Regional Programs > Israel
& Palestine > Next Story
Every man has a red line
Lily Galili, Israel
April 1, 2002
"The refuseniks are us," declares Amit Mashiah, seemingly in jest.
He's the spokesman for the signatories to the letter by officers and
soldiers that came out in the press early in February. But Mashiah
means precisely what he says. In recent months the signatories have
focused media attention and have made refusal to serve a phenomenon
identified exclusively with them.
"We don't have blue blood," is the cynical comment of Yishai Menuhin,
the spokesman for Yesh Gvul, on announcing the jailing of two more
refuseniks. Then he explains the situation from the perspective of a
veteran war horse: "The signatories to the letter are representing
themselves as the silver platter; among us there are many Zionists,
but also many non-Zionists and anti-Zionists. We support them all."
Menuhin relates that lately every time he reports on refuseniks who
go to jail, he is asked whether they are among the signatories of the
officers' and soldiers' letter, and when he replies in the negative,
the media lose interest.
Yet even this "selection" between the blue-blooded and the ordinary
mortals cannot conceal the fact that refusal to serve is spreading.
Not necessarily the number of people who are refusing to serve, which
has been increasing slowly, but rather the number of organizations
for which refusal is an integral part of their agenda as well as the
variety of types of refusal. There used to be only Yesh Gvul, which
was founded 20 years ago and supported the refusal to serve in
Lebanon. The transition to refusal to serve in the territories in the
first intifada involved a lot of deliberation by the movement.
Altogether, since then about 240 soldiers have been jailed for
refusing to serve: 170 in Lebanon, 180 in the first intifada, 20
between the intifadas and about 50 during the past year-and-a-half.
During all those years this had mainly to do with selective refusal,
with regard to serving in a certain place or to the carrying out of
certain actions that were perceived by the soldier as contrary to his
conscience. The vast majority of refuseniks have been reservists.
Of late, the menu of refusal has been enriched by new offerings. Only
recently Sergio Yahni, the director of the Alternative Information
Center in Jerusalem, was jailed for refusing to serve in the IDF as
long as the occupation continues. He is not the only one: Now
soldiers who are conscripted for compulsory service, such as Yigal
Rosenberg, are refusing to serve as long as the occupation continues
to exist. Each of the variations of refusal has a political home in
one of the existing organizations.
"Our definition of refusal is much broader today," says Menuhin.
"Most of us refuse to serve beyond the Green Line (pre-June, 1967
border), like the `Courage to refuse' people from the refuseniks'
letter, but there is also a group who are prepared to serve beyond
the Green Line in jobs that do not involve friction with the civilian
population, and there are also soldiers who refuse to serve at all in
the army of occupation. We support all of them, and let the
individuals themselves determine their own red line. As far as we are
concerned, the Green Line isn't the only red line."
Condemnation on the left as well
This is not the only difference between the movements. Yesh Gvul
defines itself as an educational movement: In the past it engaged in
putting out brochures and publications about the limits of obedience;
in the near future it will issue a brochure entitled "Jail Mouse," in
a play on the weekly entertainment and information guide "City Mouse."
It will contain essential and practical information for the
refusenik, from the process before being arrested to the number of
cigarettes to which a prisoner is entitled. But it is mainly a
political movement, with no doubts or inhibitions. Its agenda has
already expanded far beyond the act of refusal alone.
This is not the case with the signatories of the refuseniks' letter.
Ever since they solidified into a group, which now numbers about 360
signatories to the letter and about 14 refuseniks who have spent or
are spending time in prison, they have been hesitating to define
themselves as a political movement. On the contrary: They repeatedly
stress that they are a non-political movement, and make a
demonstrative effort to distinguish themselves from the Yesh Gvul
people. The aspiration to be the avant-garde of refusal and the
darling of the Israeli ethos at one and the same time is not really
feasible, though it is not entirely mistaken as a tactic on the
Israeli scene. Past attempts by political and social movements to
speak to Israeli society in universal terms have failed dismally;
when these movements began to speak in terms derived from the Zionist
ethos, people began to listen to them.
