The Refuser Solidarity Network seeks to educate Americans about Israeli refusers; and it is raising U.S. support at the end of the year. Here’s their donate page. And today they sent out by email the following compelling interview of Yasmin Yablonko by Maya Praff. (Thanks to Ofer Neiman).
Yasmin: My story’s a bit unusual I guess–but it’s not that, like–well I grew up in a very left wing house, my father actually refused in the ’70s. He didn’t refuse draft, but he refused to serve in the occupied territories. He also refused again during the Lebanon War. So I was very familiar with the idea and I grew up around that. In the ’70s it was usually like, people refused to serve the occupied territories, no one refused draft back then.
Maya: Do you think most refusers grew up in left-wing homes?
Yasmin: I think I’m a special case. But I know many refusers whose parents are not accepting or not supportive of this. So I think it’s not so left-wing as mine. I mean, left-wing in Israel doesn’t mean you have to be against the army, it doesn’t mean you have to be against going to the military. So many people grew up in, just like sort of left-wing, very, you know like liberal homes. I think most of them really got a good education, like a private education or something like that, and grew up in a really liberal environment, which allowed them to think independently and individually. And it doesn’t mean that the environment they grew up in supported them, but it does mean that they understood them.
Maya: Can you tell me about what you hope refusal will eventually accomplish?
Yasmin: Well, I can be very optimistic and say that I wish that there won’t be any wars, and the violence will stop, and everyone will refuse and all of that. But I think it’s not realistic to think about it that way, so I think that most important goals for me are to have public discourse about–to not take the recruitment and the military as granted. And to not think that [the] military and violence is the solution to everything.
I think that just questioning the fact that everyone needs to do it–it’s really hard because they take 18-year-old kids, you go straight out of school into the military, you still don’t know what you think of the world, you still haven’t seen a lot of stuff, and then you just do what you’re expected to do and it’s hard to raise criticism at this point. And also for young people to go against the mainstream is hard, so doing that is really important. I also think it can raise trust between Palestinians and Israelis. I think that to join and do stuff together and be active together and try to work together for some sort of peace, it’s really hard, at least in my eyes, I think it’s really hard to be trusted as an Israeli. If you go to the army, if you serve in the army–like draft service–and then if you still do the reserve service, it’s clear that you cannot be trusted. So I think that if you want to work together, as an Israeli with Palestinians, I think just not going to the military that is occupying them is a basic thing.
Maya: Is there a difference between opting to do national service and refusing?
Yasmin: Many people who do national service are people who use it to make themselves okay with society. Like, “Yeah what did you do in the army?” “Oh I didn’t go to the army, but I did national service, so I’m okay, I’m not a traitor.” It’s really bad for the discussion because then it falls to the same ideal of being a citizen through what you give and not because of what you get. The fact that you have to serve, and if not you’re not a good citizen, which is a discourse which I don’t really like.
Maya: Can you talk about this new coalition that you’re forming?
Yasmin: There are many organizations working in anti-militarist or pro-refusal with all kinds of populations and all kinds of points of view and all kinds of things they do. And–when I worked with the last shministim letter, I really felt it and everyone around it felt it as well–that there is not one clear point when you get support. It’s like you have to go through many people and many organizations and it’s not clear who supports who with what. And it’s really hard to sustain something long term this way because you have to have some support network, which is more stable and can help you in the long term. So the idea is first see what organizations and what activities there are already and map them and see what is existing and what is missing, and then try to connect everything together so young refusers who come and ask for support can have one person or one organization–like one face that they can go to and get everything that this network [has] to offer (which means everyone who does anything in the field [has] to offer).
Maya: Have you seen a spike in refusers since the war in 2014?
Yasmin: There were a lot of people who started to sign the letter–the 2014-15 letter that I helped with after the Gaza attack. Also, there were a lot of other letters. Not from draft service, but from reserve service, and also from a specific unit. There were four refusal letters in that year, or five. I know that many people did it not in a movement, but did it quietly, they just didn’t go.
Maya: Yeah because I know over here, I felt like there was a shift in the way the media was portraying Israel and Palestine. And also, with the advent of social media, people could tweet out horrifying pictures of dead children, and so I felt like attitudes towards Israel were shifting.
Yasmin: In Israel, it’s getting a very radical reaction from the right wing. Every time that the world is saying something against Israel, they hate Jews and stuff like that. And every time there is a picture like that, “You didn’t see what happened before, that little kid who’s dead maybe had a knife in his hand, a terrorist was hiding behind him.” “These Arabs are making us kill their children,” stuff like that. It’s getting more and more of a radical reaction. You see a Palestinian kid dead and they have to say a lot of bad things to justify that. So actually their reactions are getting worse to this direction, and the public discourse is getting more and more…like stuff that you couldn’t really say before [is] now getting normal. You can express really racist and really violent things and it’s now a normal thing to say in Israel. A few years ago it wasn’t acceptable to say it. So it’s really getting very very radical as a reaction to that.
Maya: Do you feel like there’s a stigma against refusers?
Yasmin: Of course. There is, and it’s something that is very deeply implanted inside of Israeli society and it’s not by mistake. I mean, it’s funny to say that even though draft is mandatory, a lot of efforts from the government and from the authorities goes [into] convincing you it’s a good thing to do, and convincing you it’s not good not to recruit. Like, even though it’s mandatory they keep talking about it. It’s something you have to work on so society will accept it, and you can’t stop working on it. It’s like advertisements for something that’s mandatory, it’s really strange. But it’s not strange, of course you’re going to need that.
Maya: Because they don’t want you to see it as something that’s not mandatory.
Yasmin: They want you to see at as something you want to do and it’s cool to do, and it’s not cool not do it. There were, a few years ago, a set of commercials on TV of young people going on the trip (you have this typical trip after the military–you’re going to South America, or East Asia, or stuff like that) and then you see this group of young people who look like the typical people going on a trip after the military and then they’re all Israeli and they meet somewhere far away from home. And they’re like “Wow, it’s so nice to sit together, let’s sit and talk, we have a lot in common.” So they sit and they all say like, “Okay what did you do in the army?” So everyone says what they did in the army, and then they get to the last one and he’s quiet and very shy and there is a very stressed and tense silence, and then they have this title saying “A real Israeli doesn’t abandon his duty.” There is a word for that, to abandon your duty–mishtamet is someone who abandons his duty and that’s the name they use to call people who don’t recruit. The normal Israeli person won’t say “refuser” or “someone who didn’t recruit,” they would say mishtamet, someone who abandoned his duty.
And then there was this sticker campaign they did of “Combat service is the best bro.” It goes better in Hebrew obviously, but that’s what it said. And then they decided it’s not feminist so they did a version of it in woman form, which is funny. And then I think last year around the attack on Gaza they had the worst, worst, worst commercials. They had this like–you see things, which are strong, and then they say, “Is this strong? No, Tzahal is strong, the IDF is strong, this is not strong.” One thing was a very, very masculine man with a lot of muscles going to the gym: “Is this strong? No, the IDF is strong.” And then like a girl playing the drums really hard: “Is this strong? No, the IDF is strong.” And then they had a Palestinian man with keffiyeh, drinking black coffee: “Is this coffee strong? No the IDF is strong?” This was the worst.
They work really hard for this image. And then you’re someone who’s abandoning his duty and not someone who’s working really hard to go against the mainstream. So this is the image of refusers and of just people who don’t go to the army. Even though many people don’t go, almost half of Israelis don’t serve in the military, it’s still a shameful thing to do and something that is very not discussed and not very known.