‘Youth Against Dictatorship’: Meet Israel’s New Class of Conscientious Objectors
On Sunday afternoon, hundreds of Israelis gathered outside the Herzliya Hebrew Gymnasium high school in central Tel Aviv for the launch of a new letter by young conscientious objectors under the banner of “Youth Against Dictatorship.” Despite pressure from the far right and the Education Ministry, and despite the decision of the high school’s board to cancel the event, hundreds came to hear the students read out the letter, participate in workshops, and to support the 230 young people who signed the letter and who plan to refuse enlistment into the Israeli army.
As opposed to previous so-called “refusenik letters,” the current letter connects opposition to the government’s judicial overhaul to conscientious objection due to the occupation. Signatories +972 spoke with said they had planned to refuse to join the army even before the current government was formed, to protest the occupation.
Others decided to do so in recent months, saying that the government, the most extreme in Israeli history, was what tipped the scales and pushed them to refuse. Some of them explained that the presence of the “anti-occupation bloc” at the weekly demonstrations against the judicial overhaul helped them make the decision, and that in today’s public atmosphere, conscientious objection is more widely accepted than in the past, particularly in the wake of mass refusal by army reservists in the wake of the overhaul.
We interviewed eight teenagers who signed the letter and spoke about their decision to refuse to join the army.
Nuri Magen, 17
I thought I would enlist until a little after the government began passing the law to the reasonableness clause. I was against the occupation before that, but I thought I was going to serve in a position that wouldn’t be directly involved in it. I thought about serving in the navy, and I could sort of justify doing that. That was before they started passing the laws.
Most of all, it scared me what horrors could take place in a year, two years, when I will be stuck [in the army]. I don’t want to feel like I am part of this thing. As the situation gets more extreme, even non-political people or those who hold centrist positions are becoming more open to opinions that were considered “extreme” until recently. Two years ago conscientious objectors were a very small minority. Now we took over the school and held an event with hundreds of people and the media; it’s unprecedented.
Sofia Orr, 18
I signed the letter because I oppose the dictatorship and want to fight for true democracy for all, both in Israel and in the occupied territories. It was important for me to sign this letter because it makes this connection, which for me is self-evident, that the reform and the occupation cannot be separated.
I think this event and the number of signatories shows that these opinions are slowly starting to enter the mainstream, or at least that the mainstream is ready to hear them and engage with them. This is really a blessing. It shows the change that is happening here. We have to continue and not let them silence us. Trying to silence us is part of their dictatorial policy that we oppose.
Itay Gavish, 17
During the protests, I came to the anti-occupation bloc, where I realized that I did not want to take part in the occupation, and that I would refuse to join the army. I signed the letter to show that I, and hundreds of other young people, would not serve in the occupation army. Through these demonstrations, I felt it was legitimate to come out to protest.
I think I was afraid of being too radical, and the anti-occupation bloc was a place where you could go to demonstrate with the other Zionists, and then go a little further. The fight against the judicial overhaul shows people who don’t necessarily relate to the occupation and don’t necessarily care that refusal is an important tool of protest.
Lily Hochfeld, 17
I asked myself what my red line was, if I was willing to serve in any army of any country. I decided that there are armies I want to believe that I would not serve in. For me, to give full support to settler violence, decades of military rule, and judicial reform that gives all the power to corrupt and clerical politicians completely crosses my red line. I can no longer enlist in such an army and not fear for my future and that of my country.
The protests have brought all the demons out of the closet. Suddenly, we woke up one morning and there were people sitting in the government who were once illegitimate even on the right, such as [Itamar] Ben Gvir, who continues in [Meir] Kahane’s footsteps. The new government has made everything clear — we understood their true intentions.
Tal Mitnick, 17
I and other youths realized that the dictatorship that exists in Israel and the dictatorship that has existed for decades in the occupied territories are inseparable. The great goal of the politicians and the settlers is to deepen the occupation and the oppression of more populations inside Israel and in the occupied territories, and to annex Area C of the West Bank [which is under full Israeli military control].
For many of us, these demonstrations were an awakening. I was not politically active before the protests. They made me understand what it means to demonstrate as a draftee, with hundreds of others before their enlistment, and to say “we will not serve.”
Ella Greenberg Keidar, 16
We were interviewed by the media ahead of today’s event. In almost every interview, the interviewers tried to seize a moment [and ask]: “Are you against the occupation or are you against the reform?” Because, they say, opposing the occupation is irrelevant — it is yesterday’s news. What we are interested in are those who refuse the judicial overhaul. What does the occupation have to do with it? This is the kind of language I encounter from demonstrators who come to the anti-occupation bloc with Israeli flags.
Opposition to the occupation is incomplete without opposition to the legal reform, and vice versa. The people promoting the reform — Simcha Rothman, Itamar Ben Gvir, Bezalel Smotrich, are settlers. Their agenda is a settler agenda, of expanding the occupation, ethnic cleansing, and expulsions. The reform is intended to clear Area C of Palestinians, to legalize new outposts, and to grant even more privileges, enshrined in law, to settlements and settlers. I want to tell the media and the public in Kaplan that these things are related.
Ayelet Kovo, 17
I signed the letter because I am not ready to be part of the violent arm of the state, which is used to oppress people. I am not ready to be the person who oppresses Palestinians in the occupied territories, nor to be the one who oppresses Jewish and Palestinian people in demonstrations in Israel. I know there has never been a democracy or equal rights here, and I am not ready to serve a country that is fundamentally unequal.
Iddo Elam, 17
I signed the letter because I will not agree to enlist in this army. It is an army that is occupying the West Bank and millions of Palestinians, and an army of an extreme right-wing government that is trying to bring the dictatorship from the occupied territories into Israel. We see it well in recent weeks, with the threats to our event at the gymnasium and with police violence against demonstrators.
[Oren Ziv is a photojournalist, reporter for Local Call, and a founding member of the Activestills photography collective.]
A version of this article was first published in Hebrew on Local Call. Read it here.