Refusing Militarism: Political Emotions and State-making in Israel

The following article is based upon two months fieldwork in Palestine/Israel in 2010, based upon ethnographic research and interviews with refusers of military service in the Israeli Defence Force.  It examines notions of statehood, citizenship and militarism in Israel, and explores the political affect of refusers of military service in recent years. The findings suggest that refusal to serve engenders confusing political emotions which presents a different kind of sacrifice to the state of Israel.  I, the researcher lived in Ramallah, travelling to Israel each day.  The decision not to stay in Israel full time, but come backwards and forwards into the West Bank represented a decision not to normalise the occupation and resist the processes which render it invisible inside Israel.  

 

I would also like to briefly mention the difficulty that I had in passing this project by the ethics committee of my university. One of the points of attention which I had to address was a request for me to gain ‘permission from the Israeli authorities’ in order to carry out this research. This was an extremely valuable example of how the paternalistic Israeli state has been so successful in its narrative of a self-disciplining fearful state, that this mode of thought reaches academic institutions in Scotland. It emphasises the paranoia in how the international community deal with Israeli affairs.


All of the traffic is being siphoned off into one lane to get through the checkpoint. Everyone in a hurry, no-one getting anywhere fast. The cacophony of bickering voices accompanies the throng of beeping horns and revving engines. Close the window or you breathe in thick smoke that makes you gag. The people on the bus are pushing and shoving to see the commotion at the front. It’s rare to see people here really lose their temper, but at checkpoints life is not normal. There is nothing normal about it; the panoptic towers - a faceless shaft of metal protruding from the Wall, communicating nothing but a nonnegotiable direction of power.

The all seeing, but ever blind watch-towers which loom upon us, inside of which is probably a budding young woman or man, barely out of their teen-hood, wishing they were somewhere else, and growing more bitter by the day, in their own imprisonment. We eventually drive past a lazy soldier, hot and bothered, tired and grumpy, trapped inside a box room, which is enclosed by a metal cage, which is then caged inside a layer of plastic-bag clogged barbed-wire. I wonder, who is being protected from whom?  Until I notice it is she who is holding a gun. She speaks briskly but nonchalantly through the loud speaker telling the opposite line of traffic when to move. ‘Get out of your car’, ‘Open your trunk’, ‘Show me your ID’. The frustration, the anger and the evening heat are excruciating.


Most Israelis do not witness this scene – the daily herding and searching of Palestinians at Qalandiya military checkpoint which prevents people from getting to work, getting home, seeing relatives or merely traversing on their own land.  I would sometimes try to imagine what is would be like to be one of the children in the cars that wait for hours in the traffic jams, watching my father being ordered around by a gum-chewing youngster with a huge rifle – who,  in between shouting commands at, and humiliating my father, is flirting with his fellow rifle-clad colleague. This is the normalisation of militarism in Palestine/Israel.


In recent years, it is now common to see Private Security armed guards dressed in nondescript uniform, working along side Israeli Defence Force soldiers.  In a country which prides itself on a 'People's Army', this is baffling.  It is a very different experience to make it through the check point by foot, by bus, and by car.  Another introduction in recent years is long metal bars dividing the lines of families that wait on foot, so that they are forced to stand in a single-filed queue.  It is terribly distressing being trapped in these long prison like tubes; mothers struggle with young children as they one-by-one must get through the intimidating metal turnstile, place all belongings on the x-ray machine, show the correct ID card to the soldier behind bullet proof glass, before walking through another x-ray machine, and collecting everything at the other side.  


My own interactions with soldiers at checkpoints depicted the fragility of power.  As people following orders, the power they embodied was ephemeral, not absolute. At both checkpoints and protests I encountered young men and women ‘playing’ soldiers. ‘Show me visa!’ they would order me every day on the bus. And I would arrogantly, pass them my passport, which had no stamp of a visa on it - at a random page, hoping for the best. The soldier would glance at the page, pretend to count fingers as if counting months in a very official manner, and hand it back to me.  After this happened a couple of times, any fear I had of these soldiers disintegrated, seeing them for what they really were; merely teenagers 'playing' soldier, trying to understand how to be an Israeli adult, like a toddler putting on his mummy's ghastly lipstick. I found the performance of ‘playing soldier’ so absurd it was sickening.  There was no ‘playing’ of the panoptic reality of the Palestinians, that was very real indeed.  Visa or no visa, my British passport, the little maroon book of privilege from which I came, was both a symbol of my freedom of movement, and complicity in the lack freedom of the people with whom I sat side by side.


