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My Draft Resistance
Noa Kaufman, Israel
April 28, 2003
The young male refuseniks in Israel get most of the political and media attention because they are effectively denied legal CO status, and therefore f ace indeterminate jail terms. In Israel, however, young women are also drafted—and also refuse service on grounds of politics and/or conscience. Young women face intimidation and harassment from the so-called Conscience Committee that rules on CO claims by both men and women. The Committee systematically refuses claims by young men, but will eventually accept claims by young women if they are both well prepared and persistent.
Young Israeli women who refuse service are beginning to tell their stories. New Profile is the only Israeli organization that helps women with questions about military service; the "refusenik" organizations, like Yesh Gvul, don't consider women to be refusers and will only help draft age men (and reservists, all male). Many young women don't know they have the option of refusal, and report being very intimidated by even the process of getting information. The stories told by the women of New Profile are valuable to us all for themselves, and as historical precedent. These women are probably the first female draft resisters in history, certainly the first documented ones. Their experience opens up new understandings of gender and militarism, as they struggle with the traditionally male world of compulsory service and politically based refusal. I have attached the third of these narratives below. For more information, or if you know a young Israeli woman facing conscription, go to New Profile. —Naomi Braine
I was asked to write a letter about my draft resistance, about an event, a committee, about making the decision: I sat down in front of the computer and my fingers started typing the story of the "conscience committee" one more time, but something didn’t seem right. I deleted it and tried writing about the day I made the decision to refuse. That didn’t feel meaningful either.
Then I thought of the day when I truly understood that I not only didn’t belong to the army, but that the army would act against me if necessary, and I remembered the day when I felt I had beaten the IDF, the day when I understood that I didn’t belong to them—and that they didn’t want me, the day when I felt one million percent sure that my draft resistance was the sanest thing I had done in my life.
On October 12, along with my friends, I joined a demonstration of "Taayush" in the neighborhood of Abu Dis in East Jerusalem. We planned to march together, Jews and Palestinians, women and men, youth and older people, towards the wall being built in Abu Dis that, more than anything, symbolizes the alienation and segregation that the state is trying to create between us and our neighbors. It’s a commonplace that what you don’t see doesn’t hurt, and we people don’t usually look very far beyond our own back yards.
Saturday, very early in the morning, and I can barely open my eyes to listen to the routine briefing from the people in charge, who are stressing the express request that we do not resort to any type of violence, that we let them handle the situation if something goes wrong. Later, I walked over to the crate to pick up an onion, hoping I wouldn’t need to use it, and thinking of the last demonstration involving Palestinians and soldiers, and wishing everything would go smoothly.
We got on the buses, some 200-300 demonstrators, and when we reached the no-driving area, we got off and started marching towards the wall, hoping that from the other side, we’d soon see our Palestinian counterparts, who were under an almost continuous curfew.
Gradually I began to wake up, mostly due to the scorching sun. The whistles handed out to the neighborhood kids helped some too. People from the neighborhood joined us, first a trickle and then as if all of us were swept by a wave of enthusiasm: we’re marching towards a common goal, no wall will stop us, our numbers are large, we were almost a thousand, demonstrating for such an important cause! I always get emotional when I’m surrounded by bleeding heart enemies of the people, like me.
We were walking along a dirt path, a lot of steep drops and exhausting climbs, till we reached an open area. Then the Jewish demonstrators were asked to move forward, we were drilled for this and without thinking twice we moved to the front of the demonstration—Jewish faces look less threatening to the average Border Policeman—leaving behind the residents of the neighborhood who were waving Palestinian flags.
"I hate flags," I whispered to a friend marching beside me. "So do I," he said, "but look how happy they are that they can finally bear those flags without fear."
Of course, no idyll can be allowed to go for long, and after about half an hour of walking, a few meters before the ugly wall came into sight, large forces of Border Police and regular Police arrived, jeeps loaded with rifles, grenades, helmets, etc.
At first the organizers tried to calm everything down, but the area was declared a sealed military zone, naturally meaning that no one could move in or out except armed military forces. Within minutes the huge group of demonstrators had turned to run, and soon enough we found out the
reason—the soldiers had lobbed teargas canisters at us and the gas was spreading through the air.
If you happen to reach the open air zoo the day the elephants are having a race, you can imagine how it feels to have one thousand people galloping towards you. I turned around and ran too, fleeing the frightened mass and the gas.
