JPN editors have invited a guest editor, Haggai Matar, to introduce this posting, based on his experience as a longtime activist against the occupation, his stand and extended imprisonment as a Conscientious Objector, his extensive organizing work both as and with youth.
Recent developments in Israel, says Matar, reveal "a fascinating phase in a struggle between militarism and occupation on one side and, on the other, a civilian society" in Israel. His introduction then refers JPN readers to a selection of relevant recent items from alternative sources and mainstream press.
Three young Israeli women are being sent to prison this week. The three, members of the Shministim – a new group of Israeli teenagers openly refusing to enlist, are expected to serve several consecutive sentences in military prisons for taking this stand, amounting to several months in all, during which they will be joined by at least five of their friends. In their joint declaration, the first of the items below, the Shministim state that they "oppose the actions taken in the name of the 'defense' of the Israeli society" and "protest on the separation, control, oppression and killing policy held by the state of Israel [… which] will never lead us to peace". (To read more about the three girls sentenced this week and to learn what you can do to help see the second item hereunder).
In order to understand this new wave of declared conscientious objection one should step back and look at the dynamics of the draft refusal movement in Israel and its relation to local politics. From this perspective one can see two dominant patterns at play in the movement. The first, and perhaps more well known of the two, is that of responding to the State's use of extraordinary excess force in its wars and oppression campaigns against Palestinians. We've seen this happen during the First Intifada, during the Lebanon Wars, and during the intense first few years of the Second Intifada; young people facing the draft, alongside reserve service soldiers, realize that what they are being asked to do is in no way a form of serving their country or protecting it from a fierce external enemy, but rather an attempt by Israeli elites to continue to profit from the lands, real estate, water supply and captive markets of the occupied Palestinian territories, also lowering Israelis' popular
resistance to radical domestic neo-liberal reforms, through maintaining fear and external conflict. The waves of refusal aroused by these actions focus their stand on saying 'no' to the terrible war crimes committed in crushing the civilian Palestinian population and making its life intolerable, and 'yes' to viable alternatives to the cycles of violence. This was where I was coming from when along with many friends I refused to enlist in the bloody days of 2002.
The second pattern of declared refusal is that which arises at times of supposed peace, or peace processes. Such was the case in 1970, when few young soldiers-to-be called upon then PM Golda Meir to accept the Egyptian peace offer, and avoid another terrible war. The current wave of declared COs belongs to this kind. While Israeli media talks of ongoing negotiations and while acts of violence towards Israelis have come to a halt, it has become extremely and dangerously easy to forget, inside Israel and abroad, that the occupation has not ended. This new wave of Shministim is trying to remind the world that while we talk of peace, there is no reality of peace for Palestinians. Gaza is under siege and poverty-stricken. In the West Bank illegal settlements and the Apartheid Wall continue to grow and expand on Palestinian land. West Bank civilians, forced to live within increasingly smaller confines, need permits and encounter checkpoints in their every move. The western world currently
sees no violence in Israel/Palestine because there are no or very few terrorist attacks targeting Israeli civilians, but at the same time Palestinians continue to be subjected to brutal daily terror. Not only is this not a reality of 'peace', it is also a status that, in the longer run, will necessarily escalate again into yet another round of violent military conflict. If the former pattern of refusal reacts to very visible violence and challenges it, the challenge of groups of the latter pattern is to bring to light the violence deep rooted in the mere existence of occupation. By refusing to enlist the young women and men of the Shministim are paying a personal price in order to get this message through to politicians and to the public and to demand an alternative.
Presenting such alternatives is not easy in Israel, though, especially when it comes to delicate issues like the mandatory draft. As the Israeli establishment promotes a glorifying notion of the army, presenting it as a "people's army" and a "ticket into society", many young people find themselves confused and afraid in facing the draft, and feel they have no one to turn to with questions. While the Shministim have already found their own answers, the majority of youths have no safe space for discussions, as almost all schools and many families place the basic imperative of the draft beyond discussion. Nevertheless, today, slightly over half of all Israelis do not serve as expected of them, and the numbers are gradually growing. While declared conscientious objectors who go to prison are but a tiny minority in this general movement, thousands of young people find alternative ways of avoiding military service each year. Their reasons are countless, varying from objection to the
occupation, through religious motives, to a feeling of detachment from the State which no longer sees itself responsible for the social security of its citizens but still expects so much of them.
This massive movement of "grey refusal" is a cause of alarm to the militarized establishment, not so much because it lacks the manpower to enforce its policies, but because of the long term damage to the notion of a "people's army" which it tries to maintain. To counter this effect, the army, supported by politicians and like-minded civilians, is using many different tactics. In the past few years more and more threats have been made towards those avoiding service, implying social sanctions and denial of civilian and political rights. The army also targets those few who make their refusal known, and sentences them to long periods of prison. This persecution reached one of its heights in the army's decision to put me and my friends on a public court martial four years ago, sentencing us to some two years in prison.