In Israel, especially in the more Western Tel Aviv, nicknamed 'the bubble' people would stare back at me, wide-eyed, sometimes in disbelief. ‘Is it exciting?’, ‘Is it scary?’ they would eagerly ask.  'How do you get there?'  'A BUS!!?? NO! There can't be a BUS!'  Neither exciting, nor scary, I was normally at a loss of how to communicate to Israelis how I found the West Bank. ‘Wonderfully hospitable, and bitterly sad’, would be the best I could muster, in such a context. The questions people asked highlighted the extent to which the West Bank culture and humanity is shut out to normal Israelis, unless it involves terrorism – this control of representation is a methodology of dehumanisation by the Israeli media/war machine. As Bauman states on the more uncomfortable residues of Modern life ‘we dispose of leftovers in the most radical and effective way: we make them invisible by not looking and unthinkable by not thinking’ (2004: 27). The following extract is from David, who did his military service before claiming mental health problems and leaving Israel, unable to continue living there.


Recently I took my wife to the neighbourhood I grew up in – half is on this side of the green line and half of it is beyond. Now I went there, and I look there, and everywhere around I see villages, Arab villages. When I lived there, I never saw it. They were there, but I never saw it! I thought it all Jewish neighbourhoods, I couldn’t see it. It’s unbelievable. And no-one talks about it. I never met a Palestinian. In my teenage years, I never met one. You don’t see them here. Even the people that are here, the... Israeli Arabs – they can clean your streets, they can sell you vegetables, but you don’t get them in your class at school, or you don’t see them around, the Palestinians. We are a Jewish country, and the people who doesn’t have Jewish blood – they are human beings, but they are different. And it’s very present in our society. Even with me. I didn’t know it until I went around the wall. And then it comes to you. OK. What was I thinking? It’s something that is in deep inside of you.


Nationalism and Citizenship in Zionist Israel.


The Land of Israel was the birth place of the Jewish people. Here their spiritual, religious and political identity was shaped. Here they first attained to statehood, created cultural values of national and universal significance and gave to the world the eternal Book of Books’

- Declaration of the establishment of the State of Israel, May 14th 1948.


The establishment of the state of Israel, and the preparations for it, was engineered by a group of middle class, Zionist Ashkenazi Jews, from Eastern Europe; a patriarchal knowledge elite, whose actions and effects are still present in Israeli society today played out through the exclusivity of the image of the dominant Ashkenazi Israeli Jew. Contrary to the well known Zionist motto ‘A land without a people for a people without a land’, the construction of the state, like most colonial efforts, was made possible through the terrorisation and expulsion of the people who inhabited the land. However, this purge is celebrated in Israel history as a time of great personal sacrifice for the benefit of the collective Jewish population.


The construction of Israeli nationhood for a majority of Jews in Israel rests on the belief that the ‘nation’ has been in existence since Moses received the Ten Commandments on the top of Mount Sinai. Therefore, the genealogy of ancestry which the Jewish immigrants are claiming goes back over two thousand years, tracing their kinship right back to the book of Genesis – a peculiar claim for a secular state. This narrative suggests that this ‘nation’ has been wandering the earth as the Jewish Diaspora for two thousand years.


The construction of Zionism as a socialist, romantic-nationalist, political ideology, which emerged from models of nationalism in Europe in the nineteenth century co-opted the religious longing to return to Zion, which up until that point was more of a spiritual dream than any reality. With the publication of Theodor Hertzl's ‘The Jewish State’ (1896), Zionism grew in popularity in the 1900s, offering the persecuted Jews a nationalistic movement of their own, amidst an uncertain time in Europe, serving as a vehicle for Jews to express their cultural identity as a people in their own right.


