Opinion

Exercising the Privilege of Going to Jail

Rather than quietly avoid prison time, these young Israelis chose to make a statement that invites others like them to question the nationalist, security-focused axioms they have been stuffed with

Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman visits an infantry visit in Tel Ha'Shomer army induction center, Jerusalem, 2018
Ariel Hermoni/Ministry of Defense

You want to talk about the privileged? Meet Luhar Altman and Hillel Garmi. Both are on their way to an army jail.

They grew up in nurturing, well-off families in pleasant environments – the former in Katzir, the latter in Yodfat. As these lines were being written Monday morning, they were on their way to the army induction center to announce their refusal to serve in the military. Both decided not to make do with individual, non-explicit “gray” refusals (that allow them to avoid jail). Rather, they wanted to make a statement that invites other young people to ask questions and raise doubts concerning the nationalist, security-focused axioms they have been stuffed with.

“I believe that as someone born on the stronger side of the national hierarchy between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River, I was given both the power and the duty to try to fight this hierarchy.” That is how Garmi, 19, signed the declaration he wrote, which was recently circulated by the group Mesarvot (a network of people who refuse to serve in the military for political reasons).

The declaration opens: “This year, during the wave of unarmed demonstrations which took place near the Gaza Strip fence, I read what Ahmed Abu Artema, who organized the demonstrations, wrote, and I was impressed to discover people who take on the situation between the sea and the Jordan without using a gun. Like them, I too believe in civil disobedience – a tactic aimed at using unarmed force to underscore the regime’s immorality.”

Altman, in her declaration, spoke of the fear that Israelis grow up on, which she knows very well. As a child, she was unable to fall asleep because of “the terrorist under the bed.” The army gives Israelis a feeling of security, she wrote.

“We embrace and celebrate military service as part of our personal and social identity, and rely on the army like a drug addict who longs for another hit so he’ll finally feel sane,” she wrote. “As a society, we don’t know anything else; all our lives, we’ve relied on the army. This is a normal situation for us. It’s absurd, isn’t it? In my view, a reality in which we familiarize our children with war before peace is crazy.”

Despite the differences between them (he writes “Palestinians,” while she writes “the other”; he speaks of the value of equality, which is being destroyed, and of the occupation, while she fears the cycle of violence that has persisted for 70 years), they decided to refuse to serve on the same day, and to hold a festive refusal event together at the induction center, along with their supporters and their families. Therefore, Garmi didn’t show up on the date set for his induction two weeks ago. He knew it is usually weeks before the army starts looking for deserters.

Everyone was stunned when soldiers in civilian dress came to arrest him six days after his induction date. So he’s already experienced military prison for a few days, as a “deserter,” and released last Friday with a new date: Monday.

During his stint in jail, he spoke with other inmates. “Most were surprised; they’re unfamiliar with these kinds of opinions. But after a very brief conversation, they accepted what I said – if not with agreement, then with understanding,” he told Haaretz by phone. “They were educated to regard the left as monstrous, but suddenly they were listening to explanations that sounded reasonable to them. I said that all people are born equal, and that one person’s life, happiness or tragedy isn’t worth more than that of anyone else. If you think this, then it’s impossible to justify what we’re doing to the Palestinians in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank.”

These two brand-new conscientious objectors aren’t just on “the stronger side of the national hierarchy,” as Garmi put it. They’re also on the stronger side of the social hierarchy. This ensures that the “stain” of imprisonment won’t harm them in the future the way it reproduces the repression of society’s oppressed groups, like impoverished workers, Jews of Middle Eastern or North African origin and the Druze.

Nevertheless, jail is a price they are paying consciously. Both have decided to use their double privilege to publicly oppose the violent hierarchical order. May there be many more like them.