jew on this

critical, progressive ideas from pondering jews

Tag: refusenik

going to prison

by tobybee

I posted a few weeks back about the Shministim, who are the people who have just graduated from high school and hence come up for drafting into the Israeli army and refuse to go. Instead, because the Israeli government rejects conscientious objectors, they go to jail. And as the time passes, they are going before the draft board, explaining why they refuse to be a part of enforcing the occupation, and being sent to jail for terms of imprisonment which generally last a few weeks. But then they again go before the draft board and are sent to jail again. Or Ben-David is one of the shministim, and she has just been sent to jail for the second time. Her initial refusal reads as follows (I was going to post an excerpt, but having read it, I really want to share it all):

To refuse means to say no! No to the military rule in the West Bank, no to the use of violence as a means of defence, no to patriarchy, no to violence against innocent people, no to abuse against soldiers, no to war and no to a society that claims to be democratic, but forces youths to carry weapons, kill and be killed.

The Israeli society takes the army for granted, considers it to be a necessity, and based on this it becomes legitimate, in the eyes of Israelis, for the military to do what it does, even when the actions themselves are less than acceptable.

Both societies in this conflict feed on lies, stereotypes and racism, and therefore both sides fear and refuse to meet. Most Israelis never met Palestinians, apart from the extremists they say on TV and in the papers. Most Palestinians never met Israelis, unless they were soldiers or settlers, in situations that were not very pleasant, to say the least. In this state of affairs, little wonder that it is so easy to find excuses for killing. The terrorists and the combat soldier make the same assumption – that the other people hates them and constantly tries to harm them, and so this person, as a member of that society, has the duty to assume responsibility and stop the other side (the terrorists, the demolishers of houses) or even hurt it (blow up somewhere in Israel, or besiege Palestinian villages) for his family, its safety and freedom, even if that means the he, the terrorist or the soldier or the freedom fighter, will be hurt.

Just as I hope that as a Palestinian who had lived all her life under occupation and had grown up in a violent society, I would not have chosen to become a terrorist, so, as an Israeli living under the constant threat of terror attacks and rockets, abductions (a political incarceration in an Israeli prison is also a kind of abduction in my view), I shall not choose to become a soldier.

I am not saying that soldiers or terrorists are acting out of some natural evilness. On the contrary, I believe they are acting out of misinformation and brainwashing.

Now, all these are not necessarily reasons to become a conscientious objector. Some Israelis choose for the same reasons to get discharged from the military in other ways. I could have done so, thus freeing my time for the struggle against all those things. And maybe, as most Israelis believe, I could have enlisted and become “the good soldier at the checkpoint”, to stop the violence and injustice “on the ground”, because that is the only way to really understand what the army is, that it is not just all occupation…

No! So many people have joined the army and said that they would be the ones to change it from within, but they ended up following the same orders, doing the same horrible things. Because when you are ordered to enter a house or to stop somebody at a checkpoint, it doesn’t matter that much whether you smile at him while doing this, or whether you avoid stepping on their bed with your mud-soiled boots. It’s the fact that you did it that matters. You stopped him from reaching his destination; you broke into his house in the middle of the night. And with all the social pressure and the brainwashing in the military you change. Everybody changes.

I do not want to belittle the importance of the fact that some soldiers do not hit, do not abuse. I appreciate that, but that is not the way it is supposed to be. I should be lauding a person’s understanding what is going on and refusing an order, not the fact that he was one of those laying a siege on a population, but smiling nicely at the person denied passage to hospital.

I haven’t always been the vegan, radical leftist, feminist, that I am today, but I was never the opposite from that either. It always seemed wrong to me to hate an entire people or to oppress an entire people. But, of course, I was also ignorant of what occupation means. Even as a young feminist, with my feeling of great personal responsibility towards society, I wanted back then to join the army and serve there for three years, to reach the units where women are not allowed to serve, to stop the terrorists trying to hurt me, my family and friends with my own hands. I have changed much since and understood that all these actions are not the ones that would make a change for the better; that to the contrary, they would only serve to further instill hatred, insensitivity and oppression in our society.

