Conscientious objectors: An inconvenient truth for Israel
Conscientious objection to military service is not a new phenomenon. It was first recorded as early as the 3rd century, when Maximilian of Numidia refused to enlist in the Roman army on religious grounds. The Romans, who were busy occupying and annexing what is now eastern Algeria, showed little sympathy for his opposition to the use of violence and executed him.
However, in the years since, humanity has become more understanding of views like those of Maximilian and, toward the end of the last century, the UN recognized the right of conscientious objection, which is derived from the right to freedom of thought, religion and conscience as articulated in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Objectors are doing so when military service clashes with their value system, whether this stems from religious or secular beliefs, and which might be anchored in right or left-wing politics.
Considering Israel’s never-ending involvement in war and conflict, it is not surprising that the phenomenon of conscientious objection has taken root there, and that the number of adherents has grown as the country has become more involved in “wars of choice” and oppressive occupation, rather than wars of self-defense.
The increasing numbers of those refusing to enlist in the military is one of the best-kept secrets in Israel, as it is an inconvenient truth for a country that has created an ethos that has sanctified military service and utilized the idea of being prepared to make the ultimate sacrifice to defend the country as a major unifying lever and shaper of its national identity. Whenever possible, the authorities prefer to turn a blind eye to those refusing to serve in order to avoid the negative publicity that comes with the issue.
As for the refuseniks, they have different reasons for their actions. Some refuse all forms of compulsory service, others are reservists, and there are those who are selective about what roles and missions they are willing to take part in. The last group includes those who support the illegal settlers in the West Bank and refuse to confront them when ordered to do so.
Earlier this year, a group of 60 high school seniors, months away from being legally obliged to serve in the armed forces, signed a letter addressed to then-Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the Israel Defense Forces chief of staff stating their principled objections to joining up. Eloquently, they mourned what had become of the IDF, arguing that, nowadays, considering the tasks soldiers are asked to do, it is just as political an act to join the army as it is to refuse to serve.
Whether or not one agrees with the stand taken by these young men and women, they deserve considerable respect for their thoughtfulness and clarity of mind, and for caring about the moral erosion of their country as a result of the occupation of Palestinian lands. They do so knowing full well that their stand will end in jail sentences of unknown length because they will be at the mercy of completely arbitrary decisions by the military courts, which, together with many segments of Israeli society, are keen to inflict heavy punishments and make an example of them.
However, the issue is a complex one. Apart from the fact that Israel’s conscientious objectors are greatly outnumbered by others who are eager to serve, and often on the front line, there are also tangible threats to the country from Iran, Hezbollah and other radical Islamist movements, some originating among the Palestinians.
This has produced a genuine dilemma for student refuseniks ever since the very first letter of this nature was sent by high school seniors to an Israeli prime minister back in 1970. Although some object to any kind of military service — and they represent a legitimate pacifist approach — for most the core issue is the Palestinian one. These young people are adamant that they will not take part in the daily humiliations and violations of Palestinians’ human rights.
Moreover, they object to being sent to protect settlers and settlements, and in doing so becoming a tool in the hands of any Israeli government that seeks to prevent an independent Palestinian state from seeing the light of day.
However, their absence from military service creates another moral dilemma: It leaves Palestinians, whether at checkpoints, during arrests or subject to any other kind of encounter with Israeli security forces, at the mercy of soldiers who might be less concerned than themselves when it comes to respecting others’ human rights. Yet, if one believes that the source of evil is the occupation itself, then any kind of participation in it is wrong and mitigating it becomes a recipe for prolonging it.
The movement of conscientious objectors in Israel has grown substantially since its emergence 50 years ago, and its messages have become bolder. From objecting in principle but still serving, there is a new generation that is more confident and less afraid of the military authorities or of social sanctions.
Since the 1980s, the evolution of this movement has gathered momentum and has become more institutionalized. In my mind, this is strongly correlated with three developments. First, the peace agreement with Egypt highlighted that a more flexible Israeli policy had a better chance of achieving peace and security than an emphasis on military power.
The increasing numbers of those refusing to enlist in the military is one of the best-kept secrets in Israel.
Second was the 1982 war in Lebanon, which was the first clear example of a “war of choice,” interfering with the domestic affairs of a neighboring country while inflicting immeasurable destruction on it, not to mention at great cost to Israel itself in terms of loss of lives and strained relations with both friends and foes, and while reaping no strategic benefits. This led in the same year to the launch of the Yesh Gvul (“There is a Limit”) movement, which set itself the objective of supporting refuseniks and conscientious objectors.
Third was the First Intifada, when thousands of Israeli soldiers, conscripts and reservists, trained to face regular forces, clashed with and oppressed mainly civilians, whose demand for an end to the Israeli occupation resonated with many of the troops.
Conscientious objectors might be relatively small in number, but in their determination, their willingness to spend time in jail for their convictions and the eloquence of their arguments, they prick the balloon of one of Israel’s most sacred consensuses: That of serving in the military.
The longer the occupation and oppression of Palestinians continue, the more this movement will feel exonerated and confident in continuing to be a moral compass for others, and to question whether doing military service without asking questions is more the problem than the solution to Israel’s security challenges.
- Yossi Mekelberg is professor of international relations and an associate fellow of the MENA Program at Chatham House. He is a regular contributor to the international written and electronic media. Twitter: @YMekelberg