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Are Israel’s refusers modern day heroes?

All facets of refusal may be instrumental in changing the conscription process and refusal to serve in the Israeli military is not always the outcome of opposing the Occupation. It takes courage and demands fortitude and wide support.

By Ruth L. Hiller

Natan Blanc (courtesy of the family)

Natan Blanc (courtesy of the family)

Different people refuse to enlist in Israel’s occupation army for a variety of reasons. Some of them, like Natan Blanc, publicly refuse to serve in the occupation and are willing to go to jail over their decision.

A recent blog post by professor of Environmental Studies at Emory College Uriel Kitron, raised some very important points regarding militarism, refusal, and war culture in Israel and puts forward a good opportunity to look at the wider refusal movement.

Professor Kitron presents his admiration and respect for Natan Blanc, who as of this writing, is serving his seventh incarceration period for refusing to be conscripted. Many people, much like Professor Kitron, consider Natan a modern day hero. He is indeed brave. It is admirable that any 18-year-old Israeli would know so much about human rights, and stand true to his/her convictions and beliefs.

Professor Kitron stresses how Natan is a product of his environment. His family raised him to be a caring person with ideals, and an understanding of human rights. There is a lot to be said for the courage it took to let Natan develop his sense of values, ones that cherishes human life and recognize the Palestinian right to self-determination. This is not a given in Israel.

Without personally knowing the Blancs, I admire the ethics that enabled Natan to question Israel’s policies and to make the decision to refuse military service. I identify with his moral values and the way he was raised. I know it is not easy to develop a critical perspective on Israel’s occupation policies, and that it is even more challenging to encourage your children to do so. It is difficult and energy consuming to continually question and oppose Israel’s brutal policies, especially when indoctrination is ever present.

Refusers like Natan, who openly oppose conscription on those grounds, are far and few between — for good reason. But before we can even begin to examine who chooses to be a refuser and how refusal is manifested, it is important to understand that within Jewish Israeli society, conscription is mandatory by law for Jewish youth, and for young secular men from the Druze community. It is perceived as normal and part of the development of Israeli youth; a rite of passage, meant to instill a sense of national responsibility, service and pride.

Israeli society is brutal and judgmental; loyalty to the state is measured by one’s commitment to military service. It is frightening to step outside the consensus of what is considered acceptable behavior by daring to refuse. A sense of belonging is an essential human need and deciding to go without it requires strength and support. Most refusers don’t want to be isolated from their peer group and if they choose to make a political statement link Natan, they require a close support network.

Among the large number of refusers whom New Profile counsels (an average of 100-110 people a month), most choose not to make a declared political refusal for a variety of reasons. They are not as visible as Natan, but are their refusals less meaningful?

Militarism is strongly embedded in our society: it starts at home and continues with our children’s education. Personally I think there is something very warped in the way Israeli parents are expected to raise their children, nurture them and protect them, teach them to be safe and make rational decisions, and then once they are 18, as if feeding them to the wolves, we send them off to the military no questions asked. What is the price that we and our children pay?

We, as parents, are an integral part of this well-oiled induction system. We are obedient to our leaders and raise generation after generation of fighters for a “war of no choice.” Our compliance is rarely questioned.

Conscription inspires pride amongst parents; military rank brings social status, placing soldiers on a pedestal. This idealization can be compared to hero-worship.

What constitutes a hero? Our children are brought up on the remembrance of exile and the Holocaust, Israel’s fight for independence and our perceived need to be stronger than our enemies. They are taught that soldiers can be national heroes. Those that die in battle are often given exalted status, which gives a measure to death that is considered more worthy. They are raised on the belief embodied in Joseph Trumpeldor’s imputed last words: “It is good to die for your country.”

New Profile examines “what is heroism” and “who is a hero” through a balanced discourse. We are careful not to identify refusers through a hierarchy. Each refuser, both men and women, whether they are pre-conscripts, conscripts, or reservists, are welcomed and admired for the type of refusal they chose and the path they take to achieve their goal.

