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Return of the Refuseniks

Nicholas Jahr
August 1, 2014
by Nicholas Jahr logo_hebAs the most recent war in Gaza blunders on, last week The Washington Post published a petition signed by more than 50 reservists who have refused to serve in the current conflict. Just about every one of Israel's wars has generated similar small-scale resistance, but what struck me upon reading the petition is the extent to which it doubles as a damning critique of Israeli militarism. Peace Now began with a similar letter, one signed by 348 IDF reserve officers in March 1978. They questioned newly elected right-wing Prime Minister Menachem Begin's stance toward the territory beyond the Green Line, but not the military itself. Indeed, when Yesh G'vul [Hebrew] formed to protest the first War in Lebanon in 1982, Peace Now refused to support [PDF] their call to refuse military service. As its name suggests, Yesh G'vul (variably translated as 'There is a Limit' or 'There is a Border') itself initially focused its attention on a war of choice being waged outside Israel, and later on the Occupation, but to my (limited) knowledge never called the military as an institution into question. Fast forward to January 2002: the Combatants' Letter — like the current reservists' petition, initially signed by 50 combat officers and soldiers, although ultimately 623 combatants put their names down — would go on to became the basis of Ometz LeSarev (Courage to Refuse). It stands as a damning indictment of the Occupation, but still emphasizes "we shall continue serving the Israel Defense Force in any mission that serves Israel’s defense." Similarly, the signatories of the 'Pilots' Letter' of September 2003 declared that "the Israel Defense Forces and the Air Force are an inalienable part of ourselves." The letter issued by the Shministim (Twelth-Graders) movement in 2008 (a reliable translation online of which I can't find at the moment) also seems to focus almost exclusively on the Occupation. The current reservists' petition doesn't stop at the Green Line, but rather cuts to the heart of Israeli society:
The military plays a central role in every action plan and proposal discussed in the national conversation, which explains the absence of any real argument about non-military solutions to the conflicts Israel has been locked in with its neighbors.
These reservists hold the military itself accountable for the state of perpetual war in which Israel finds itself. But their critique doesn't stop there; it turns inward to dissect the social role of the military, declaring: "The military serves as the leading authority on who is valued more and who less in society." This statement is immediately qualified to refer to "who is more responsible for the occupation, who is allowed to vocalize their resistance to it and who isn’t," but it contains a much more radical claim, one supported by invocations of "the structural discrimination against women" the petitioners allege is endemic and the "daily" sexual harassment some female soldiers endure. Nor is their critique limited to gender: "The military tries to present itself as an institution that enables social mobility — a stepping-stone into Israeli society. In reality, it perpetuates segregation." The signers argue that instead of serving as a leveling, democratizing institution, the military channels recruits into service based on race, ethnicity, and class, thereby shoring up the very structures it claims to be breaking down. And it's not simply a matter of reinforcing pre-existing discrimination but, they judge, of active suppression: "The central place of the military in Israeli society, and this ideal image it creates, work together to erase the cultures and struggles of the Mizrachi, Ethiopians, Palestinians, Russians, Druze, the Ultra-Orthodox, Bedouins, and women." This is a far-reaching critique, dramatically more so than any we've heard before. Relegated to the supply depots and clerical duties, the signers hit their fiercest note:
Many soldiers who serve in non-combat roles decline to resist because they believe their actions, often routine and banal, are remote from the violent results elsewhere. And actions that aren’t banal — for example, decisions about the life or death of Palestinians made in offices many kilometers away from the West Bank — are classified, and so it’s difficult to have a public debate about them. Unfortunately, we did not always refuse to perform the tasks we were charged with, and in that way we, too, contributed to the violent actions of the military.
The echo of banality is painfully familiar. Again, the original petition is available in Hebrew, or in English translation via The Washington Post. Nicholas Jahr is a freelance writer and member of the editorial board of Jewish Currents. He has worked as an election observer in West Africa and Libya.