Here’s a great story on Israeli refuseniks by Sarah Lazare, first published in Yes Magazine then picked up at Common Dreams: “Nerds, Jocks & Conscientious Objectors: The Hidden World of Israel’s High School War Resisters.” Second headline: “High school’s tough enough without having to face prison time for refusing to serve an occupation you know is wrong.”
I want to see this story on “60 Minutes,” especially the gray resisters, those who seek discharge for mental, physical or religious reasons. “As of 2008, about half of all potential conscripts did not enlist due to various exemptions, according to Israeli army officials,” Lazare states, and she says their number is on the rise. She, by the way, is an organizer in U.S. anti-war and anti-militarist movements.
To understand what it takes to become a shministi—the singular form of shiministim—it’s important to understand the powerful grip of the Israeli military on society. Israel’s occupation of Palestine and aggressive stance toward many of its neighbors requires a highly militarized society. The country devotes almost one fifth of its national budget to military spending, 18 percent of which is paid for by the United States. Israel’s military spending as a percentage of GDP is one of the highest in the world, and it boasts a larger military than any of its neighbors. The country maintains a stash of nuclear weapons and is the world’s eighth largest arms exporter.
Meanwhile, children are prepared for compulsory service from an early age by constant military presence in educational settings, including “teacher soldiers” in some schools. Walking through Israeli cities and towns, one encounters streets filled with soldiers carrying M4 and M16 rifles, many of them in plain clothes.
“There is always a military background here,” Gur says.
While the Israeli army is preeminent in society, it is not invincible. Public draft resistance began in 1970, when a handful of students penned an open letter to then-Prime Minister Golda Meir, in which they explained their refusal to serve in territories seized and occupied in the 1967 war. In 1982, a group of army reservists refused to serve in the Lebanon War, founding the group Yesh Gvul, whose name means “there is a limit.” The movement of letter-writing and refusal by high school seniors grew during the early 2000s, prompting the military to crack down and sentence each of the five shministim from the class of 2002 to two years in prison.
By 2008, when almost 100 people signed public letters resisting conscription, prison terms for shministim had become standard. The army makes it nearly impossible to get a discharge based on conscientious objector status, and many shministim escape conscription only by claiming mental unfitness, often after serving multiple prison sentences. The 19-year-old shministi Nathan Blanc is currently serving his eighth consecutive prison term for refusing army service in protest of second-class rights for Palestinians.
In addition to those who publicly resist, an unknown number engage in “gray resistance,” quietly applying for discharges on mental, physical, and religious grounds. As of 2008, about half of all potential conscripts did not enlist due to various exemptions, according to Israeli army officials.
Sahar Vardi, a shministi from the class of 2008, wants to encourage this type of resistance. She is a member of the Israeli feminist demilitarization group New Profile, which offers consultation and support to youth questioning military service. The organization reaches 2,000 people who are seeking to resist military service each year, she says.
Gur, who grew up in Nahariya, a town just north of Haifa, had a sister in the border police in Gaza at the time of her refusal. Despite her family’s objection to her resistance, she penned her public letter in 2012. In it, she explained her unwillingness to serve in an army that has, she wrote, “been engaged in dominating another nation, in plundering and terrorizing a civilian population that is under its control.” After receiving two successive prison terms for refusing orders, she was finally released after claiming mental unfitness.
The number of public shministim has been shrinking in recent years, with just three 12th graders, including Gur, publicly declaring their draft refusal in 2012. Yet Electronic Intifada reports that the number of resisters among the Druze, an ethnic minority from the country’s north, is on the rise, with Druze musician Omar Saad publicly refusing conscription last year. Furthermore, New Profile consultants say that the number of gray resisters continues to increase.
Regardless of its size, Israeli anti-occupation organizers insist that the tradition of refusing conscription remains a relevant force, in conjunction with other demilitarization efforts.
PS. ABC News picked up this related AP story yesterday (h/t Annie Robbins):
The Israeli military has jailed a young man for six months for refusing to serve because of his opposition to Israel’s occupation of the West Bank, focusing attention on the longstanding conflict between the country’s universal military service and divided political beliefs.
The refusal by 20-year-old Natan Blanc to serve has put the military in a delicate position as it tries to resolve the case. Releasing him could set an unwanted precedent, but keeping him jailed could turn into a public relations debacle.