Naturally, the tension between a movement of thousands who feel uneasy about accepting army service as an unquestionable given and the official stand on the matter creates an empty space. This space is filled by New Profile, an NGO of which I am a member, working for the last ten years on the demilitarization of society. Through weekly meetings of youth groups spread throughout the country and a yearly alternative summer camp, New Profile allows youths a safe haven for open discussions, offering many of them a unique chance to deal with "forbidden" issues extending far beyond military service to include, among others, feminism, gender, sexual preference, capitalist globalization and the environment. The youth activity of New Profile contains a certain tension at it core. On the one hand – New Profile promotes the cancellation of the mandatory draft, and supports those who choose not to enlist. On the other hand – in its interactions with young people who are asking questions, who
still unsure as to their plans, New Profile wishes not to encourage refusal but to offer youths a chance to think for themselves, without pressuring them one way or the other. This tension is in a way at the focal point of two articles published recently, the links to which are attached below. The first, from the Christian Science Monitor, deals with the Alternative Summer Camp (and has me speaking a little more in it), and the second, from the Jerusalem Post, is an in-depth piece on New Profile.
This complexity is not seen favorably by the establishment. A few months ago a petition was made to the High Court of Justice by an Israeli NGO promoting strict enforcement of the draft, demanding that New Profile be stripped of its NGO status because it incites draft-avoidance and refusal. While that petition is just in its initial stages, just last week the attorney general decided to launch a criminal investigation against New Profile, making similar accusations. Rela Mazali, one of the founders of New Profile and an active member since, edited last week's post on the subject (at http://jewishpeacenews.blogspot.com/2008/09/israel-state-war-on-youth.html).
To sum up, Israel is now facing a fascinating phase in a struggle between militarism and occupation on one side and, on the other, a civilian society in search of alternative ways of managing itself and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, ways unlike those offered us until now.
As a guest editor I would like to thank the regular JPN editors for inviting me write here, and especially to Rela Mazali who helped greatly in the process of writing itself.
The Shministim letter of 2008:
We, high-school graduate teens, declare that we shall work against the Israeli occupation and oppression policy in the occupied territories and the territories of Israel. Therefore we will refuse to take part of these actions, which are being done under our name as part of the IDF.
Our refusal comes first and foremost as a protest on the separation, control, oppression and killing policy held by the state of Israel in the occupied territories, as we understand that this oppression, killing and routing of hatred will never lead us to peace, and they are all contradictory to the basic values a society that pretends to be democratic should have.
All the members of this group believe in developing the value of social work. We are not refusing to serve the society we live in, but are protesting against the occupation and the ways of actions which the militaristic system holds as it is today- crushing civil rights, discriminating on a racial base and acting opposing international laws.
We oppose the actions taken in the name of the "defense" of the Israeli society (Checkpoints, targeted killing, apartheid roads-available for Jews only, curfews etc.) that serve the occupation and exploitation policy , annex more conquered territories to the State of Israel and tramples the rights of the Palestinian population in an aggressive manner. These actions serve as a band-aid covering a bleeding wound, and as a limited and temporary solution that will accelerate and aggravate the conflict further.
We expostulate the plundering and the theft of territories and source of income to the Palestinians in exchange to the expansion of the settlements, reasoning to defend Israeli territories. In addition, we oppose any transformation of Palestinian cities and villages to ghettos without minimal living conditions or income sources enclosed by the separation wall.
We also protest the humiliating and disrespectful behavior of the military forces towards Palestinians in the West Bank; violence towards demonstrators, public humiliations, arrests, destruction of property regardless to any safety or defense needs, all of which violate global human rights and international law.
The wall and blockades surround the Palestinian Territories and serve as a halter around the Palestinian's neck. The soldiers who commit crimes under the patronage and protection of their commanders reflect the image of the Israeli society; a destructive and surprising society that is incapable of accepting its neighboring nation as a partner and not as an enemy.
In order to hold an effective dialogue between the two societies, we, the well-established and stronger society, have the responsibility of establishing and strengthening the other. Only with a more socially and financially established partner could we work towards peace rather than one-sided retaliation acts. Rather than supporting those citizens who have hope for peace, the military cast sanctions and pushes more and more people towards acts of extreme violence and escalation.
We hereby challenge every citizen who wonders if the military's policy in the occupied territories is conducive to the progression of the peace process, to discover by himself/ herself the truth and to lift the veil which distorts the reality of the situation; to verify statistical data; to look for the humane side in him/her and in the society which stands in front of him/her, to disprove the myths that were routed within us regarding the necessity of the IDF's in the Palestinian Occupied Territories, and to stand up against every action which he finds irrational and illegal.
In a place were there are humans, there is someone to talk to. Therefore, we ask to create a dialogue that goes beyond the power struggle, the retaliation and one-sided attrition actions; to disprove the "No Partner" myth, which is leading to a lose-lose situation of an ongoing frustration, and to move to more humane methods.
