Time for Me to Refuse!


To refuse means to say no! No to the military rule in the West Bank, no to the use of violence as a means of defence, no to patriarchy, no to violence against innocent people, no to abuse against soldiers, no to war and no to a society that claims to be democratic, but forces youths to carry weapons, kill and be killed.

The Israeli society takes the army for granted, considers it to be a necessity, and based on this it becomes legitimate, in the eyes of Israelis, for the military to do what it does, even when the actions themselves are less than acceptable.

Both societies in this conflict feed on lies, stereotypes and racism, and therefore both sides fear and refuse to meet. Most Israelis never met Palestinians, apart from the extremists they say on TV and in the papers. Most Palestinians never met Israelis, unless they were soldiers or settlers, in situations that were not very pleasant, to say the least. In this state of affairs, little wonder that it is so easy to find excuses for killing. The terrorists and the combat soldier make the same assumption – that the other people hates them and constantly tries to harm them, and so this person, as a member of that society, has the duty to assume responsibility and stop the other side (the terrorists, the demolishers of houses) or even hurt it (blow up somewhere in Israel, or besiege Palestinian villages) for his family, its safety and freedom, even if that means the he, the terrorist or the soldier or the freedom fighter, will be hurt.

Just as I hope that as a Palestinian who had lived all her life under occupation and had grown up in a violent society, I would not have chosen to become a terrorist, so, as an Israeli living under the constant threat of terror attacks and rockets, abductions (a political incarceration in an Israeli prison is also a kind of abduction in my view), I shall not choose to become a soldier.

I am not saying that soldiers or terrorists are acting out of some natural evilness. On the contrary, I believe they are acting out of misinformation and brainwashing.

Now, all these are not necessarily reasons to become a conscientious objector. Some Israelis choose for the same reasons to get discharged from the military in other ways. I could have done so, thus freeing my time for the struggle against all those things. And maybe, as most Israelis believe, I could have enlisted and become “the good soldier at the checkpoint”, to stop the violence and injustice “on the ground”, because that is the only way to really understand what the army is, that it is not just all occupation…

No! So many people have joined the army and said that they would be the ones to change it from within, but they ended up following the same orders, doing the same horrible things. Because when you are ordered to enter a house or to stop somebody at a checkpoint, it doesn’t matter that much whether you smile at him while doing this, or whether you avoid stepping on their bed with your mud-soiled boots. It’s the fact that you did it that matters. You stopped him from reaching his destination; you broke into his house in the middle of the night. And with all the social pressure and the brainwashing in the military you change. Everybody changes.

I do not want to belittle the importance of the fact that some soldiers do not hit, do not abuse. I appreciate that, but that is not the way it is supposed to be. I should be lauding a person’s understanding what is going on and refusing an order, not the fact that he was one of those laying a siege on a population, but smiling nicely at the person denied passage to hospital.

I haven’t always been the vegan, radical leftist, feminist, that I am today, but I was never the opposite from that either. It always seemed wrong to me to hate an entire people or to oppress an entire people. But, of course, I was also ignorant of what occupation means. Even as a young feminist, with my feeling of great personal responsibility towards society, I wanted back then to join the army and serve there for three years, to reach the units where women are not allowed to serve, to stop the terrorists trying to hurt me, my family and friends with my own hands. I have changed much since and understood that all these actions are not the ones that would make a change for the better; that to the contrary, they would only serve to further instill hatred, insensitivity and oppression in our society.

These changes I have undergone were really tough on me (and they still are). To say that the Israeli army may be doing some things that are wrong, to say that I am not a Zionist (to Israeli ears it is sometimes like saying I’m anti-Semitic) and to choose not to enlist – it was all a long process, in which I was guided by my optimism, belief in human goodness and the wish to know more and to change the way things are.

I would like to tell about a small but significant piece of this process, one that was a painful reality check for me. When I was just under 15 years of age, after having many arguments with friends about why the army is necessary, and is moral, I decided, mostly out of curiosity, to join a demonstration in the Occupied Territories.

The road there was tiresome. The soldiers stopped us at many point along the way and we had to walk through long bypass routes. When we were near the village where the demonstration was to be held, a strong smell of teargas blew in our direction from where the soldiers were.

When we reached the village at last, I saw none of the Palestinians was trying to harm me or hated me for being Jewish. We went out to demonstrate (ever so briefly). It was nice to feel the cooperation of people from both sides, who do want peace. It was a powerful experience of good will.

And then the soldiers came. I remember they started throwing stun grenades at us, and when we lifted our hands and asked them to stop, they started firing rubber-coated bullets. We went back, and at some point they retreated a bit as well. We then heard shots from afar, and were told that at the other side of the village the soldiers started firing live ammunition. I was in a state of anxiety, took the friend that came with me and went into one of the “houses of peace” in the place.