As a consequence of the Holocaust, the Zionists gained popularity and momentum, giving an answer to ‘The Jewish Problem’. Zionism is a modern, hegemonic ideology which aspires to have a single modern culture, which favours the dominant Jew – secular, male and of Ashkenazi ethnic descent. It views multiculturalism among Jews as a product of the Diaspora and dispersion, and a sign of weakness. Zionism is so integral to the formation of Israel, that the two have become synonymous.  Hadar, one political refuser points out:


First of all, it take a long time for people to say 'non-Zionist'. Saying you’re not a Zionist is like saying you’re not an Israeli. And people automatically take it to mean if you are not a Zionist then it means that you think that the state should not have been created. What would have happened, if like, with all the refugees that came from Europe? I’m like, dude, I'm just saying that I don’t think that, you know, a nationalist movement based on race is a good thing. I don’t think that the state of Israeli should cease to exist, as in all of us should be in the sea, but (laughs) you know, there is a huge gap there! But as far as people are concerned, Zionism is Israel, and if you take out Zionism, you might as well throw all the Jews in the sea. (Hadar)


Zionist ideology posits Jewish people are not immigrants to Israel, but returnees making up an 'ethnic mosaic', having not only religious, but a national solidarity and a racial continuity that has endured the two thousand years of dispersal (Goldscheider 25/04/10). This strategically reinforces the longevity of the Jewish 'story', the temporal nature of the exile, and the return as seemingly inevitable.


Israeli law extends citizenship to all people with Jewish genealogy, when Palestinians have been living on the lands for centuries. Joseph Carens states that,

citizenship in the modern world is a lot like feudal status in the medieval world. It is assigned at birth; for the most part it is not subject to change by the individual’s will and efforts; it has a major impact upon a persons life- chances...Liberals objected to the way feudalism restricted freedom, including the freedom to move from one place to another in search of a better life. But the modern practices of citizenship and state control over borders tie people to the land of their birth almost as effectively

(cited in Owen 2005: 1)


One of the informants, Shir, when I ask him why he didn’t join the IDF, he replies: “Why is the question about joining the IDF? But why shouldn't I join the armed wing of the Liberation Front of Palestine?” The content of his response is one which easily attracts a definition of his status of ‘traitor’, which is often used to describe the political refusers. However, as we shall see, his comment taps into a complex understanding of the dissonance between self and state and the absurdity of citizenship.


Ernest Gellner (1983) comments that nationalism emerged with the nation-state and as a response to industrialisation and peoples’ alienation from traditional culture and religion. The rise of industrialism and a global market economy produced a much wider global community whereby religion was not so effective at organising people, thus there was a need for a cohesive ideology in large scale societies in 19th Century Europe. This theory goes hand in hand with Benedict Anderson’s ‘Imagined Communities’ which changed the academic landscape on nationalism with his thesis that ‘the nation... is an imagined political community – and imagined as both inherently limited and sovereign’ (1983: 6). Nation, race and ethnicity have become unstable terms in sociological discourse, with the rejection of essentialist and primordialist understandings of identity (see Balibar and Wallerstein 1991).


However, the significant paradigmatic changes in sociology and anthropology of nationalism, race and ethnicity have had little affect on this well financed mythology of Jewish statehood – that being, a God given right to the land which is now known as Israel. Academic writing on Israel and its historiography are often religiously and politically charged, and when dealing with texts on this subject, it is difficult to find one without political prejudice or religious agenda.