We cannot hurt in the name of defense or imprison in the name of freedom; therefore we cannot be moral and serve the occupation
An e-mail circulated recently on the sentencing of the three young COs:
Three Objectors Sentenced for Refusal to Enlist
- Please distribute widely -
Yesterday morning, three women COs - Omer Goldman, Tamar Katz and Mia Tamarin - all signatories of the 2008 high school seniors refusal letter, reported at the military Induction Base and refused to enlist into the Israeli military (all three can be seen on the right, photographed by the media at the demonstration organized for the occasion). Of the three, Omer was sentenced to 21 days in prison on the same day. Tamar and Mia were both given a conditional sentence of 7 days in prison, kept in the Induction Base until this morning (23 Sept.), and then, upon refusing to enlist, were sentenced to five days of confinement to base. They should be tried again on Sunday. Apparently the military authorities are trying to avoid sending all three to prison together.
The three signatories of the same letter, on whose imprisonment we have reported last month have finished their first prison terms, and are now awaiting the decision of the military authorities in their cases. We will, naturally, update when there are any significant developments.
This update will focus on the case of Omer Goldman, who is in prison at the moment. Fuller updates on Tamar Katz and Mia Tamarin will follow once they are sentenced again, early next week.
CO Omer Goldman, 19, from the Tel-Aviv suburb of Ramat HaSharon, has been, as mentioned above, sentenced to 21 days in military prison on 22 Sept. Further terms of imprisonment might well follow after this one ends. In her declaration of refusal she stated:
I refuse to enlist in the Israeli military. I shall not be part of an army that needlessly implements a violent policy and violates the most basic human rights on a daily basis.
Like most of my peers, I too have not dared to question the ethics of the Israeli military. But when I visited the Occupied Territories I realized I see a completely different reality, a violent, oppressive, extreme reality that must be ended.
I believe in service to the society I am part of, and that is precisely why I refuse to take part in the war crimes committed by my country. Violence will not bring any kind of solution, and I shall not commit violence, come what may.
Omer is due to be released from prison on 10 Oct., although due to the Jewish High Holidays an earlier date of release is also possible. Her prison address (note the different surname, as listed in official documents) is:
Military ID 5398532
Military Prison No. 400
Military Postal Code 02447, IDF
Since the prison authorities often block mail from reaching imprisoned objectors, we also recommend you to send your letters of support and encouragement to Omer via e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org, and they will be printed out and delivered to her during visits. You can also use the e-mail address to send support messages to Tamar and Mia. They're not in prison yet, but are kept against their will in a military compound, which is not that much different from prison, and could use some support.
In addition, you may want to follow some of our recommendations for action below.
First of all, please circulate this message and the information contained in it as widely as possible, not only through e-mail, but also on websites, conventional media, by word of mouth, etc.
Other recommendations for action:
1. Sending Letters of Support
Please send Omer letters of support (preferably postcards or by fax) to the prison address above.
2. Letters to Authorities
It is recommended to send letters of protest on Omer's behalf, preferably by fax, to:
Mr. Ehud Barak,
Minister of Defence,
Ministry of Defence,
37 Kaplan St.,
E-mail: email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org
Fax: ++972-3-696-27-57 / ++972-3-691-69-40 / ++972-3-691-79-15
Copies of your letters can also be sent to the commander of the military prison at:
Commander of Military Prison No. 400,
Military Prison No. 400,
Military postal number 02447, IDF
Another useful address for sending copies would be the Military Attorney General:
Chief Military Attorney
Military postal code 9605, IDF
It would be especially useful to send your appeals to the Commander of the Induction Base in Tel-HaShomer. It is this officer that ultimately decides whether an objector is to be exempted from military service or sent to another round in prison, and it is the same officer who is ultimately in charge of the military Conscience Committee:
Commander of Induction Base,
Military Postal Code 02718, IDF
For those of you who live outside Israel, it would be very effective to send protests to your local Israeli embassy. You can find the address of your local embassy on the web.
Here is a sample letter, which you can use, or better adapt, in sending appeals to authorities on the prisoners' behalf:
It has come to my attention that Omer Goldman, Military ID 5398532, a conscientious objector, has been imprisoned for her refusal to perform military service, and is held in Military Prison No. 400.
The imprisonment of conscientious objectors such as Omer Goldman is a violation of international law, of basic human rights and of plain morals.
I therefore call for the immediate and unconditional release from prison of Omer Goldman, without threat of further imprisonment in the future, and urge you and the system you are heading to respect the dignity and person of conscientious objectors, indeed of all human beings, in the future.
3. Letters to media in Israel and in other countries
Writing op-ed pieces and letters to editors of media in Israel and other countries could also be quite useful in indirectly but powerfully pressuring the military authorities to let go of the objectors and in bringing their plight and their cause to public attention.