These changes I have undergone were really tough on me (and they still are). To say that the Israeli army may be doing some things that are wrong, to say that I am not a Zionist (to Israeli ears it is sometimes like saying I’m anti-Semitic) and to choose not to enlist – it was all a long process, in which I was guided by my optimism, belief in human goodness and the wish to know more and to change the way things are.

I would like to tell about a small but significant piece of this process, one that was a painful reality check for me. When I was just under 15 years of age, after having many arguments with friends about why the army is necessary, and is moral, I decided, mostly out of curiosity, to join a demonstration in the Occupied Territories.

The road there was tiresome. The soldiers stopped us at many point along the way and we had to walk through long bypass routes. When we were near the village where the demonstration was to be held, a strong smell of teargas blew in our direction from where the soldiers were.

When we reached the village at last, I saw none of the Palestinians was trying to harm me or hated me for being Jewish. We went out to demonstrate (ever so briefly). It was nice to feel the cooperation of people from both sides, who do want peace. It was a powerful experience of good will.

And then the soldiers came. I remember they started throwing stun grenades at us, and when we lifted our hands and asked them to stop, they started firing rubber-coated bullets. We went back, and at some point they retreated a bit as well. We then heard shots from afar, and were told that at the other side of the village the soldiers started firing live ammunition. I was in a state of anxiety, took the friend that came with me and went into one of the “houses of peace” in the place.

That village, Bil’in, became a sort of second home for me. After the time it took me to come to terms with it all, I started going to these demonstrations every week, and even staying over to sleep in peace houses there together with my friends – Israeli peace activists and Palestinians, people I learned to admire and love (as I love all human beings).

That day and that period significantly changed my worldview. To see a soldier who is supposed to protect me shoot in my direction and in the direction of my friends, who are not trying to hurt him, to get to know Palestinians, laugh with them, and to experience other things that I never thought or believed could make sense – all these made me believe that things can and should be different, that not all that I was told was true, that I have to look and check things for myself.

Not long before that “the second Intifada” broke out, and as an Israeli living in Jerusalem I remember it as a terrible experience: a new terror attack once in a couple of days, the fear of riding a bus or of going out with friends, fear for the soldiers, for my friends some of whom were victims of terror attacks, and fear for myself – I was too close to the scene of attacks too many times. That difficult time led me later to wonder why this is how things stand and made me understand that the other side also lives with all this frustration, fear and anger, and that it is very easy to choose hatred, and that this is precisely why one must not choose hatred and violence, to generate more hatred and pain.

So why do I refuse? I refuse because I want to make a difference. I want all those Palestinian youths who have lost hope to see that there are Israelis who care and who make a different choice. I want all those of my friends who became soldiers or who are about to become soldiers to see that things don’t have to be the way they are and that doing all those immoral things is not something to be taken for granted, that another way is possible, that you don’t have to suffer inside a military system that oppresses you (most soldiers suffer while they’re in the army). Maybe they too will open their eyes and their minds a bit more to what is going on around them (and I know that in the Israeli society it is very difficult to change your mind, to open your mind and to really listen). It is important for me that people see that I don’t just refuse for the sake of refusing, but that this is my means for making a difference.

And what matters to me most in my act of refusal is my family. My older brother served in the army as a combat soldier. My twin brother would be enlisting into a combat unit in a few months’ time (my other twin brother got exempted from military service by other means, and regretfully, even that my family does not accept). I want to show them, especially my parents, aunts and uncles and grandfather, that there is another way, that you don’t always have to fight and attack (and that an attack is no defence), that not all Arabs hate us, and that no, if I do not enlist the new Nazis won’t come to murder us all. I believe this step will make them open their eyes to a new possibility, or at least try some different options out.

