Pricking consciences: People hold up placards decrying Israel’s violent oppression of Palestinians during the annual gay pride parade in Tel Aviv in June. Photo: Ilia Yefimovich/Getty Images
Over the four days before Tel Aviv’s annual gay pride parade in June, a group of teenagers built a tank. Not just any little tank but one with a huge and prominent papier-mâché penis instead of a gun.
“We called it the ‘national erection’ … relating to the military and machoism of Israeli society,” Ella Keidar, a 17-year-old graphic designer of the Israeli Mesarvot war resisters network tells me via Zoom. But they were aware of the parade’s decadent, party-loving audience.
“We entered this very festive place but we didn’t want to just go and be so-called party poopers and say, ‘While you’re all partying, children in Gaza are dying, children in the West Bank are being kidnapped.’ Well, even though that is very true.
“That would be, in my opinion, a misuse of popular culture because then we wouldn’t have any audience. The people in the parade would just hate us; they wouldn’t relate to the message.
“So, instead, we came with irony — look at how absurd the situation is. And also, to a very sexual parade, we came with very sexual imagery, which already put us at an advantage as it relates to what the audience thought of it.”
Mesarvot is a network of anti-occupation activists that supports political military service objectors. Formed in 2015, the organisation sees political objection as a tool to help end the occupation and oppression of the Palestinian people. Over the past few years, they have supported many imprisoned refuseniks.
It is media and popular culture-savvy, making use of graffiti, agit-prop art, pop bands, witty banners over highways, as well as TikTok and other social media.
They have also effectively tapped into the recent popular campaigns against Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government’s judicial overhaul.
“In September, we had a campaign called Youth Against Dictatorship, which was a letter signed by around 280 teenagers that declared we will not join a military of occupation and dictatorship in the occupied territories and within sovereign Israel,” says Keidar, who was one of the signees.
Mesarvot occupied a school in Tel Aviv and received much media attention.
Yeheli Cialik, Mesarvot’s director, tells me, also via Zoom from Israel, that while it is illegal to call publicly for refusal to go to the Israel Defence Force, “a lot of the times we can’t say we call on all Israeli youths to refuse”.
“We say, ‘We invite you to think about it.’
“We go to other protests against the government and we put anti-war messaging there. Again, very carefully. Of course, this is the most fascist government in power but we were starting to be able to reach the mainstream and then, with the war, everything changed.”
Since the Hamas attack on 7 October and the subsequent war on Gaza, space for pro-peace protest has all but disappeared.
“Everyone moved more right, if it’s even possible anymore,” says Cialik. “It’s tough; people are afraid to speak up. Fascists have been coming to some activists’ homes, arresting us, doxing us.
“People have been arrested, most of the Palestinians are in the centre of Israel, but also Israelis, people have been fired, people have been kicked out of university. It’s not an easy time right now.”
Many artists don’t speak about politics for fear of their livelihoods, he says.
“The incitement is against the left, against people who seek peace, who seek reconciliation, who seek a better future for everyone, who see Palestinians as truly equal,” Cialik adds.
Not many people will speak out against conscription now. Going to the military has long been accepted as a rite of passage in Israel.
“It’s as natural to Israelis as going to college for Americans,” says 23-year-old Cialik, who managed to avoid the draft for health reasons.
Once they turn 18, for men it’s three years and for women, two years, plus call-ups as reservists. For refusenik Keidar, who is in grade 12, the army is officially a year away.
“I’m not sure how it would have worked for me as I’m trans, but the military isn’t famous for its gender inclusivity, so I’m sure it wouldn’t be great. Yes, they won’t be kind.”
From a very young age Keidar knew, “I didn’t want to actively take part in combat positions because guns scare me.”
But since becoming politically aware, it has taken a further dimension: “I do not wish to take part in a military that is occupying another nation, that is oppressing the whole people.
I don’t wish to take part in colonial conquests.
I wish to oppose it as much as I can. And I don’t think that can work while being a part of it.”
I ask about family response, especially in a country where it appears everyone is in uniform at some stage.
“My family is quite big, also quite split. My parents got divorced when I was quite young, so I have five siblings. But they are spread around three different households.
“I live with my mother and my older sister. My older sister is right now in the military — she’ll finish her service in a few months. My mother served when she was younger but now she mostly agrees with me politically.
“My father is very different from me, both politically and other stuff. But I also spend less time with him, so it’s less of an issue.”
How do other Israelis respond to a refusenik?
“Not well. The general society is like … It’s very militaristic, from a very, very young age. It’s ingrained in us that no matter what we do, at some point, we will take part in the military.
“And that we are raised from very young ages, like in kindergarten, they will bring soldiers to speak with the students about what they do and so on.”
Cialik and Keidar are finalising Mesarvot’s next campaign.
The slogans for “Till When” are being fine-tuned; they are also working on designs and posters to be ready in the next few weeks.
“Till When will they send us to die and kill in wars?” Keidar says might be one slogan. Also: “Till When will settlers that don’t even care about us, create more violence in our name?”