I’m in prison. Crazy, eh? Because prison, we know, is for people who break the law, dangerous people, people who need to be punished and removed from society for a particular reason. But I am in prison because the state does not respect my conscience. I am in prison because I am unwilling to collaborate in the crime known as “occupation.” And precisely because of that I am in a place that is intended for criminals. But in the nutty reality of the army in Israel, it’s not actually even like that.
One of the moments I like in prison is when someone new enters the cell. We all introduce ourselves, and suddenly you can see her sense of relief, the smile that emerges all at once from between the tears of her first days in prison. The first days of all of us are filled with tears.
Most of the girls are really afraid to be imprisoned, for all kinds of reasons. One of them is the prison society. Everyone is sure they are about to enter an institution for criminals, but then they discover that the other girls are just like them. Most are doing time for being AWOL, that is, for escaping from the army. Why?
Many of them have to help their family economically, because there are problems at home. Because they have younger siblings and unstable parents, so they had to work. Some suffered badly in the army, but received no response when requesting a transfer. Others got uptight when they were stationed far from home, and some of the girls in this prison simply couldn’t cope with the psychological pressure resulting from all kinds of difficulties in military service.
It turns out that the Israel Defense Forces isn’t suitable for everyone. There are many girls in jail for refusing to take certain army courses or be appointed to certain posts. Some end up there for hitchhiking, for being in breach of guard duty, or for chutzpah, drinking alcohol or fraternizing: Soldiers are not allowed to touch one another or be in the quarters of the opposite sex. If there’s anything that is saving me in prison it’s the shared feeling we all have here: namely, that the army screwed us.
With many of the girls, it didn’t start with the IDF and it won’t end with it. They were screwed by various state systems and harbor powerful anger toward the world. The girls I meet here are not Ashkenaziot from Tel Aviv. Other than conscientious objectors like myself, I, a Tel Avivian who was in the Israel Scouts and went to an arts school, don’t have friends from home who ended up in the military hoosegow. Most of the girls here are from outlying areas in the country. It’s also clear that many are from immigrant families – Russians or Ethiopians (I think around 20 or 30 percent of the inmates are Ethiopian girls). Generally speaking, I’m quite sure that the proportion of certain ethnic groups in jail is not equivalent to their proportion in the army itself. Just like in civilian life and in regular prisons, which are packed with people the state makes a habit of screwing.
What does that say about our society? What does it say about the way the army deals with different population groups? As my friend, the conscientious objector Aiden Katri, likes to say: The army is a straight, white, Ashkenazi man of 60, and it’s not his daughters who are locked up in military prisons.
For many girls, the discrimination they feel somehow legitimizes my refusal to serve, in their eyes. They are disappointed in the system and identify with the feeling that you have to resist. But when I talk about my desire to contribute nonetheless, and to do National Service, a lot of girls reject that option. They advise me “not to give a minute of your life to this country,” because it doesn’t deserve anything and we all must look after ourselves. Because no one else will do that.
At the moment I won't address the fact that most of these girls are sworn supporters of Netanyahu, which to me totally contradicts the sense of alienation from the state and the government. But I do want to tell the story of Olga, which left me uneasy.
Olga immigrated to Israel four years ago from Uzbekistan and renounced her Uzbek citizenship. After living for a short time in Carmiel and learning some Hebrew, Olga was drafted. After taking a Hebrew course on an Education Corps base, she was sent for combat training. She really wanted to serve in Oketz, the canine special forces unit, because she loves dogs, but was told that her poor Hebrew ruled that out. Instead, she was posted to the Border Police, where people address you on the street all the time, so that Hebrew is actually much more necessary. But that’s what the IDF decided.
Even so, she decided to do what was required, to serve in the Border Police and also sign on for an extra year. Olga has no one in Israel, she lives in a soldiers’ hostel and it's pretty disorienting. When she was drafted, she got a salary of 400 shekels (less than $100) a month. Her salary was raised when she became a “fighter,” but her expenses still exceeded her income. Olga didn’t really grasp her financial situation; recently, she discovered she was overdrawn by 12,000 shekels (almost $3,000) at the bank. Maybe no one told her, maybe she didn’t understand because of language difficulties, but she only found out about the deficit when her phone was disconnected. She made one small mistake and was sentenced to 40 days in prison, which might affect her right as a lone soldier to fly to her native land to visit her parents.
A girl who comes from a solid home and has good physical and mental "data" has numberless doors opened for her in the IDF and afterward. But if she’s disadvantaged from the outset, she enters an insensitive, illogical system. In so many of the stories I've encountered, no supportive hand is given to those who have it hard. On the contrary: Instead of getting help, they get sent to jail.
This place is giving me a new perspective. A new reason not to be part of a system that purports to be a “melting pot,” but in practice preserves disparities – strengthening the strong and weakening the weak. For me, the rage of those whom the system doesn’t care about, the despair at the state and the government is directly connected to a critique of the government that acts as an occupier and oppresses those without rights. But what’s important in every struggle we engage in and in every vision we harbor is to remember and to believe that change is possible, and not to despair.
The army this week sentenced Tair Kaminer, 19, to a sixth consecutive prison term, of 45 days, for refusing to serve after being drafted. When she completes this term she will have been jailed for 170 days, far longer than any other female conscientious objector in Israel.
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