Long-distance nationalism is ‘a claim to membership in a political community that stretches beyond the territorial borders of a homeland’ (Glick-Schiller and Fouron 2001: 4), whereby emotional, social and economic ties are upheld through ‘transnational social fields’ (ibid: 3).  In the case of immigrants to Israel, nostalgia for the ‘old-country’ is discouraged, quick assimilation being paramount to success in Israeli culture. The notion of long-distance nationalism is exceptionally interesting in the case of Israel, because the emotional content on which it invests rests on the story of biblical promise of the state of Israel two thousand years ago. The stretch of Israel’s emotio-political following and subsequent economic investment from abroad is overwhelming and the power of this seduction is so great that people who have never been to Israel may feel intimately connected to it as a homeland for the Jews and their place of ancestral origin. This is most prevalent in the huge amount of aid the USA give Israel every year, and through the blind support of Israel’s activities, encouraged through the far reaching Zionist lobby. Membership to this political (and imagined) community can also be seen in the recruitment of soldiers in the Israeli Defence Force from other nations, some of whom have never been to Israel, nor trained in the military, but are willing to fight and die for the nation-state. Although Glick Schiller and Fouron suggest long-distance nationalism as a threat to the hegemony of the nation state system, in the case of Israel, it is a force that actually promotes it. By continuing the myth of racial exceptionalism of the Jewish people, maintained by Zionist and/or religious ideology, and accepted by the majority of Israelis and Jewry around the world. This sense of belonging and inclusion in turn promotes a brutal system of exclusion. As Appadurai appropriately states, ‘one man’s imagined community is another man’s political prison’ (1996: 32).


The Construction of the ‘New Jew’


In order to promote a legitimate right to the land, and a homogenous collective identity in modern Israel, which brought together many different nationalities under one Jewish race or ethnicity, a well constructed sense of shared history was invented to ensure a cohesive and productive nation.  According to Lomsky-Feder and Ben Ari, the image of the new people was encapsulated by a ‘holy quartet of interrelated features: Jewishness, masculinity, military service and collective membership’ (1999: 162). The ‘New Jew’ was made in opposition to the perceived Diasporic Jew, which had been depicted as weak, effeminate and pushed to society’s margins. Soocha asserts, 'the new modern Jew, (without a minority mentality, economically productive, assertive, fighting, patriotic, and generally devoid of the Galuth ills)' (2004: 50).  

Only if you are born here are you a real, genuine... cactus. You know, the outside, you can’t hold it in your hand. Why? Because it’s spiky. But inside it’s sweet. The fruit of the sabar [cactus] is very tasty and very sweet. And that’s how Israelis like to think about themselves, a little bit rough but genuine kind inside. Most of the cactuses you see here were the boundaries of Arab villages, to stop intruders coming in their village, so they build fences of cactus. It was kind of like the original fruit of the land. So, if you are born in Israel, you are a genuine ‘sabarim’. (Mo)


The above excerpt from an interview with Mo, a personal refuser, is an example of the many ways the image of the New Jew seeps into popular cultural mythology, this time with the image of the ‘original fruit of the land’, the cactus. This story not only displays symbolic cultural identity formation through folklore, but also yet another form of cultural appropriation of the symbol which once represented Palestinian security.


According to Stuart Hall, identity is not an essence but a positioning. Hence, there is always a politics of identity and a politics of position. If we conceive of identity as dynamic and alive, thus being created in the relationships between people, and also embodied through discourse which at least feels very real, we can then refer to it as relational, and emotional. We learn cultural identity through relationships which we encounter in the family, society and the mechanisms of state – education, the media and in Israel - the military. Once we can critically assess that our cultural identity is not a natural or bound entity, and not necessarily connected to the state, but merely a positioning with regard to it, there is a sudden gap providing a re-consideration of cultural identity and political emotionality, responsibility and accountability.


The Israeli Narrative: a well constructed myth


‘It is a lie that grows on you’  - David, a personal refuser.


Pastness’ is a very effective tool which Israel uses to lay claim to land, sites of religious significance and to create a narrative to convince their nation of its legitimacy and further their political ends. Teams of archaeologists with a Zionist agenda constantly provide new ‘evidence’ which lays claim to disputed land, such as Silwan, a Palestinian village in West Jerusalem, which is under threat of demolition due to allegedly being ‘on top’ of the ancient City of David (see ‘The Dig Dividing Jerusalem’ 27/05/10), to which the Zionist Jews believe they have a divine right. Thus, a ‘mythistory’, written by a knowledge-elite, impregnates the collective conscience, emphasised and incessantly reproduced through state apparatuses such as the education system, the media and aural culture, until it becomes embedded in the very social fabric of everyday reality and the habitus of the nation. In the following excerpt, Hadar depicts how the Ministry of Education and the Ministry of Defence work together, using a particular narrative to shape the minds of the future conscripts;

