As some of you no doubt will have noticed, in the right hand column on this website is a little counter called Refusenik Watch. It keeps a tally (currently at 1396) of the number of Israeli’s who have actively refused to serve in the IDF (Israeli army) for ideological reasons. For those of you who don’t know, Israel requires that all of it’s Jewish and Druze (not Israeli-Palestinian-Arab or Bedouin) citizens go into the army at age 18, males for 3 years and females for 2. Following this, there is miluim (reserve duty) for a number of weeks a year for many years (the exact length of miluim differs from person to person, depending on what they do outside the army, their fitness and what army unit they were in).
Note that female refuseniks are rare, as the majority of women who apply for exemption on pacifist grounds are given it (it is very rarely granted for males) and as such, only one of the refusenik groups, the shminitsim, include women in their numbers.
Recently, I read some good news, reported in Ha’aretz. 250 high school seniors have signed a letter stating they will not serve in the IDF. They stated:
“We call on all youths ahead of service in the IDF, and all soldiers already in the Israeli army to reconsider endangering their lives and taking part in a policy of oppression and destruction”
I’d like to personally congratulate those 250 seniors for their brave and moral stance. It’s not an easy decision to make, by any stretch of the imagination, and those who refuse frequently subject themselves to jail time, financial hurt (the miniscule pay that soldiers get does not get paid to refuseniks), societal rejection, and their future job prospects are inevitably harmed immensely. So, to take such a strong moral stand, despite the consequences, is something we should applaud.
The following was written by Asaf Oron, a Sergeant Major in the Giv’ati Brigade (now one of the more presitigious areas in the army), who refused in 2002 after 17 years of service.
But when, instead of a sacred mission, a 19 year old finds himself performing the sacrilege of violating human beings’ dignity and freedom, he doesn’t dare ask – even himself – if it’s OK or not. He simply acts like everyone else and tries to blend in. As it is, he’s got enough problems, and boy is the weekend far off.
You get used to it in a hurry, and many even learn to like it. Where else can you go out on patrol – that is, walk the streets like a king, harass and humiliate pedestrians to your heart’s content, and get into mischief with your buddies – and at the same time feel like a big hero defending your country? The Gaza Exploits became heroic tales, a source of pride for Giv’ ati, then a relatively new brigade suffering from low self esteem.
For a long time, I could not relate to the whole “heroism” thing. But when, as a sergeant, I found myself in charge, something cracked inside me. Without thinking, I turned into the perfect occupation enforcer. I settled accounts with “upstarts” who didn’t show enough respect. I tore up the personal documents of men my father’s age. I hit, harassed, served as a bad example – all in the city of Kalkilia, barely three miles from grandma and grandpa’s home-sweet-home. No. I was no “aberration.” I was exactly the norm.
There are many different arguments used against refusal, both from the right and from the established left. All the main political parties oppose refusal, including the supposedly centre-left (yeah, right) Avodah (Labour) party and the supposedly left (again, yeah, right) Yachad party (who’s leader created the Geneva Accord). The only parties in parliament to support refusal are the 2 Arab parties, the United Arab List and Balad, and the joint Jewish-Arab party, Hadash-Ta’al.
I am currently planning on moving to Israel early next year (while this was accurate at the time of writing, it has not been for a long time. Asher – 12/03/2006), as I think it’s a beautiful area and I can see a real purpose for myself (in terms of social action & activism). This of course means that, like all male immigrants under 26, I will be required to serve in the IDF. In the middle of last year, I had a dream. I was living in Jerusalem in a kvutsah (a commune), and it was the night before my call up. I had decided to refuse and not show up the next morning…that night i was making phone calls and emails to friends and family to tell them, not knowing what would happen. I didnt sleep that night, and then at about 11am the next morning (I was just getting ready to prepare lunch) when i heard a knock on the door, which I answered to a few soldiers who had come to arrest me. I picked up a bag which I had packed the night before, and slowly walked out the door, surrounded by soldiers with their guns at the ready. Then i woke up. That dream scared the hell out of me, and even now, as i write about it, im shaking. The thought of going to jail, possibly for up to 2 & 1/2 years (the length of time I will be legally required to serve) scares the shit out of me. It is on this basis that I am able to praise those who do refuse so highly – their courage serves as an inspiration to me every day.
A favourite argument of the anti-refusal crew is that everyone gets a say when they vote, the decision is made by the elected government and then anyone who goes against that is “distorting the democratic process”. Therefore, by refusing to serve where and how the democratically elected government has ordered you to serve, you are distorting that process, and therefore you should serve if you support democracy.
To that, i say, bollocks.
To take this argument, every time you jaywalk, you are distorting the democratic process. Does that mean you should ONLY cross at pedestrian crossings when the light is green? Of course not. You should cross when you feel it is safe, as long as you are willing to accept the consequences (ie – if you cross at a busy street when you think it is safe, you might get hit.)
If you sneak into a club/bar underage, you are distorting the democratic process. As long as you are willing to accept the consequences (if you get caught, you could be taken home and your parents informed. If you get in and then proceed to drink underage, you could be causing irreprable harm to your body.) then that is ok.
The key here is the acceptance of consequences. If you wish to break the law and are not willing to accept the consequences, then, yes, you may be unfairly distorting the democratic process (whatever the hell that is anyway. Who says the democratic process is such a good thing? I sure don’t).
However, if you are willing to accept the consequences, (in the case of refusing to serve in the IDF, this means going to prison), then I do not believe you are unfairly distorting the democratic process.
Note that when I say “then that is ok” I only mean in terms of the charge of distortion of the democratic process. Someone who murders and then accepts the consequences of life in prison is not “ok”, for he is a murderer. He is not, however, unfairly distorting the democratic process.
A socialist friend of mine in Israel who has served in the army explained his reason thus (italics are mine):
There will be people serving at these checkpoints. No matter what we do, right now, there will be people at these checkpoints. I would much rather have one of my chanichim (youth), who have been brought up in the ways of NOAL (a large Israeli socialist-Zionist youth movement), who have a social conscience, guard this checkpoint, than a kid from Betar (a right wing, revisionist Zionist youth movement) or someone from Kiryat Arba (a large settlement next to Hebron). This way we can reduce the pain inflicted on all those Palestinians who pass through this checkpoint.
This is probably one of the better arguments around. I note, however, that he said “reduce the pain inflicted”, and not eliminate the pain. This is a nod to the fact that the mere presence of this checkpoint causes harm to the Palestinian people. This is a nod to the fact that there is a minimum level of activity that must be undertaken by those who serve at this checkpoint which causes harm to the Palesinian people. While it may be the lesser of two evils, it is still inherently evil.
Courage To Refuse, the largest and most mainstream of the refusenik groups, has this to say on a related matter:
Question: And what would happen if everyone were to refuse to serve in the territories?
Ori Rot-Levi replies:
Then the occupation would end. The occupation is not a The Will of God. It is maintained by a few thousand people against the will of millions.
To finish off, I will quote Asaf Oron once more:
We are the Chinese young man standing in front of the tank. And you? If you are nowhere to be seen, you are probably inside the tank, advising the driver