[This piece was originally published in Vice Magazine]
I Refused to Join the Israeli Defense Forces
By Alon Aviram
Young members of the Israeli Defense Force. (Image via.)
Moriel Rothman doesn’t sound bitter when he reflects on the contradictions that formed his childhood identity and eventual political outlook. In fact, he sounds more saddened, if anything. “On the one hand, my heroes were Israeli commandos, and on the other they were the young Jewish American Freedom Riders [Jewish civil rights activists in 1960s America]. I held these two together without fully coming to terms with the fact that there might be a contradiction.”
That contradiction, if you hadn’t picked up on it, stems from the fact that while the Freedom Riders were fighting for the rights of America’s persecuted minorities, Israeli commandos were systematically crushing the rights of their persecuted Palestinian neighbors.
Moriel is a 23-year-old American-Israeli who was born in Jerusalem, spent most of his life in the US, and is now back in the city of his birth. “I think we’re brought up to talk on a universal level about values of justice, standing up to inequality, breaking the law when the law is unjust, and standing up for the oppressed,” he continued. “But not when it comes to our own context—not when it comes to Israel and not when it comes to standing up for Palestine.”
Late last year, Moriel spent time in a military prison for refusing to live out the first part of his childhood dream: the military commando. Military service in Israel is mandatory by law for Jewish youth and young people from the Druze religious minority, however, only around half of those eligible enlist and many more leave during their service.
New Profile, a self-declared movement for the demilitarization of Israeli society, cites many reasons for why people may choose not to serve in the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF), including “economic, political, ideological, religious, and medical reasons, as well as a refusal to join an oppressive, chauvinistic, and violent program”.
Nonetheless, the military holds a unique position in Israeli society—one invested with an almost sacrosanct air of authority. Military rank instils pride among peers and grants social status; a sure incentive for many in Israel, particularly those who find themselves stuck on the lower rung of what is an increasingly unequal society. Military service is an accepted, often eagerly-awaited rite of passage. It shapes your character, language, friendships, and perception of the world, all under the grand narrative of national responsibility.
“It’s glorified, almost worshipped, which is frightening for me as someone who cares so deeply about the Jewish people and about the Jewish religion and this place,” Moriel continued. “The idea of a society becomes more and more centered around the army as an almost essential and sacred value is a frightening idea.”
Consequently, refusers like Moriel, who openly oppose conscription, are far and few between. However, there are some reports that the number of conscientious objectors (or “refusenicks,” as they’re referred to in Israel) among the Druze religious minority is growing. New Profile counsels an average of 100 to 110 people a month who refuse service. However, unlike Moriel, most of them don’t publicly object.
While the state is quick to sentence and usually imprison those who dare choose to publicly refuse military service for political reasons, social pressures are undoubtedly an equal or even greater deterrent for those who flirt with thoughts of refusal.
Ex-IDF Chief of Staff, Lt Gen Gabi Ashkenazi, visiting an IDF training facility. (Image via.)
Moriel explained: “On a societal level and on a theoretical level, there is so much anti-draft dodger sentiment. There’s an Israeli saying: “A real Israeli does not dodge the draft,” and that’s the discourse on a mainstream political level. There’s so much disdain and anger towards folks who choose to refuse. But surprisingly, on a personal level, people who got to know me understood that I’m not hateful and that I don’t think that the people who join the army are bad or cruel people. There was a lot more open than I expected from those who realized I was acting with love, sadness, and even desperation. That included those who’d served in the army or are currently serving in the army. That, for me, is a very hopeful sign.”
But in reality, even the very concept of refusing is alien to your average Israeli teenager. The conscientious objector movement is sporadic and small, reinforcing common assumptions that Israeli society is increasingly shifting to the political right. “But I think there’s more room for engagement and openness than the mainstream media and political discourse would allow us to believe,” said Moriel.
While the occupation of Palestinian territories sits awkwardly on the doorstep of Israeli towns and cities, the Israeli perception of daily life in Palestine under that military occupation is far from the brutal reality. The thriving cosmopolitan city of Tel Aviv is tirelessly promoted by Israel as the capital of liberal Western values in what is otherwise a hostile and medieval Middle East. So tell everyone that they’re living in a haven of responsible, socially-conscious morality, and they’re less likely to take notice of your persecutive foreign policy.
However, when Moriel began studying at a US college, his political outlook became less skewed by Israeli propaganda and more informed by fact—particularly in the wake of Operation Cast Leadin 2008, which resulted in the deaths of 1,400 Palestinians.
Some young female members of the IDF. (Photo via.)
“I began to observe the occupation more and see the realities; Palestinians being evicted from homes, soldiers pushing, beating and shooting tear gas,” Moriel told me. “All this came to a head when I first came back here in the fall of 2011. At that point, I didn’t think I could look at my Palestinian friends and colleagues in the eye and say—knowing what I know, having seen what I’d seen, and having heard what I’d heard—that I was choosing to join the army.”
Last October, Moriel was summoned to the draft station, which is when he declared his refusal to serve. He was immediately sentenced to ten days in prison. After completing that first bout, he was summoned back to the base, where he was once again sentenced to another period behind bars. Realizing that this process of repeated imprisonment could go on indefinitely, he managed to be exempted from conscription on mental and physical health grounds, all while voicing his political objections.
“My refusal was certainly an act of protest against the culture of violence, against militarism, against the acceptance, and admiration of violent culture,” said Moriel. “But this was also very much an act of protest against the occupation. If I had to highlight a single reason for why I refused, it would be my opposition to the occupation.”
Natan Blanc, 19, is another Israeli conscientious objector who refused enlistment due to his opposition to the occupation. Natan has spent over 100 days in prison in the past 19 weeks thanks to his refusal to enlist or to accept exemption on physical or mental health grounds. He’s still behind bars, and it doesn’t look like he’s going to get released any time soon.
To refuse service on political or ideological grounds takes courage and the kind of social awareness that is rare to come across in such a deeply divided and militarized society. “It’s a small movement, but there are glimmers and sparks,” said Moriel. “I owe my actions to people before me, to the civil rights activists who so brilliantly and beautifully brought the mode of civil disobedience into American public consciousness. And, of course, in this context, to the Palestinians and Israelis who have used various methods of non-violent civil disobedience to bring forward messages of change, justice, and hope.”