Israeli Conscientious Objectors raise a voice against violence
By Maya Schenwar, 25 April 2007

In the past year, the Israeli government has met with a tidal wave of international opposition. Even the Bush Administration—though still overwhelmingly in support of Israel—urged it to tone down the civilian casualties and move toward peace negotiations in the war against Lebanon in August. However, international media tend to portray public opinion within Israel as unified, as if the country is composed of one mind, one mouth, and one heart.

It’s true that most Israelis generally support their military. According to a survey by Israeli newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth , at the beginning of the Lebanon War, 81 percent of Israelis were in favor of the government’s actions. However, the 19 percent of Israelis who opposed the fighting didn’t keep quiet. Since the very first days of Israel’s attacks on Lebanon, anti-war protests swept the country. And just before the ceasefire took effect in mid-August, 73 percent of Israelis reported that they thought the government was handling the crisis "badly."

Even the Israeli military doesn’t act as a unified body in favor of war—in fact, some of the most important protests take place from the inside. "Refusers," Israelis who reject the universal mandate to participate in the military upon graduating high school—or refuse to continue serving after years of military duty—are becoming an increasingly powerful force for peace. These conscientious objectors have seen the realities of war firsthand, and have come to the decision that the actions they’re being asked to perform are wrong. They’re one of the Israeli peace movement’s most hopeful possibilities for change, said Peretz Kidron, a refuser, long-time activist with the conscientious objector group Yesh Gvul, and author of the book Refusenik! Israel’s Soldiers of Conscience.

"’Refuseniks’ hit at the main prop of the government’s oppressive and aggressive policies: the army," Kidron said. An administration built around the concept of necessary violence falls apart when the perpetrators of that violence refuse to fight.

Trailblazers of Peace

A few dozen conscientious objectors emerged during the anti-Lebanon war, but many of the thousands of refusers who’d expressed their opposition previously reaffirmed their stance. Additionally, there are uncounted numbers who have not officially declared themselves conscientious objectors, but have found ways to dodge the system, expressing their opposition in a subtler way, said Rela Mazali, one of the founders of New Profile, a grassroots feminist organization that advocates an end to Israeli militarism and provides support for young conscientious objectors. She estimates that about 50 percent of Israeli candidates for service refuse to participate in the military, in one way or another. (Palestinian youth who are Israeli citizens are generally not considered "candidates for service.")

"The vast bulk of refusal is undeclared and unreported," said Mazali, who notes that many citizens evade call-ups for reserve duty by traveling abroad, or literally hiding from conscription. Others find ways to be exempted for medical or psychological reasons. "There is a much larger refusal movement than the declared conscientious objection, submerged under terms such as ’medical deferral,’" Mazali said. "While not all of the people taking such routes are left-wing, their actions reveal mistrust of the government and the military and amount to a practical rejection of the Israeli maxims that ’our very existence is in danger’ and ’there’s no other choice.’"

When this mistrust of the government comes straight from the people who are supposed to carry out the government’s actions, it has a ripple effect. Kidron calls refusers "trailblazers of opposition." Those who’ve done service share horrific stories of their time in the military—many have witnessed brutal murders of civilians, or even killed people themselves—providing a shocking portrait of the realities of war, a graphic call to action. Refusers energize the protest movement by helping other Israelis find the courage to defy the militaristic mindset that’s instilled in their country and culture.

Any kind of participation in the peace movement takes chutzpah in Israel. July’s anti-war demonstrations were met with a torrent of counterprotestors and acts of violence—the Women in Black vigil in Haifa was shelled during its first week protesting the Lebanon war, according to Hannah Safran, a member of the group. (The women returned later that day to complete the vigil.)

So the act of using peace to protest violence can be a difficult task. This is especially true for conscientious objectors: Kidron emphasizes that refusers are not just stating their minds, they’re taking a risk.

"This is not a plain protest," Kidron said. "It’s nonviolent civil disobedience with a willingness to pay the price of prison."

Indeed, Amir Pasteur, one of the Lebanon war’s first publicized refusers, was imprisoned just after his refusal to report for duty at the end of July. Many conscientious objectors can expect to face prison sentences of at least a month. Also, they could be removed from the military units in which they’ve been serving—groups that function as close-knit social circles. Some refusers are denied jobs, promotions, or scholarships, but Kidron and Rela Mazali both emphasize that these civilian-life consequences are relatively rare. Often, the worst consequence is the feeling of being an exception—someone who veers from the path an Israeli is expected to follow.

