“Coffee Serving Resistance”? An Introduction to Women’s Conscientious Objection in Israel

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Israel is one of two countries currently with conscription of women. Through the stories and declarations we are presenting here, we see a development from objection for religious reasons to reasons of conscience in 1954, and later for more political reasons in 1970 and up till to-day. The Six-Day war in 1967 seems to be a turning point. The last declaration we are presenting is from April 2009, after the bombing of Gaza.

Sergeiy Sandler [1] writes [2] that Israeli society is highly militarised. Children in kindergartens often stage a military parade at their end of the year party. A few years later, they are likely to study some of their regular curriculum subjects with teachers who are conscripts in military uniform. The head teacher of the high school where they study later in life might well be a medium-ranked military officer, who recently retired from career service. Conscription is a central instrument of political power and a major issue on the political agenda. Social inequalities are reproduced, reinforced and often created by the conscription policy of the army. Thus, members of the Palestinian minority among Israeli citizens are not called up to military service, and this fact is then used as an excuse for official and unofficial discrimination against them in all spheres of life. For instance, when an employer is looking for a worker “with military service completed”, it would be a code for “Arabs not wanted”. Jewish women are drafted, but they are required to serve a shorter term of military service (2 years, as opposed to 3 years for men) and are given functions within the military that are deemed unimportant. This is reflected in women's social status and in their marginalisation in the public sphere (for instance, women make up less than 10% of the Israeli parliament). Opinions of generals on public matters are considered authoritative.

There is an active and large movement of women draft resisters in Israel, the only one of its kind in the world. Israeli conscription legislation is also anomalous in that a conscientious objector status is recognised for women only. This fact sets women objectors as a distinct group apart from their male counterparts. Shani Werner raised the issue of what it meant to be a conscientious objector woman in a letter in 2002 [3], in relation to the first Seniors’ (Shministim) Open Letter [4] in 2001 which was written by young women and men draft resisters. The following is an extract from Shani’s letter:

“It didn’t occur to us then to ask ourselves whether both kinds of resistance (women’s and men’s) belonged together. We were so convinced that women’s draft resistance is identical in importance to men’s, that we weren’t even aware of the significance we had given the letter in placing women’s and men’s resistance on the same plane. Personally, I only came to internalise this significance when faced with people’s responses – “What’s that supposed to mean?” or – “Way to go!” I felt we had done something special and important.

It’s been a long time now, over a year and a half. Gradually, I got frustrated. I started feeling how inside our protective “hothouse”, the Seniors’ in particular, and that of the Israeli Left in general, we had made a mirror-image of just what we set out to oppose. We had militarised draft resistance! (...)

Of course, the resistance of the boys-men is very important. And we, the girls-women resisters outside of prison, take care to support and encourage the resisters doing time inside. But I think the pattern of behavior initially arising from the fact that “the men are in prison, and the women get exempted from service" has set and hardened into certain patterns of thought. (...)
My refusal to enlist in the army, which I used to see as a political-public act, has now become private. (“The personal is the political” – the mantra runs through my head. But the personal only becomes political when it is allowed a voice!) As public discourse is unaware of it, as the discourse of the Left ignores it, the draft resistance of girls-women remains personal, not to say silenced. It’s precisely as easy for us to ignore women’s draft resistance as it is for the IDF to ignore women’s military service. If women’s service in the army is seen, in any case, as relatively easily, our resistance is treated like “coffee serving resistance,” which even the army accepts (and if the army doesn’t need us, unlike the imprisoned boys, then can our resistance have any significance?).”

In the following we bring, briefly, a few stories of women refusing the military, the first ones as early as 1954. In the main contributions, Tali Lerner writes about the complexity of women’s roles in Israeli society as well as how they are mirrored in the military, and the role of being a woman conscientious objector. This article is followed by Idan Halili’s contribution. She is telling her own story of becoming a feminist and then the consequences of turning out to be a conscientious objector. Lastly, you will find the first Seniors’ letter from 2001 (Shministim) which is referred to several times in the following texts.

Introduction by Ellen Elster

References

[1] Sergeiy Sandler is an activist in New Profile and a Council and Executive member of WRI.
[2] The information is from an article Sergeiy Sandler wrote in Broken Rifle No 58, May 2003.
[3] Shani Werner: Letter to the Israeli refuser movement, 31 December 2002.
[4] Printed in this section.

To Prime Minister Ariel Sharon

We the undersigned, youths who grew up and were brought up in Israel, are about to be called to serve the IDF. We protest before you against the aggressive and racist policy pursued by the Israeli government and its army, and to inform you that we do not intend to take part in the execution of this policy.

We strongly resist Israel’s pounding of human rights. Land expropriation, arrests, executions without a trial, house demolition, closure, torture, and the prevention of health care are only some of the crimes the state of Israel carries out, in blunt violation of international conventions it has ratified. These actions are not only illegitimate; they do not even achieve their stated goal — increasing the citizens’ personal safety. Such safety will be achieved only through a just peace agreement between the Israeli government and the Palestinian people.

Therefore we will obey our conscience and refuse to take part in acts of oppression against the Palestinian people, acts that should properly be called terrorist actions. We call upon persons our age, conscripts, soldiers in the standing army, and reserve service soldiers to do the same.

This letter, written by Israeli Shministim (12th graders), was sent to Israeli PM Ariel Sharon on 3 Sep 2001. Here, we only print the letter, and not the list of signatories.

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