/ 13 October 2009

‘I don’t speak war’

‘War is not my language” in Hebrew, Arabic and English is displayed boldly on 19-year-old Sahar Vardi’s T-shirt.

Meeting the Mail & Guardian at a restaurant in Norwood, Johannesburg, she is flanked by Omer Goldman and Yuval Ophir-Auron, both 20.

A young man comes over. ‘I hear an accent,” he says. ‘Where are you guys from?” ‘Israel”, and he asks if they are on holiday. ‘Not exactly,” says Vardi. ‘We’re conscientious objectors to military service and the occupation. We’re here to talk about that.”

Looking confused, the interloper replies: ‘Well, that doesn’t make any sense to me”, and turns away.

From Israel’s Shministim (grade 12) movement, the three have all done time as refuseniks. They have been brought to South Africa by the End Conscription Campaign as part of its 25th anniversary, which will culminate in a weekend of celebrations at Spier Estate in Stellenbosch later this month.

Young objectors from Eritrea and the United States have also been invited. The Shministim are being hosted by Open Shuhada Street, a Cape Town-based anti-occupation organisation, still in its early phases.

They are holding discussions at universities and with youth groups to explain themselves and build support. The reception has not always been cordial.

At a meeting with 20 young South African Jews the previous night they were accused of being ‘Lenin’s useful idiots” and slammed for ‘going outside Israel to run Israel down”. But earlier in the day they had a ‘really nice conversation” with about 80 people at Wits University.

Daniel Mackintosh, an organiser from Open Shuhada Street, complains they were not allowed to speak at the mainly Jewish Herzlia School in Cape Town and King David in Johannesburg.

Goldman says they were told by members of the Jewish Board of Deputies: ‘I don’t want you talking to my children. You’ll influence them.”

About 70 South Africans served in the Israeli army last year; many were involved in the January invasion of Gaza. But they appear unperturbed by the hostility. ‘We were told to expect this,” says Vardi. ‘What’s important is that we got our message across to some. We may not change their minds, but at least we made them think for two seconds.”

Goldman says Israeli learners are given a draft date. When they fail to appear at the induction office, they are called before a military judge who, he says, ‘has a little interview with you and sends you to prison”.

‘After a while it stops being productive for the army to keep sending us to jail,” says Ophir-Auron. ‘We bring too much attention.” As happens with most refuseniks, the three were finally released on grounds of mental illness.

‘Officially we’re all crazy,” says Vardi. ‘It’s a back door for the army.” About 100 youngsters signed the Shministim letter last year — it was first penned in 1970 — explaining their grounds for refusing. “We cannot hurt in the name of defence or imprison in the name of freedom,” the letter concludes.

Says Goldman: ‘It’s not an option: that’s what you’re taught and what you do — you go to the army. So when we refuse, people don’t know what to do because we’ve made it an option.”

A number of Israeli organisations, including New Profile and Courage to Refuse, support refuseniks and promote their cause.

Vardi, who first visited the territories as a 12-year-old with her activist father, says the turning point for them all was a visit to the occupied territories. ‘Israel was starting to build the wall and I looked at all the trees and knew they’d be uprooted. It changed my perspective on who the good guys are.”

Goldman’s father is an army general and former deputy head of Mossad, the feared spy agency. When she first refused, they did not speak for six months, but are now ‘good friends”. Her first experience of the territories was at the age of 18.

‘I went to a village near Tulkarem, where activists were removing a punishment checkpoint,” she says. ‘Suddenly, the army started shooting and I thought, shit, Israelis my age are shooting at me. ‘I came back to my comfortable bed, and it’s not fair. These things are happening an hour away and no one wants to talk about it. I told my friends that someone shot at me and they said ‘shut up, we’re partying’.”

The refuseniks’ stance has created other difficulties for them in Israel. ‘Every employer will ask you how long you were in the army,” says Vardi.

According to Mackintosh, the three have received abusive emails and threats. But Ophir-Auron adds a caution: ‘It’s hard for us, but it’s much harder for the Palestinian people.”