At school my history exam was made of two parts. The Holocaust - and it’s not the Second World War – it’s Auschwitz. And the other half is the beginning of the Zionist movement, up until ‘67. That’s it. Those are the only two things we study. Honestly. And they take all the 12th graders to Poland, to see the camps, and then you have these ceremonies in the camps, with big Israel flags, ‘Never Again’. And its really interesting, the use of the term, never again, which translates into ‘never again to us’, never again, as in – you are going to join the army next year! And you see people saying that, you see kids coming to these trips, and standing there at Auschwitz, and saying “to make sure this will never happen again I’ll join up next year to a combat unit.” That’s the mind set, it’s pretty scary. (Hadar)

This is also supported by the strategic placing of public ceremonies in the calendar. On May 7th is Holocaust Memorial Day, followed a week later on May 14th is Fallen Soldiers Remembrance Day, paying tribute to all the IDF soldiers that have died in the wars since the Holocaust, and the very next day on May 15th is Independence Day. Inventing public ceremonies is an effective tool, designed to induce the combined expression of solidarity and identity. Hawbsbawn notes, ‘Pastness is a mode by which persons are persuaded to act in the present in ways they might not otherwise act. Pastness is a tool persons use against each other. Pastness is a central element in the socialisation of individuals, in the maintenance of group solidarity, in the establishment of or challenge to social legitimation. Pastness therefore is prominently a moral phenomenon, therefore a political phenomenon, always a contemporary phenomenon’ (1991: 78). It is very obvious to notice how national mourning is deliberately used as a springboard for unquestionably triumphing the Zionist project and blind faith in the IDF, at a moment of collectively felt emotion.

It starts with your grandparents telling you terrible stories about the Holocaust. And you’re like ‘wow, that’s shit’, you know? And then it goes on to you as a child experiencing the Intifada, you see like the bombings and you’re like ‘wow’. And, and, it all, it all ties in really well. You know? There are bombings, they are bombing me, and the Germans bombed me, so they are both anti-Semitic and they hate Jews. As opposed to saying ‘Hm, maybe it’s to do with what we are doing to them.’ But we don’t make that connection at all. And I didn’t either. I was sure that the Palestinians bombed us because they hated Jews and they wanted us in the sea. You know, and that’s what we believe. All the Arabs. Hate us. Most of the world is anti-Semitic. We are lucky to just be alive. If you are not Jewish and you criticise Israel, you are anti-semitic. If you are Jewish and you criticise Israel, you are a self hating Jew. Either way, you have some complex. (Ariel)


FEAR


Fear rules not only those who are ruled, but the rulers too’ - Bertolt Brecht


Is fear a basis of Israeli identity?  Bauman (2007) explains ‘derivative fear’, as something which distinguishes us from animals, and is indicative of a ‘state of mind’ characterised by an intense feeling of insecurity and vulnerability, and a belief of no escape. He notes, ‘a person who has interiorized such a vision of the world...will routinely, even in the absence of a genuine threat, resort to the responses proper to a point-blank meeting with danger; ‘derivative fear’ acquires a self-propelling capacity’ (2007: 3). This is very apt to the Israeli ‘siege mentality’ (Klein 2000), which brings about a paranoia and encourages racist and Islamophobic sentiments from a belief that ‘a clash of civilisations’ (Huntington 1993) is not only likely, but inevitable. He also states, ‘the resulting defensive or aggressive reactions aimed at mitigating the fear may be therefore targeted away from the dangers truly responsible for the presumption of insecurity’ (2007: 4). Anthropologist Don Handelman has characterized this fear as “the greatest of ongoing, pervasive fears among Israeli Jews – the terror that the State could cave in upon itself, either because of threat from without or because of weakness from within, or one leading to the other” (2004: 7). Therefore, perhaps a belief in the need for an apparent social cohesion and unity keep the Israeli public paralysed in a state of fear, silencing any vibration of voices of dissent from within.

Linda Green denotes fear as a form of social memory which can undermine social relations. As an ‘arbiter of power: invisible, indeterminate, and silent’ (2002: 307), it becomes ubiquitous and omnipresent and a most troublesome social condition to combat, or research. It is further entrenched into the individual by the collective, who justifies and validates the condition. When one learns to fear, embodying it into a habitus of fear, ‘self-censorship becomes second nature – Bentham’s panopticon internalised’ (ibid: 311). This state of fear then hides ‘behind a façade of normalcy’ (ibid).

