Right to Refuse?

Why 58 Young Israelis Won't Be Joining the Army

A group of draft-age Israeli sent a letter to PM Netanyahu with their objections.

The new refuseniks are high-school students who are presently busy with matriculation examinations and graduation projects. The new refuseniks are an opinionated girl from Tel Aviv, a newly secular former yeshiva student from Bnei Brak, and a young man from Bat Yam who’s in his school’s theater track.

The new refuseniks are 58 young Israelis from different backgrounds and from around the country, born in the period 1993-1998, who this past weekend sent a letter to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu – 44 years after the first such high-school seniors’ letter of refusal to serve was written. Three similar, collective letters of conscientious objection were sent after that first one: in 1979, 2001 and 2005.

There have also been occasional reports about individual conscientious objectors languishing in a military prison: Omar Saad, a Druze from the village of Maghar, is now serving a fifth term in jail, and Natan Blanc was released from prison last June after being incarcerated for 170 days. However, not for some years has there been an organized move to refuse military service in the country.

(In any event, as far as such movements are concerned, the vision of the late Yeshayahu Leibowitz – who said that on the day that there are 500 refusenik-officers, the occupation will collapse – has never been realized. In fact, it’s doubtful that there have been a total of 500 refusenik-officers since 1967 – and even if there were to be, that would probably not be enough to reverse the occupation momentum.)

They started off as a small group that evolved via the social networks; over the course of a few months they organized and expanded, and then drafted their letter. They have the support of two local groups that advocate conscientious objection – Yesh Gvul and New Profile – and of veteran conscientious objectors such as Shimri Zameret, from the 2003 “refuseniks’ trial,” who spent almost two years in prison.

The patriot Yair Lapid, leader of Yesh Atid and Israel’s finance minister, lost no time in lashing out at these young people, branding them “spoiled, lazy shirkers,” without ever having met them. But the new refuseniks are the finest of Israel’s youth. They want to stir a public debate, raise questions that are not asked, cast doubts that do not arise, and question, challenge and undermine conventional thinking.

“We call on those who read this letter to set aside what is self-evident and to reconsider the meaning of serving in the army. We, the signatories of this letter, intend to refuse to be drafted, and the primary reason for our refusal is our opposition to the occupation of the Palestinian territories by the army,” they wrote.

Their refusal is also rooted in their harsh allegations against the militarism, the chauvinism, and the social and economic damage that stem from the occupation. In contrast to others who have refused in the past, they do not believe that serving time in prison is the ultimate goal; some of them would prefer to be discharged from the Israel Defense Forces by other means. And, contrary to some of their predecessors, they do not advocate refusal to serve in the territories, but rather refusal to serve in the IDF at all.

“Each person is a cog in the machine, and it makes no difference whether the cog is in General Staff headquarters in Tel Aviv or in the territories,” one of them told me. They maintain that they are deeply attached to Israel and have no intention of leaving the country, saying, “Berlin is not an option for us.”

We met in a south Tel Aviv café, three refuseniks and a Rona Kenan song playing in the background. Roni Lax is a 20-year-old from an ultra-Orthodox Ashkenazi family, who grew up in Bnei Brak and attended the Nahalat Shlomo and Beit Meir yeshivas. His father studies Torah and his mother works with elderly people. He’s the only one of 12 siblings who has become secular. Doubts that began to surface when he was 15 coalesced into a total renunciation of religious observance two years later.

Lax now works in a convenience store in Tel Aviv and lives with his aged Haredi grandfather. He is active in a number of social and political organizations that help asylum seekers from Africa, promote Bedouin rights, advocate public housing, and try to protect residents of Tel Aviv’s ramshackle Givat Amal neighborhood who are facing eviction due to plans to build a luxury residential tower there. Lax has also taken part in demonstrations against the separation barrier in the Palestinian village of Bil’in, even while his Haredi brother lives across the way, in the settlement of Modi’in Ilit, which was built on the land of a dispossessed West Bank village.

