Monday, January 12, 2015

Why I Won’t Serve Israel

By Moriel Rothman-Zecher

TEL AVIV — “WHAT are you,” he asked, “a leftist?”

We were both wearing the surplus United States Marines uniforms given to prisoners at Israeli Military Jail No. 6.

“It depends how you define ‘left,’ ” I said.

“Don’t get clever with me. Why are you here?”

“I didn’t want to be part of a system whose main task is the violent occupation of millions of people.”

“In other words: You love Arabs, and don’t care about Israeli security.”

“I think the occupation undermines all of our security, Palestinians’ and Israelis’.”

“You’re betraying your people,” he said.

“Why are you here?” I asked.

“Me? Desertion.”

There is a growing chasm between Israeli rhetoric and reality. In the discourse of Israel’s Knesset and media, the Israel Defense Forces represent a “people’s army.” Refusal to serve is portrayed by politicians and pundits — many of whom began their careers through service in elite units — as treacherous and marginal. This rhetoric becomes the common wisdom: A popular bumper stickers reads, “A real Israeli doesn’t dodge the draft.”

The outrage is disproportionate. Rarely do more than a few hundred Jewish Israelis publicly refuse to serve each year in protest against Israel’s occupation of the Palestinian territories. The shrill condemnation of refusers is thus an indication of the establishment’s panic.

Last year brought something of a surge in refusals. Open letters of refusal were published by a group of high schoolers, a group of reservists, veterans of the elite intelligence Unit 8200 and alumni and former staff members of the prestigious Israel Arts and Sciences Academy. All were denounced by politicians and in the media: In September, the Knesset’s opposition leader, the Labor member Isaac Herzog, blasted the letter from Unit 8200 as “insubordination.”

Aggression toward refusers is widespread. When I accompanied a refuser named Udi Segal to his draft station during the Gaza war this summer, we were met by a group draped in Israeli flags and chanting, “Udi, you’re a traitor! Go live in Gaza!” After signing the scholars’ letter, Raya Rotem, a former literature teacher whose husband was killed in the 1973 Yom Kippur War, received a threatening phone call. And a friend of 50 years severed ties with her.

The idea that the “real Israelis” serve and those who refuse are “traitors” is a false dichotomy. As Ms. Rotem told me, “Israeli patriotism today means resisting anything which frames the occupation as normal.” It’s also inaccurate: The reality is that a majority of Israeli citizens do not serve in the military, including Palestinian citizens of Israel, or the “fifth column,” as they are often branded, and the ultra-Orthodox, or “leeches,” as they’ve been called.

The largest group is the 1.7 million Palestinian citizens of Israel. Members of this community are not required by law to enlist, and only a tiny fraction volunteer (about 100 Christians and a few hundred Muslims in 2013). In 2014, the defense forces began sending “voluntary draft notices” to Christian Arab citizens, inciting Palestinian protests at Hebrew University and in Tel Aviv.

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Even among the Druze, an Arabic-speaking minority whose male members have been drafted since 1956 and whose Arab and Palestinian identities are often played down or denied, dissent is rising. Omar Saad, a soft-spoken viola player, is the most prominent of a rising number of Druze refusers. He spent the first half of 2014 in and out of jail. In his letter of refusal, he wrote, “How can I bear arms against my brothers and people in Palestine?”

The next biggest group of nonserving Israelis are the Haredim, ultra-Orthodox Jews. Historically, they have been exempted from service as long as they were enrolled full-time in a yeshiva. Recently, though, a coalition formed in the Knesset over a proposal to draft the Haredim — which resulted in a 500,000-strong public demonstration. Most Haredim cite religious reasons for refusing, but the Haredi refusenik Uriel Ferera, recently released after six months in jail, gave the occupation as a primary factor in his decision.

There are also thousands of “gray refusers,” who find quieter ways to get out of the army, mostly by seeking mental health exemptions, known as a “Profile 21.” Like most public refusers in recent years, I was released after a month in military jail with a Profile 21.

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1 comment:

  1. The Jewish State is a pagan idol erected by secular Jews. This episode in Jewish history will end the way such episodes ended in Biblical times.