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