Here are some contact details for the main media outlets in Israel:
Ma'ariv: 2 Karlibach St. Tel-Aviv 67132 Israel Fax: +972-3-561-06-14 e-mail: email@example.com
Yedioth Aharonoth: 2 Moses St. Tel-Aviv Israel Fax: +972-3-608-25-46
Ha'aretz (Hebrew):21 Schocken st.Tel-Aviv, 61001IsraelFax: +972-3-681-00-12
Ha'aretz (English edition):21 Schocken St. Tel-Aviv, 61001 Israel Fax: +972-3-512-11-56e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
Israel Hayom: 2 Hashlosha St. The B1 Building Tel-Aviv Israele-mail: email@example.com
Jerusalem Post:P.O. Box 81 Jerusalem 91000 Israel Fax: +972-2-538-95-27 e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com
Radio (fax numbers):Kol-Israel +972-2-531-33-15 and +972-3-694-47-09
Galei Zahal +972-3-512-67-20 Television (fax numbers):Channel 1 +972-2-530-15-36 Channel 2 +972-2-533-98-09 Channel 10 +972-3-733-16-66
We will continue updating on further developments.
Thank you for your attention and action,
Sergeiy Sandler – New Profile.
The Christian Science Monitor article about the summer camp:
A summer camp for political dissenters in Israel
By Danna Harman
The Christian Science Monitor
August 27, 2008 edition
talks with csmonitor.com's Pat Murphy about who works at and who attends a camp for conscientious objectors in Israel.
Latrun, Israel - Weeks before her scheduled conscription into the Israeli army, at a time when most other 18-year-olds were gearing up for mandatory service, Saar Vardi was in the forest – talking about pacifism.
One of a small group of Israeli conscientious objectors, Ms. Vardi spent her last days of summer at a unique camp – counseling others who might follow in her activist footsteps.
'A lot of us don't get why we should give up years, not to mention maybe our lives, for what seems like someone else's wars,' explained Vardi, a facilitator at Alternative Camp, a program for 15- to 19-year-olds outside Neve Shalom, a cooperative Israeli-Arab village. 'Here, we talk about options.'
On Monday, instead of reporting for duty, Vardi exercised her option to refuse service and, as expected, was promptly marched into jail.
While the camp is not billed as a conscientious objectors' gathering, the theme hung over the forest as thick as the smoke from the environmentally friendly cookers. Most of the 30-odd counselors were draft dodgers, deserters, or declared conscientious objectors who hoped to foster a greater understanding of their desire not to fight.
For the third year in a row, close to 100 campers gathered here to take part in seminars on subjects ranging from 'gender, sexuality, and alternative lifestyles,' to 'animal rights,' and 'the alternative history of the occupation.' And all this, between vegan meals and field trips to deserted Arab villages.
`No. We are not mainstream,' shrugged counselor Hagai Matar, a redhead with thick sideburns and a full beard, who was recently released after two years in jail for refusing to serve. 'But we are as much a part of the fabric of this country as anyone else,' he said. 'Israel is more conflicted and complicated than it may seem.'
Military service is mandatory in Israel – two years for females, three for males, and more if one volunteers for certain elite units or stays on as an officer. Afterwards, most Israeli men, and some women, are required to report for reserve duty every year until age 40, and sometimes beyond.
For most of Israel's 60 year history, the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) was a sacred cow, and the need for everyone to serve in it – part of the national consensus. But cracks in that consensus are apparent.
'Until the 1980s resisting the draft was practically unheard of … but kids today are thinking differently than [they once were.] Today it is easier, in some circles, to justify not serving,' said Ofer Neiman, an activist from Yesh Gvul ('There Is A Limit'), a reservists' resistance movement established at the start of the Lebanon War in 1982. That war saw both the beginning and the peak of the phenomenon, with 3,500 people eventually signing a Yesh Gvul petition pledge not to serve – and 200 ultimately sitting in jail.
Since then, hundreds more have resisted the call to arms on moral grounds. Some refuse to serve in the occupied territories others refuse to serve at all. And while the vast majority of these objectors are reservists, the number of 18-year-old conscripts among their ranks has also grown, despite the general social stigma.
'The occupation is weighing down on everyone,' said camp counselor Tali Lerner, who spent nine months in the air force before deserting. Eventually released on medical grounds, she became active in New Profile, an antimilitary movement that helps those who don't want to serve. New Profile – the name is a play of words on the profiling system used by the military to sort recruits into units – is an Alternative Camp sponsor.
'Israelis grow up fed the idea that serving is our ultimate responsibility to the state,' said Ms. Lerner, shaking her shaved head. 'And here we offer a weeklong break from that collective narrative.'
Between 2005 and 2007, 42 draftees – both male and female – were recognized by a special military committee as conscientious objectors and given official exemptions. Dozens of others, who were not recognized as pacifists by the IDF, eventually went to jail for refusing the order to serve.
The number of objectors is relatively small, but also hard to verify, mainly because most do not go through the process of declaring themselves objectors but rather get out of serving by feigning physical or mental incompetence.
The IDF spokesman's office confirmed that 28 percent of 18-year-old men and 43 percent of the women did not join the army this year. The vast majority of those who are not drafted are ultra-Orthodox Jews – a large population that is legally exempt. Others are exempted on medical grounds, because they have low test scores, criminal records, or are living abroad. Israeli Arabs are also exempt from service, although they can volunteer.
