The Things Refuseniks Accept

by Tovah BenDavid

Born and raised in secular Israel, once I was done with high-school at the age of 18, I was required by law to join the army, whose clever name suggests a defensive nature. Like most Israeli youths, I received my first order to see army officials for a series of tests and interviews while still in high-school, still under the influence of classes such as Holocaust and the History of the People Israel, and still under the influence of my classmates who were all going to join the army.

The messages that echoed inside my head as an Israeli youth under the firm grip of the Israeli education system and surrounded by friends who were automatically willing to begin their process of becoming a part of the military for three years of absolute service (and 25 more years of reserve duty), were that Zionism is good. Zionism is safety and protection for Jews. Zionism is a home for Jews. Zionism is the State of Israel. The State of Israel is the sweet ending to the bitter continuous persecution of Jews that culminated with the Nazi efforts during the World War II. The State of Israel needs a strong army to protect itself from its neighbors until it makes peace with them. There was no way I could be a good Israeli citizen without joining the army.

But I was selfish. I refused to join the army, did my best to obtain an exemption, and succeeded. I did so because I am a selfish, self-absorbed, anti-social human being. Or at least, so I felt at the time. After five years and a couple of degrees studying Jewish thought at university level, I still feel that under Israeli eyes, I am selfish, and should consider myself as such. However, the difference is that I now know with certainty that I do not wish to be a good Israeli citizen for it means having to join the army.

As it appears to me, not only does Zionism need the army, but the army needs Zionism, and as long as that is the case, I cannot be perceived as anything but selfish as far as the average Israeli is concerned. Thanks to its constant state of war, the State of Israel is a militant state whose education system is caught in a Catch-22: it preaches Zionism so that no one would deny the army; it preaches that a strong army is significant to protect Zionism. One cannot break free from this Catch-22 without dropping both army and Zionism. They stand together, and as long as that is the case, the State of Israel is a militant state. It is a militant state because I had trouble obtaining my driver’s license since I was already 18 years old and not in the army; it is a militant state because its generals are always elected to be its political leaders; it is a militant state because one of the first topics of conversation, when you acquaint yourself with strangers in Israel, always concerns one’s role in the military. It is a militant state because the army always comes first, and always will. You must be selfish and an anti-Zionist to refuse to join the Army. I admit that label, I accept that label, I even long for that label.

Here I am, an Israeli who refused to join the army, a selfish anti-Zionist. Truly alone.

In contrast, there are those in Israel who are called “refuseniks,” brave and courageous men who stand tall as members of an organization, who are proud of their refusal to serve in the army, and who claim that they refuse to serve in the army because they are selfless and Zionistic. According to a survey, they have the support of 25% of all Israelis, so it does not seem like they are alone.

Proud of their military background, 50 combat officers and soldiers submitted a collective letter known as the “Combatants’ Letter” in 2002. In the letter they state that though they “shall continue serving the Israel Defense Force in any mission that serves Israel’s defense,” they “shall not continue to fight beyond the 1967 borders in order to dominate, expel, starve and humiliate an entire people,” and they “shall not continue to fight this War of the Settlements.”

It is because their refusal is not total that they appeal to some of the Israeli public. In the Seruv (“refusal” in Hebrew, or “Courage to Refuse” as the organization calls itself in English) website, the Courage to Refuse charter is titled “Why Refusal to Serve in the Territories is Zionism.” However, the content following the promising title does not mention the term Zionism at all, not even once. The refuseniks do not specify what their understanding of Zionism is, let alone answer the question of why refusal to serve in the territories is Zionism. Still, clearly it is important for them not to be perceived by the Israeli public as anti-Zionists, just as it is important for them not to be perceived as selfish: “It was the selflessness and determination of Courage to Refuse that won a warm place for the movement in the hearts of many Israelis.”

Surely, the refuseniks not only concern themselves with public perception, but also with self-perception. If they find, God forbid, that they are tired of being Zionists, what is to become of the pride they take in their military past? Clearly, this pride in being “prepared to fight in order to protect their families back home” depends on a separation they make between their idea of Zionism, whatever that may be, and oppressive occupation. They are willing to fight as long as it is for Zionism, but not for the Settlements: “In the letter, the soldiers pledge their ongoing commitment to the security of Israel, but declare that they will take no part in missions intended to prolong the occupation.”

But who is to say that the settlements are not part and parcel of the Zionistic effort? I would ask the refuseniks why is it that occupying territory today in the West Bank is more oppressive than the destruction of hundreds of Arab villages that underwent ethnic cleansing in the name of Zionism, whose wreckage is to this day covered by the trees planted by the Jewish National Fund? Why is having Jewish families live in settlements near Gaza any worse than having Israeli youths flock to dance clubs and artsy museums in a now-trendy area in south Tel-Aviv that used to be an Arab neighborhood? How is it that their idea of Zionism does not accept the building of new houses for Jews in contested areas, but their Zionistic heart does not miss a beat when Jews who were born in far away America can make an Aliyah and live in Jerusalem while at the same time many Arabs that were born in Jerusalem are not allowed back home?

They celebrate themselves and say that “Sami Michael… the acting chairman of the Israeli Association for Human Rights has gone as far as saying that refusing the occupation is, in fact, not only an act of morality, but is also the purest form of patriotism practiced in Israel today.” Perhaps it is the case that for Israeli standards of morality and human rights this pick-and-choose mentality of what is occupation and what is not is sufficient for receiving praise. But this pick-and-choose mentality in deciding what is to be considered offensive to the Palestinians and what is not is patriotic indeed. It is patriotic in the sense that by placing full blame on the settlers and their actions, and labeling the settlements alone as the oppressors of the Palestinians, mainstream Israelis are allowing themselves to feel more comfortable in their consensus nationalistic skin, to see themselves as both Zionists and moralists, and to basically live a lie.

This exposes a fatal flaw in Israeli political rhetoric; a flaw that goes a long way in preventing true peace from happening; a flaw governed by self-propelled rhetoric on what needs to be done for peace, without taking to heart the Arab sentiment. Israeli rhetoric takes so much for granted because of its failure to admit the fallibility of Zionism. The obstacles to peace are not merely the present disputes over the West Bank and Gaza, but also past actions in the name of Zionism that have eliminated Arab villages in the Haifa area, the Jaffa area, the Safed area, the Tiberias area, and more. With all the protests, with all the terrorism, Israel is still blinded by self-righteousness and self-justification, when it is really a time for self-reflection. It is time to self-criticize Zionism, and only then would there follow a true refusal to fight.