Some of the viewpoints that we consider are: does civil society necessarily have to reflect the accepted militarized hierarchical ranks and then emulate it with the different ways refusers choose to resist? Is it right to calculate measures of sacrifice, be it jail or being cut off from one’s community? If every hero is judged on his or her merits, should we do the same with refusers?

All facets of refusal may be instrumental in changing the conscription process, or chip away at occupation policies, and we do not advise what path should be chosen. We only map out the different options . If they choose to openly defy the Occupation and go to jail, we give them as much support as we can, rather than holding them up as examples for others.

Refusal to serve in the Israeli military is not always the outcome of opposing the Occupation. Other reasons for refusal may be pacifism, the interconnection between feminism and anti-militarism, religion and national identity. Sometimes young people are unable to define “what feels wrong,” yet they still opt to vote with their feet and don’t conscript.

Any action that challenges Israel’s policies and all choices to refuse to do military service demand fortitude and support. Refusal takes great courage. One refuser is not better than the next; each is significant in his/her own way and each way works effectively in growing an underground movement that successfully manages to shake the pillars of the establishment from time to time.

Ruth Hiller, mother of six, is a longtime peace activist and one of the original founders of New Profile. Four of her children have refused to serve in the Israeli military. You can follow her on Twitter @hillerruth.

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    1. Dave Boxthorn

      You forget the most prevalent and obvious reason anyone (including me) would have for refusing to fight in any army anywhere at anytime in history, namely…

      Bravely taking to his feet
      He beat a very brave retreat.
      Oh bravest of the brave, Sir Robin.

      Lemme guess, none of the 4 of Hiller’s kids who have refused to serve are, say, firefighters. After all fires can be set by oppressed people so it would be wrong to put them out.

      Or civilian cops, or bomb disposal experts or, or vaccinators in Afghanistan or Nigeria, or well, you know, actual heroes.

      Reply to Comment
    2. Jenny

      I am so heartened by the piece.
      You must be so very proud of your children and you should be immensely proud of yourself as parent for bringing up such principled and brave human beings.

      Reply to Comment
    3. Locally, those in military service can be heroes–whether in the IDF, Hamas, or the PA. Dissent against conscription is of a different kind, for it cannot rationally expect the elimination of the military or police. This dissent must live with that to which it objects; it seeks, at best, to shift, not eliminate, the opponent. Perhaps similar thinking is needed between “Israel” and the “Palestinians” as well.

      Reply to Comment
    4. XYZ

      Although I do respect someone who is willing to pay the price for having his beliefs, I do not understand why the IDF wants to conscript someone who is as poorly motivated as Natan is. What kind of a soldier would he make anyway?

      Regarding Ruth Hiller, I wonder how she feels about leaving the job of protecting HER and HER FAMILY from Arab terrorist who would have no compunction about targeting her, even if she is sympathetic to the Palestinian cause. In the big wave of suicide bomber terrorism, more than one prominent peace activist was killed.

      Finally, I think more people would by sympathetic with Natan Blanc had he been photographed showing something other than the arrogant smirk we see on his face.

      Reply to Comment
      • Palestinan

        Natan isnt ” motivated” enough to kill ,beat,abuse , arrest , torture , humiliate,steal ,demolish …oh he is a real human being with a moral compass,which contradicts the spirit of your youth.

        Reply to Comment
      • It says his family provided the photo. I doubt they will have taken it expressly for this piece. Even if they had – is this how low you’re going to go now? Snide remarks about a kid practically young enough to be your grandson, made on the basis of a snapshot?

        Reply to Comment
        • XYZ

          To tell you the truth, the reason I made that comment was because his expression bears a striking resemblance to photos of a couple of infamous 20th century figures (whose names I won’t mention) made when they were young people. I presume Natan is publicizing this particular photo because it gives him a look of defiance.