'It's easier to lie and pretend you are nuts or get married or say you are religious or try to leave the country, but I wanted to take a moral stand,' said Vardi, whose request for a conscientious exemption was rejected because her political activities were not deemed pacifist. 'And if you go to prison, people listen to you.'
Vardi will remain in jail until Sept. 1, when she'll be asked again to serve her term in the IDF. If she refuses, the state is expected to give her another weeklong sentence. If she continues to defy the state, Verdi could remain behind bars anywhere from 42 days to two years. Six other young Israelis are expected to choose jail time over service later this month.
When asked why they don't take their protest a step further and leave the country, the counselors at Alternative Camp were taken aback.
'I refuse to see the policy of the government and military in the territories as the sum total of society,' said Mr. Matar. 'Israel is a part of who I am.'
'Leave? Why?' wondered Lerner. 'We all belong here. Now let's talk about what kind of 'here' we want.'
The Jerusalem Post article about New Profile:
'Neither shall they study war anymore'
Sep. 4, 2008
carl hoffman , THE JERUSALEM POST
You are either going to love this group or hate it, depending on where you stand in Israel's contemporary political spectrum. There is virtually no middle ground. Looking through the lenses of our politically hyper-polarized society, you will either admire this organization as a beacon of light pointing the way toward a better Israel, or abhor it as a dangerous threat to the country's very existence.
The organization is called New Profile - A Movement for the Civil-ization of Israeli Society. Founded as a feminist organization 10 years ago to combat what it sees as the "over-militarization" of Israel, New Profile's primary objectives are to put an end to compulsory military service, provide aid and support to imprisoned refuseniks and conscientious objectors, offer counseling on "all forms of draft resistance and conscientious objection" to high-school graduates prior to their enlistment, advocate resistance to Israel's "occupation" of the West Bank, and conduct educational programs aimed toward raising public awareness of what the group believes is the over-emphasis of military themes in Israeli society and culture. One such program is a portable, traveling exhibit of photographs entitled, "Neither Shall They Study War Anymore."
The group's charter states: "We, a group of feminist women and men, are convinced that we need not live in a soldiers' state. Today, Israel is capable of a determined peace politics. It need not be a militarized society. We are convinced that we ourselves, our children, our partners, need not go on being endlessly mobilized, need not go on living as warriors… We will not go on being mobilized, raising children for mobilization, supporting mobilized partners, brothers, fathers, while those in charge of the country go on deploying the army easily, rather than building other solutions... We oppose the use of military means to enforce Israeli sovereignty beyond the Green Line. We oppose the use of the army, police, security forces in the ongoing oppression and discrimination of the Palestinian citizens of Israel, while demolishing their homes, denying them building and development rights, using violence to disperse their demonstrations."
Unlike most other Israeli non-profit organizations, New Profile receives little of its income from private donations. New Profile's funding comes principally from international Christian organizations like the Quakers (United Kingdom) and Bread for the World (United States). New Profile has worked in tandem with groups like Women in Black, and in conjunction with the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions to rebuild houses of West Bank Palestinians demolished by the IDF.
But it is programs like "Think Before Enlisting" and other draft resistance campaigns that have placed the group at the opposite end of the spectrum from such organizations as Shivyon - The Israeli Forum for the Promotion of an Equal Share of the [military] Burden, with whom New Profile is often at bitter odds. The latest flashpoint has been the recent imprisonment of Udi Nir, 18, of Herzliya, who was ordered jailed on August 21 for refusing to serve in the IDF. Nir is one of a group of high-school seniors who recently signed a collective declaration of refusal to serve.
The group, who call themselves "Shministim Letter 2008 - Refusing the Occupation," have a page on Facebook.com and are featured as heroes of conscience on New Profile's website. Nir and his group, however, provoked the following angry comments from Shivyon spokesperson Zohara Berger-Tzur, published in The Jerusalem Post on August 22: "The situation is absurd. Suddenly everyone has a reason not to serve - the haredim have their reasons why they can't serve, and the pacifists have their reasons why they can't serve. It's demagoguery, that's what it is…There are still some who serve with pride, but there are others who simply worry about themselves. If we keep it up, we won't have anything left to defend."
Claiming some 2,000 supporters and run by "40-60" active volunteers, New Profile operates with a "feminist, non-hierarchical" system of organization. Accordingly, the group prides itself in having no leaders, no one occupying any official positions, no fixed division of labor, or even an office. New Profile members run the group from their own homes.
The organization also lacks an official spokesperson, but Dr. Diana Dolev, a founder and prominent figure within the group, agreed to talk with Metro about New Profile's general ideology and activities. Dolev, a fifth-generation Israeli - "Fifth or more, I'm not sure," she says - holds a Ph.D. in the History and Theory of Architecture and teaches at the Holon Institute of Technology. She is involved primarily with New Profile's outreach educational programs.
If I understand you correctly, New Profile's basic position is that Israel is an "over-militarized society." I have lived in some highly militarized countries, like Indonesia under General Suharto, when the army ran the country and anyone of any importance was an actively-serving army general. Few people look at Israel and see anything like that here.
If people don't see it, it's because they don't want to see it. There's this trick here of melting down the border between what is civil and what is military. So you don't see soldiers marching in good form. We don't have all that. We ridicule this kind of militarism. Our soldiers aren't tidy soldiers. They're very schlumperich [unkempt], which creates this image of a soldier that is half civilian. One of the hevre. Not a "soldierly" soldier. But I think this is a sort of cover. I think that actually, in a more concealed way, this image contributes to militaristic ideas filtering into civil society without our noticing it.
Such as lots of advertising, based on [images] of a soldier and his mother, or a soldier and his girlfriend. We show examples of this in our exhibitions. Or, for instance, show business people posing on the covers of magazines, saluting. They're civilians - why should they be saluting? What's the idea there? And you can see today with all the political crises [about] how Tzipi Livni is being attacked as being unsuitable to be prime minister because she hasn't got experience leading the nation into war. People don't even question this idea. If you're not a general or an ex-general, you're not suitable to become prime minister.
But isn't the military's cultural importance due to the obvious fact that we're in a bad neighborhood, with dangerous enemies, under threat?
That's a very common idea. But we quote a book by Motti Golani, a professor at the University of Haifa, called Wars Do Not Just Happen. Although he comes from a very militaristic family, he has analyzed all our wars and says it's not true that the wars were all caused by our neighbors. We [took] an active part. We don't have to automatically believe everything we are told by our leaders. We have to look into things a bit deeper, and we will find out that, for different reasons, our leaders wanted the war, or they were never able to think about conflicts other than war and the force of our army.
Are you saying, then, that some of our wars were unnecessary?
The last wars, of course. This is without any question. All of the wars against Lebanon should have been avoided. But we can go back even to other wars - wars that there's a positive consensus about, and Dr. Golani says that they could have been avoided, as well. But from reading the newspapers, including yours I suppose, you can see that the discourse is always in militaristic terms. We think that if we change people's mind-sets, the discourse will change also. And then people will be searching for other solutions.
Do you really believe that whether we have war or peace is up to us?
People keep saying, "Well, it's not up to us. We have bad neighbors." But we have peace with Egypt, we have peace with Jordan. Lebanon never started a war against Israel, and Syria is [doing] its best not to attack Israel. So what are we talking about? Iran? [Laughs].
In your opinion, what is our best alternative?
The alternative is diplomacy, of course, but the problem is very complicated because the militarism here is so deeply rooted. It would take a new way of looking at our neighbors. If one of our leaders failed to speak of Arab leaders in a degrading way, he would not be considered the kind of strong leader that we want for Israel. People would think that he was weak. It's all about being strong. But in my opinion it's not about showing your muscle. Being strong is also being polite, compassionate, talking about another leader as your equal or someone you can learn from and have a dialogue with. Israeli leaders have not done that at all.
Never? Not at all?
Not at all.
Why do you think our leaders have not tried your approach?
I think it's a combination... of always seeing ourselves as the victim, thinking that the whole world is against us and that we are under constant threats to our existence. All that has been overused and has been one part of creating our militarization.
But what about the threats to our existence? What about Hizbullah, or Hamas?
Well, Hamas is a difficult question, because we've probably gone too far in undermining Palestinian society in the territories. Israel created Hamas. We created Hamas because of this idea that if we get the Palestinians to fight each other, we win. If they destroy each other, we win. This strategy has failed completely. It failed in Lebanon, and we've paid a high cost for this. Same with the Palestinians. I think Israel should simply leave them alone. We should leave them alone, pay them compensation for what we owe them for so many years of occupation, and let them go on with their lives.
We can leave the Palestinians alone, but will the Palestinians leave us alone?
It's worth trying. Up to now, the military force that we've been using against them hasn't brought us any peace and quiet, any end of danger. So maybe we should try. Maybe they will be so busy organizing their lives, maybe they'll be so overwhelmed [by] children going freely to school, being able to do business, to travel around freely without the humiliation and suffering of going through checkpoints - who knows?
So, in your opinion, how large an army does Israel actually need?
I don't often quote Ehud Barak, but I will now. He has said that Israel needs a small and smart army. When we call ourselves "New Profile for Israel" we are referring both to the centrality of the military induction "profile" that every kid gets when he goes into the army, and to changing Israel's civil profile. We think that this has to change so that the military profile will not be central at all, but will instead be marginalized in Israeli society, in our civil profile.
If military service is no longer compulsory for all young Israelis, is it not possible that only the poor and disadvantaged will actually serve, while children from better-off families will find ways of avoiding military service?
First of all, it's only a myth that everyone goes into the army. This is an idea that has been created to [make] people feel that this is something very "Israeli," and unless you go into the army you're not a true Israeli, and all that crap. The truth is that 56% of those eligible do not serve in the army. This includes the haredim and the Arabs. It includes people who started to serve, but whom the army decided it didn't want - perhaps because they didn't contribute anything, or were beyond the army's manpower needs. And also people the army has deemed "unfit." Also people in national service.