Refusal: As Old as Israel

Many refusers are proud to be different in this regard. They represent the latest link in a chain of noble "exceptions." Most everywhere in the world, conscientious objectors have been around for as long as militaries have. From Israel’s inception in 1948, isolated refusers were speaking up, usually in the name of a general philosophy of pacifism. But during the first Lebanon war in 1982, refusers began to build a powerful, cohesive movement. Groups like Yesh Gvul formed. More and more soldiers started to see the actions of the military as brutality and aggression, not self-defense.

When the new millennium rolled around—and Israel stepped up its presence in the West Bank—so did a new generation of refusers, including the young yet vociferous organization, Ometz Le’Sarev (Courage to Refuse), composed of hundreds of reservists and officers who refuse to fight beyond the 1967 borders. And in 2003, 27 acclaimed pilots who had served in the Israeli airforce signed the "Pilot’s Letter," stating:

We, for whom the Israel Defense Forces and the Air Force are an inalienable part of ourselves, refuse to continue to harm innocent civilians. These actions are illegal and immoral, and are a direct result of the ongoing occupation which is corrupting all of Israeli society. Perpetuation of the occupation is fatally harming the security of the state of Israel and its moral strength.

Measures like these were not purely symbolic, according to Adam Keller, a refuser who was jailed for three months in 1988 after grafittiing military tanks with messages of peace. The voices of refusers resonated for people besides their fans—even the people in charge.

"Ometz and the Pilots’ Letter of 2003 affected government policy profoundly and were a major factor in Sharon’s decision to leave Gaza," said Keller, who is now the spokesperson and co-founder of Gush Shalom, an Israeli peace organization.

In the past couple of years, Israeli conscientious objectors suffered an unlikely blow when a new brand of "refusers" came on the scene: right-wing soldiers who refused to obey orders to uproot Israeli settlements in the West Bank. The distinction of "refuser"—a term now co-opted by right-wingers—began to lose its significance, and the conscientious objector movement began to fade from international media.

This dip makes the revival of the conscientious objector movement during the past few months all the more significant, Keller said. The kind of mounting opposition to Israel’s military—from inside Israel’s military—that arose during the first Lebanon war also applied to Lebanon Part II. Judging by precedent, says Keller, the refuser movement grows each time Israel escalates violence against its neighbors. But how to call for an all-out refusal, a recognition that, on principle, war is not the answer to Israel’s problems?

An Anti-Jewish State?

Some refusers say that in order to reap the wisdom of precedents for peace, Israelis need to look a little further back in history: to biblical times. After all, many Israeli Jews claim that throughout the past decades of military conflict, they’ve been fighting to protect their age-old homeland, a God-given "promised land" which every Jew is obligated to defend. However, says Shamai Leibowitz, a refuser and human rights attorney, that view of Judaism is not just backward and dangerous, it’s just plain wrong.

Like the common-yet-faulty assumption that the religion of Islam is inherently violent, the militaristic stance of today’s Israel sometimes leads people to believe that Judaism is grounded in militarism. Yet the Torah prohibits collective punishment, says Leibowitz, referring to a passage from Genesis in which Abraham argues with God about the plan to wipe out the residents of Sodom and Gomorra, "If there are fifty righteous within the city, will you indeed sweep away and not forgive the city for the fifty?…It is far from you to do such a thing, to slay the righteous with the wicked."

The Torah is also behind the act of refusal, Leibowitz says: when the Jews are stuck as slaves in Egypt and the Pharoah orders two Egyptian midwives to kill all the Jewish male babies, they refuse, and are hailed as heroines.

"The Torah shows us how, in a sea of evil, an individual can stand up against evil, oppose an order, disobey it, and not shrug off the responsibility by saying, ’I’m only following orders from my government,’" Leibowitz said.

Refusers can use Judaism as grounds for peace, instead of as a justification for violence, he says. In other countries, religious affiliation (Quakerism, for example) is often a key part of an application for conscientious objector status. Leibowitz says that despite—or because of—the fact that most Israeli conscripts are Jewish, religious affiliation can still be a key part of the refuser movement in Israel. Most refusers aren’t religious, but they often refer to Jewish ethics when explaining their cases.

