There is more than a passing similarity between the stories of conscientious objectors in Israel and the old South Africa.
Where there is war, there will always be refuseniks.
“Whenever the Israeli army drafts the reserves – which are made up of ex-soldiers – there are dissenters, resisters and awolers [those absent without official leave] among the troops called to war,” Israeli peace activist Yael Even Or wrote in a recent Washington Post article. “Now that Israel has sent troops to Gaza again and reserves are being summoned to service, dozens are refusing to take part.”
Read more on the Gaza conflict:
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- For some war is where the heart is
- On a mission of peace and reason
- Families bound in grief
- Richard Goldstone: Once bitten, twice shy
- Israel, Gaza and the Jewish community
- Peace a dirty word in time of war
There is a long tradition of conscientious objection in Israel. In 1970 a group of high school seniors about to be drafted sent a letter to prime minister Golda Meir, objecting to the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza.
In 1987 another group of students also refused to serve in the occupied territories, calling themselves shministim (Hebrew for twelfth-graders – the name given by the press to the previous group). Various similar movements have followed since; it is believed that thousands of Israeli pupils are now members of the Shministim.
For many, like Sahar Vardi, a 24-year-old based in Jerusalem, the price has been a jail sentence. Vardi and a group of fellow Israelis refused to serve in the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) in August 2008. “I refused because I did not want to co-operate with the occupation in any way,” she told the Mail & Guardian. “I wrote a letter to the military, and signed and sent a collective letter as well. To these, the military did not react.”
Vardi was imprisoned for two months, and was in military detention for three more. She was eventually released in January 2009.
She says she doesn’t regret her decision. “Serving as part of the occupation is in my eyes immoral, and any form of opposition to that is extremely important. The occupation is sustained by people who disagree with it serving in the military [here in Israel] and funding it [internationally].”
South Africa also has a history of individuals willing to go to prison rather than serve in an army whose cause they found unjust.
In the 1970s four young men were jailed for publicly refusing to obey their army call-ups to the South African Defence Force (SADF). By 1983, 13 objectors had been jailed. In the same year the End Conscription Campaign (ECC) was formed, opposing the conscription of all white South African men into military service.
It gained so much momentum that defence minister Magnus Malan described it as the country’s third biggest enemy after the ANC and the South African Communist Party.
The ECC was banned in August 1988, but unbanned itself in 1989 after a national defiance campaign. Conscription was reduced from two years to one shortly thereafter, and in effect was phased out after 1990, officially ending in 1993.
Saul Batzofin, who is now based at Imperial College London, where he works as an information technology programme manager, was one of many jailed for refusing to serve. “I actually did my two years’ initial military service and a few of camps, and then refused to do any further camps,” he recalls. “I had been a member of the ECC for a few years and had become ever more politicised over those past few years.
“I felt that the SADF was being used as a tool to uphold apartheid, and putting on an SADF uniform was aligning with the apartheid regime in oppressing the majority of South Africans,” said Batzofin.
He served nine months of an 18-month sentence, which was reduced by half when compulsory military service was halved.
“It was the right thing to do for me personally and, I believe, the correct thing to do politically to raise awareness that the fight against apartheid was supported by white South Africans too, and hopefully that played a small part in convincing people that a nonracial democracy was a viable alternative for South Africa.”
A South African Jew, Batzofin says that although he doesn’t know enough to comment on the rights and wrongs of the Israeli conflict, he believes that in all situations nonpunitive alternatives to military service should be offered to those who refuse to serve in the military for reasons of conscience.
His advice to conscientious objectors? “Prison is not pleasant and is not the only option. Evaluate all your options, such as exile, deferment and prison, and make the right decision for yourself.”
Rabbi Sa’ar Shaked is an Israeli peace activist in self-exile in Parktown, Johannesburg, where he serves the Jewish community at the Beit Emanuel Progressive Synagogue.
He manned IDF checkpoints between 1993 and 1996 and thereafter served in the army for a month each year. He says that, although many of his friends refused to serve, he opted to do so as a way of making a difference.
“Many young men who are given power may abuse it – I felt that my presence could soften some situations,” he explains. “I can testify that there were moments when I was glad I was there and could make it easier for people passing through the checkpoints.”
Shaked was involved in various peace initiatives in Israel, including the Sulha Peace Project – a group of Palestinians and Israelis that meets regularly to demonstrate that followers of the Abrahamic faiths share a common destiny – of which he was an executive director from 2007 to 2008.
He says that Israel has a right to protect itself. “A homeland has the right to ask its sons and daughters to protect her, and it is done by a national army that is subjected to the decisions made by a government that is elected freely and openly,” he points out. “This is how a democracy operates. By the way, there are many Arabs who serve in the IDF – Christians, Druze and Muslims.”
But pacifism should be permitted, he adds. “A person must then contribute to society in a civilian service, such as in hospitals, schools, community service or nongovernmental organisations. It is done to a large scale in Israel. Many ultra-religious don’t serve because of conscience reasons and many Arabs choose to do it as well.”