Secondly, the army is one of the tools for creating a class system in Israel. In addition to the physical "profile" kids receive when they're going into the army, they receive another classification based on family status - income, education and so on. Kids from elite families - if they want to go into the army - go to elite units. They become things like pilots very easily. This is very prestigious, both in the army and afterwards... On the other hand, Ethiopians for instance, go to the checkpoints. The myth is that the army is all colors and backgrounds working together, but it's not true. Especially regarding women. The army is one of the major tools in Israel for marginalizing women, putting them in danger of being harassed and sexually abused. The men then take this attitude toward women into civil life. So the army is a very bad place for women, and women are 51% of Israeli society.
Women continue to compose the majority of New Profile's support base. Is that by design?
No, it just so happens. We are a feminist organization, but we have male members, and youth groups of boys and girls. Maybe the fact that we're feminist brings in more women, but from my long experience in peace activism in Israel, it's mostly women who are active in peace organizations.
What is New Profile's attitude toward Israel's non-military compulsory national service?
We don't have a unanimous opinion about this, or anything we could declare as New Profile's "position" on the subject. It's a complex issue for us. Some of our members did do civil service. Some did service with political organizations like Physicians for Human Rights, and that seemed right to them. On the whole, we think people ought to be educated to contribute to society for many years - not just one or two or three. Also, we feel that [in the case of] national service, the state interferes with people's lives. And in a state where people have so much difficulty finding jobs, it's not right for the state to fund "volunteer" work that isn't volunteer at all by young people just out of school taking the place of someone who really needs the job. And also, we feel that [national service also] becomes a tool to separate people into first- and second-class citizens, depending on whether they did their service or not. We resent that.
Are there any circumstances under which you think that war is justified or necessary?
Oh, yes. I'm not a pacifist. A lot of people in New Profile are not. I guess there are such circumstances. I recall meeting a delegate to an international conference of Women in Black. I think she came from the United States. We told her how we use a tank as a visual image of war to show how militarized we are. But she said, "You know, my image of a tank is one of rescue." She was a child in Germany during the Second World War, and they were hiding in a cellar. They hid until they realized they were surrounded by US army tanks. So for her, the tank was an image of rescue, of life. So yes, I'm sure there are - there must be - circumstances in which war is justified. But what we're trying to say is that our leaders do not explore all of the other possibilities before deciding to go to war.
What kind of Israel are you trying to create?
Paradise. A country with friendlier relations with its neighbors. A more just state for all its citizens. A genuinely pluralistic society. A country that knows you don't have to be strong all the time, where real "strength" is about defending people who have been weakened. We are a very violent society… New Profile is about looking at society critically - not through nationalist lenses, but about ourselves as people in a highly militarized society - to find out how our mind-sets have been influenced. We want to open people's eyes.
ALTHOUGH A lot of New Profile's energy and resources are directed toward "educational programs" like training workshops and travelling exhibitions, the group's major focus is helping young people avoid service in the IDF. New Profile goes about this in two ways: by organizing youth groups where options and alternatives to army service are presented and discussed, and by maintaining a network of counselors who assist individual boys and girls who have decided not to serve.
Lotahn Raz, 27, is a co-founder and co-coordinator of New Profile's youth groups program. Despite having inherited a flawless American drawl from his parents, Raz was born and has spent all his life here in Israel. He was himself a conscientious objector and was imprisoned for two months in 1999 for refusing to enter the army.
What happens in a New Profile youth group?
The goal is to create a space for young people to openly think, talk and discuss issues related to military service. It's about creating a space to ask questions and think thoughts that don't have space to be thought or discussed otherwise. Our principle is that in Israeli society there is no space for young people to talk about military service. It's considered to be a non-question. But in our perspective, it's a political issue, a political question. And the fact that military service is shoved down people's throats without having the space to ask questions is undemocratic and very problematic. Space needs to be made for people to ask questions and think. And that's the idea. It's not our perspective to say what people should do; it's just to create the space to talk about things.
Do these people come to you or do you go to them?
Mostly people come to us. We get a a lot of e-mail from young people from around the country, asking for a place to talk. When we open a youth group, we go around and look for young people who we know are interested in these questions. Like any other youth group would do, we look for places where people would be interested in what we have to offer. At this point, we have groups in Jerusalem, Beersheba, Haifa, Tel Aviv… we're opening one in the Sharon, we had one last year in Rehovot and another in Pardess Hanna. And we're looking to open one in the Galilee.
Do you provide draft counseling at these youth group meetings?
No. That's done within our counseling network. Our youth groups are there to provide young people with space to think, ask questions, and make decisions. The purpose of the counseling networks is to follow individuals through the process of draft resistance. We give people information that does not exist elsewhere - what are the different possibilities, how does one go about refusing?
So what are the different possibilities?
