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In Israel Where Army Service Is A Must, 'Conscientious Objectors' Are A Thriving Breed Of Youngsters

But why don't these conscientious objectors declare themselves pacifists and seek exemption from service under this label?

In Israel Where Army Service Is A Must, 'Conscientious Objectors' Are A Thriving Breed Of Youngsters
In Israel Where Army Service Is A Must, 'Conscientious Objectors' Are A Thriving Breed Of Youngsters

Her name was Tamar Zeevi. I had thought her odd at first since she talked with a lisp. That was all she was to me at the time- a girl with a lisp. The fact that she came from a war torn country where one section of the population was systematically persecuting the other, didn't translate into my knowledge of Tamar. Israel was just another shape on the map. It had nothing to do with this girl who lived inWada (house in Marathi) 4 in Mahindra United World College, Pune.

That changed in November last year when I heard Tamar had refused conscription for the Israeli army, popularly called the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF). A rite of passage in Israel when one turns 18 is being drafted into the army. Men serve three years and women normally serve half that long. Presenting herself at the Tel Hashomer military induction base, Tamar Zeevi, 19 years old then, refused to join the army and take part in Israeli occupation of Palestinian territory. She was accompanied by her 18-year-old friend, Tamar Alon, who refused conscription along with her.

These 'conscientious objectors' -- or as they are called in Hebrew, sarvanim which means 'evaders' or 'dodgers' -- were sentenced to 30 days in prison. Their detention, however, did not end there. On the termination of their first sentence, they were awarded a new sentence, and when that came to a close, another, and another. Thus, there was a cyclical repetition of prison terms, a repetition that seemed aimed at keeping the teenagers permanently behind bars.

The popular perception regarding the IDF is that it is a melting pot. It is seen as an army where Israeli citizens from all walks of life come together for a common cause- service to the nation. Service is seen to push everyone through a mixer, treating them equally, placing the same demands and entrusting the same responsibilities on all, regardless of their position in society. Due to this, the IDF is regarded as 'The People's Military', and derives its legitimacy from the co-dependent relationship it maintains with the Israeli population of the country.

‘Conscientious objectors’, however, pose a direct threat to the IDF's status as 'The People's Military' since they challenge the passive complicity of the population in the havoc wreaked by the IDF. Instead, they help disassociate the IDF from the people and in the process, allow it to be perceived as an independent organisation that can then be critiqued by the people.

Although conscription is officially compulsory, in practice, a significant percentage of the Israeli citizenry is permitted exemption from service. To begin with, the IDF does not conscript Arab citizens of Israel. This seems tactically sound since engaging Arab citizens in occupying Palestinian territory does not seem viable. Secondly, ultra orthodox Haredi Jews, instead of serving in the army, are expected to study at Yeshivots, i.e., religious seminaries. On the other hand, female draftees, who declare that they maintain a religious way of life, are exempt from military service too and many of them choose to volunteer for an alternative nationalist service called Sherut Leumi.

Moreover, professional athletes and people with distinctive physical disabilities are automatically exempted from service. Lastly, draftees who state that they are pacifists are required to appear before a committee tasked with examining the credibility of their claim. Exemption from service is granted if the committee is persuaded that their pacifism is sincere and meets the agreed criteria. Only a few individuals each year are granted an exemption on grounds of pacifism; all other self declared pacifists are required to enlist.

So why don't Zeevi and conscientious objectors like her declare themselves pacifists and seek exemption from service under this label?

The answer to this question is grounded in the distinction between the ‘moral’ and the ‘political’ in the eyes of the IDF. According to the Israeli army, refusal to serve due to opposition to the occupation is not a ‘moral’ decision but a ‘political’ one, and the IDF sees it as an act of civil disobedience. This claim draws on a familiar but outdated distinction between universal versus selective ‘conscientious objection’.

On the one hand, universal conscientious objection depends on one’s private, moral refusal to partake in violence regardless of its purpose. This universality in abdication of violence amounts to “pacifism” in the eyes of the IDF.

Selective ‘conscientious objection’, on the other hand, is not a complete renunciation of violence but rather, is a strategic forgoing of violence in the pursuit of political ends. It, hence, does not count as a source of morality but is deemed a political choice. Due to this, conscientious objectors wishing to be exempted from military service due to their opposition to the occupation, do not qualify as “pacifists” since their objection is not a universal abdication of violence. Instead, it is considered a selectively political statement meant to disrupt public order.

In her declaration of refusal to serve, Zeevi, who is from Jersusalem, stated, “Out of love for this land and the human beings who live in it, I want to believe and I do believe that there is a different path and that we can effect change”. Alon, on the other hand, bore a more politically inclined stand when, from her Tel Aviv home, she declared “I can’t accept the claim that the oppression of another people, the denial of basic human rights and racism and hatred are necessary for the existence of the State of Israel.”

So it came as no great surprise that Tamar Zeevi was ultimately released on March 24th, 2017, after spending 115 days in military prison. On appearing in front of a military panel authorised to grant service exemptions, she was told that she would be discharged from the army for ‘reasons of conscience’. By exempting Zeevi from military service on these grounds, the IDF declared her objection to be a ‘moral’ one and by extension, deemed her a “pacifist.”

Her friend Tamar Alon, on the other hand, did not receive such an exemption. After spending 118 days in prison, Alon too testified in front of a military panel, which decided not to grant her an exemption for reasons of conscience, claiming that her refusal to enlist was not out of a universal abdication of violence, but was based on political motives. Thus, Alon was not permitted the label of “pacifist” as her renunciation of violence was not absolute but was considered teleological in its pursuit of a political agenda.

In this way, the treatment of ‘conscientious objectors’ in Israel is arbitrary and varies in individual cases. Some have to undergo relatively short prison terms while others have their passports confiscated. Some resisters are unconditionally exempted, others are offered placement in non-combat units and still others perform alternative service. Lack of a consistent mechanism to deal with ‘conscientious objectors’ leaves them vulnerable to the whims and fancies of the IDF and in the process, increases the threat of resisting the Israeli army.

Army statistics are now showing that the number of young people refusing to enlist for military service has increased in recent years, with more than 25 percent of men resisting conscription and approximately 43 percent of women doing the same. Earlier, conscription was iron clad, and if an individual refused, she or he would be ostracised from society. However, over the last few years, increased immigration from what was formerly Soviet Union, and Ethiopia has lead to an increase in the number of potential draftees. The IDF, unable to juggle the sudden increase in population, took this to mean that the military could now be more ‘selective’. This, coupled with a broader trend of various teen idols—promising sportsmen, musicians and fashion models—refusing service, has led to an increase in ‘conscientious objection’ among the youth.

“People are starting to feel they don’t have to do it”, says Hagay Matar, an Israeli who spent two years in prison for refusing the draft.

This increase in the number of ‘conscientious objectors’ poses a direct threat to the legitimacy of Israeli occupation of Palestinian territory, delivering a blow to the very foundation of the occupation.

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