          Reply to Comment
          • We don’t know if he even picked this picture to use. Whether he did or he didn’t, I’m not prepared to speculate about the personality of a boy (and his possible glorious future career as a war criminal) on the basis of something as subjective as how his expression looks to you. I think you’re reading into his face what you expect to see, but never mind.

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    5. Rauna

      XYZ, you’re the one who is arrogant. Really wants to see your face someday.

      Reply to Comment
    6. Vadim

      Could you please provide a case where one of these “heroes” actually paid a price for his choice?

      I’m not talking about spending a couple weeks in a military prison (for those who don’t know – this is not considered especially scary in Israel). I’m talking about a real price – losing a job, losing friends, having your family denounce you?

      Do you think Natan’s friends will stop calling him? Do you think he’ll have a difficulty getting to a University? Finding a job? You think he’ll tell other Israelis what he did and will get more than a heated political discussion we’re all so fond of?

      Give me a break…

      And yes, people who jumped on grenades to save their friends, people who fought and risked their lives so that Jews could have a country of their own, people who man checkpoints and look for explosives intended to blow Jews – they are real heroes. No amount of “balanced discourse” can change that.

      Reply to Comment
      • Charles

        When I refused, an entire branch of the family stopped talking to me and mine. Forever. We had spent almost every Passover and Rosh Hashana with them for like, 11 years.
        In prison, I was assaulted by other inmates.
        I remember one time before I was taken to prison, I spent a night in an old train car, with water puddles that had mosquitoes festering in it.
        Talking lightly about what refuseniks go through is absurd. That said, the PTSD of my friend who did serve in the OT and Lebanon seems comparable.
        War is hell. Refuseniks commit an act of courage that most combat soldiers can’t possibly imagine. As combat soldiers know, it’s all about unit cohesion. But every refusenik stands alone when they refuse. There is no unit. No medals. No safety net. And let me assure you, refuseniks don’t get much in return. A handful of lefties writing nice things about you is NOTHING.
        Refuseniks have no annual picnics, and many are highly traumatized.

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        • The Trespasser

          You only forgot to mention that events you are talking about took place 20-30 years ago…

          Reply to Comment
    7. I am a little uneasy with the point this article is making, and the comments here exemplify the reason why. Whenever there is press coverage of a refusal, the scoffers invariably roll up: “Oh, he’ll do a couple of months in jail, that’s all, his classmates will still be risking their necks while he’s comfortable at college…” Then other people come along to point out that the vast majority of IDF conscripts are never in any position to risk their lives, and they start enumerating the social pressures and practical difficulties that can accompany refusal. And before you know it the whole discussion has become about who is the tough guy, who has it hardest, who is really suffering, who is the coward and who the actual hero here. Trying to present Natan Blanc and the other refusers as heroes and defending them against accusations of cowardice ultimately means borrowing from this exact same macho militaristic vocabulary, in which the number of hurdles you face (the higher the better) are the measure of your integrity. The really important question here shouldn’t be, “Is this challenging?” (for some refusers it is, for others it’s not) but, “Is it right?”

      Reply to Comment
    8. Val

      “Militarism”, huh? Perhaps in your next blog you’d like to address what you think might happen to Israel if next month it decided to stop conscription and demilitarize like, say, Costa Rica. If you don’t like to speculate about the future, how do you think Israel would do from 1948 to 2012 without a strong military?

      If it’s conscription that’s bothering you, bringing on visions of a brutal, violent society, try to recall the dozens of other countries that do it – like Switzerland. and Germany. and every arab country in the middle east. Are Turkish conscientious objectors also heroes against a “brutal and judgmental society”? or is that just a jewish thing in your worldview.

      In any case, I wouldn’t obsess about mandatory conscription too much, it’s not going to solve your problems with Israel. There are still way more volunteers than combat positions available.