The main one, the political one, is to go the conscientious objector route, to go before the government's conscientious objectors committee and end up being imprisoned like me, and then eventually receiving 'unfit for military service' status. And then there are the exemptions for medical reasons, mental health reasons, or other issues.
How far does New Profile actually go in counseling people about, say, medical exemptions? Would you advise a sane person to act 'crazy' or a healthy person to pretend to be sick?
We would never tell anybody to lie. That would be immoral and wrong. What we do is give information about how the system works - about how a psychiatric release from the army is decided upon, for example.
So are you saying that you inform people about how the army decides that someone is psychologically unfit for service and then tell them to take it from there?
Well, yeah. Our job is to give people information and help them through the process. People need to do the work and basically it's their decision. But remember, the ones who decide to release people from the military are the military itself. New Profile has no impact on that. It's the military's decision to decide who they want and who they don't want.
Less nuanced and far more direct are the responses of Sergei Sandler, self-described "activist" and very active member of New Profile's counseling network. Now 33, Sandler was brought to Israel by his family at age six from the former Soviet Union. Also a conscientious objector, Sandler was imprisoned for brief periods in 1994-1995 for refusing to serve in the IDF.
Do you help everyone who wants to avoid army service, regardless of their reasons for not wanting to serve?
Does it bother you that perhaps not everyone you help is a genuine conscientious objector, and that people with less "noble" motives might simply be using you to avoid service?
You're defining "conscientious objector" in the narrow sense if you take the nature of Israeli society into account. You're not living in a society where someone can freely decide whether or not he or she wants to go into the army. You're living in a society where there is tremendous social pressure on young people to enlist. And if you get someone who actually gets to a point where they resist that pressure, to the point where they say they won't enlist, that's not just any odd decision that someone is making.
We speak with people and we can tell that people who have been deliberating this know it's a very big decision. And while not all people say that their reasons are ideological, all know that they're going to disappoint their families and have all sorts of other problems. Some people don't cite any reasons in particular - they just show that they are rejecting the overall brainwashing. In any case, it's not a simple process. So in that sense, you can say that anyone deciding not to enlist is a conscientious objector, in every sense of the word.
In addition to conscientious objector status, there are also exemptions from service for medical and mental health problems. Do you simply make people aware of how these exemptions are granted or take it a step further and advise people to pretend?
We don't advise people to pretend. We really don't need to. Pyschiatric exemptions are the major gateway out of the military. If someone is serious and persistent about pursuing a psychiatric exemption - despite all of the stigma against people with mental conditions, and despite the stories the military itself is spreading around about those exemptions, which are meant to scare people off - if in spite of all this someone is really serious about getting this kind of exemption, the military reckons that this person really doesn't want to serve in the military, and the military doesn't want that person to serve. It's sort of an informal deal that the military has, actually. Attacking New Profile on this point is utter hypocrisy.
But your critics charge that you are getting people to model their behavior after the military's medical and psychiatric exemption criteria - in effect, to pretend.
I'll tell you something. It's true that we will counsel anyone who decides not to serve in the military. And that's because they have the right not to serve in the military. That's a basic right - the right to refuse to kill is a basic human right. And we don't really feel that we have to dig into people's motives. But apart from that, many people who appeal to us are soldiers already. That's a very important group of people who actually ask for our help. And many, many, many of those soldiers are in a serious state of trauma or depression. We counsel soldiers who, if the system had been working well, would have been exempted long ago. But the system doesn't work well.
The military health care system and mental health care system are there to serve the interests of the military, not the interests of the person. When you're there as a patient, you're not treated as someone who needs help, but as someone who is there to get something. Part of our work - and in many cases it has been part of our work - is to speak to people who are obviously and evidently in a state of trauma and in a state of depression, and who obviously and evidently should have been out of the military by the military's own criteria. We try to explain to them how to make those things evident enough to the people around them - in the military at large, and to military healthcare professionals.
One final question. The State of Israel indisputably has real enemies -
Yes, and it's been working very hard to make them.
Don't we need a strong, standing military force to protect us?
Well, you're actually talking about something that goes beyond the common line in New Profile. New Profile is composed of different people thinking different things, united in a common belief that the military is bloated and that the country is over-militarized. But right now, you happen to be talking to a pacifist. And as a pacifist I would say quite clearly that nobody needs an army. And I don't see how the Israeli military offers me protection. I personally am not willing to differentiate the Israeli military from that of Syria or Iran. They're all on the same team - the team that kills people - playing over the heads of the civilians. And no one is offering us protection.
In a written response to Metro's inquiry about
New Profile, The IDF refused to directly acknowledge the group or its activities:
"Even after 60 years of independence, Israeli society is forced to defend itself militarily and politically against terror organizations that have not accepted our existence in this region.
The present generation, like those before it, must bear its part of the security burden, in accordance with the Military Service Law.
IDF service is compulsory, but is also a great privilege. Every young man and woman can take part in protecting their family, their friends, and the country.
Everyone who serves in the IDF is a role model, and deserves to be honored and appreciated. The Israeli society as a whole has made IDF service its goal - the government, the school system, and the young people themselves."
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