Organising Refuser Support


Return to Conscientious Objection: A Practical Companion for Movements

A key activity of the movements for whom this book is intended is likely to be supporting those who refuse to join the military. How to go about organising that support is the question addressed by Sergeiy Sandler in this chapter. Sergeiy is a conscientious objector and antimilitarist activist from Israel. He is one of the founders of the Counselling Network for Refusers operated by the Israeli feminist and antimilitarist movement New Profile and is also an International Council member of the War Resisters' International.

On March 2nd, 2001, about thirty people met in a small conference room in the Druze Palestinian town of Isfiya on Mount Carmel. A few of us had had some years of experience supporting declared conscientious objectors. Others had been helping friends and acquaintances obtain medical exemptions from military service. A few more came to learn from the rest. Working under the aegis of the feminist antimilitarist movement, New Profile, we formed a network of volunteers committed to counselling and supporting any person refusing to perform military service in Israel. More than fourteen years later, this network receives, and successfully resolves, well over a thousand calls for support every year, from people from all walks of life, genders, and ethnic backgrounds. Many more use us to help themselves: our Internet forum and other resources posted online have hundreds of thousands of hits a year. We were even enough of a menace for the Israeli police to start a criminal investigation against us (for 'inciting draft evasion', i.e. encouraging people to resist conscription) a few years back. All in all — a nice little success story, especially if measured against the bleak backdrop of Israeli political realities.

So, how did we do it? Actually, it wasn’t all that difficult. We didn’t have any special resources to tap into (beyond the commitment and dedication of a dozen or so volunteers), and for the first couple of years we didn’t have any funding either — funds came later, on the footsteps of earlier success, Moreover, we are operating in a rather hostile environment, although admittedly, more repressive regimes can make things considerably harder and require extra care and confidentiality of activists. But most of what we did, you can do as well, if you haven’t already, so, please, do try this at home!

Here are a few tips for organising refuser support, based on our experience. Apply liberally…

Be there for the people you are supporting

It may sound obvious, but in doing refuser support, you should be there for the refusers, aid them through difficult times and respect their choices and limits. You are there to support them, not to pressure, or indoctrinate, or idolise.

This is actually not an easy lesson for many refusal movements to learn. Refusal comes in many shapes and forms, while political movements often pressure their members in the direction of ideological uniformity. If your idea of refuser support is to make it conditional upon them toeing your party line, you are not going to be providing real support to most refusers, and your movement will remain marginal. Respect for people’s motives and autonomy in making decisions about their own lives is a perquisite for developing an effective support system.

Another common error is creating group pressure on refusers to push their limits. Here in Israel, where refusers can pursue several avenues for legal exemption from military service, and – assuming they were getting good counselling from the outset – only reach prison if they choose to openly confront the authorities, we have had several cases when refusers were under peer pressure to choose going to prison, and even to further escalate their confrontation with the authorities while in prison – by refusing to wear a uniform or going on hunger strike and so on. Now, when such escalation is the refuser’s free and informed choice, there is much work to be done in supporting it — by effective campaigning around the case, as well as by trying to keep as close and frequent contact as possible with the refuser while in prison and by applying all sorts of external pressure on prison authorities to make sure they know they are being watched. But if such escalation is really motivated by external pressure or by a culture of hero worship within the movement, it can be a recipe for disaster and for alienating many potential refusers (see the interview with Noam Gur in chapter 6).

Even where a refuser chooses escalation freely, there is good reason to take pause and have a good discussion with the refuser about tactics, their relative effectiveness, and about back up options and exit strategies. As a refuser, once you declare something as your red line, you have to stick to it. Your leverage against the system and your psychological 'shield' in the process are based on your ability to stick to your refusal at all costs, never to reach a situation in which you feel you have betrayed your own conscience. This implies that if you are not sure something is a true red line — you shouldn’t declare it as such. What would be the point of, say, starting a hunger strike, keeping all your friends and supporters worried sick about your wellbeing, only to break it later under pressure, not on your own terms but on the army’s? So, one aspect of effective support is openly discussing limits and hardships and setting the terms of your struggle wisely: how much worse would it be for the refusers you are working with, and for the entire movement, if they were drawn to push their limits and undergo severe trauma not as a free choice, nor even as a result of a confrontation that the state forces on them, but merely because this is what you expect them to do.

A sustainable movement openly accepts its members’ fears, weaknesses and psychological limits, and values everyday commitment no less than 'heroic' exploits in prison cells. This way your movement can also remain open to all forms and definitions of refusal, to conscientious objection by all genders, ethnicities, and social classes. The value of a refuser’s contribution to the movement would not be determined by the value the military attaches to their potential service as a soldier (this point is addressed in more detail in Sahar Vardi's chapter on whether conscientious objection in Israel may be an attempt to dismantle the 'master's house' of militarism using the master's tools). Also, remember that, at any given time, far more people are likely to choose easier ways of avoiding conscription, and this multitude of people is a group of potential allies in your struggle, if you can offer them the support they need.

