A talk to my jailer – Israeli conscientious objectors, Refuseniks

This entry is part 5 of 5 in the series A talk with my jailer


Israel: a militarized society

Militarization is present in all spheres of the Israeli society: economic, political, judicial and educational. Armed young soldiers roam the cities, streets are named after wars, military units and generals and even integration in the Israeli society is based on the military service which is conceived as an unquestionable duty. Its omnipresence infuses a sense of proximity and familiarity which inevitably leads to a process of normalization towards war and violence and to a distorted concept of peace and justice. This indoctrination, combined to a constant induced fear in the citizens, magnifies the veneration of Jewish nationalism and of the Israeli army.

The problem with the army does not begin or end with the damage it inflicts on Palestinian society. It infiltrates everyday life in Israeli society too: it shapes the educational system, our workforce opportunities, while fostering racism, violence and ethnic, national and gender-based discrimination”. Shministim letter 2014

Political sphere

Militarization in the political sphere is evident from the pivotal role that the security mantra assumes in the decision making processes. False threats are used by the government to give priority to the security issue, often used to justify the violations of human rights. Furthermore, the military experience is kept in high consideration in the political career. In the last years all the Prime Ministers and cabinet ministers were ex generals.

Economic sphere

Security is prioritized in the national budget. It is mainly allocated to military needs, weaponry and salaries. The Israeli security-industrial complex is one of the most profitable in the world.

Educational sphere

“An Israeli is like me, someone who starts 1st grade, and waits to go to the army in order to protect the Land of Israel”

The education system in Israel tends to normalize war and military service. Since young age, children are taught to see service as a natural stage and a duty. The perpetuation of the military ethos, myths and narrative through memorials, rituals and ceremonies are all aimed to prepare the youth for the military service.

Therefore, the Israeli educational system is somehow cooperating with the military one by proposing, for example, initiatives in which elementary students go on field trips with military guides which focus on the past wars or cases in which kindergarten children collect gift packages accompanied by thankful letters to be sent to soldiers.

History of the peace movement and of the conscientious objection

The peace movement in Israel can be dated back in the 70’s. The victory of the Likud party in the ’77 elections (determining a drastic shift to the right wing) combined to the on-going occupation of the Palestinian territories led to the creation of Israel’s first widespread peace movement: Peace Now. The demands were mainly to end the building of the Israeli settlements focusing on the relation between peace and the security of Israel ”as the state of the Jewish people”, therefore keeping a Zionist perspective of the conflict.

Yesh Gvul demonstration – archive photo

When the Lebanon war in 1982 broke out, it seemed logic for 58 high school students to question the government’s commitment in ensuring peace. They wrote a letter to Golda Meir expressing their dissent and giving space to another form of protest towards the occupation: the refusal to serve the army. Yesh Gvul (Hebrew for There’s a limit), became the ambassador of such tactic causing a fracture within the peace movement. In fact Peace Now condemned the decision to refuse military service.

Following the Oslo Accords in 1992, the peace movement was pretty much lethargic believing that the negotiations would have brought to an effective peace. An important organization that was funded in those years is New Profile, a group of feminist women and men who ask for a demilitarized Israeli society.Their work consist in dismantling the militarized structure which is contaminating all sectors of the Israeli society and culture as well as in promoting a support network for the growing national movement of young Israeli refusers. 

Shministim refusers

However, it was the outbreak of the second Intifada in 2000 that prompted many Israelis to object to the Israeli occupation in the Palestinian territories by refusing to serve in the army or by resisting their draft. Between September 2000 and the end of 2004 over 1,391 Israelis refused to serve in the IDF, reenforcing the refuser movement. Of particular significance was the letter published on Ha’aretz and signed by 53 reserve combat officers and soldiers which stated: “We shall not continue to fight beyond the 1967 borders in order to dominate, expel, starve and humiliate an entire people.” These signers later funded Courage to Refuse.

Concomitantly, a group of high school students called Shministim (Hebrew for high school) expressed their dissent in joining the army once they turned 18 years old. Inspired by the previous letters, many others expressed their refusal in the following years. In each round students signed these letters sending out a radical message: the unwillingness to take part to the Occupation of the Palestinian Territories, to carry out human rights violations and to contribute to a militarized society.

Ideological differences

These major movements present different patterns of refusal which can be explained by the socio-economic, political and cultural changes that have affected the Israeli society in these years.

The first significant distinction is in the ideological structure. Yesh Gvul and Courage to Refusal consider Israel’s security a serious issue that must be kept in consideration, but not through the occupation of the Palestinian Territories. It’s no coincidence that the components are reserve combat soldiers and officers who support selective refusal. Their discourse, therefore, remain strongly bond to nationalist and military codes.

On the contrary, New Profile and Shministim are far more radical. They involve female and male activists who fight for an inclusive society based on anti-militarist, pacifist and feminist stances which lead to absolute refusal. They openly attack the Israeli government accusing it to be a terrorist State:

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.” Shministim letter 2001

to commit crimes, violate human rights and to carry out racist policies:

Palestinians in the occupied territories live under Israeli rule thought they did not choose to do so, and have no legal recourse to influence this regime or tis decision-making processes. This is neither egalitarian nor just. In these territories, human rights are violated, and acts defined under international law as war-crimes are perpetuated on a daily basis.” Shministim letter 2014

Even the security issue is challenged stating that actions such as Land expropriation, house demolition, torture, executions etc… “are not only illegitimate, they don’t even achieve their stated goal of increasing the citizens’ personal safety. This safety will be achieved only through a just peace agreement between Israeli government and Palestinian people.” Shministim letter 2010

Furthermore, they point out how militarization impose a gender-based chauvinist structure that perpetrates a model of male dominance which is bound to be replicated also in the Israeli society:

In our opinion, the army encourages a violent and militaristic masculine ideal whereby ‘might is right’. This ideal is detrimental to everyone, especially those who do not fit it. Furthermore, we oppose the oppressive, discriminator, and heavily gendered power structures within the army itself.” Shministim 2014

Two of the high school students who refused to serve the army this year

Ultimately, these activists denounce the discriminatory nature of the Israeli State proposing instead an inclusive approach which challenges the definition itself of Jewish State. They aim to deconstruct the collective memories and myths which allows the militarization to be perceived as part of the society, war as unavoidable and security priority as necessary to survival.



New Profile: http://www.newprofile.org

Shministim: http://www.whywerefuse.org/

Courage to Refuse: http://www.couragetorefuse.org

Peace Now: http://peacenow.org.il/ 

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