Americans support conscientious objectors to IDF military service by sending 20,000 letters to Barak
WASHINGTON - Conscientious objectors who refused to serve in the Israel Defense Forces received an unprecedented shot in the arm from North American Jewry yesterday, when demonstrators protested against their detention by presenting 20,000 letters from Diaspora Jews demanding their release.
Dozens of activists tried to deliver the letters to Defense Minister Ehud Barak at a demonstration outside his office in Tel Aviv.
Many letters came from a Web site called Jewish Voice for Peace, which features a video in which the objectors explain in English why they refused to enlist.
Although most American Jews are politically aligned with the liberal left, IDF service is generally viewed as an unassailable duty. Thus, there has never been a concentrated effort to lobby Israelis to evade conscription.
The Jewish Voice for Peace has recruited actor Ed Asner, historian and author Howard Zinn, and folk singer Ronnie Gilbert to the cause.
"The recent election of anti-war candidate Barack Obama, who by the way received some 80% of the Jewish vote, was evidence of the American people's disenchantment with war and occupation," said Cecilie Surasky, the communications director for Jewish Voice for Peace. "Seven years and untold lives and dollars later, there is almost total agreement in the U.S. that our venture in Iraq has been an unqualified disaster."
Gilbert called on Israel to change its policies.
"I am an old-time peace activist," he said. "I have marched and pleaded against the cruel occupation for years. The presence of the Shministim [the Hebrew term for Israeli youths who refuse enlistment] makes me ashamed of sometimes feeling that Israel will never change. You are the change."
Zinn, a scholar who is no stranger to controversy, called the objectors courageous for their actions.
"I've been thinking a lot about courage," Zinn wrote in his letter. "Right now, while I'm snug and fed this Thanksgiving holiday in the comfort of my home, halfway around the world a group of teenagers is sitting in a jail cell today, demonstrating the very definition of courage and sacrifice. It's frustrating. Humbling. And I'm damn glad to have the chance to do something big about it."
Surasky said she was not concerned that the campaign would be viewed as interference in internal Israeli affairs.
"For years, money from Jewish American organizations supported the settlements in Israel. It's logical for dovish organizations like Jewish Voice for Peace to support the Shministim, who represent the values that we wish Jews and Israel would represent everywhere - authentic commitment to the value of human lives. Especially in the days of Hanukkah. They are a small light which shines bright in days of great darkness."
The Jewish Voice for Peace internet site offers a ready-made text which users can send to Barak after filling out their email addresses, their names and other details.
"I support the Shministim and their right to peacefully object to military service," the standard letter reads. "I call for the release of those teenagers who have been jailed for their principled refusal to serve in an army which occupies the Palestinian Territories. The imprisonment of these conscientious objectors is a violation of their human rights and contrary to International Law."
The letter continues: "I am inspired by these caring students and their counterparts in Palestine, whose nonviolent resistance to the Occupation points the way to a just peace and security for all people in the region. They are our best hope for the future. I urge you to heed them, and not punish them."
The IDF objectors also received a show of support from 25 American objectors who refused to fight in the Middle East.
"We, soldiers in the U.S. Army who refused to fight in Afghanistan and Iraq, demonstrate our solidarity with the Israeli Shministim," they wrote. "The War on Terror, like the Israeli occupation, is fueled by racism and dehumanization."