That village, Bil’in, became a sort of second home for me. After the time it took me to come to terms with it all, I started going to these demonstrations every week, and even staying over to sleep in peace houses there together with my friends – Israeli peace activists and Palestinians, people I learned to admire and love (as I love all human beings).

That day and that period significantly changed my worldview. To see a soldier who is supposed to protect me shoot in my direction and in the direction of my friends, who are not trying to hurt him, to get to know Palestinians, laugh with them, and to experience other things that I never thought or believed could make sense – all these made me believe that things can and should be different, that not all that I was told was true, that I have to look and check things for myself.

Not long before that “the second Intifada” broke out, and as an Israeli living in Jerusalem I remember it as a terrible experience: a new terror attack once in a couple of days, the fear of riding a bus or of going out with friends, fear for the soldiers, for my friends some of whom were victims of terror attacks, and fear for myself – I was too close to the scene of attacks too many times. That difficult time led me later to wonder why this is how things stand and made me understand that the other side also lives with all this frustration, fear and anger, and that it is very easy to choose hatred, and that this is precisely why one must not choose hatred and violence, to generate more hatred and pain.

So why do I refuse? I refuse because I want to make a difference. I want all those Palestinian youths who have lost hope to see that there are Israelis who care and who make a different choice. I want all those of my friends who became soldiers or who are about to become soldiers to see that things don’t have to be the way they are and that doing all those immoral things is not something to be taken for granted, that another way is possible, that you don’t have to suffer inside a military system that oppresses you (most soldiers suffer while they’re in the army). Maybe they too will open their eyes and their minds a bit more to what is going on around them (and I know that in the Israeli society it is very difficult to change your mind, to open your mind and to really listen). It is important for me that people see that I don’t just refuse for the sake of refusing, but that this is my means for making a difference.

And what matters to me most in my act of refusal is my family. My older brother served in the army as a combat soldier. My twin brother would be enlisting into a combat unit in a few months’ time (my other twin brother got exempted from military service by other means, and regretfully, even that my family does not accept). I want to show them, especially my parents, aunts and uncles and grandfather, that there is another way, that you don’t always have to fight and attack (and that an attack is no defence), that not all Arabs hate us, and that no, if I do not enlist the new Nazis won’t come to murder us all. I believe this step will make them open their eyes to a new possibility, or at least try some different options out.

So what – do you want nobody to join the army? — Of course I would have preferred a world without any army and without anyone having to enlist. But in Israel today there is no such option. Considering the situation into which Israel itself and the rest of the world have driven us, we do need an army. But we certainly do not need an occupying army or one that oppresses its own soldiers. And in the real world, there won’t come a day in which all Israelis suddenly decide together not to enlist. What may happen, and what I hope will happen, is that more people would decide to refuse to join the army, and that this would force the Israeli government and military to change their policy, both towards the Palestinian people and towards the Israeli soldiers themselves. And it is here, I believe, that the process which leads to this change begins.

So, why wouldn’t I join the army as a school teacher in uniform? Don’t I believe in education? — I love doing volunteer educational work with youths. This is what I want to do in life. But that is not the right way to do it.

Every day teenagers, and all other people living in Israel, see hundreds of soldiers in the street and are exposed to military presence – on buses, in advertisement, in songs on the radio, in the newspapers, in books and in schools. Everything in our lives revolves around the army, even what we wear. Every aspect of our lives has some military concept connected to it, and the basis of militarism is violence. Little wonder that our society is violent. Little wonder that those teenagers, who live in such a society day after day, are reared on militarist values and desire to become combat soldiers, or are familiar already in their first year of school with military terms, then beat each other up in school or stab one another at pubs or even commit rape.

An educational figure with a military appearance only serves to further instil all that into the minds of the young, to further entrench the notion that living in such a militarist society with all those militarist and violent values is a necessity.

I believe that an educator cannot at one and the same time tell children not to fight one another but also to justify all the wars the Israel has fought. I educate for peace, dialogue and for the proposition that there are no such situations in which the only choice is fighting, that there is always a peaceful solution if you think before you act, show some patience, and above all – consider the other to be equal to yourself.

This was a relatively brief letter, and it is clear to me that I did not even come close to conveying all that I wanted to say in it. It is also clear to me that it would be very easy to draw partial and incorrect conclusions from what I wrote. But I did not write this letter in order to convince; I was not trying to practice demagoguery or to insult anybody. I wrote what came to my mind and only a few things of what I felt is important for me to tell you and to explain to you, my friends.

I do hope that this letter leaves you with something that you can take from it in your own lives and that you do try to open your mind to it and to everything around you, to hear and listed to different things, even if it is sometimes hard (and it is hard).

Love to you and to those you love,
Or Ben-David.