      Reply to Comment
      • New Profile is a feminist organisation. The feminist critique of militarism is long-established, extends far beyond mandatory conscription, and certainly isn’t focused uniquely on Israel. If you want answers to your questions then there is a sea of books out there on feminist opposition to militarism and the reasoning behind it – take a look at some of Cynthia Enloe’s stuff as a starting point.

        As an aside, most Arab countries in the Middle East don’t conscript. Jordan and Kuwait are the only two who do.

        Reply to Comment
        • The Trespasser


          Today conscripts without a college degree serve three years as enlisted soldiers.[citation needed] Conscripts with a General Secondary School Degree serve two years as enlisted soldiers. Conscripts with a college degree serve 14 months as enlisted or 27 months as a reserve officer.

          Conscription Mandatory for all males who are except for only children to either parent[citation needed]

          Most Arab countries do conscript, as a matter of fact.

          Reply to Comment
        • Leen

          In jordan, you can delay the conscription until you are of age that you cannot serve anymore (only people who have good connections in society can do this though I believe). Every Jordanian male I know has never served a day in their life in the army.
          I believe it is the same in every arab country that has mandatory conscription.

          Germany has ended its mandatory conscription.
          The comparison to Switzerland isn’t a very good one because Switzerland is known for its neutrality, its standing in international law and the fact it has not been in a state of war since 1815, didn’t even participate in eithe WWI and WWII. Conscientious objector can choose to do community service instead of military service.

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          • Shmuel

            “In jordan, you can delay the conscription until you are of age that you cannot serve anymore (only people who have good connections in society can do this though I believe).”

            If I would be a Jordanian, I would not be happy about the well connected being to exempt themselves from something that the less well connected HAVE to do.

            As for Germany and Switzerland they are irrelevant. They have not been under attack by external enemies for at least 70 years.

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          • Leen

            Ok then go protest in Jordan.

            well the US has been under attack by enemies and they don’t have mandatory conscription. Same with UK. It will do u good to compare israel once In a while to liberal democratic countries.

            Reply to Comment
          • Shmuel

            “Ok then go protest in Jordan.”

            Nah, I don’t think I will.

            “It will do u good to compare israel once In a while to liberal democratic countries”

            Careful what you wish for. The US and the UK always had the tendency to go the whole hog and finish their enemies. They don’t stop till those who attack them end up on their knees.

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          • Leen

            Actually, I checked again, Jordan has suspended mandatory conscription in 1992 indefinately. All conscription is voluntary. So, I was wrong about the connections part.

            I’m not wishing for anything and both countries have their issues with warfare and military. But it doesnt say much about Israel if the only two countries you can think of comparing Israel to is Syria and Egypt or other corrupt regimes and dictatorships.

            Reply to Comment
          • Shmuel

            “But it doesnt say much about Israel if the only two countries you can think of comparing Israel to is Syria and Egypt”

            Do you know what a syllogistic fallacy is? It goes something like this:

            All dogs have four legs. My cat has four legs. Therefore my dog is a cat.

            Sounds loco? It sure does. By the same token, just because Syria’s and Egypt’s armies are conscripted and support corrupt dictatorships, it does NOT mean that Israel’s army is the same just because it too is a conscripted army.

            Reply to Comment
    9. totohanthala

      of course the Refusniks have balls of steel(of course the women too) much like brad manning or any conscience objector….

      Reply to Comment
      • The Trespasser

        Modern refusnicks have a spine of an earthworm, that’s for sure.

        It is an insult to Mr. Manning to be compared to these.

        Reply to Comment
    10. Oscar

      It does not matter whether the conscientous objectors are heroes or cowards. All that is just subjective and emotive.

      What matters is whether they are misguided or not?

      To answer that, we need to ask the question: what would be the future of Israel if all youngsters would choose to be conscientous objectors?

