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Nerds, Jocks & Conscientious Objectors: The Hidden World of Israel’s High School War Resisters

High school's tough enough without having to face prison time for refusing to serve an occupation you know is wrong.

Noam Gur holds the letter in which she refused conscription., Photo by Oren ziv/Activstills.

When the 19-year-old Israeli war resister Noam Gur attends weekly demonstrations against the occupation of Palestine, the soldiers who suppress the protestors—with tear gas, stun grenades, and occasionally live fire—aren’t just strangers in uniform. Among them are her former high school classmates, who have been conscripted into the Israeli army.

Gur was supposed to serve, too, but instead joined the shministim. This is a Hebrew term meaning high school students in their senior year, who face conscription into the army. But the word is also used to refer to students who publicly refuse conscription on ethical grounds.

“All my friends from high school are in the army,” Gur explains. “Now I see them at demos. It is really weird and complicated.”

With a shrug of her shoulders, Gur describes the process that led to her refusal of conscription. “I found out that what they taught me in school was different from this reality. I went to the West Bank to protests and saw the occupation. I started to realize I didn’t want to serve.”

Gur, who has cropped hair and a shy smile, was supposed to be a soldier before she was out of her teens, like most Israeli youth. But instead she served 20 days in prison for refusing orders. Now an anti-occupation activist who supports other young people questioning military service, she is one of many young Israelis who are saying no to the army. They are part of growing number of Israeli movements working to end the occupation from the inside.

Letters of resistance

To understand what it takes to become a shministi—the singular form of shiministim—it’s important to understand the powerful grip of the Israeli military on society. Israel’s occupation of Palestine and aggressive stance toward many of its neighbors requires a highly militarized society. The country devotes almost one fifth of its national budget to military spending, 18 percent of which is paid for by the United States. Israel’s military spending as a percentage of GDP is one of the highest in the world, and it boasts a larger military than any of its neighbors. The country maintains a stash of nuclear weapons and is the world's eighth largest arms exporter.

Meanwhile, children are prepared for compulsory service from an early age by constant military presence in educational settings, including “teacher soldiers” in some schools. Walking through Israeli cities and towns, one encounters streets filled with soldiers carrying M4 and M16 rifles, many of them in plain clothes.

“There is always a military background here,” Gur says.

The army makes it nearly impossible to get a discharge based on conscientious objector status.

While the Israeli army is preeminent in society, it is not invincible. Public draft resistance began in 1970, when a handful of students penned an open letter to then-Prime Minister Golda Meir, in which they explained their refusal to serve in territories seized and occupied in the 1967 war. In 1982, a group of army reservists refused to serve in the Lebanon War, founding the group Yesh Gvul, whose name means “there is a limit.” The movement of letter-writing and refusal by high school seniors grew during the early 2000s, prompting the military to crack down and sentence each of the five shministim from the class of 2002 to two years in prison.

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By 2008, when almost 100 people signed public letters resisting conscription, prison terms for shministim had become standard. The army makes it nearly impossible to get a discharge based on conscientious objector status, and many shministim escape conscription only by claiming mental unfitness, often after serving multiple prison sentences. The 19-year-old shministi Nathan Blanc is currently serving his eighth consecutive prison term for refusing army service in protest of second-class rights for Palestinians.

In addition to those who publicly resist, an unknown number engage in “gray resistance,” quietly applying for discharges on mental, physical, and religious grounds. As of 2008, about half of all potential conscripts did not enlist due to various exemptions, according to Israeli army officials.

Sahar Vardi, a shministi from the class of 2008, wants to encourage this type of resistance. She is a member of the Israeli feminist demilitarization group New Profile, which offers consultation and support to youth questioning military service. The organization reaches 2,000 people who are seeking to resist military service each year, she says.

Saying no to conscription and occupation

Gur, who grew up in Nahariya, a town just north of Haifa, had a sister in the border police in Gaza at the time of her refusal. Despite her family’s objection to her resistance, she penned her public letter in 2012. In it, she explained her unwillingness to serve in an army that has, she wrote, “been engaged in dominating another nation, in plundering and terrorizing a civilian population that is under its control.” After receiving two successive prison terms for refusing orders, she was finally released after claiming mental unfitness.

In a society where graduates are required to participate directly in military occupation at an early age, saying no can be a way of showing another path is possible.

The number of public shministim has been shrinking in recent years, with just three 12th graders, including Gur, publicly declaring their draft refusal in 2012. Yet Electronic Intifada reports that the number of resisters among the Druze, an ethnic minority from the country’s north, is on the rise, with Druze musician Omar Saad publicly refusing conscription last year. Furthermore, New Profile consultants say that the number of gray resisters continues to increase.

Regardless of its size, Israeli anti-occupation organizers insist that the tradition of refusing conscription remains a relevant force, in conjunction with other demilitarization efforts. “Breaking the consensus on occupation is important,” says Netta Mishley, a shministi from the class of 2009. “It allows people to feel more free speaking their minds.”

Gur, who also supports the Palestinian call for boycott, divestment, and sanction of Israel, says that that draft resistance is one tactic among many, and it is difficult to tell how effective it is. Nonetheless, she argues that refusal is important to encourage. In a society where graduates fresh out of high school are required to participate directly in military occupation at an early age, saying no can be a way of showing another path is possible, and retrieving one's humanity in the process.

Sarah Lazare wrote this article for YES! Magazine, a national, nonprofit media organization that fuses powerful ideas and practical actions. Sarah is a writer and organizer in U.S. anti-war and anti-militarist movements, and is a member of The Civilian-Soldier Alliance and War Times. She co-edited PM Press book About Face: Military Resisters Turn Against War, and her work has appeared in publications including The Nation, Truthout, and Al Jazeera English.