A Different Brand of Refusenik

Argentine-born, religiously observant Uriel Ferera has been in military prison seven times and is willing to go back - as long as his protest is heard loud and clear.

Alex Levac

A few times during our conversation he burst into tears. Uriel Ferera cried when he recalled how he was forced to put on an Israel Defense Forces uniform in prison and then looked in the mirror. He couldn’t bear what he saw. He removed the uniform, sat on the floor of the cell and wept.

He’s crying again now, after serving months in Military Prison 6. Last week he finished his seventh term. He’s spent a total of 127 days in jail, and his story is far from being over. After Rosh Hashanah, he will report to the IDF induction center again, and will probably be sent back to jail for an eighth time.

When we first met a few weeks ago, during a break between prison terms, my impression was that Ferera, 19, was a sensitive young man suffering from some form of post-traumatic stress disorder, caused by his experience in jail. He’s become more resilient since then.

Ferera refuses to serve in the IDF, which he regards as an army of occupation, and is unwilling to ask for an exemption on mental-health grounds. “If you ask for an exemption for physical or psychological reasons,” he explains, “you are telling the army: The problem is me. But I am saying: The problem is you.”

Nor is he ready to make do with refusal to serve only in the territories – the entire army, wherever it is deployed, is tainted by the crime of occupation, he believes – nor with finding a way to avoid serving, without stating his intentions publicly. Ferera wants to his protest to be heard loud and clear, and is ready to take the consequences.

There are other refuseniks, too, but none quite like Ferera. Born in Buenos Aires, he is religiously observant; he’s growing a beard and his earlocks are pushed back behind his ears. The graduate of a high-school yeshiva who grew up in a poor neighborhood of Be’er Sheva, he has a profile that’s quite different from that of the usual refusenik. Maybe that’s why the army is so obsessed with incarcerating him.

When we met, several weeks ago in Tel Aviv (more recently, we have spoken by phone), he said he wanted to talk in an open setting – he dislikes closed places after so many months in prison. He would not eat anything after discovering that the café where we met is open on Shabbat and thus not kosher.

Ferera’s mother, Ruth, a photographer, immigrated to Israel with him and his sister for economic reasons; he was six. Ruth wanted to live in Jerusalem but they ended up in Be’er Sheva. In Argentina she had been active in a right-wing Jewish organization, but her views subsequently changed.

Uriel attended a state-religious primary school and then a Be’er Sheva yeshiva. His views were greatly influenced by his mother, he says. The rabbi at his yeshiva told him he’d never before encountered opinions like his.

“What made my mother reverse her opinions was the assassination of [Prime Minister Yitzhak] Rabin,” Ferera says. “She’s convinced that peace is possible and that doing army service works in the opposite way. It’s all due to the occupation. If I do army service, I will be contributing to the occupation, even if I am not posted to the territories. Even all the office jobs in the IDF constitute collaboration, and I don’t want to have anything to do with the army.

“Refusal is my tool of protest. Whoever wants peace should not do army service. I am doing the most useful thing to change the situation: I am not going to be inducted. I want to show that there are people who think differently, who refuse to obey.”

Testimonies of soldiers compiled by the Breaking the Silence organization helped Uriel and his mother solidify their stand against the IDF.

“It is not a defense army,” he explains. “The soldiers who serve in the territories abuse people only to make Palestinians afraid and show them who’s in charge. The whole army hides behind [the concept of] ‘defending the homeland.’ But it’s not defense. Real defense means leaving the territories. The state is using the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to hide the real problem: the social-economic situation.”

Ferera is ready to serve the state in the framework of a year of national service, as his sister did, “but the army doesn’t want me to serve the state, and the state doesn’t want me to contribute to it. All it wants is for me to serve in the army.”

His decision to refuse was made early, at age 14. Upon receiving his first call-up notice, he made his intention known to the authorities. He was in touch with New Profile and Yesh Gvul, NGOs that encourage refusal to serve in the IDF. He also posted a clip on YouTube, in Spanish and Hebrew, explaining his decision. His mother wrote proudly on her Facebook page: “My son is a refusenik.”

