think this way too,” says Tal Haran, one of the members in New Profile.

 

It started with two groups of women who met and had discussions about the army, women, and militarism. They all had different backgrounds, but one thing connected them: they were all fed up with the deep militarization of their country. In 1998, they decided to form the first anti-militaristic organization in Israel. For someone who lives in a country without much war or conflict, this kind of organization might seem uncontroversial, but in Israel it is extremely radical. Tal explains: “Militarization has been presented as a lifeline — a possibility for Israel to exist. The Holocaust was the ultimate proof that if Jews don’t arm themselves and become a nation with military might, it doesn’t look like the world will let us continue to exist, so we better do something about it.”

 

Raised to be Soldiers from Kindergarten

 

All Israeli citizens, both men and women, get a call for recruitment to the army when they are 16 years old. Two years later, one would actually be inducted into the army. In general, men do three years of military service and women serve two years. Men up to 45 years old are called every year to do about a month’s service as a reservist.

 

The military service is not only time-consuming for Israelis. The army is also something that affects a big part of the rest of society. Just to take two examples: one of the biggest radio stations is owned by the army and the pictures of soldiers are often used in commercials and educational materials. “Israeli children are raised to be soldiers from kindergarten,” says Ronnie Barkan, a New Profile member in his 30s. One example of this is the tradition in kindergarten to send candy to soldiers on holidays. New Profile members have been trying to get more parents to ask the kindergarten teacher if they maybe could send the candy to children in hospitals rather than to soldiers in the field. But even this small act of resistance towards the militarization is difficult in Israel explains Tal: “You see, we are still at the start. For us it is like going into church and starting to yell or cursing the cross or something. Just saying something like this is against the holy of the holiest, the army, upon which our whole existence depends.”

 

A very militarized Baby

 

Tal is no stranger to the army. She was born in Israel two years before independence and her father was an underground fighter in an extreme Jewish independence group fighting the British. He was imprisoned by the British as a terrorist. “The army shaped my life,” Tal says. “I was a very militarized baby.”

 

Tal has served in the army during two wars, both in 1967 and 1973. “I didn’t question it at that time,” she says. Following her time in the army, she went into the arts, became a dancer, and went abroad. Time and distance from her home country slowly changed Tal’s opinion and gave her political awareness. She became even more changed by her participation in New Profile.

 

For Miriam Hadar, a woman in her 40s, there is another matter. Because she was born and raised in Holland, she was never recruited to the army. “I find plenty of opportunities to refuse nevertheless,” says Miriam. “Raising a refusenik in the house,” counters Tal, laughing, as she refers to Miriam’s son, Micha, who is 18 years old and about to be recruited to the army. Miriam tells a story about how Micha last year was offered the opportunity to participate in a voluntary course at school called “Introduction to the Army and Family Life.” Miriam went to talk to the teachers, challenging why they offered this kind of course. She instead offered to come and talk about New Profile, but they refused. “I have no illusions that I will change their minds, but I think that drop by drop things get through,” says Miriam.

 

Ronnie joined the army after years of doubts. “I had the feeling that I would be a parasite, if I was not in the army,” says Ronnie. “But when I had decided to leave the army, this whole notion of being a parasite or a traitor just disintegrated in front of my eyes. Since that moment, it had no meaning for me at all.” He was ready to serve prison time for his refusal but he had a sympathetic female commander who helped him. In the end, he got exempted on the grounds of having a “split personality.”

 

Confronting History

 

New Profile is not the only organization which supports the rights of conscientious objection, but they have a unique approach. “We are not only confronting the situation now, we are also confronting history,” says Tal. “Israel hasn’t invented militarization, but we have been very good students.”

 

New Profile also wants to challenge the attitudes in the military thinking. Tal again: “In the normal Israeli military mind you act swiftly, strongly, and elegantly and what we are trying to say is let us not look for solutions. Let us begin to question the past. Let’s begin to question axioms. For example, if tomorrow, God willing, the Occupation ends and the army is dismantled, we still haven’t begun to demilitarize. It is not just about the army, the army is a symptom.”

 

Most organizations, even those that work for refusal in the Israeli military, are not ready to challenge the Israeli axioms, for example the idea of Zionism. “They want to have the cake and eat it at the same time. They want the benefit of being dominant males, but they also want to have a clear conscience,” says Tal.

 

Even in the peace camp in Israel there is almost no analysis or discussion about what happened at the time of Israel‘s foundation. New Profile is one of the extremely few organizations that want to talk about the problems of the foundation of their country. “The whole state of Israel was actually founded on the Nakba (“the catastrophe,” what the Palestinians call the war in 1948). Still we are raised to see the army as a source of pride,” says Ronnie.

 

Tal, Miriam, Ronnie, and some 40 active members in New Profile struggle to turn Israel from a militarized to a civil society. There are strong forces, of power and of culture, against them. In a country with the saying, “The army will make a human being out of you,” it is not easy to form an opinion of feminism and anti-militarism. Still, the members of New Profile will keep buzzing their message like persistent mosquitoes. Even if they and other forces of peace in their country are few, they have begun to get very good feedback from people. “Of the responses we get from the web site, many people just curse us or call us traitors. But today we get far more responses from people saying things like: ‘you are doing holy work.’”       About New Profile (from their leaflet)

 

New Profile has made its aim to work towards changing Israeli society: From a militarized to a civil society. From a discriminating and oppressive society to an egalitarian one. From an occupying nation to a respectful neighbor.

 

New Profile acts to: Reduce the militarized nature of Israel‘s government, society and culture. Change the mindset that drives us to one war after another and that justifies the ongoing occupation of Palestinian territories. Achieve legal recognition of the universal human right to conscientious objection.

 

New Profile activities: Work with teachers and educators to reduce the impact of militarized education. Workshops, study groups, and conferences raising consciousness of the role of militarism in Israeli society and education. Dissemination of anti-militarist ideas in both the mainstream and the alternative media. Legal and moral support for conscientious objectors.

 

New Profile was established 1998. Its members include women and men of all ages. Over 1,000 people worldwide subscribe to New Profile’s mailing lists. New Profile operates according to feminist working principles without a rigid hierarchical structure, by means of open and equal discussion.

 

 

Martin Smedjeback is secretary for nonviolence in the Swedish Fellowship of Reconciliation (www.swefor.org). During a prior visit to Israel and Palestine, he collected material for a book entitled Nonviolence in Israel and Palestine. He was working as an ecumenical accompanier in Jerusalem in the summer of 2004.

 

 

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