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Egyptian, Israeli activists make joint call to free conscientious objectors

In what is likely the first statement of its kind, Egyptians and Israelis call upon their governments to exempt conscientious objectors from mandatory military service.

Egyptian draft refuser Mohamed Fathy and peace activist Lulu Loren (Photo: No to Compulsory Military Service)

Egyptian draft refuser Mohamed Fathy and peace activist Lulu Loren (Photo: No to Compulsory Military Service)

A small group of young Egyptians gathered in downtown Cairo for a vigil yesterday, the likes of which have probably never before been seen in any Arab country. The group held signs calling for the release of Israeli draft resister Natan Blanc, who was recently sent to prison for a record-breaking ninth consecutive sentence. According to Israeli movement Yesh Gvul, the gesture was highly appreciated by Blanc’s family.

The Cairo vigil is part of a new type of cooperation between the Israeli feminist and anti-militarist movement New Profile (in which I myself am an activist) and the Egyptian group, No to Compulsory Military Service – a movement which was started by Maikel Nabil Sanad, the first known Egyptian conscientious objector. Nabil Sanad was imprisoned briefly in 2010 and once again right after the revolution for criticizing the army in his blog (he was only released following a hunger strike and public and international pressure).

In the joint message published by the two groups, they write:

We confirm our support of peace and of conscientious objectors in both countries, re-affirming the human right to freedom of conscience, faith and self-determination. We condemn the way both our governments treat conscientious objectors […]

The right to conscientious objection is one of the basic human rights, as the right to freedom of expression and life, and is recognized in international charters on human rights such as The Universal Declaration of Human Rights and The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (both signed and ratified by bothEgypt and Israel). Therefore, the movements No to Compulsory Military Service and New Profile call on both governments to respect international laws and meet their obligations to which they committed themselves in view of the international community, and to recognize the right of Natan Blanc, Emad el Dafrawi and Mohamed Fathy to conscientious objection to military service.

While Blanc has been in prison for more than 130 days, the Egyptian draft resisters are free. But according to local activists, “for more than a year they have been living without most of their civil rights. They are not allowed to work, study or travel. They are not even allowed to hold a travel document.”

Cairo vigil for Natan Blanc. Maikel Nabil Sanad standing on the right (Photo: No to Compulsory Military Service)

Cairo vigil for Natan Blanc (Photo: No to Compulsory Military Service)

It should be noted that such joint statements and actions are extremely rare, as Egypt’s mainstream and elite politics is by far more opposed to normalization with Israel than are many other countries, including Palestine. Nabil Sanad has himself been highly criticized, even within the Egyptian anti-militarist left, for his willingness to cooperate with Israelis. He was especially criticized when he broke the Palestinian academic and cultural boycott call by visiting Israel and lecturing at official university events here. It will be interesting to see whether this new cooperation between the two movements has any effect on the chances of a wider exchanges of ideas and support across the border, 31 years after the last Israeli soldier left the Sinai Peninsula to make way for a cold yet stable peace.

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  • COMMENTS

    1. Ayla

      Haggai–you are exactly where we need to be. Thank you for your own activism and for shining a light on this. I’m really convinced that the only way out of our mess is like-minded humans all across the region, fighting together, for something. This requires tuning out all the noise.

      Reply to Comment
      • rsgengland

        If he does not want to serve in the army, he can do non military National Service in hospitals or the community.
        If he does not do that let him stay in jail for a while.

        Reply to Comment
        • Ayla

          according to what I’ve read, he was always planning to do the community service. Not so simple.