So the refusers want to have it all: to be beautiful, to be right, to
protest. Therefore, it is so important to them to stress that at the
demonstration opposite Military Prison Number 6 in solidarity with
the refuseniks, they demonstrated alongside Yesh Gvul, and not with
it; therefore they have revoked the decision that was formulated two
weeks ago to appear before the foreign media, on the grounds that
"the week of [American envoy Anthony] Zinni's visit and talk of a
truce was not the right moment to increase the flames outside."
"There is no doubt that our profile is different from Yesh Gvul's,"
says Amit Mashiah from the refuseniks' letter. "We belong to the
center. Our protest is not coming from the margins. Yesh Gvul is
clearly identified politically, to the point where they have lost
some of their ability to influence the general public."
Michae Sefarad, a 30-year-old lawyer from Avigdor Feldman's firm and
a signatory of the letter, provides another explanation of the
difference: "At the simplest level, there is a generational
difference between us. When I was in prison in 1999 for refusing to
serve, I did not see a suitable framework for joining. When I saw the
refuseniks' letter, I picked up the phone and met with them. I saw
that they were exactly the people with whom I wanted to be in one
boat. The people were so impressive. These aren't people who from the
age of five were taken by their fathers to Matzpen (a fairly radical
left movement) meetings, people for whom refusal is a breaking point
and not the result of previous activities."
However, instead of the warm embrace the signatories of the "bold and
the beautiful" letter expected at least from the left, there was
outright condemnation. Meretz disassociated itself from them and the
peace movements are bypassing the issue of refusal as if it were a
landmine threatening to blow up in their faces. Behind the scenes
they are expressing support, but in public they talk about
condemnation. Following a report in Ha'aretz in which the refuseniks
protested Meretz's attitude toward them, out of an effort to link up
with the consensus, some of the senior people in Meretz phoned the
refusers and expressed their personal support. However, they related,
Meretz is unable to take any decision on the issue: It will suffer if
it deplores the phenomenon and will pay a price if it is supportive.
The refuseniks' letter has indeed put the left into a trap; it can no
longer ignore the phenomenon, which is not about to disappear from
the public arena.
The IDF is dealing with the phenomenon in its own way. In recent weeks
refuseniks have been summoned to a series of talks with their
division commanders, who try to persuade them to change their minds.
Sometimes these encounters engender amusing situations. At one such
meeting the division commander admitted to the officer who is
refusing to serve that there are phenomena in the army with which he
does not know how to deal, such as suicide terrorists. As if sharing
a secret, the division commander told him that a military forum had
considered the possibility of distributing in the territories
"fliers" in Arabic addressed to the potential suicide. "And what will
they say?" inquired the refuser. "That it's not good to die for our
country?" [a distortion of the early Zionist slogan attributed to
Trumpeldor: "It is good to die for one's country."óLS] The meeting
ended in disagreement, though in great cordiality.
Women are also refusing
Yesh Gvul and the officers and soldiers who signed the letter are not
alone in the refusal arena. Along with them, and each individually,
other organizations are also active. There are activists from the
"12th-graders' letter," some of whom have already been conscripted
and jailed; there is New Profile, where refusal is part of its
agenda; there are the pacifists and there is the Forum in Support of
Conscientious Objectors, which mainly supports resisters of
compulsory conscription. Each of them operates separately, though
they are linked by ideas and personnel. "Our people represent all the
segments of the refuseniks: pacifists, those who refuse to serve in
the territories and even the 'gray refuseniks' who choose to be
exempted on grounds of unsuitability without a political declaration.
We support them all," says Rela Mazali of New Profile.
From the point of view of this feminist movement, which strives for
the demilitarization of Israeli society, each of these options leads
to the same goal. Some of the signatories of the 12th-graders'
letter, who declared their intention not to serve in the army, are
also members of the New Profile youth movement, where there are many
activists from Meretz Youth. The hard core of New Profile consists of
about 40 to 50 activists; during the past year they have been
contacted by 10 to 15 refuseniks of various sorts per month. The
movement cooperates with Yesh Gvul on this issue. The first reserve
solder who received a total exemption from service on the basis of
pacifism shortly after the outbreak of the current intifada, Shmuel
Scheintuch, is active in both movements.
"If you don't count the 28 days I spent in jail and my half year in
the army's academic program for promising students, then I haven't
served in the IDF," is how Sergeiy Sandler sums up his military
career. Sandler, 27 and an MA student in philosophy, was released as
a pacifist. Today he is an activist in New Profile.