This notion of fear is complicated. On the one hand, Israel is a state built on a narrative of attempted genocide and suffering, and operating under a belief of a constant threat from their enemies, and it would be a mistake to dismiss this felt reality in the experience of many Israelis.  On the other hand, this narrative is collapsable, and a product of the invented colonial Zionist narrative, and a mode of social control in order to keep a cohesive and aggressive collective. This narrative of victimhood is one aspect which permeates the collective mindset and perpetuates the seemingly never-ending cycle of violence in the Middle East. The victimhood narrative cannot be accepted as an excuse for  dominating and ethnically cleansing another people.  Through a respectful, and sensitive refusal of the consistently regurgitated Israeli narrative of suffering and victimhood is a beginning to breaking the false legitimacy of the Jewish State.


The Israeli state uses a lethal concoction of the memory of the Holocaust, and the ‘Palestinian threat’ as a form of capital, actually profiting financially and politically from the occupation of Palestine, to uphold a strong sense of nationalism with the collective, and a willing fighting force. We can notice the emotional mechanics of this in the following statement from Sally,

My boyfriend was in an elite combat unit and he serves as a Reserve every year. The first year we were together I was very angry at him for going, especially because he is actually really 'Left'. But one day, on Holocaust Memorial Day, do you know how the television and radio stations are turned off and replaced with programmes and films about the Holocaust back-to-back for 24 hours? Well, I was watching these films, one after the other, you know? Crying, feeling so angry and upset. Why did they just walk into the gas chambers with out anyone saying a word? Why didn’t they fight back? Why? Well, that was when I realised why my boyfriend goes. Why he fights. If it ever does happen again, we will go fighting, to the end.


If we see culture, and thus morality, as embodied through a plurality of emotionally invested myths, emotion becomes a serious topic of anthropological enquiry.  The symbol of the cactus as the model of cultural identity, as described by Mo suddenly takes on immense emotional gravity when infused with the political and social context in which it operates in the mind of Israelis. In trying to locate ourselves in the multiple opportunities of identity, we sometimes become caught in a web of the various notions of morality that are exposed to us, and sometimes forced upon us. We can see this clearly in the following extract where Sarah describes her relationship to the state of Israel. There is a distinct sadness apparent in her mistrust of her country’s actions, yet an undeniable need to invest in the state, because it is ‘all she has’;

If you resist Zionism then you resist the State of Israel, so it’s kind of, a problem. I remember Frieda said to me, ‘why don’t you just leave?’ I can’t just leave. Some people may have dual citizenship, fine, but Israel is all I have. I don’t like the Zionist way, but maybe they didn’t have a choice. I think every country invents its own stories. And I think that Israel which emerged out of crisis, in the middle east - which is pretty weird - loads of Europeans in the Middle East! But it had to create really strong myths for that reason, all that stuff, it’s pretty crazy. But maybe this country needed that to get people into it. All countries have affect on how you shape your mind – if you feel like you belong to somewhere.

And what enabled you to see that?

(sigh), I guess I may see a bit past it, but I’m still shaped by it, my deepest emotions are shaped, just like everyone else’s is. I really regret that, really regret that. And I told Frieda that when we came back from Ramallah, and went past the checkpoint. She was like ‘gggrrrrrrrr...’ going past the soldiers, and I realised, and I didn’t even know this then, but I felt good seeing those soldiers, I felt safe. And it’s so deep, the feeear is sooo deeeep, that it doesn’t matter that I can intellectually see past it, and I can see the lies and all the stories, and I can definitely see the injustice, in a lot of stuff. But still, the thing that shocked me most was to understand that my core is still shaped by it.


The IDF and militarism

‘Nations make war, and war makes nations’ - Charles Tilly

'The whole nation is an army and the whole land is a front'  - David Ben-Gurion, first Prime Minister of Israel.  