          Reply to Comment
        • Rsgengland,

          Unless you have health needs or are religious, in which case your request for sherut leumi will automatically be honoured (sometimes after prior investigation with a rabbi), you don’t get to just pick and choose between civil and military roles. For Natan Blanc and other refusers to be given the chance to perform a civil role, they first have to be recognised as conscientious objectors. There is a committee for this purpose, the va’adat matzpun. If it judges your refusal to be ‘political’ (i.e. anti-occupation rather than pacifist) your request for an alternative service will be denied. An acquaintance who did succeed in getting an exemption on grounds of his pacifism was asked how he would behave to the rapist if his mother was raped; had he not shown commitment to non-violence even in this circumstance, he wouldn’t have been exempted. A person who simply opposes the occupation or militarism wouldn’t be in with much chance in this set-up. Sometimes refusers aren’t even given the right to present their case before the conscience committee, even if they are pacifists – Moriel Rothman’s recent case highlighted that. He requested the committee on grounds of opposition to violence generally, and was jailed without having a chance to make his case. Getting into non-military service is nowhere nearly as simple as you’re making out.

          Reply to Comment
          • rsgengland

            If it is that difficult, then an extreme effort must be made, to make it possible for those with specific objections, to be catered for.
            The only person I know who received an exemption for pacifistic reasons, had a hard time getting there, but finally got what she requested.
            The way to solve this issue is to push for some form of legal recognition for the problem, and the alternatives available.
            These alternatives need to be fairly hard[difficult], to ensure that they do not get used as an excuse to get out of military service.

            Reply to Comment
          • If people want to dodge the draft they can get out on Profile 21 by giving the right answers in their medical and psych screening, or by finding a sympathetic doctor. It’s not infallible, but it does work pretty well. No draft dodger is going to pretend to be a CO when there is already a much easier and more successful method available, with no risk of jail time. The issue here is that people who oppose military service on grounds of conscience are not able to declare it publicly and have their declaration honoured.

            Reply to Comment
    2. Recently I was reading something by the radical feminist Lierre Keith, in which she wrote that living in a way that is considered masculine requires ‘a psychology based on emotional numbness and a dichotomy of self and other’, adding, “This is also the psychology required by soldiers, which is why I don’t think you can be a peace activist without being a feminist.”

      Feminist peace work takes apart that dichotomy, which is what makes it such a natural bridge between different communities – including those that have previously been hostile to (or at the very least wary of) one another. I have a lot of respect and admiration for New Profile and I hope that this cross-border project produces good results.

      Reply to Comment
      • Kolumn9

        Radical feminists are not feminists. They are just radical. There isn’t a single feminist thing in your comment. You only partially get away with your logic by creating a straw man argument around what is considered ‘masculine’ whatever that means. If I made a similar argument about the need for more masculine behavior based on a claim that living in a ‘feminine’ way means thinking emotionally rather than logically how far would that go? Yet the logic would be identical.

        Reply to Comment
        • The way you describe the ‘feminine’ ideal – thinking emotionally rather than logically, etc. – is correct. Professor Simon Baron-Cohen relied on this idea when he announced that women are naturally less likely to succeed in maths because their chief skills lie in empathy and emotion rather than in logic. It’s a common cliche even in the twenty-first century, unfortunately. Meanwhile, men are routinely discouraged from showing emotion and instead led to see it as something if not shameful, then certainly inappropriate. This is a pattern I encounter frequently in my work in mental health, and is among the main reasons why men with MH difficulties are less likely to seek help than women, even when they are really quite unhappy and unwell.

          Radical feminist thought does not mean promoting what is ‘feminine’ over what is ‘masculine’. It treats both these ideas as restrictive to people and part of the same harmful pattern. In adding ‘whatever that means’ to your mention of masculinity, you seem to be agreeing with RFs in their view of masculinity and femininity as socially constructed ideas rather than as qualities that are innate to men and women. ‘Blue for boys’ is a fabrication, as is ‘boys don’t cry’, as is ‘women are too emotional to think clearly about such-and-such’. You don’t appear to be objecting to rad fem theory so far.

          Of course, many liberal feminists hold these same ideas about gender constructs. There is always some overlap, but this probably isn’t the place to be getting into an in-depth discussion of the various streams of feminist thought.