Ferera reported to the National Induction Center on April 27, 2014 – a day he will never forget. “I was really afraid of what was going to happen. I was afraid of going to jail. But I told myself: I am doing the right thing.”

Initially, he was incarcerated in an “irregulars cell” – where prisoners who present behavioral problems are held – at the center. That was the first “boom,” as he puts it. That afternoon he was sentenced to 20 days in prison.

At Military Prison 6, near Atlit, south of Haifa, he was placed in solitary confinement after refusing to wear a prison uniform – that is, an IDF uniform. The guards told him that because he was in isolation, he would not be permitted to attend a minyan (prayer quorum).

The prison guide put out by New Profile had prepared him for the worst. He wore his T-shirt, which bears a message of solidarity with another refusenik, the Druze musician Omar Saad; when he refused to put on the uniform a guard screamed at him.

“That broke me, when he started screaming,” Ferera recalls. “I had a panic attack. I sat on the floor, shaking. I was afraid I would go out of my mind.”

The guard was certain that Ferera was putting on a show, but Ferera went on weeping. A prison company commander who was called in was unable to calm him. The guard picked him up, and he was taken forcefully to the isolation ward.

Ferera: “I felt so helpless. I started to pray and recite Psalms. I shouted to God in Spanish: Get me out of here. They laughed at me. They said God would not listen to me, and would not get me out of there. They were robots. Not listening, not thinking. I was proud not to be like them. I thought: If this is how they belittle me and use force on me, imagine what they do to Palestinian youths. I told myself that I would come out crazy if I went on like that. I decided to put on the uniform, so I wouldn’t come out traumatized, to preserve my mental health.”

His fixes his gaze on the floor as he relates his story. He says the prison guards treated him as though he were a murderer. Letters from his mother, in which she wrote how proud she is, strengthened him, he explains. Other letters of support that were sent did not reach him, with the authorities claiming they were political.

As punishment for the initial incident with the uniform, he was deprived of his prison privileges for a few days. When he came home on his first furlough, his mother told him he had to try to preserve his sanity: “Reduce your pacifist pride, put on the uniform and don’t give them reasons to abuse you.”

In the meantime, Ferera has been in and out of prison, and this will continue until the IDF finally decides to discharge him as unqualified to serve. He is now aiming to get a hearing before the committee that makes those decisions.

Saad spent a total of 190 days in prison; another conscientious objector, Natan Blanc, was incarcerated for 175 days before being discharged. Ferera has been jailed for 127 days so far. After Rosh Hashanah, he is likely to be locked up, yet again.

In response to a request for commment, the IDF Spokesperson’s Unit told Haaretz this week: “The soldier in question did not cooperate with induction officials after an authorized body denied his request to be exempted from service on grounds of conscience. A request to convene a committee that will determine incompatibility to serve will be examined by relevant elements in the IDF.... In contrast with what was claimed, the soldier was not subject to any offensive treatment on the part of prison staff, and during his incarceration received the same, proper treatment given to other soldiers.”

Ferera followed the IDF operation in the Gaza Strip from his prison cell, surrounded by AWOL soldiers who wanted the army to pummel the Gazans even harder. He has an especially high regard for the refuseniks of Unit 8200 of the Intelligence Corps, who wrote a letter of protest against the occupation this week, because they come from inside the system. Ferera says he will not give up on the idea of doing a year of national service instead of being in the army.

“I will show them that I did not crack and that they wasted time in which I could have been doing National Service,” he asserts.

Is he sorry he immigrated to Israel? Ferera ponders this briefly, then replies: “No. Why should I be sorry? Even though I am not a Zionist at all, I did the right thing. By the same token, I know it is possible to leave Israel. I am not connected to the country, to love of the Land of Israel, but I am not sorry I came here. The truth is that I never even considered that question. The solution is not to flee, the solution is to try and struggle – and try to change things. I am fighting so that this will be a good country for all its citizens.”