So what – do you want nobody to join the army? — Of course I would have preferred a world without any army and without anyone having to enlist. But in Israel today there is no such option. Considering the situation into which Israel itself and the rest of the world have driven us, we do need an army. But we certainly do not need an occupying army or one that oppresses its own soldiers. And in the real world, there won’t come a day in which all Israelis suddenly decide together not to enlist. What may happen, and what I hope will happen, is that more people would decide to refuse to join the army, and that this would force the Israeli government and military to change their policy, both towards the Palestinian people and towards the Israeli soldiers themselves. And it is here, I believe, that the process which leads to this change begins.

So, why wouldn’t I join the army as a school teacher in uniform? Don’t I believe in education? — I love doing volunteer educational work with youths. This is what I want to do in life. But that is not the right way to do it.

Every day teenagers, and all other people living in Israel, see hundreds of soldiers in the street and are exposed to military presence – on buses, in advertisement, in songs on the radio, in the newspapers, in books and in schools. Everything in our lives revolves around the army, even what we wear. Every aspect of our lives has some military concept connected to it, and the basis of militarism is violence. Little wonder that our society is violent. Little wonder that those teenagers, who live in such a society day after day, are reared on militarist values and desire to become combat soldiers, or are familiar already in their first year of school with military terms, then beat each other up in school or stab one another at pubs or even commit rape.

An educational figure with a military appearance only serves to further instil all that into the minds of the young, to further entrench the notion that living in such a militarist society with all those militarist and violent values is a necessity.

I believe that an educator cannot at one and the same time tell children not to fight one another but also to justify all the wars the Israel has fought. I educate for peace, dialogue and for the proposition that there are no such situations in which the only choice is fighting, that there is always a peaceful solution if you think before you act, show some patience, and above all – consider the other to be equal to yourself.

This was a relatively brief letter, and it is clear to me that I did not even come close to conveying all that I wanted to say in it. It is also clear to me that it would be very easy to draw partial and incorrect conclusions from what I wrote. But I did not write this letter in order to convince; I was not trying to practice demagoguery or to insult anybody. I wrote what came to my mind and only a few things of what I felt is important for me to tell you and to explain to you, my friends.

I do hope that this letter leaves you with something that you can take from it in your own lives and that you do try to open your mind to it and to everything around you, to hear and listed to different things, even if it is sometimes hard (and it is hard).

Love to you and to those you love,
Or Ben-David.

According to a recent email from New Profile, on November 16 Or was sentenced to 20 more days in the military prison for women (no. 400) in Tzrifin. This is her second term in prison and the third time she has been tried and sentenced for her refusal to enlist. She is due to be released from prison on 3 December and is likely to be imprisoned again soon afterwards. If you want to send her a message, her address in prison is:

Or Ben-David
Military ID 6054025
Military Prison No. 400
Military Postal Code 02447, IDF
Fax: ++972-3-9579389

Since the prison authorities often block mail from reaching imprisoned objectors, we also recommend you to send them your letters of support and encouragement via e-mail to, and they will be printed out and delivered during visits.

Other courses of action are firstly, to tell people about what happens to conscientious objectors in Israel. And then to write letters to the Israeli army, the Israeli defence ministry, and to the embassy in your country. New Profile has addresses and suggested texts for you to use.



by tobybee

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.

You can join their facebook group here, and can read about a speaking tour that a couple of women who are shministim are doing in the US currently (or earlier this week) here.

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.

netanyahu’s nephew

by anzya

While we’re on the topic of Netanyahu, I thought I’d post this interview with his nephew, who is a pacifist and was court martialled a number of years ago for refusing to serve in the IDF. (This interview’s actually from last year, before Netanyahu became PM). I was reminded of this when talking with some friends about the conflict last night. One thing that came up was the nature of being an activist against the occupation, in Israeli society. Listening to Jonathan Ben-Artzi (Netanyahu’s nephew)- a maths student, probably around my age- I was struck by how he expressed his views, which seem pretty radical, through his lived experience rather than overarching ideologies. A friend suggested that when you’re born into a society such as  Israel, you don’t get to choose activism as an identity or lifestyle. Rather, from a pretty young age (as it’s compulsary for Israelis to be drafted into the army at 18) you become forced into activism “organically”, or out of neccessity by the decisions you are required to make. This interview is in two video segments from the US program “Democracy Now”: