Ruth Hiller originally came from the States at the age of 17 to work on a kibbutz. And so she stayed, got married and raised her six children.
But things changed when her third child said that he did not want to serve in the Israeli Defense Force (IDF). Today Ruth and her colleagues from New Profile assist other young Israelis who also refuse to join the IDF. (I met her last year during my work as an ecumenical accompanier in the West Bank.)
One such person, is the 18-year old Noam Gur who explains in frank words why she refuses to join the Israeli Army:
I refuse to take part in the Israeli army because I refuse to join an army that has, since it was established, been engaged in dominating another nation, in plundering and terrorizing a civilian population that is under its control.
Israel, since it was established, is committing war crimes and crimes against humanity, from the Nakba [the forced displacement of 750,000 Palestinians in 1947-48] until today. We see this in the last massacre in Gaza, we see this in the everyday life of Palestinians under occupation in Gaza and the West Bank, and we see this in Palestinians living inside Israel in how they’re being treated.
I don’t think that I belong in this place. I don’t think I can personally take part in these crimes and I think that we have to criticize this institution, these crimes and go out publicly saying that we will not serve in the army as long as it occupies other people.
Since Noam announced her decision in public, others felt less alone and also refused military service on behalf of Israel. This is not an easy decision, as they all expect to go to prison for refusing to enlist in the Israeli army.
Alon Gurman, 18, from Tel Aviv had no doubt that he would enlist until he first went to the West Bank. During his last year in school, he started to educate himself on what happens in Palestine.
Alon Gurman in Nabi Saleh (Anne Paq / Activestills)
“I started going to demonstrations thinking that while certain policies might be wrong, they can be changed, and changed from the inside, and so I went on with the pre-draft procedures as expected of me. Only after I went to the occupied territories did I realize that I could never be a part of the army. I saw house demolitions; I saw unbelievable levels of violence used against civilian protest, and all in the name of colonialism. I was especially traumatized when I was arrested in a demonstration in Al-Walaja, just as we were starting to disperse. The soldiers were my age, my peers, and I saw the effect of the service on them. You can’t be moral in an immoral situation.”
But what about those Israelis who did join the IDF?
Yigal Levin, 25, is far from your typical conscientious objector. Born in Ukraine, and growing up in Bat Yam, Levin was taught that a man’s role is to protect his family and homeland:
“I used to be a Mussolini-styled fascist, not the local kind of religious fascists who want the land because of some divine promise, but the kind who believes that the spoils go to the winner. I knew I would be an officer when I joined the army, and having snipers shoot at me in Gaza in 2005 made me even more of an extremist.”
Yigal Levin (Oren Ziv / Activestills)
“Part of my ideology was that the state has to be wise, responsible, decent and protective. In Lebanon, I saw a war that started for no clear reason, where soldiers died in vain while also committing a massacre against the Lebanese.”
Levin says he witnessed officers raping their female subordinates, soldiers tormenting Sudanese refugees who crossed the border from Egypt, and during operation “Cast Lead” he was shocked to see the army bombarding the civilian population and setting Gaza aflame. These factors broke his faith in making a difference from within the ranks.
After the attack on Gaza, Levin finished his service, and inspired by Lev Tolstoy, he joined the Israeli Anarchist Communist Front and toured Ukraine and Germany with comrades. When he recently received an order to show up for his reserve service, he ignored it, and is thus now considered a deserter. Having heard of Gur and Gurman, he decided to turn himself in on the day of their refusal.
“The Israeli army is commonly considered to be ‘the people’s army’, an army of the people protecting the people, but in fact, the Israeli army is simply a bourgeois army – a tool in the hands of a small clique, which does not give a damn about the people… Not willing to remain a mere tool, a traitor, and a hypocrite, I decided to terminate my participation in it.”
(Information on Yigal and Alon from Ranjan Solomon, badayl.alternatives)
– read more.
And then there is Michael whom I met in Jerusalem in 2011:
We try to convince our society (Israel) to end the occupation completely, and not as proposed in the past. We want to be completely equal. If you want Breaking the Silence to end, then start by talking to your kids. There is still a lot of work to do.
Breaking the Silence is an Israeli organisation that was started in 2004 by veteran soldiers who wanted to talk about their experiences whilst serving in Palestine. By the end of 2011, they received testimonies from 800 soldiers. Breaking the Silence conducts photo exhibitions worldwide, they publish books and they take people on tours to see for themselves what happens in the occupied territories.
In my mind, the issue here is that what we do to others, also defines who we are. So we should not ask ourselves “What system do I fit into?” but rather “Who am I?” and “What kind of world do I want to live in?”
An ethical choice not based on fear requires emotional courage and maturity. If one really wants a better world, it is possible. We can each make a difference in the direction of the kind of freedom we choose: