Refusing to Serve

Being drafted into the Israel Defense Forces is a right of passage for most Israeli youth. Military service is the usual step after graduating from high school, and in preparation for mandatory service, Israeli teenagers must register with the Ministry of Defense at the age of 16.

But more and more Israeli women are deciding not to serve in the IDF, or at least not to serve in the “occupied territories.” Conscientious objection is not recognized as a legal right, and young women who refuse to serve risk a range of consequences, from social ostracism to prison time.

Noam Gur2

Noam Gur, a 19-year-old Israeli who refused to serve in the IDF, was twice sentenced to serve time in prison.

Noam Gur, 19, is one of a new generation of young Israeli women who decided to declare herself a conscientious objector. Instead of trying to get out of military service by asking for an exemption on religious or medical grounds, she simply refused to sign up for military service. She paid for her declaration to refuse to serve with time in a military prison.

“When I was 12, I started to ask myself what I want to do,” recalls Gur, who wants peace for everyone. “Military service was there all the time. When I was 16, I decided that I’m not doing it. I knew that I didn’t want to lie.”

The most common way of avoiding military service is to declare yourself mentally ill or physically unfit. Others claim religious reasons, while a small minority announce their conscientious objection by sending a letter to the Conscience Committee. Conscientious objectors are tried in military trials and are subjected to repeated limited sentences of a few days to a few weeks in military prison. Some of those who are imprisoned are put in solidarity confinement where the conditions can be unendurable.

Women like Gur say they refuse to normalize occupation and militarism, and reject the concept of finding an identity within the military. But female conscientious objectors often face marginalization and alienation in Israeli society, in which the civil and military spheres are not clearly separated.

Women’s refusal to serve in the military on grounds of conscience is not treated as seriously as it is among men. Nevertheless, the growing movement of women provides a fascinating window into the struggle in Israeli society over the role of the IDF as a military in which “everyone” is expected to serve. This is particularly so at a time when the debate “sharing the burden” has gripped the public’s attention, as the cabinet of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is working on a law to draft ultra-Orthodox Jewish men, most of whom receive military exemptions.

Ruth L. Hiller, one of the co-founders of a group called New Profile, which supports military refusers, says that women conscientious objectors are not considered as equals of their male counterparts.

“They seem less worthy for the army as well as their objection,” Hiller says. “Women objectors don’t want to talk, they are content to do it quietly. I think there has to be visibility for all refusers. Does conscription of women’s forced service in the military make them equal or make them accepted by ‘the old boys club’? There is no sense of equality; it is a false concept within the military,” she says.

As the mother of four refusers, Hiller adds that if you are a religious Jewish woman, you don’t need to be conscripted. But for secular Israelis, this route is not an option. The female conscientious objectors of Israel want to be visible, accepted by the society, not to be ignored, says Hiller.

Gur was raised in Nahariya, on Israel’s northern coast near Lebanon. She doesn’t come from a political family. Teachers in school didn’t talk about the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, but she began to learn about it by studying on her own.

She says that too many Israelis don’t hear the truth in school. While she was studying by herself, she came to understand that there was a lot going on that no one was telling her and her former classmates.

Gur came to the decision that she couldn’t serve, and she decided she would be open about her reasons rather than coming up with a ruse. “I tried to be as honest as possible. I contacted New Profile and sent a letter to the (Conscience) Committee.”

First, she says, she considered doing national service — volunteer work in the civil sector — instead of serving in the occupied territories. But her family wanted her to serve. After she was jailed, they came to support her decision even though they don’t share her views.

She is not in touch with most of her old friends. “We don’t have anything in common,” Gur says. “They all serve in the military. I didn’t want to be surrounded by them so I left the town, and moved to Yaffa.”

After sending the letter of objection in 2012, she was called by the committee, which wanted her to prove her pacifism.

“The committee doesn’t want to acknowledge you as a conscientious objector,” she says. “I was sentenced to 10 days in prison first.”

When Gur refused to wear the a military uniform in jail, she was subjected to solitary confinement where there wasn’t even a mattress to sleep on. She was watched around the clock. She decided to give up refusing to wear the uniform because she thought that it would be easier than being in solitary confinement. After 10 days in prison, she came back home.

But then, after spending 10 days at home, she was sent back to prison again.

“You don’t know when it is going to be over,” Gur says. “So, I decided to do civil service. There was no point to fight with the system from prison. I started to do my civil service in The Public Committee Against Torture in Israel.”

Now, however, it is hard for Gur to find a job. She had to give up all the privileges that come with serving in the military; employers expect to see an applicant’s military service on a resume for competitive jobs. However, she believes that her non-violent resistance can bring change – and peace.

Noor Efrat

Noor Efrat has faced ostracism for her decision not to serve in the military.

Other refusers, like Noor Efrat, haven’t been sentenced with time in prison but face other social pressures and the knowledge that future employers will treat them as untouchables. Efrat just graduated from the philosophy and linguistics departments at Tel Aviv University. She and her sister Tamara have not served in the IDF, and their parents have been supportive of their decision.

“My parents are very political,” Efrat says. “They are glad that I chose the harder way in order to not serve. I could easily get out by showing other reasons.”

She has never dreamed of becoming a soldier. But Efrat knows few people in Tel Aviv who are conscientious objectors and only one person from her class in high school.

Even back in her high school days, when her views became known, fellow students sometimes harassed her.

“My classmates were saying that the army is against me and they would throw me paper planes with Stars of David on them,” reminiscent of Israeli Air Force planes. “They knew that I was a pacifist and not planning to do military service,” she says.

She admits that it’s been hard for her to find a way not to serve in the army. “New Profile helped me, and put me in contact with people who can help me on the matter,” she says.

After sending a letter to the Conscience Committee, explaining why she didn’t want to serve in the army, she had to meet with an officer who would evaluate her case, and then find two witnesses and a lawyer for the next meeting.

“The people on the committee, they have narrow definition of pacifist,” she says. “It’s hard for them to understand why you choose this way. They are playing with you there, asking weird questions. I knew that it was impossible to pass from the committee.”

After meeting with the committee, Efrat received her discharge letter a month later. She is one of the lucky ones who was able to prove her pacifism and she didn’t go to the jail.

However the committee never releases information on how many people pass their “pacifism” test.

“The army has become a value in Israel,” Efrat says. “If you refuse it, you harm moral norms of the society, they think. The understanding of the army is more than being a part of the culture. If you don’t enlist, you are not an Israeli, you are a traitor.”

Efrat confirms that she has a hard time socially. Pro-military people don’t listen to her, and she often faces insults and alienation. “I just learned not to speak unless it is very important,” she adds.

According to Efrat, it is harder for men to pass the committee’s “pacifist test” because of the emphasis on combat positions for male soldiers, the sexist structure of the army and the idea that women are driven by their emotions more than are men. She gives the example of Natan Blanc, who recently spent six months in military prison for refusing to serve in the IDF due to his opposition to the occupation of the West Bank.  He was jailed 10 times before he was able to win an exemption from military service.

“The army is so masculine and men’s refusal is destabilizing it. The female conscientious objectors are really taboo in here. People need to understand that we are not few, we are not extremist, we are here,” she says.

 

 


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