Breaking Ranks: The Israeli Defense Forces’ Refuseniks

by Fatima Ghani:

The first time Ruth Hiller told someone, she felt compelled to whisper. “My son Yinnon is going to refuse to serve.” On the traditional Israeli kibbutz, or commune, Ruth calls home, the reaction to her son’s decision to defy military service was harsh.

(IDF Spokesperson's Office)

Three years in the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) is a requirement for every fresh-faced high school graduate in Israel. Surely, Ruth’s neighbors clamored, 16-year-old Yinnon Hiller’s choice was an aberration, the result of bad parenting or of his own immaturity.

But was it really? In stark contrast to the threats and slurs Ruth received, Yinnon’s classmates were largely indifferent, and a few were even secretly sympathetic. However, while Yinnon’s actions may have found a small degree of resonance among his peers, none of them was willing to join him in his refusal. After all, Yinnon had not simply defied military service. He had taken a personal stand against a grand institution around which much of Israeli history, culture, and identity revolve.

Exempting only Palestinian Arabs and Orthodox Jews, universal conscription has existed for all 60 years of Israel’s history. Upon graduation or immigration into Israel, men serve three years in the IDF and women two. All Israelis then continue to serve at least one month every year until their early 40s, leading to the common Israeli joke that civilians are simply soldiers on 11-month furloughs. In a nation where military units hold the same social worth as college names in the U.S. and where almost every citizen between the age of 18 and 21 knows how to use an M-16, there is little room for insubordination.

Yet over the last ten years, a diverse and growing crop of “refuseniks,” or sarvanim, has emerged. They span the ideological and generational spectrum, ranging from high school students espousing pacifism and anti-militarism to high ranking IDF officers ignoring specific attack orders. Some are reservists selectively refusing to serve in the Occupied Territories, citing unnecessary human rights violations, and others, conversely, protest the withdrawal of Jewish settlers. The numbers are vague. Nearly 1,700 Israelis have taken an explicit stand through public written declarations of refusal, and thousands more quietly elude the system, and thus social condemnation, by purposely failing army entrance tests or simply not reporting to service.

The vague numbers stem in part from the Israeli government’s and IDF’s inadequate response to refuseniks. All Israeli 18-yearolds are members of the IDF by default, unless they are somehow able to obtain conscientious objector (CO) status, which is a laborious process. After being denied CO status for five years, in December 2000, Yinnon became the first young Israeli to appeal to the Israeli Supreme Court for his right not to serve on the grounds of his pacifist beliefs. Ignoring the IDF’s repeated calls to serve, he began tutoring autistic children and asked to have that count as his national service instead. Three years later, just as the court decision was finally due, the IDF officially discharged him and thereby nullified his case. The IDF has dealt with its refuseniks and questioners occasionally through imprisonment but mostly through silent and often unofficial dismissal. Much of mainstream society, however, has not been as dismissive, and refuseniks often face social ostracism and unemployment. In spite of this, the refuseniks do not waver and steadily insist upon what they call their patriotic duty to reform the IDF and their nation.

More Than An Army

From its inception, the IDF has always served as far more than a simple army for state protection. In 1949, David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s first prime minister, ordered the creation of the IDF as his first act in office. The IDF began as a simple grassroots coalition of existing Zionist paramilitary groups, but its ranks surged in number and strength as the citizenry of the new state of Israel mobilized to counter the immediate threat of Arab invasion. In the six decades since, the numbers and faces of that patriotic citizenry have changed. The IDF has evolved from 40,000 troops to over half a million total, many of whom now hail from countries as diverse as Ethiopia, Argentina, and the former Soviet Union. The IDF’s activities have changed, too. Arab states are no longer on the brink of war with Israel, and the bulk of IDF resources are now spent on the Occupied Territories.

However, the IDF’s role in shaping Israeli identity has stayed the same. “The IDF teaches you how to be an Israeli citizen. It is a repository of the Zionist ethos, of voluntarism, of self-sacrifice,” Michael Oren told The Yale Globalist. Oren is a renowned Israeli scholar, author, and professor of Middle Eastern politics, but he spoke now as an IDF soldier of the last thirty years. For Oren, the IDF has always been the great melting pot for Israelis of every ethnic stripe, theological brand, and socio-economic class. It was from this melting pot that the “New Jew” emerged in 1948, as Ben-Gurion had envisioned, gilded with independence, armed with Zionism, and free from oppression.

The formative social role played by the IDF in the lives of young Israelis cannot be understated, according to Oren. As he described, IDF training is physically much more arduous and longer than U.S. military training. “I was an oarsman and came to the army in absolute top shape, but all of that was good for about a week. It’s primitive, rough, and long,” Oren explained. But Oren insists that the IDF’s rigor does not necessarily translate into a stricter, less humanistic system. “There’s no saluting nonsense. We all use first names.” The IDF, for Oren, is a source of lifelong camaraderie, an essential institution of civic virtue, and the traditional wellspring of a patriotic Israeli identity.

