Every year, as the next group of Israeli youths are drafted into the army, some of them refuse. Since 2001 they have called themselves Shministim (which translates as ‘twelfth graders’, signifying that they are in their last year of school, about to be drafted), and they sign a letter explaining why they refuse. They also, as they individually come before the army to explain why they won’t join, write individual statements. And as a result of this, they go to jail, for weeks or months. Their jail terms are often extended, because after they serve their first term they go again before the army, and have to explain themselves again, and if they still refuse to join, then they can be sent back to jail.
The class of 2009-10 has just released their letter explaining why they refuse, which can be found here
It reads as follows:
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.
We are all community activists and contribute in various ways to a variety of sectors in the Israeli society. We believe that contribution, cooperation and volunteerism are a way of life, and should not be limited to just two or three years. Our conscientious objection stems directly from our volunteer experience, from the values we believe in, from our love of the society that we are a part of and in which we live, from our respect of every human being, and from the aim of making our country a better place for all of its inhabitants.
The occupation creates an unbearable actuality for the Palestinians in the occupied territories. The checkpoint policy, land annexation, the building of the apartheid wall, paving of roads for Israeli’s only, settlement projects, and assassinations – all these have been sowing destruction in the West Bank for over 4 decades. The siege on Gaza and the prevention of importing materials, including basic food products and humanitarian aid, undermines the basic minimal living conditions of Gaza’s residents. We cannot tolerate such a reality.
The claim put forth by the spokespersons of the government and the army, that the continuation of the occupation arises from security reasons, has no substance. No country that has fought for its independence has ever been defeated by military means. The suffering of the Palestinian people and their subjugation is the cause of violent resistance. Israel’s public will never be safe as long as the Palestinian nation is under occupation. There is no military solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict – only peace will ensure life and security for Jews and Arabs in this country.
The Israeli government frequently boasts that Israel is ‘the only democracy in the Middle East’. The occupation is a complete contradiction to this claim. 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?
The Israeli Army claims that it is ‘the most ethical army in the world’. However, time and again reality proves that occupation and ethics cannot stand together. When young armed men are sent on policing missions in the midst of occupied disenfranchised persons, when the government attempts to repress the struggle of the disenfranchised for independence by force – the stage is set for the injury of civilian population and committing of war crimes. Those who carry out such actions are not ‘exceptions’ or ‘bad apples’. The occupation is the cess pool from in which such actions fester. The occupation has led the Israel Army to breach international treaties, UN decisions, and recommendations of the international court, and even Israeli law, time and again.
Settlement policy is racist in principle. In the name of a Messianic ideology, it has created a reality of apartheid in the West Bank. Disenfranchised Palestinians and privileged settlers live contrastive lives side by side. Settlers participate in the election of the government that administers their affairs, while the Palestinians live under military rule. Settlers enjoy social security benefits, and economic benefits, while Palestinians live a life of poverty and enslavement. Settlers are tried under Israeli law in Israeli courts, while Palestinians are tried at military courts with out the basic right of a fair proceeding. Any human opposed to racism finds this reality repulsive and untenable.
There are those who claim that we are objectors, although the Israeli government is the most consistent objector – in objecting to peace. The Israeli Army is not a ‘defence force’, but an aggressive occupation force. The Israeli government does not extend an olive branch, rather it upholds violent nationalism.
The occupation is a continuous crime against Israeli society. Employment of Palestinians under slave conditions in the Israeli job market causes a deterioration of conditions for all workers in the market and brings about a violation of their rights. Instead of investing in social budgets, the Israeli government has been investing for more than 40 years in the building of villas and by-pass roads in the settlements, in order to alter ground reality. The warped norms and the violence that young soldiers confess to in the territories have permeated the green line, and are expressed in a rise in violence and racism throughout Israeli society.
Out of sense of responsibility and concern for the two nations that live in this country, we cannot stand idle. We were born into a reality of occupation, and many of our generation see this as a ‘natural’ state. In Israeli society it is a matter of fact that at 18, every young man and woman partakes in military service. However, we cannot ignore the truth – the occupation is an extreme situation, violent, racist, inhuman, illegal, non democratic, and immoral, that is life threatening for both nations. We that have been brought up on values of liberty, justice, righteousness and peace cannot accept it.
Our objection to becoming soldiers of the occupation stems from our loyalty to our values and to the society surrounding us, and it is part of our ongoing struggle for peace and equality, a struggle whose Jewish-Arab nature proves that peace and co-existence is possible. This is our way, and we are willing to pay the price.
I find these people amazing. Their bravery, strength, ideas of justice and what peace actually is, love and conviction is inspiring. I teach Genocide studies at a university in Melbourne, and something we talk about in tutes is what we (would) do if we came face-to-face with genocide, or indeed any violence (of course, I always remind students that those of us who are non-Indigenous in Australia are always implicated in, and continuing, genocide). And I’m always astounded by how many people so easily say that, in this imaginary, they would protect themselves and their families before helping another. It astounds me because it is an imaginary – I’m asking them to imagine themselves as the best they could be. And the best they could be is, it seems, to be unable to think themselves into helping another when there is a cost to themselves. I often say to the students that there are worse things than being dead, like being a perpetrator.
Which is why I love and respect the shministim so much. They refuse to be perpetrators of violence, and they accept the considerable loss that they then experience – not just of going to jail, but of being permanently alienated in a highly militarised society. They actively demonstrate that there are things which are much worse than risking one’s own life to demonstrate that we can live in a world of non-violence.