Israeli Leftists Once Refused to Serve the Occupation. Now They Make Infantile Art.

More than a decade ago the Israeli left began to lose its political clout and its hold in the army. What's left are bizarre artistic efforts to defy the consensus.

Courage to Refuse activists rally in front of the IDF headquarters in Tel Aviv in 2003. Sign says 'We didn't undergo pilot training to kill women and children.'
Nir Keidar

The first letter of the Courage to Refuse movement was written in January 2002, at the height of the second intifada. Fifty-one officers and soldiers in the Israel Defense Forces reserves – who had, they asserted, been educated “in the values of Zionism, sacrifice and giving to the people of Israel and the state” – announced their refusal, in an open letter to the public, to serve in the occupied territories. “We hereby declare that we will not continue to fight in the Peace for the Settlements War,” they wrote. Hundreds more subsequently signed the letter, which sparked a huge public uproar.

It’s amazing to look back today at the media discussion that was generated by that letter less than 15 years ago. The mainstream press responded with suspicion but gave the refuseniks a broad platform to express themselves. A number of academics, published their own petition supporting the refusal to serve beyond the 1967 borders, signed in some cases by lecturers not identified with the anti-Zionist left. It may well have been the last petition of the left that resonated seriously in the country.

At the time, the refusal movement seemed to be gathering a momentum that had a possible reality-changing potential. The statement by Prof. Yeshayahu Leibowitz in 1985, that the occupation would end when 500 officers and soldiers refused to serve in the territories, was apparently still echoing in the public consciousness. “Such refusal, if it becomes a group phenomenon, even if only of a minority, could undermine the national-fascist consensus among the entire public and constitute the start of the road back from bestiality,” Leibowitz wrote.

Indeed, the echoes of the so-called officers’ letter were heard loud and clear in the top ranks of government. In an interview with Haaretz Magazine in 2004, Dov Weissglas, then a senior adviser to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, admitted that the growing support for refusal to serve in the territories was worrying the prime minister and his top aides. Weissglas emphasized that the refuseniks “were not weird kids with green ponytails and a ring in their nose with a strong odor of grass” around them, but “our finest young people.”

The threat of collective refusal, then, influenced Sharon’s decision to withdraw from the Gaza Strip – on the face of it, an unprecedented policy-changing success by the left wing. But if those letters were so effective, why haven’t opponents of the occupation succeeded in reprising the earlier success? Why hasn’t a similar refusal movement appeared in the present decade?

In the current state of affairs, a new letter signed by hundreds of officers and soldiers who reject the occupation seems unimaginable. Not only because public opinion has, overall, veered to the right, but also because the demographic from whose ranks the refuseniks came has lost its hold in the army. Sociologist Yagil Levy has shown that since the second intifada, the IDF has forged an alliance with the religious-Zionist movement. There is an increasing number of highly motivated settler youth among the new recruits each year, as a result of which their movement is acquiring growing influence in the army.

In the wake of this, there has been a surge in the self-confidence of the rabbis of the hesder yeshivas, which combine religious studies with military service. In contrast, a reverse process has occurred among the secular population. Relatively speaking, the secular-urban middle class has distanced itself from the army – this can be seen in their shrinking proportion of the officer corps and in elite combat units – and consequently its bargaining power in the military and political realms has been reduced. Secular liberals occasionally express objections to the growing influence of religion in the army, but in practice this group too is less interested in the IDF than it used to be. The conclusion is clear: Left-wing refusal to serve is no longer effective, because the IDF has other soldiers to rely on, namely those who wear knitted skullcaps.

The Zionist left that supported the Oslo process was based on a republican model of citizen-soldiers who are eager to don an army uniform but also occasionally appear in the public square to demonstrate with Israeli flags. It is undeniable that in the country’s first decades this group did indeed make sacrifices disproportionate to its size and was rewarded with certain social “dividends” in return. But times have changed.

Ariel Bronz during his performance of 'Love the Juice' at the Haaretz Culture Conference, March 2016.
Moti Milrod

Today the IDF is telling left-wingers: We will get along without you. The last significant act of left-wing refusal was the letter of soldiers in Intelligence Unit 8200 two years ago. The logic of that was clear: Intelligence units are the only part of the army in which the secular liberal bourgeoisie still exercises decisive influence (and even there the situation is changing). In a certain sense, the state is apparently increasingly willing to forgo the services of ideological left-wingers, particularly in sensitive posts. During the Anat Kamm case in 2009 (Kamm was a soldier who leaked thousands of classified army documents to a journalist from Haaretz), MKs from the right-wing Habayit Hayehudi demanded that the IDF screen leftist elements who might abuse their service. “The army must examine well whom it recruits and whom it entrusts with the security of Israel’s citizens,” MK Uri Orbach said at the time.

For good or for ill, the left-wing republican model of a citizens army is dead. What model does the liberal left have now for effective political resistance? That’s just it: They have none. The bargaining power of the secular middle class has faded. What young members of the secular bourgeoisie retain is the power as consumers, hence the cottage cheese and Milky pudding price protests.

Still, feelings of resistance continue to exist. The rage and frustration occasionally erupt, if only symbolically. In the past two years, resistance by refusal has given way to individual shows of “refusal by means of letting go” – bizarre and perverse artistic acts that are executed as defiance of ruling public opinion. Prominent among these have been the defecation-on-the-flag clips of Natali Cohen Vaxberg; Ariel Bronz’s act of sticking a flag into his rear; the provocative works by Gal Volinez; and just this month, Yam Amrani’s painting depicting Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked in the nude.

Politically, these are deliberately desperate and infantile acts along the lines of: “If you’ve stopped listening to us, there is still one thing we can do: Poo in our pants.” Unlike the masculine-patriotic protest of Courage to Refuse, these acts are similar to putting on a show of instability for the army’s mental health officer in order to obtain an exemption from service. Many of the young artists involved don’t even describe what they do as a political act. They have entered the world as the flaccid offspring of the sinking cultural elite. Like Hanno Buddenbrook, the degenerate protagonist of Thomas Mann’s novel, all that remains to them is to draw an ugly line that will leave a stain on the family tree, before lapsing into some sort of a seizure.

None of the above is meant as criticism. These gestures are still preferable to cynicism and to ironic quips on Facebook. They attest to feelings, to distress. Efforts to deter the protesting artists – like toughening the punishment for desecrating the flag – proves that such actions have a certain intent, perhaps most of all as a pointless attempt to reestablish the militaristic left. In an era of culture wars, decadent artists stand at the political front. But it has to be admitted, in Weissglas’ terms, that the left no longer has the “finest young people.” What remains is a collection of weird youngsters with green ponytails. And instead of a smell of marijuana, they give off a strong odor of Ritalin.