Conscience on Trial

Hillá Meller disagrees. A native of Haifa and a Yale junior, Meller does not think the IDF’s historically positive role has been maintained. The IDF of 1948 that her grandparents served in was a defensive and necessary body, whereas today being drafted means playing the part of an aggressor in occupied lands. Meller thinks the Occupied Territories are not worth the fight and believes that many Israelis agree with her. “The all-or-nothing Zionism… is dead, except for a few radicals sitting in Hebron,” she said, referring to rightwing Israeli settlers living deep in the West Bank. “The majority sits in the middle. I know many other kids who’ve refused for the same reasons. We are not ready to take up arms for this.”

Meller’s reservations about the IDF’s role in the Occupied Territories were so strong that, five years ago, she applied for conscientious objector (CO) status. However, the process truly began two years before that, when Meller attended a summer camp in Connecticut for Palestinian and Israeli youth called Seeds of Peace. Finding the diversity she encountered enriching, Meller decided to finish high school in the U.S.

As a result, Meller missed the normal IDF immersion experience in Israeli high schools, which is akin to, if not more intense than, the American experience of applying to college. Military officials speak to students on a regular basis about the rewards and rigors of the IDF. “Low-motivation” students are identified and especially targeted to encourage them to do well on several rounds of physical and academic standardized testing. These tests assign students a “profile number” indicating their competency for various military units. A hierarchy of prestige frames military units just as it does colleges in the U.S., with the paratrooper, intelligence, and pilot units serving as the Ivy League of Israel. Senior year is dominated by the buzz of students comparing what units they were aiming for and which ones they got into. High school curricula contain pre-military courses, and students frequently go to weeklong training camps. All of this is to “prepare them for the most traumatic transition of their lives,” as Oren described it.

But Meller chose not to make this transition. She also chose not to “get off on 21,” a colloquial reference to faking a psychological disorder in order to be designated “Profile 21,” or unfit for military service. Instead, Meller attempted to navigate the legal process for refusal. She managed an appearance before the Conscience Committee, an intimidating tribunal of four or five retired generals in charge of granting CO status. Established in response to the increasing number of refusals in the last ten years, the Committee releases little, if any, information about its proceedings, and the selection of Israelis allowed to appear before it has been random and rare. There are no official processes or qualifications outlined for conscientious objection. “Men could not get CO status,” Meller explained. “For women, the procedure existed, but only a small quota got it for reasons of general pacifism.” Humanitarian opposition to the brutalities of war and the Occupation is considered a political, rather than conscientious, objection and is normally discounted.

Meller considers her experience before the Conscience Committee an exception. “They interrogated me and challenged me over and over, but they did eventually hear me out,” Meller said. “It honestly just depends on who’s doing duty that day. I got lucky with a receptive committee.” Hundreds of others have been far less fortunate and have ended up spending months in prison.

Meller is grateful that she was granted CO status, allowing her to serve her country the way she wanted: by raising questions about her society’s relationship with the IDF and its effect on Israel’s prospects for peace. Still, with all of her friends and family in the military, moments of doubt and regret are inevitable. “It is hard to go back home,” she said, “and find that all of your peers are having a conversation you are not part of.”

From the Battlefield

While Meller’s refusal grew out of her exposure to life outside the IDF pressure cooker, Yonathan Shapira’s refusal developed from a decade spent within it. Shapira flew Black Hawk helicopters for ten years as a rescue pilot, one of the IDF’s most revered and prestigious positions. “I was so caught up in my ambitions that I let them blind me,” Shapira said, his tone slow and resigned. “I closed my eyes to all of the government policies and orders that bothered me.”

Slowly, however, he began to see things differently. Shapira began talking to pilots who said they were troubled and confused by the disproportionate number of civilians killed in the IDF’s “targeted assassination” missions. Some of his pilot friends deliberately missed targets, discharging their bombs into the sea or nearby fields rather than on ambiguous “targeted” buildings. Instead of reprimanding them, their commanders seemed indifferent, as if the missions had been inconsequential.

Shapira was shocked. As a rescue pilot, he did not handle bombs, but suddenly having any role in the IDF made him feel complicit. “It does not matter if you sign papers, supply the bombs, or pull the trigger,” he reasoned. “You are a part of the circle of violence.”

On the eve of Rosh Hashanah in September 2003, Shapira went public. He authored the now-notorious “Pilots’ Letter,” and 26 other IDF pilots signed on, declaring it their obligation to question orders they considered illegal and immoral. Shapira claims more than a hundred other pilots supported the letter but were too scared to sign it publicly. None of them leaked a word before the letter was published in a leading newspaper and sent to the commander of the air force, causing a political and media splash within Israel.