          Reply to Comment
          • Kolumn9

            Radical feminist political movements explicitly champion against one set of socially constructed ideas which they, for the purposes of ideological sanity, deem ‘masculine’ on the basis of nothing more than their political opposition to their manifestations and with no relation to their impact on women. It might be politically radical, but there is nothing feminist about it.

            I object to the classification of this theory as being feminist. I don’t particularly have any ideological problems with the general constructivist approach.

            Reply to Comment
          • It isn’t radical feminists who decided that emotional stoicism, great capacity for physical endurance, and ability to fight are ‘masculine’ traits. Kindergarten workers begin valorising this ideal when they start telling small boys with grazed knees that they should ‘try and be a big boy’ and not cry; teenagers perpetuate it when they tell each other to ‘man up’. Hardly a radical feminist creation. All that feminists have done here (and not just RFs either) is point out that there are striking similarities between this popular conception of masculinity and military culture/the expectations that are placed on soldiers. This observation informs their anti-war work, which has a long pedigree.

            Feminist anti-war work has that pedigree largely because of the impact that militarism and war have on women. A large amount has been written on the sex-specific impact of war and the history of women’s peace work. (If you’d like to read about them, Cynthia Enloe’s book ‘Maneuvers: The International Politics of Militarising Women’s Lives’ might be a good jumping-in point.) However, this is not the only reason why feminists have taken an interest in the connections between militarism and masculinity. Women’s liberation is obviously the central goal of feminism, but women aren’t the only ones who stand to benefit – patriarchal ideas can harm men too, and consequently feminist ideas do have applicability beyond clearly identifiable ‘women’s issues’ like equal pay. I think you are defining feminism in general too narrowly, and without a strong idea of what radical feminism in particular actually involves.

            Reply to Comment
          • Ayla

            Vicky–you have the patience of a saint.

            Reply to Comment
    3. XYZ

      Women are as much supporters of wars as men are. During the early years of World War I, Britain had not yet instituted conscription and so women would walk up to men in civilian clothes on the street and humiliate them saying they were cowards for not joining up. The support of Southern women for the Confederate cause was legendary. There are endless other examples. If women ran the world, there would not be fewer wars. People are people.

      Reply to Comment
      • XYZ

        I forgot to mention another favorite example….Hitler made a famous speech to a convention of women during the Battle of Britain in which he announced he would begin massive bombing of London and other British cities. Journalist William Shirer was present and said how when Hitler said this, the thousands of women present all stood up and started screaming “sieg heil, sieg heil!”.

        Reply to Comment
      • But feminists don’t believe that women are innately more peaceful than men. They do see militarism as a fundamental part of a patriarchal society that is ultimately harms the interests of women as a group, with its hyper-macho glorification of strength, territorialism, etc. But of course not all this women will share this understanding. ‘Feminist’ isn’t a synonym for ‘woman’. There are plenty of women out there who vocally support the prostitution industry, for example – and pro-feminist men who campaign against it. And there are many women who bang the drums for war, and do exactly what you are describing – which, when you look at your examples, is sexist to the core. In the first scenario you give, women played on stereotypes of manhood in order to pressure people into joining the army. Not to be in khaki meant you weren’t a real man, you must be a coward, you were shameful for not throwing yourself into the glorious cause. Feminism speaks against this mentality, and the voice can be female or male. While it obviously has its roots in women’s life experiences, feminist theory on war is a political idea that can be held (or rejected) by anyone of either sex.

        Reply to Comment
    4. XYZ

      Regarding women and war, recall that it was considered unconcionable in the past to involve women and children in combat. today in this feminist age, it is the feminist who are in the forfront demanding that women be allowed to serve in combat units with men.

      Reply to Comment
    5. gila avni

      This is humanity`s most beautiful moments.
      To have the love and understanding for each and every person, regardless
      his origion, religion and
      color of skin.
      It is possible to change the world into a peaceful place, without hate, wars and endless deaths of so many innocents. This is a brave participation in Israelies` draft
      objectors.
      Thank you young people, we love you !!!!

      Reply to Comment

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