At the age of 17, Lax was wrestling with the question of whether to do army service and tried to get an exemption as a yeshiva student. His parents engaged the services of Haredi lobbyists who helped get him a deferral. When it expired two years later, he decided not to serve. He did a year of national civilian service in the kibbutz movement. After receiving a draft notice five months ago, he appeared before an IDF medical board to seek an exemption, and is now awaiting its decision. He says he will not serve in any case, even if that means going to jail.

“If prison is what will stand between me and a nonmilitary life, I will go to prison,” Lax declares. Why? “For a number of reasons. First, I don’t want to be part of a military regime that is called ‘occupation’ in newspeak. Second, the suppression in the army – I don’t want to be subjected to that. And third, the army is a gender-oriented organization. It puts anyone who is not a male in a weaker place, and this is later reflected in civilian life. We copy it from the army into our head. Signing the letter is also a protest against the militaristic, militant and nationalist education we have, according to which I, as Jew, am better than everyone who is not a Jew. I consider that to be illegitimate education.”

Dafna Rothstein Landman, 17, is the only child of parents from Western Europe, both of whom teach linguistics at the college level. She’s a senior in Ironi Daled High School in Tel Aviv, an institution that takes pride in the high percentage of its graduates who do army service. But she has decided not to serve and is also awaiting the ruling of a medical board.

“At 15, I was trying to decide what to major in, and I felt under pressure to choose a track according to what we would want to do in the army, without being asked by anyone if that’s what really interested me,” she relates.

“Everything is geared toward the army. I studied Arabic for a few years, but there was no connection between what I learned and communicating with people. Soldiers came to the school and said it’s important to learn Arabic in order to serve in Intelligence. That influenced me very much.

“Afterward,” Rothstein Landman continues, “I started to go to demonstrations against the fence at Bil’in and Nabi Saleh. I’d known before about the occupation, but seeing the violence wielded by the army at the demonstrations and getting to know the people in the villages had a great effect on me. I go to a demonstration and then back to school, and I see my friends, who in another year will be confronting the demonstrators.”

Lax: “I have a friend who was drafted. I told him, ‘Come with me to the territories once.’ He fell in love with Bil’in. Afterward he tried to decide whether to serve in a combat unit. I told him, ‘Think about whether you want to confront those people in Bil’in.’ He decided to serve in Intelligence.”

Shaked Harari, 18, is from Bat Yam. His mother is a teacher and his father a sales manager. There’s political discussion at home, but never about the occupation, he says. It’s a patriotic family, everyone has served in the military. Harari is in the theater track in Shazar High School, and he has applied for an exemption on psychological grounds.

“I will not serve in any case. If necessary, I will go to jail,” he asserts. “I opened a Facebook page in 10th grade and got to know new people and new opinions. That’s how it started for me. Many times people tell me I am an Israel hater. My actions come not from a bad place but from a good place.

“My parents don’t like it, but they support me. They always encouraged a critical dialogue at home. But now they are very concerned about me; they don’t want me to go to jail. Bat Yam has the image of being a city of crime, but there is more violence in Tel Aviv. And actually, there is political dialogue in Bat Yam, maybe more than in Tel Aviv.”

The principal told Lax this week that she had read about him in the paper and thinks he has taken a brave step, even if she doesn’t agree with his views, he says.

The dream of these young people is to become a mass movement, like in the United States during the Vietnam War. But they know they have a long road ahead and that for the present, it’s no more than a dream. They say they are not pacifists; from talking to them, I couldn’t figure out whether they think an army is needed at all and who should serve in it. Nor did they want to talk about other political issues, such as boycotts of Israel or the question of one state vs. two states.

Do they love Israel? Harari says that Israeli society is important to him and that everything he does stems from caring about it. Rothstein Landman says it’s hard for her to answer that question. “There are people here who are important to me and also some amazing communities. But there are also many awful things,” she explains.

Lax maintains that “Israel” is an ethereal sort of term. “There is the land and there is the nation, the people,” he observes. “Land is not something I want to fight for, and I am not crazy about any nation. But the Israel-Palestine space contains many people whom I love.”

Harari left us first. He is now preoccupied with the rehearsals for his matriculation project: directing German playwright Franz Wedekind’s drama “Spring Awakening.”

Alex Levac