      Answer: the Palestinian Arab militants would move in and take over the country un-opposed. And then what would happen to the Jews of Israel? Ask Hamas, they make no secret about their intentions for the Jews should they ever succeed in defeating Israel with (or without) force. They think of us as foreign colonialists whose life is forfeit. They would murder many Jews and expel the rest.

      Reply to Comment
      • No, Oscar, social strategies can be frequency dependent. I can hold view A NOT requiring that everyone else hold that view. CO’s do not assert that everyone must refuse military service; they assert they cannot serve as demanded. Such individuals see the world differently, and their presence can shift how those who do serve in the military see their role; it is not necessary to put down one’s gun to see why some put down their guns.

        Under your logic, one could assert that every Jew must adhere to Torah, for if we accept one Jew who does not, we must ask what if all Jews so refused–and that would eliminate Torah! I can replace “Jew” and “Torah” with all sorts of things and get the same result.

        Reply to Comment
        • Oscar

          Under my logic we all have responsibilities and if someone shirks his responsibilities while hoping that others will cover for him, then that individual is irresponsible and arrogant.

          Yes, I said arrogant because such an individual pretends that he knows best.

          Sometimes, life is not simple and one must do unpleasant things in order to prevent even more unpleasant things from happening.

          In Israel’s case, soldiers must accept that they are there to enforce the occupation until such time that REAL peace can be achieved instead of illusionary peace which would only serve the aims of Hamas.

          It is no different than the hard decisions that needed to be made in WW2. Decisions like Hiroshima, Nagasaki and the fire bombing of Dresden. With the benefits of hindsight, one may pretend that those decisions were immoral and wrong but if there been too many conscientous objectors at the time, the outcome of the war may very well have been different. And then what? Do you think that Hitler, Moussolini and Hirohito would have tolerated conscientous objectors?

          I am NOT saying that citizens who feel strongly about issues have no right to object. But objecting by shirking one’s responsibilities is NOT the way to do it. Citizens of democratic countries don’t just have rights, they have responsibilities too.

          So what is a legitimate way to object? Work within the system. Vote, cajole, convince, campaign, get into politics, advance in the ranks to positions of influence. Do what you can to change the system that you object to. But if you can’t, you must accept the decision of the majority..

          Reply to Comment
          • Gunnar Stensen

            Oscar, saying do unpleasent things to avoid more unpleasant things is the same rethoric as the warlords/imperialist/rich countries always says. Kill a few to save thousands – war against terrorism. The world is like this: If you bomb/terrorise/occupie a people, you will meet resistance. The occupier will call this terror. During the occupation of Norway by Nazi-Germany during WW2, freedomfighters were called terrorists by the nazi-regime.
            ps. Hiroshima/Nagasaki nuclear bombs 1945 are the biggest terroraction in mankinds history. Defining terror as killing sivilians to achieve a political goal. The bombs was not needed to stop WW2, Japan had long tried to surrender, the bombs were sent to warn Stalin.

            Israels terror against the palestinians must stop, Israels terror is among the worst horror in the world today.

            Reply to Comment
          • Oscar

            Yes Gunna

            The problem with the way you look at it though is that you always look at the equation from one side only. The anti western view.

            Then you tell us what the occupied think of westerners/Israelis and how they resist westerners/Israelis because of the occupation and the killing of terrorists whom you describe as freedom fighters.

            What you forget to mention is the other side of the story. What happened before the occupation and how the occupation started in the first place and what would happen if it would end unilaterally without both sides formally agreeing to end the conflict.

            In other words Gunna, you ignore cause and effect. A bit like complaining about a 50 kilogram weight falling to ground due to gravity if you drop it from the window of a third storey building.

            For your information, Gunna, the occupation of the West Bank came about because Israel got attacked by Jordan in 1967. The killing of terrorists happened and still happens because terrorists murder Israeli civilians. And the occupation cannot end until the likes of Hamas come to terms with Israel’s existence.

            As for Hiroshima Nagasaki and Dresden, I brought that example up to show that many who now preach to Israel, need to examine what they felt they had to do in their war of survival.

