Report at the Mediterranean Conscientious Objectors Meeting
Israel has conscription for men and women
(31.01.2014) Israel is a highly militarized state, and the Israeli society is a highly militarized one. Military presence can be seen in all spheres of life and from very early on. Israeli schools and kindergartens inculcate militarism in different forms and often have uniformed soldiers and officers act as teachers or lecturers. Schools are expected to assist in and even undertake, whenever needed, the indoctrination of Israeli children and youth.
Soldiers are part of the “natural order of things” in Israel, seen everywhere on streets, at bus stops and train stations. Images of soldiers are common in advertisements and references to soldiers and military service are seen often in movies and TV shows. Such proximity and familiarity serves to blur the citizen-soldier divide and to confound public discussion on the military rule in Occupied Palestine or on warfare in general. A massive underpaid workforce carrying out orders of a strong military elite(e.g., former high-ranking army officials who become cabinet ministers) enables Israeli leadership to fall back on military solutions and indeed to consciously seek them. Israel is a state and a society constantly mobilized for war.
Israel has universal mandatory conscription for both men (for three years) and women (for two years). But, as is often the case with conscription systems around the world, in practice, the rule of universal conscription breaks down into many population-specific policies.
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Thus, Palestinian citizens of Israel are not called up by the army (but there are exceptions to the exception: male Palestinians-Druze and Circassian Palestinians are conscripted—as our friends from Urfud will explain in their presentation—and within some groups of Palestinians, most notably the Bedouins, there is an effort by the army to recruit volunteers, which essentially amounts to a form of poverty draft).
Exemptions are granted to religiously observant Jewish women (and there are a few other exemptions given to women only—married women, pregnant women and mothers are all exempt, with the classically-chauvinist rationale that (Jewish) women contribute more to national security as mothers than as soldiers). A much smaller group of male religious college (yeshiva) full-time students receives indefinite deferral of military service, but this arrangement is currently being revised (making a lot of headlines in the Israeli press in the process). Similar deferral arrangements exist for Druze religious students and, since the 1970s, also for Jehovah’s Witnesses.
Outside these groups, people deciding not to join the military most often do so by obtaining a medical exemption, in most cases, a psychiatric one. It is also common for soldiers to discontinue their military service by obtaining a psychiatric discharge or by being declared “unsuitable” for military service. This latter status is usually obtained after spending at least several months in military prison. It is also very common for soldiers to reach military prison after going AWOL, either because they have to work to sustain themselves and their families, or because of mistreatment in their military unit. More often than not, people in such situations also eventually decide to seek discharge from the army.
All in all, only about 40-45% of Israeli citizens of the relevant age—all liable for conscription according to the letter of the law—complete their two or three years of mandatory military service (and a far smaller fraction performs the also-mandatory active reserves service). The majority don’t. Within this majority, there is a tiny trickle of individuals referring to themselves as COs. There is no recognition for CO in Israeli law (or, to be more precise, there used to be such recognition for women only, until that legal provision was interpreted away by the Supreme Court in 2004). The military operates an internal committee (made up of career officers and one fig leaf of an academic selected by the army) reviewing claims by COs. You can guess for yourselves how good this committee is at judging people’s conscience. Nevertheless, about a third of those who apply (we’re talking about a few dozen people a year) seem to get exempted by this committee and recognized as “unsuitable for military service on grounds of conscience” in their discharge papers.
Those COs whose applications are declined, or who don’t bother to apply at all, face the same choice as anybody else: They can get a psychiatric discharge, or they can make a grand stand and go to prison when their conscription date arrives. In the latter case they’d usually be sentenced to a few weeks in prison for disobeying an order, then released, and sent back to the Induction Base, where they will be sentenced by the same procedure again, and then again, and again. Military policy varies on how long they will be kept in prison in the aggregate (in principle they can be thus imprisoned again and again indefinitely, but the army gives up at some point; in recent cases that happened after about 7 months behind bars). But at any stage, after each prison term, the imprisoned CO can still seek a psychiatric discharge, and thus cut the ordeal short.
Those few who opt for public refusal and imprisonment usually do so because of the Occupation. They are also usually people coming from the privileged background of an upper-middle class white Ashkenazi Jewish family. Most of them have the option of pursuing this form of refusal and spending several months in prison without risking too much in terms of needed income. The balance of risks and opportunities involved in the very decision not to enlist is also very much dependent on your socio-economic status: Young people (especially young men) from a privileged background are usually sent to such units and positions in the army that later translate into lucrative career options, but even without military service, they have enough alternative networks available to them to get along. They lose a lot of potential benefits, but don’t risk that much. For a youth from a poor family in Israel’s social and geographical periphery, military service holds very little promise for future career development, but the risk is much greater—the few open doors people of such background have before them at all may be shut.
Within the Israeli anti-Occupation movement (and we mean the Jewish-Israeli anti-Occupation movement), declared objectors enjoy a privileged status, denied to the many other people refusing to join the military. They are often lionized as heroes, making a personal sacrifice to free Israel from its own vice, from the Occupation, from perpetual warfare. The rhetoric and atmosphere around these hero figures sounds very militaristic, and in effect also rather racist—implicitly celebrating the social and cultural capital these young people enjoy because of their privileged background.
The thoroughly militarised notion of heroism is equally disruptive from the gender perspective. As refuser and past New Profile activist Shani Werner put it: “We were taught our roles long ago, in kindergarten: the men fight at the front; the women support them back home. While the male resisters don't fight, they still spearhead the struggle. And the young women [...] stay and offer support from behind”.
But what of the rest of the refusers in Israel—the dozens of thousands of people who every year refuse to join the army, or decide to leave its ranks, for a variety of economical, social or personal reasons? These refusers more often come from the social periphery of Israeli society: descendants of Jewish immigrants from Arab countries, recent immigrants from the former USSR and from Ethiopia, and non-Jews. Those are the people who—if enlisted—are given the dirtiest and most dangerous jobs in the army, while the top military brass, deciding their faith, is almost entirely staffed by wealthy white Jewish men.
Refusers of this latter kind undergo the same intensive level of militarist indoctrination that is found everywhere in the Israeli education system and in Israeli society as a whole. Nevertheless, and despite everything they stand to lose by not joining the army, they decide to refuse. Yet many in the Jewish-Israeli anti-Occupation movement (though New Profile is an exception here) do not believe refusers of this kind are worthy of the movement’s support and recognition, because they do not make the heroic self-sacrifice of imprisonment. Thus, the refusal support and anti-Occupation movement ends up reproducing within itself the same social hierarchies promulgated by the military and by militarism in Israel.
How can a consistent antimilitarist movement resist this? The very least we can do is to support all refusers (practically and politically) and recognise all forms of refusal. And also to seek the end of conscription, rather than recognition of CO, as a concrete political goal.
Militarism, in its very essence, generates and promotes inequality—between “us” and “them”, between “the fighter” and “the woman at home”, between those fit to fight and those not, and through the rigid hierarchical structure of the army itself. The road to greater equality passes through demilitarization.
New Profile: Report at the Mediterranean Conscientious Objectors Meeting. January 31, 2014
New Profile is a feminist movement, working towards a demilitarized society.