Throughout Israel’s embattled history, it has been a badge of honour to serve in the country’s armed forces. For obvious reasons, public expressions of conscientious objections, draft dodging or anti-war sentiments have been virtually non-existent.
While objections to the draft remain relatively marginal, there has been a change among Israeli youth and some members of the Israel Defence Forces. This shift developed as the nature of threats against the country have evolved since the 1967 and 1973 wars.
Policing civilians in an occupied territory has become one of the primary tasks of conscripted and reserve troops. This is made more complex by the presence in the West Bank of 300,000 Jewish settlers.
There is no better way to gauge what young Israelis are thinking than to sit down with them and record their answers and thoughts to open-ended questions.
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That is what investment-banker-turned-author David Ranan has done in his fascinating and thought-provoking new book, A Land to Die For? Soldier Talk and Moral Reflections of Young Israelis (Theo Press, London, 222 pp.).
They open up, often using slang expressions, to discuss their thoughts and moral concerns with remarkable candour and a maturity you would not normally expect from respondents as young as 18.
Ranan starts with a capsule history of the country, including references to such groups as the far-left Yesh Gvul (There is a Border/There is a Limit), which sprung up in 1982 as Israel invaded southern Lebanon. It got 3,000 reserve soldiers to sign anti-occupation petitions and 150 were court-martialed for refusing to follow orders.
In 2003, 20 reserve pilots caused a stir when they announced they would refuse to carry out assassination missions. Then 13 members of the elite Sayeret Matkal commando unit said they’d refuse to serve in the West Bank, where they said their actions would deprive Palestinians of basic human rights.
As Ranan points out, civilian national service is possible for those who are exempted, which include male Yeshiva, or seminary students, and married women, but it is not considered an alternative to military service.
He notes that many highly motivated students, male and female, look forward to their military service and will compete, even train on their own time, to get into elite combat units.
The book the presents what Ranan calls 27 monologues from draftees and reserve soldiers, one by one, whose ideas reflect not a cross-section of Israeli opinion, but what he calls “the thinking beyond certain realities observed in Israel in recent years.”
While avoiding the draft or refusing to serve in specific tasks is no simple matter, as Ranan points out, draft-dodging is out there as a possibility, even though it can put so-called refuseniks into the margins of society.
He mentions the case of supermodel Bar Rafaeli, who made headlines in 2007 when she married a family friend, 23 years her senior, then quickly divorced him, to avoid the draft. Ranan does not go into detail, but Rafaeli’s action became even more a cause célebre when the Foreign Ministry used her image to promote Israel. IDF spokesperson Brig.-Gen. Yoav Mordechai protested that it ”conveys the message that we ignore and forgive evasion of enlistment.”
As some of the interviewees point out, those who are troubled by the occupation and do not want to participate in maintaining it are faced with a heavy moral dilemma—accept the burdens of being a young Israeli alongside most of their friends, or follow their conscience?
Matan had misgivings about serving in the army, and after a year of community service, saw a mental health officer and said he was confused. He was released.
“It’s quite simple. If you’re insistent enough against the system, it releases you,” he said. He continued to work with the mentally challenged. Some friends accepted his decision, another wondered, “Why him and not me?”
There are those who argue that with the geopolitical situation with its neighbours, which could change radically, Israel is not threatened with a ground war and could function as a professional army without conscripts. This is what happened in the U.S. after the draft evasion during the controversial Vietnam War. Would such a transformation spell the end of one of Israel’s patriotic cornerstones?
Ranan’s subjects raise this and other issues. Some can’t stand the way Border Police—where Israelis can chose to serve—manhandle and needlessly harass Palestinians at checkpoints. But what stands out is the deep humanity, conflicted instincts and measured thoughts of those interviewed, such as these poignant remarks from Ronen, a 30-year-old entrepreneur who serves on reserve duty.
He believes exemptions should be granted for such talented Israelis as the Bar Rafelis, saying “We can afford it—to preserve sanity and enable normality in the country.”
He sympathizes with the Palestinians as soldiers carry out the actions to protect the settlements and the resultant “appalling interference in the lives of the local Palestinian populations.”
Yet he separates that from the “evil” of Palestinian militants committing “the premeditated murder of civilians.”
“Yes, they’re evil, they’re fighting is evil, evil, evil. I was exposed to them for enough years. It’s not propaganda, it happens.”
These are compelling testimonies, framed by Ranan with balanced and insightful commentary.
The book, with interviews translated from Hebrew, is available at Amazon.ca. $14.15.