The “Pilots’ Letter” was by no means the first of its kind. In January 2002, in the wake of the Second Palestinian Intifada, 50 combat reservists signed the “Combatant’s Letter,” a statement of their refusal to serve in the Occupied Territories. The group has since grown into an organization called Courage to Refuse, and the letter has been signed by 629 combat fighters to date, including some from the IDF’s most elite units. Close to 400 Israeli professors have issued a petition to support these refuseniks. In 2004, Zonshein, author of the “Combatant’s Letter,” was nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize for his refusenik work.

Several similar groups have emerged over the last ten years. Why so many? “It is like an alarm clock to wake up a sleeping nation,” Shapira calmly explained. “We have to come out at regular intervals to make an impact.”

All of these refusenik groups employ Zionist discourse in their reasoning. Shapira is not at all surprised. His ambitious IDF career, like the careers of other combatants-turned-refuseniks, was the result of a very patriotic upbringing. Shapira believes that refuseniks view themselves as defenders of the true principles of Judaism and Zionism, which they say are being violated by the Occupation and the IDF’s current practices. “We are not self-haters or anti-Israel. How can I be anti-Israel?” Shapira exclaimed with particular vehemence. “I served in the IDF. I wanted to and I still want to defend my country. But defending does not involve war crimes. I am acting out of my love for my country.”

Shapira has paid a heavy price for his personal form of patriotism. The IDF responded by dismissing Shapira from further reserve duty in the air force. A colleague at the commercial helicopter company Shapira worked for frequently railed against him for writing the “Pilots’ Letter.” The colleague was promoted last year and promptly fired Shapira. But Shapira has not discarded his beliefs. There is a quiet resoluteness in his voice when he explains how he views his actions: “I am a patriot. Every refusenik is.”

Undermining the System

“My grandfather served, my father served, I’ve served, and my son will serve. You cannot refuse to serve,” Tomer Edry said. Stoic and polite, the 24-year-old Yale junior was clear in his criticism of the refuseniks. While Edry is sympathetic to the kinds of doubts war can engender, he is intolerant of insubordination. “The IDF has a very strong code of ethics,” Edry said. “You are taught to disobey illegal orders, but that is it. You cannot choose your mission.”

Oren goes further in his condemnation of the refuseniks. According to him, there are very few refuseniks who object to IDF policies or general militarism for genuinely ideological reasons. “They are vastly outnumbered by spoiled, affluent kids in places like Tel Aviv,” Oren said. “It’s a huge group that finds some way to dodge service for selfish, material reasons. They just want to have fun.”

Edry, however, is less skeptical of his peers’ motivations. He knows many friends who have morally questioned orders or who have humanitarian concerns about their service. But he argues that all of this can be addressed within individual military units without resorting to refusal. In Edry’s view, officers are understanding, and no one underestimates the toll a war can take on an 18-yearold. “You have to be strong-willed on your own to resist misusing your guns and your power. You cannot blame the system for that,” Edry said.

Edry is particularly unsympathetic towards the rightwing refuseniks, a recent and short-lived movement that emerged following the Israeli government’s announcement in August 2005 that Jewish settlements in the Gaza Strip would be dismantled. Thousands signed a petition saying they would refuse if given orders to evacuate Jewish families. According to Edry, they were wrongfully voicing strictly political opposition to broader government policy and undermining the entire government through illegal refusal.

Maia Karo, a Yale sophomore with two years of IDF experience, agrees. From her perspective, opposition to any rules, whether government policy or a commander’s orders, must be voiced legally. “I have friends in Breaking the Silence, and I think their awareness work is important,” Maia said, referring to a group of several hundred combat soldiers who put on traveling exhibitions and talk about IDF atrocities they have seen committed under the Occupation. “They don’t refuse to serve their annual reserve duty, you know. They express their opinions in a legitimate manner.”

Falling Out of Society

But given the difficulties in obtaining CO status, refuseniks argue they cannot express their refusal through legal means. To not refuse is to not act, and that, for the refuseniks, means assent. As Ofer Neiman, ex-soldier and a member of the refusenik group Yesh Gvul—“There is a Limit”—explained, “People tell us to just be the good soldier at the checkpoint. But there is no such thing as a good soldier at the checkpoint because the whole checkpoint, the Occupation, is wrong.”

For some refuseniks, protesting specific IDF policies or the Occupation is not enough, because the root of the problem lies with the complete militarization of Israeli society as a whole. For Ruth Hiller, Yinnon’s mother, the realization came in the face of both social and legal intolerance following her son’s decision to refuse. What started as a monthly study group that Ruth joined over ten years ago to discuss the IDF’s impact on Israeli society eventually grew into New Profile, a feminist, anti-militarist organization. It now serves as a resource for anyone considering refusal, for anyone pursuing an end to the Occupation, a change to the militarized status quo, or the institution of a voluntary army.