            Take Hiroshima Nagasaki for instance. One way to look at it is the way you do. Another way is to ask what would have happened had they not bombed Hiroshima Nagasaki? Here are the possibilities:

            1. To force Japan to surrender unconditionally, a lot more young American soldiers would have lost their lives. Now you tell me Gunna, would you expect American Mothers, Wives and orphans to agree with you that after Pearl Harbor, the saving of Japanese lives would have been more important than the lives of their sons, husbands and fathers?

            2. Alternatively, the Americans could have decided not to force an unconditional surrender. Whether that decision would have been wise or not, I don’t know. But it would have left a fascist aggressive militaristic Japanese regime in charge of Japan. Are you sure that would not subsequently regroup and would have threatened America again?

            I don’t know all the answers either even after 70 years after the fact. So my point was that certainly an 18 year old conscientous objector is irresponsible and arrogant if he pretends to know better than his democratically elected leaders at the time when history is unfolding.

            Reply to Comment
          • Gunnar Stensen

            Oscar and XYZ

            My main point is that terror comes from both sides in a conflict. I did not call palestinian terrorists (that inflict death and horror to sivilians) freedomfighters. I said that the nazi-regime during WW2 called their opponents terrorists.

            Terror, which I define of killing and hurting sivilians, if it comes from individuals or from states can never be excused. Many states throughout history are to be blamed.

            As to todays conflict the proportion between Israels and palestinians terror (same definition as above) is horrible.

            Can you both agree on my definition of terror?

            Reply to Comment
          • XYZ

            The myth you state here that Japan was supposedly ready to surrender before the Atomic bombs were dropped has been stated here before and has been conclusively disproved by historials like Richard Frank in his book “Downfall” and others.
            The bloody battle of Okinawa with its tens of thousands of casualties on the Allied side and mass suicides on the Japanese side had just ended, the Japanese gov’t was promoting the slogan “100 millions die together”, they were teaching people how to be suicide bombers against invading Allied troops, and they were preparing thousands of Kamikaze planes and pilots.
            Of course they would have ultimately surrendered even without the Atomic Bombs, but it would have taken 6 – 12 months, while 100,000 Chinese were dying every month under Japanese occupation, Allied prisoners were dying and finally hundreds of thousands if not millions of Japanese would have died from famine or civil disorder due to the Allied conventional bombing campaign.
            I have noticed that many “progressives” including Jewish ones seem to have a sneaking sympathy for Nazi Germany and Militarist Japan, saying what they did in the war was a someone “understandable” reaction to what the Western Democracies supposedly did to them before the war. The bottom line for these “progressives” is that the US and Western Europe are the MOST evil regimes in history and they are responsible for all the terrible things others have done for some reason. Really bizarre!

            Reply to Comment
          • Shmuel

            Good try Leen but I did not compare Israel to either Egypt nor to Syria.

            Reply to Comment
    11. It must take immense courage to make a stand for human rights and i thank ALL refusers for being so strong

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    12. Charles-Jerusalem

      Mohamed Ali was my hero, still is my hero. He refused saying “no vietcong ever called me neger”. It was very engaged, he went to prison, lost his boxing title… and came back in a genious move to beat Georges Forman in 7 rounds.
      Us, people of Israel are surrounded by ennemies that would appreciate very much that young Israelis could be a bit more pacifists and rufuzniks, it would make it easier to kill us.
      The author of this article speaks only about occupation, he does not speak about the thirst of the ennemy side of jewish blood.
      We were wiped out in the past because we were pacifists, well, we are still pacifists but we don’t let our ennemies kill us us anymore for free.
      When a yound Israeli does not want to serve in the army and carry a weapon, he can vonlunteer in a civil service. It is always possible, plenty of my friends did it.
      Refuzing to contribute is a personal decision, individualist and possibly egoist. The country is right to punish it severely.

      Reply to Comment
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