Accumulate and share knowledge

Effective refuser support relies quite a bit on good knowledge of how the system works. Such knowledge can then be used to make the act of refusal into an effective intervention. If you are helping an individual escape the military’s grip, you will be able to lead the refuser through all the necessary procedures to get their exemption papers. If you are running a campaign of public civil disobedience, you will know how to plan that campaign so as to confront the establishment at the points and circumstances that favour your cause.

Now, the things you need to know will differ from one place and time to another, so there’s no point in me getting into the technical detail, but there are a few general principles to apply, and a bit of good advice to share about how to obtain the relevant knowledge and keep it up-to-date.

Refusal, of any kind and everywhere, requires dealing with the military and state bureaucracy. This aspect of it may not be the first thing to come to your mind, but it is in fact what refusers more often than not end up doing, and where a good support structure could be particularly useful.

Now, in some ways, bureaucrats are the same all over the world. For example, they fear personal responsibility more than vampires fear the light of day, so when refusers – or their family members, if they are supportive – play the 'if anything goes wrong, you will be held personally accountable' card at the right moment, it can go a long way. Bureaucrats, of course, follow rules and regulations, often blindly. It is thus usually futile, and often damaging, to try to bargain with officials, let alone plead for their mercy. They will not break the rules for your good, or for anybody else’s. When the rules dictate what the refuser you are working with should be doing, expect them to go out of their way to avoid transgressions. Here in Israel, for instance, military officials will routinely lie and make empty promises or threats to make sure a potential recruit goes through her or his enlistment procedures in due order. On the other hand, bureaucrats sometimes like to play God, pop up with an arbitrary decision that blocks you from exercising legally held rights — a step that can usually be dealt with by applying external (e.g. legal) pressure or even by bringing the case to the attention of higher ranks in the hierarchy.

Above all, you have to be familiar with all the relevant rules, regulations, orders, criteria and practices, and with how they are being applied, and follow changes in all of these as they happen. Some of this information will be publicly available. For other matters, you will be able to get good advice from friendly lawyers (see below). In most cases, especially when it comes to practices and to the application of rules, your best source of information will be the people you are helping and what they are going through. In New Profile, our method for collecting and storing this information is by regularly consulting among ourselves on difficult cases. We have a network of volunteer refuser counsellors who have been initially trained by more experienced counsellors, and are then encouraged to share questions and concerns – preserving confidentiality as appropriate – with the whole network of volunteers, either by email or in face-to-face meetings. This way, the whole network gets to benefit from the knowledge we gain from following each case to its resolution.


A New Profile flyer used to promote an open event for the public in 2002, that focused on counselling refusers. The slogan says 'Me? In the army?'

One last point: the way armies treat refusers is often inconsistent and arbitrary. Things that worked a hundred times before may not work this time around, and vice versa. Good refuser counselling is based on reliable and tested knowledge, but it should not be over confident. Do prepare the refusers you are counselling to expect the unexpected. This way, they will be better prepared for whatever is in store, you will get to learn of changes in policy and special procedures sooner rather than later, and other refusers will learn to trust the information you are providing.

Media and Communications

Everybody knows media work is important in campaigning on behalf of refusers, especially when they are on trial, in prison, etc. Less conspicuous, but equally important, is the role of media – and I don’t only mean mass media – in reaching your potential target audience. Let me briefly discuss both (do consult a proper media work guide for more detail).

In our regular work – beyond the occasional special campaign – we in New Profile have found that the doors of the mainstream media are practically closed (you may have better conditions in this respect in your country). The only time our refuser support work gets significant media coverage is when a media outlet runs venomous exposés on our oh-so-seditious organisation, and when the police came after us. Not that negative publicity is necessarily bad – quite a few refusers learned of our existence and the support we can offer them this way – but you can’t initiate it, and it comes with risks. A steady web presence – including our all important anonymous support forum – and strategically placed bumper stickers worked much better for us (very occasionally, we managed to place paid online ads too). But be careful and mindful of possible risks and downsides. Thus, we considered creating a presence on Facebook, which would make us accessible to many young people considering refusal, but opted for a very minimal version, not much more than a static link to our website. The reason? Conducting refuser support, or even an active wall on Facebook, would by default reveal the identity of refusers seeking our help, and any military clerk or future employer would easily find out that they sought our assistance. In most cases, that would be detrimental to our cause.