Hiller is not alone in her observations regarding the degree to which Israeli society is dominated by the IDF. Michael Oren remarked, “Israeli society truly does put a premium on IDF service. The first thing I look at when I see a resume is what unit they were in, what rank they were.” New Profile member Eli Fabrikant echoed this idea. “This morning, there was a sign at the bank saying all IDF servicemen could skip to the front of the line,” Fabrikant said. “Everything, from mortgage discounts, to better service, to almost all employment opportunities depend on IDF membership.”

In Hiller’s perspective, “The IDF is the sacred cow of Israel. Our children are indoctrinated from day one. If you don’t serve, you can go nowhere.” As a result, those who do not serve are at a serious disadvantage. This most noticeably affects the Palestinian Arabs who constitute nearly 20% of the Israeli population. Orthodox Jews, the disabled, and all refuseniks are disadvantaged, as well. Inequality along socio-economic lines is also perpetuated by the IDF. As Meller explained, “People from poorer areas normally get into inferior units, and then get inferior jobs, and so it continues.”

Women have also been hurt by Israel’s militarization, New Profile members allege, due to the sort of male aggressiveness militaries foster. In IDF-dominated Israel, the effects are particularly widespread. “What kind of mind-set does a 21-year-old bring home after ambushing Palestinians for three years?” Hiller exclaimed. “Will he hit his girlfriend, will he have road rage, will he need to go be a zombie on the beach for a year to regain his sanity like hundreds of them end up doing?”

Hiller thinks there is a growing reaction in the Israeli consciousness against the negative effects of militarization. Having worked with New Profile from its founding a decade ago, she has seen a rising trend in the interest shown in their work. “We’ve received thousands of calls,” she said. “But too many are too scared to join.” Growing concern does not necessarily translate into growing action. Hiller wishes the cultural and legal repercussions of refusal were not so effective at suffocating dissent. At the end of the conversation, she made one request: “Tell your Americans about those silent thousands.”

The World Looking In

Of course, “those silent thousands” are not currently represented in the U.S. The American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) is the most powerful self-declared “Pro-Israel” lobby in the U.S. In 1997 and then in 2005, Fortune and The National Journal asked Congressmen to rank the top U.S. lobbies. AIPAC came in second both times. What is AIPAC’s stance on the refuseniks? AIPAC’s press secretary was clear in her response to the Globalist. “We’re an American organization, so we don’t comment on internal issues. We certainly support U.S. military aid to Israel, but it is not our place to comment on specific IDF policies.”

Shapira, author of the “Pilots’ Letter,” knows AIPAC well. Last month, he was at a meeting with some of its most important officials, when he described his service for his country and his reasons for refusing. The officials were very moved by his heartfelt story. “Your work is very important and we are glad you are doing it,” they told him. “But, please, don’t do it here.”

“No country wants to air its dirty laundry,” Yale student Maia Karo remarked. Perhaps political dissent may become dirty laundry when it is suppressed, but ordinarily open discussion is a sign of an active democracy. While many refuseniks in Israel are accused of undermining Israeli security by illegally defying their military orders, they claim they have no structured, transparent, or legal recourse to express their conscientious objections in Israel. Given America’s interest in promoting democracy in the Middle East and the nearly $2.5 billion a year it gives to Israel in military aid, the U.S. seems particularly well-positioned to work with Israel to develop more structures for dialogue and dissent. After all, that $2.5 billion comprises a quarter of the annual Israeli defense budget, which is close to $10 billion a year.

The U.S. should acknowledge the dialogue that refuseniks have tried to ignite in Israel. While the refuseniks may end up jobless, imprisoned, or ostracized, it must be noted that they are not completely censored. They are small in numbers, consisting only of those willing to take a radical stand and publicly refuse, but, at the same time, they also represent just a tiny fraction of a much larger movement that has begun to question the status quo. It is called the Israeli leftwing. A recent poll from Israel’s leading Security Studies Institute at Tel Aviv University showed that over 25% of Israelis sympathized with refusal to serve in the Occupied Territories. Former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s own nephew, Jonathan Ben-Artzi, has spent more time behind bars for his military defiance than any other refusenik. Israel is no rightwing monolith, and for the U.S. to treat it as such does the Israeli people a disservice all over the world.

“There is a joke [that] you can have two Jews in a room and three opinions,” Shapira chuckled, as he finished his account of AIPAC, his tone growing serious. “Now you can have a thousand in a room and only one allowable opinion. Something is wrong.”