Why I Prefer the Term Refuser to Refusenik

The question of what is the difference between refuser and refusenik has come up quite a bit, and I just thought that now is as good a time as any to set the record straight.


The term refusenik historically was used as a term to classify certain group of individuals, many of them Jewish, from the former Soviet Union, who were denied exit visas from the USSR, or refused  the right to emigrate when it was granted by the authorities. The original refuseniks were often jailed or exiled to distant regions like Siberia, and were called Prisoners of Zion.


There are reasons why I personally don’t want to be identified with the first Soviet refuseniks. For example one of the better known refuseniks was Anatoly Natan Sharansky, who strongly voiced his opposition to the Soviet regime and its practices, and later became a leader in the refusenik movement. His requests for an emigration visa were denied, and he was eventually charged with spying for the West, tried and convicted, spending nine years in the Gulag.


On an international level this refusenik movement raised awareness to Soviet human rights abuses and violations. But when Sharansky was finally allowed to leave the USSR and immigrate to Israel in 1986, he immediately entered Israel’s political scene, and adopted, ironically, a double standard in dealing with human rights for Palestinians. He was a strong ultra right wing voice within the Knesset for many years, and resigned from the Knesset in 2005 in protest to the ruling Likud party's plan to withdraw Israeli communities from the Gaza Strip. Today he continues to hold public positions and is the chairman of the board of the Jewish Diaspora Museum, and chairman of the executive of the Jewish Agency for Israel.


In 2002 Peretz Kidron, from Yesh Gvul, decided to borrow the term and recoin it to describe, what he called, the "refusenik community". (I know this because I was actually traveling with him on a train on the way to the EU Parliament, where we had been invited to speak, when he came up with this idea.) For those of you who may be less familiar with Yesh Gvul, it is an organization that was founded in the 1980s with a long history of supporting soldiers and reservists, many of them officers, who refuse to serve in the Occupied Territories but not necessarily in any other military positions.
I still feel today, as I did ten years ago, that the term refusenik is misused. The term in its more recent usage has tended to refer to mostly men, often officers, who have decided to not serve in the Occupied Territories. This creates a non-inclusive community which excludes women, pacifists, Orthodox Jews, the Druze, and the many others who decide to not serve in the Israeli military for reasons other than opposing the Occupation, or those who refuse to serve because of the Occupation as a general concept, not just in the West Bank, or across the Green Line.
Since we are a feminist, anti-militarist movement we do not use the term refusenik in New Profile, not only because we don't identify with the right wing agenda that is representative of the original refuseniks, but primarily because it seems to have generated another non-inclusive "boys club", a social structure not unlike the military itself. 


In New Profile we use the term refuser or simply CO instead (in Hebrew, sarvan or sarvanit) because, without the above historical resonance we feel it is broader and more inclusive. The term conscience is open to individual interpretation, and we are very respectful of that.


We accept a variety of forms of refusal to do military service: anti occupation, conscientious objection, pacifism, feminism, religious, and ethnic for men and women, or young people, aged16-18 who can’t formulate yet why they don't want to enlist, but know that it just doesn't feel right to them. In our perception all these forms of refusal are legitimate.


I think it is also important to note that not all forms of refusal to serve in the military necessarily mean standing up for human rights, those of the Palestinians, and those of the young 18 year olds who make a decision of conscience not to take an active part in Israel’s military. There are other types of refusers, for example the Israeli soldiers who refused to obey orders and vacate settlements, such as we witnessed in during Israel’s withdrawal from Gaza. This is where I personally draw the line and refuse to support anyone who is not for ending the Occupation.