As I noted, on top of this regular presence, there is also the need to manage campaigns in support of refusers in prison and on trial, making public declarations, and the like. Here, again, there is more to it than mass media. Regularly sharing news with supporters in your country and abroad, including international organisations (see the chapter on international solidarity) is no less important than running a media campaign. Such updates must be clear in the information they carry. They should propose to supporters concrete steps they can take – such as writing a letter to a list of addresses provided in the update, signing a petition, calling authorities by phone, joining a demonstration, and spreading the update itself to their contacts with as much information as they will need to do these things easily. Most importantly, wherever possible, they should include the voice of the refuser on whose behalf they are sent, e.g. a declaration or statement by him or her.

When working with mass media, don’t neglect the 'low hanging fruit' – alternative and radical media outlets and journalists in more mainstream outlets, with whom you may happen to have good contacts; such contacts often develop with time as a result of your media work. The timing and location of your actions may also generate extra media attention. Symbolic dates and locations may be useful, as may protests coinciding with an event in which the media is interested for other reasons, if you can make the link between your cause and the event.

Beyond that, remember that persistence pays off, at least in situations where the press is not under close military or government control. If you just send out press releases to a large mailing list of news desks on a regular basis, you are not particularly likely to get items into the news, but in time you will see that you have become a familiar name to these news organisations, and journalists start calling you when an issue related to your work comes up.

Call on professionals and VIPs

The professional skills (or other status) of your members and supporters could be put to good use.

Lawyers are a case in point. They could help a lot with giving you access to relevant rules and regulations (see above) and are indispensable when a refuser you are supporting is on trial. Having a legal license in itself can already be very useful, because of laws covering confidentiality and right to counsel. Here in Israel (this may also be the case in your country) a lawyer can visit inmates in prison at any time. We used this fact to start a regular programme of prison visits by lawyers. Lawyers may also be protected by law when giving refusers counselling, in countries where counselling refusers is illegal or borderline legal, as it is here.

Lawyers are professionals to whom social movements usually have good access . If you don’t have any among you already, you might find out that some established lawyers and legal type human rights groups would be willing to help you on some cases free of charge, or pro bono, as they say in legalese. There are also legal professionals outside your country, who could be useful in applying pressure on your country using international legal mechanisms (see chapters 12 and 13). These you can contact via international organisations and networks, such as the WRI.

Another group of professional that can be useful are psychologists and psychiatrists, who could sometimes work with refusers around the trauma they are going through, and could counsel your volunteers on how to deal with some difficult situations, such as helping refusers who are at risk of suicide — unfortunately a situation we’ve had to deal with quite often. In New Profile, we have teamed up with a group of activist mental health professionals, called 'Psychoactive', for this latter purpose. You might be able to get in touch with professionals of all kinds through similar professional activist groups, if they exist in your country.

Other kinds of professionals may be more relevant to the situation in your country and to the particularities of your work. Journalists, medical doctors, university professors, construction workers, artists, musicians, graphic designers, and so on. They may all be easier to get on board than you might think.

In selecting professionals to work with, it is important that they be competent in the subfield you need them to focus on, but it is even more important, simply paramount, that they be supportive of your cause. A hostile lawyer, for example, would damage your case more than having none, and an indifferent one may misunderstand the purpose of your campaign.

Another kind of links that can be beneficial for your work – but can also create distractions and nuisances – is with various VIPs and celebrities. This definitely works for getting media attention. Actress Jane Fonda generated a lot of media coverage for the US movement against the Vietnam war, and, in our experience, one refuser in Israel – Jonathan Ben-Artzi – received an exceptional amount of media time, not so much because of his own case, but because a prominent right wing politician – Benjamin Netanyahu – happened to be his uncle. A word of caution, though: sometimes you may have a lot of media potential with a case, where the 'celebrity' refuser herself actually prefers to keep her case out of the limelight. In this case, respecting the refuser’s wish is much more important.

Beyond being media magnets, some VIPs may be of more practical use. For example, members of parliament enjoy parliamentary immunity in most countries, and under immunity rules the may be able to inspect prisons and visit prisoners.

Develop your work

Last but not least, never stand still. There is always room to develop your support network in important new directions. In our case, we have been working recently on outreach to disadvantaged groups in society, where it is very common for young people to first enlist, and then spend much of their tenure in the army as either deserters or prisoners, especially when they have to work to provide for their families. Another avenue for development we are exploring – as do other refusal movements around the world – is in supporting refusers after their direct struggle with the military ends, when they face all sorts of official and unofficial discrimination for not having served in the military. Where conscription ends, there is still work to do around conscientious objection and other means of getting discharged for professional soldiers, and there is counter recruitment work to do in order to prevent people from signing up.

Which would be the best avenues for development in your case? Listen to the stories of those you support and to the thoughts of your own volunteers. If your movement is alive, these people will sense the way forward, and so long as it is alive, volunteers and refusers will keep coming. So long as you keep moving and developing – your movement will stay alive.

Go to next chapter: International Solidarity


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