"I believe that refusal grounded in religious reasons is necessary and perhaps even essential to stop the horrible war crimes committed by the Israeli army in Lebanon," Leibowitz said. "What Israel is doing is the very antithesis to Jewish concepts and principles, and the state of Israel has therefore no right to call itself a ’Jewish’ state. Today, it is probably the [most] anti-Jewish state on Earth."

Consciousness is Catching

The refusers’ message is tough to stomach: it calls for Israelis to self-reflect and to question where their loyalties lie. But spreading this message to soldiers, civilians and the government could be the refusers’ most important duty, Rela Mazali of New Profile said.

"The first step in our view is consciousness raising—understanding that it’s our militarized view of the world and our militarized actions that perpetuate the conflict we’ve been embroiled in for so long, rather than vice versa," she said. For example, if Israeli leaders had been conscious—and critical—of their automatic tendency to fight violence with violence, they might have considered other ways to respond to Hezbollah’s abduction of soldiers.

Since it’s a feminist organization, New Profile’s commitment to "consciousness raising" also means spreading awareness about the built-in sexism of military societies. Scoffing at the myth that, because both women and men are conscripted, Israel’s military promotes gender equality, New Profilers say that the army just attempts to stuff women into the "male soldier" role—and subjects them to a lot of crap along the way. In her petition for exemption from service last November, feminist refuser Idan Halili argued that the military promotes sexual harassment, a patriarchal power structure, and conformity to "masculine" roles. She won her case.

The members of organizations like New Profile hope to nudge the government toward peaceful solutions by educating people throughout Israel, showing them the ways in which militarism is harming their lives and their state. Refusers have sway with the public in Israel in a way they don’t in other countries, because they automatically have something very significant in common with almost everyone: the obligation to serve in the military.

Mazali is hopeful that the growing number of refusers will help Israelis begin to question the overriding, government-sanctioned opinion that violence is a necessity. In time, New Profile members hope, Israeli citizens will realize that they need not raise their children to be soldiers.

"I think this type of consciousness is spreading in Israel, and with it the criticism of militarized policy decisions," she said. "But of course not fast enough."

Refusers’ efforts to reach the general public don’t only extend to Israelis. Jennifer Bing-Canar, Director of the Middle East Program at the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) in Chicago, stresses the importance of American support for Israeli conscientious objectors—and for the peace movement in general.

"I think it is critically important that people in the US learn about and support the activities of Israeli peace activists, particularly as both our governments are waging war without end in the name of self-defense and anti-terrorism," Bing-Canar said. The AFSC occasionally sponsors Israeli refusers to come to the US and share their experiences. In fact, a group of five refusers was just here in September, working in AFSC offices and speaking in cities throughout the country. Once Americans educate themselves about the actions that Israelis are taking for peace, Bing-Canar says, they’re better equipped to take action themselves.

Action doesn’t have to mean flying to Lebanon or hitting the streets in protest. In fact, the most effective way to influence policymakers may be just a few feet away, at your computer. Keller points out the increasing influence of weblogs on politicians’ actions. For example, some representatives believe it was the influence of blogs that compelled Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi to pull her name off of a House resolution strongly backing Israel’s military actions in July. (Her approval ratings on the major liberal blog site, the Daily Kos, had dipped into the mid-30s at the time.) Considering Israel’s dependence on U.S. funds, we Americans have the chance to do some conscientious objecting of our own—telling our leaders to stop pouring money into Israel’s military machine.

A Promise of Peace

Back in 1948, Israel’s founders had high hopes for their nation as a place of peace. A refuge for victims of the ravages of the Holocaust, it would be a new kind of society, they thought: a place where people had seen the ways that violence could tear at the seams of humanity—and knew better. It would be an example to the world.

Their Declaration of Independence proclaims that the country "will be based on freedom, justice and peace as envisaged by the prophets of Israel… it will safeguard the Holy Places of all religions." They must have known that maintaining freedom, justice, and peace in a place that was already fraught with violence would be a tough task. But who wants a "promised land" full of anger and bloodshed? What kind of promise is that?

The dream of Israel as a land of peace may have been naďve. But that doesn’t mean it must be abandoned. The founders of both Yesh Gvul and Ometz Le’Sarev consider themselves patriots. By refusing, they’re demonstrating that they still believe that dream is possible.