In truth, of all the hues of refusal to serve, the only one
officially recognized by the IDF is that of the pacifists, who have
been recognized as "non-religious conscientious objectors." Yet
between the official recognition of pacifism as a kind of belief and
what actually happens, the distance is very great. New Profile is
following the petition to the High Court of Justice in the matter of
Yinnon Hiller, the son of one of the key activists in the movement,
who for four years now has been conducting a fight for his right not
to be conscripted because he is a pacifist.
One of the new phenomena on the menu for refusing to serve is girls
who are refusing to be conscripted at all or to stick to selective
service. Dozens of girls have contacted New Profile about this,
though this step by women arouses less public interest. Refusal, like
military service, is still perceived as a matter for men. This year
Avia Atai made history as the first female refusenik to go to jail,
after she refused to serve in the territories as a soldier-teacher.
"First, I will get an exemption from military service from a
conscience committee, and then I will do national service," declares
Noa Levy, one of the signatories of the 12th-graders' letter, which
grew from a group of 62 young people with it publication in September
to 150 who have now signed. However Levy, a veteran activist in
Hadash Youth, is disappointed by the rate of growth. "It's easier for
reservists to refuse," she explains. "In our age group it is hard to
take a step like this when everyone around you is talking only about
their military service." The 12th-graders are also split into two
groups of refuseniks: those who refuse to serve at all and those who
refuse to serve in the territories. Levy says, "It is impossible to
sit at IDF headquarters in Tel Aviv and pass on orders about where to
execute someone and where to demolish a house, and to feel okay just
because it's not in the territories." At the Ironi Bet High School in
Tel Aviv, where Levy is a 12th-grader, her signature on the letter
was accepted with understanding. The principal called her in for a
talk, at which he only asked to hear her reasons.
Things do not always end with only a talk: Hillel Goral, a
12th-grader from Mitzpe Yuvalim, was expelled from school after he
refused to go to a lecture by a major general who had been invited to
speak to the students. Goral attended school this year "on probation"
after he promised to take part in all school activities. Not long ago
he appeared on a television program on which he explained his refusal
as a pacifist to be conscripted into the IDF, which was coldly
received where he lives. Yair Khilou, a signatory of the
12th-graders' letter, is also a pacifist but he chose to justify his
refusal to serve with political reasons. Khilou has already spent two
terms of 28 days each in prison, and it is not clear what the IDF is
planning to do with him in the future.
It is precisely this kind of objector who is supported by a new
group, the Forum in Support of Conscientious Objectors. The Forum
grew up after the 12th-graders' letter on the basis of activists from
Etgar, who are the reincarnation of the radical group Derekh
Hanitzotz; today it also includes activists of other persuasions.
About a month-and-a-half ago the Forum organized a program with the
participation of entertainers in support of the young draft
resisters. On the postcard produced for the event were printed the
pictures of Rosenberg and Khilou, and quotations from their
statements. Recently the Forum has produced a new brochure, which it
is distributing among 12th-graders at left-wing demonstrations and at
explanatory chat evenings. The brochure documents incidents at the
roadblocks in the territories, and defines a blatantly illegal order.
"The international community has already brought to trial soldiers
who committed war crimes in the Balkans. Do you want to be next?"
Even without the threatening tone, it would seem that refusal to
serve in the IDF is not about to disappear from the public arena in
Israel. Selective refusal, political refusal, pacifism, women, men,
reservists and draftees. The numbers are not yet large but the
phenomenon is spreading and gaining a foothold in varied populations.
Sometimes people want to hear them, sometimes to scold them. Often
they are called traitors, there are those who see them as heroes and
others say they are naive. The European Parliament sees them as the
saviors of Israel's moral image. The people from Tikkun, of the
American Jewish left, this week published an announcement of support
for them on a full page in The New York Times. They are annoying the
right, challenging the left and sometimes serving as a unifying
factor in a torn society, which unites for a moment in opposition to
refusal to serve in the IDF. Mainly, they are simply here, and it is
no longer possible to ignore them on the grounds of marginality and
For more information about the refuseniks, or to give your support, go to Courage to Refuse.
From Ha'aretz, April 1, 2002.
© Copyright Ha'aretz. All rights reserved.