Shministim are conscientious objectors. We are Israeli high-school graduates who refuse conscription into the military, and are repeatedly imprisoned as a result. We will not take part of the occupation of another people, the Palestinians, particularly when doing so goes against human values and cannot be explained on grounds of security. I am now 19 and have been jailed three times for my refusal, usually in solitary confinement because I refuse to wear military uniform in prison.
My friends and I have been conducting speaking tours through the United States and South Africa. Our South African hosts are the End Conscription Campaign [ECC], as they celebrate 25 years since the launch of their campaign against apartheid military conscription.
The contrast in reaction and media coverage is fascinating. In the US our friends were engaged with earnestly by audiences, but largely ignored by mainstream media. In South Africa the media wanted to hear our story, but during public speaking engagements we were met either with intense interest or with abuse and contempt. And whereas the many speaking engagements on US college campuses elicited little reaction from the Israeli press, our trip through South Africa has dominated headlines on Israel’s most popular news website, and garnered stories in the major daily papers.
The explosive reaction to our stay in South Africa is explained by the fact that Israelis are allergic to talk of South Africa. The spectre of Apartheid haunts the Israeli elite because they know that this is what exists, in modified form, in the occupied territories. Shulamit Aloni, our former education minister, said that Israel is “practicing its own, quite violent, form of Apartheid with the native Palestinian population.”
Michael Ben-Yair, a former attorney-general of Israel stated his view clearly that Israel is establishing, “an apartheid regime in the occupied territories”. Ami Ayalon, Israeli admiral and former internal security chief, said “Israel must decide quickly what sort of environment it wants to live in because the current model, which has some apartheid characteristics, is not compatible with Jewish principles.” The journalist Danny Rubinstein said at a UN conference in Brussels: “Israel today is an apartheid State with four different Palestinian groups: those in Gaza, East Jerusalem, the West Bank and Israeli Palestinians, each of which has a different status.” Even our leading newspaper Haaretz wrote an editorial last year saying, “The interim political situation in the territories has crystallized into a kind of apartheid that has been ongoing for 40 years”.
In the wake of such categorical statements, it is vitally important to acknowledge the dual nature of Israel, as much a haven for Jews fleeing persecution before, during and after the Second World War, as the colonising international law-breaker that acts with impunity and uses Jewish suffering as an excuse.
Those of us who refuse to serve in the army have all seen the system of control and process of dispossession with our own eyes. Most Israelis have not. Like most white South Africans, even today, most of us are unaware what life is like an hour from our homes.
One of my first contacts with Palestinian life over six years ago was a visit to a small Palestinian community south-east of Jerusalem.
They were not different in any way to the people I knew from home. We even hated the same subjects in school. But, I had the right to come to their homes, meet with them and go back home. They not only did they lack the right to visit me in my home, but didn’t even have the legal right to live in their own houses, as these had been built without permits and were therefore under constant threat of demolition.
The shock was not from the brutality of the occupation or of a specific soldier, but from witnessing the ordinary day to day situation of going through checkpoints, fearing the demolition of their homes and knowing that every 18-year old soldier has the power to control their life. I could not bring myself to be that soldier and to hold such power of people who are my equals.
A week before coming to South Africa I made my way with some friends from the centre of Tel Aviv, a city that never sleeps, to the lightless streets of Bil’in, a village that has been fighting the separation fence stealing 40% of its land for over five years. This village has become a symbol for this struggle not only because it continues to fight for what is right even as soldiers arrest the organisers and shoot the protesters, not only because they have chosen an unarmed struggle, but because they have chosen to make it a joint struggle.
The fact that we Israelis sleep in our Palestinian comrades houses to prevent their arrests and that together with them we march demanding the return of their land has, in effect, beaten the purpose of that wall we struggle against: separation. Activists like Mohamed Khatib and Ezra Nawi, from opposite societies, both under constant threat of arbitrary arrest and harassment, show that a different future is possible.
Whilst in South Africa we gave the Ashley Kriel Memorial Lecture. Ashley fought against the “privileges” that the tri-cameral system offered him as a “coloured”. He linked his future to the unfree majority and was killed before his 21st birthday.
We also learnt about other heroes. Neil Aggett was a young white doctor at Soweto’s Baragwanath hospital who realised that working conditions made people sick, and so he helped unionise workers. He was tortured and found hanging in his cell. His funeral was attended by 6000 black nurses and workers, and followed by a nationwide work-stoppage, a key event in uniting the unions.
Mary Manning was a shop attendant in Dublin, Ireland who had never been to South Africa. In 1984 she refused to handle South African oranges. When she was suspended 11 coworkers walked out with her, and they maintained a picket every single day for over two years until the Irish government, by one vote, agreed to a general boycott of apartheid good.
Kriel helped to unite the oppressed people, Aggett showed that whites and blacks could find each other in friendship, and Mary Manning proved that the world cared because injustice touches on all of humanity. We have called for a similar boycott of Israeli goods linked to settlements and the military.
Speaking to young people was the highlight of our time in South Africa. Although we were barred from speaking at Jewish schools, we met many students from Herzlia who care about equality and human rights.
If our generation wants to see a new reality between Israelis and Palestinians it is going to take the support of the whole world, including Jews, Muslim, Christians, atheists, and every other religion, colour and creed.
Sahar Vardi, 19, is a Jewish Israeli conscientious objector who has been imprisoned three times for refusing to enlist in the Israeli military. As part of the Shministim she recently visited South Africa.