We ran into the back yard of some house that was turned, through no fault of its own, into part of the stupid, pointless battle the army was fighting against us, trying to breathe through the onions provided in advance, groping our way to the fastest way up into the fresh air, while trying to see through all the huge confusion. I prayed they wouldn’t start shooting, and between a tear and a choke I caught sight of a little Arab neighborhood kid—they didn’t have any onions.
A kid, and I couldn’t tell whether he was crying from the gas or the awful events he’d been hurled into. I held out held out half my onion and hated myself for dropping out of my Arabic lessons. Go tell a kid with stun grenades exploding all around that he’s supposed to breathe through the onion and not rub it in his eyes, although it’s a common reflex response.
A few minutes later all was quiet and we started slowly making our way back to the demonstration area. I felt defeated, stupid—I’d felt so moved by a thousand demonstrators. They’d dispersed us in two seconds. Not only hadn’t we reached the wall, we’d also caused pointless trouble for the people of the neighborhood.
So many kids were running around, but—like kids—they were back to games and shouting right away, excited about what they had just been through. I mused that it might well have happened to them before. I’m so naive, hiding for years in the streets of Jerusalem, which despite so many bombings and so much blood, still feels to me like a quiet, pleasant city.
In the same streets where dozens, maybe hundreds of kids have been killed, among them some of my childhood friends and faces familiar from the bus or from school. The pretty, quiet, Jerusalem streets, on many days full of kids and fun and happiness, and on others full of bowed heads, hurrying, just to get out of there, out of the bloodbath, out of that terrible cemetery—in those streets I feel protected, at home.
I was stunned by the images and actions of the army, my army, and the army protecting me—or at least that’s what I was always taught.
And the children, on the other hand, went on as usual, collecting empty gas canisters—playing war.
I found my friends and later, the little kid I’d seen earlier. In broken Arabic I found out that his name was Mohammad and he was 5, and now, out of the dust cloud, I could see what a lovely face he had. The only sign of what he’d been through were his reddened eyes.
We stayed where we were for another few minutes till they let us out. The overriding feeling was frustration, failure. On our way we passed a few army jeeps. I was scared I’d look inside and see one of my classmates sitting
there—he on one side, me on the other, while just a few months ago we’d studied together for our high school finals.
I felt something crystallizing in my consciousness—a hatred for those in uniform. I’ve always tried not to hate—to understand, to remember that friends of mine wear the same uniforms too and get the same orders, but at that point I felt like taking some soldier, pushing him into a sealed room and filling it with tear gas and, just to be "fair," equipping him with an onion.
I was shocked by the force of my feelings, and I tried to imagine how those living under perpetual occupation hated the soldiers—living day by day with tanks wrecking their streets, destroying what they had been building all their lives, blowing up homes, shooting loved ones.
That evening, when I read the organizers’ reports I cried again, this time for joy: the neighborhood residents weren’t angry at us at all for causing such a mess, they simply thanked us: "Thank you," one of them had said, "thank you for letting us demonstrate without casualties, no dead or wounded." That reminded me that while we were waiting for the buses to take us home, dehydrated and really hungry, one of the neighborhood people came up and gave us all pitas from his bakery—I could have hugged him right then, for the glimmer of hope I’m always so glad to find, shining through the tiny crack that will someday lead to coexistence.
At that moment I understood that the army would always be against me, would always try to stop me from reaching such demonstrations, but that if these activities could go on helping the realization of even the tiniest right of those neighborhood residents, the right to demonstrate, the right to eat, then I would go on reaching them, whether the IDF liked it or not. With a lot of joy mixed with some sadness at the final death of the myth of the army that we’re all raised to believe, I realized that my refusal to serve in the Israel Defense Force (even now I couldn’t stifle a laugh)—to serve the occupation, to serve the checkpoints, the tanks, or even some office in an army base sending out the call-ups—that refusal was not over when I left the induction base with my exemption certificate. My refusal had just begun.
Noa Kaufman is 18 years old and from Jerusalem. She received her exemption from the army in July 2002. At present she is active with the High School Seniors’ (Shministim) group and is doing alternative national service with Physicians for Human Rights. Kaufman is also group leader of a
Jerusalem-based New Profile Youth group.
Naomi Braine is a member of Jews Against the Occupation, an organization of progressive, secular and religious Jews of all ages throughout the New York City area advocating peace through justice for Palestine and Israel.