Charles Tilly (1985) and Michael Mann (1994) give a good foundation for exploring militarism and the formation of the nation-state. They point out the interconnectedness of war making, state making, and how modern Europe as we know it, was only made possible through war and military strategy.  The IDF was officially forged after the state of Israel was created, in 1948. Having  acquired military success through a disparate band of fighters not defined by an official municipality, the forming of the IDF was symbolic of the new Jewish state, and collective membership of it. The young, male, European pioneer ‘with a plough in one hand, and a rifle in the other’, was the archetypal image of a citizen in this new 'utopian' land. This mythology says nothing of the 750,000 Palestinians who were made refugees, or the brutality involved in driving them out. Nevertheless, the myth it is still an image which is alive in the mind of young Israelis today, some of whom believe ‘there were only a few tribes here’, as a well educated friend of Sarah told me.

Israel can be described as a nation where civil and military arenas are not separated, but infused into what Barauch Kimmerling has defined ‘civil-militarism’, emphasising that in Israel, ‘militaristic thinking is taken for granted and preoccupies both the institutional and individual state of mind’ (Dloomy 2005: 696). This fusing of civil-military relations brings about a more militaristic mode of thought which makes it more difficult to criticise state actions. This also brings into question individual versus state morality, and the danger when the two are fused. As Bauman states, ‘there is no moral-ethical limit which the state cannot transcend if it wishes to do so, because there is no moral-ethical power higher than the state’ (1989: 86). Therefore, the moral-ethical power of the state trickles down into the moral-ethical of the individual. It is a general belief in Israel, which is encouraged by the fear (and victimhood) narrative that if the IDF did not exist, the very survival of Israel would be compromised, thus, military service becomes enmeshed in the continued existence of state and becomes an act of state-making in itself.


Contemporary Israeli society is marked by deep tensions and contradictions.  Many transformations in recent decades have seen the intensifying of these internal tensions. One of the main sources of these cleavages is the Westernisation and Americanisation of Israeli culture. There has been a move away from a focus of the collective, towards a consumerist individualism, which is encouraging a questioning of and decline of Zionist ideology. Ben-Ari, Rosenhek and Maman (2001: 4) describes this as a shift from a ‘mobilized society’ to a ‘normal’ Western society, and threatens the ‘almost sacred status once enjoyed by state institutions, especially the military’ (2001: 5). They also suggest that along with the increase in consumer culture is the decline of presumed centrality of the military to society and definitions of ‘Israeli-hood’ and Israeli citizenship. They state that ‘many groups in Israeli society are no longer willing to grant the Israeli Defence Force (IDF) its previous status of unquestioned professionalism and to view ‘state security’ considerations as the only (or primary) criteria for national decision making’ (2001: 5).   


The First Lebanon War (1982 - 1985) the Al Aqsa Intifada (2000 – 2005) and the Second Lebanon War (2006) saw a proliferation in refusal to serve in the Palestinian Occupied Territories. During the First Lebanon War, in 1982, ‘Yesh Gvul’ appeared as the first organised social movement for selective refusal. Subsequently, a network of Non-Governmental Organisations appeared, such as ‘Courage to Refuse’ and ‘Combatants for Peace’, who provide a support for soldiers who need an outlet to discuss the legitimacy of the IDF’s actions, and refuse to serve across the Green Line. However, all of these groups talk about refusal being over the ‘green line’ (Yesh Gvul and Courage to Refuse), or post-military service (Combatants for Peace). These soldiers-cum-refusers have been nick-named the ‘shoot and cry generation’.


The increase in selective refusal can be understood in the broader context of the last two decades in Israel, however it does not make the connection between the very make up of the IDF being a threat to democracy and a perpetuation of the political position of Israel and the climate of fear that grips the nation. The occupation of Palestine cannot be separated from the militarism of the state. As long as the myth of the Zionist soldier continues in the consciousness of the state of Israel, and embodied by each generation through military service, the hope for the end to oppression of Palestinians is not in sight.


Military service is an agent of Israeli nationhood.  Political refusers, who outright refuse to serve come to break down this otherwise entrenched sense of Israeli personhood. In their attempt to redefine what it means to be an Israeli, we can note how the state proceeds to silence and delegitimise these critical voices.


Service in the Israeli Defence Force can be understood as a rite of passage into adulthood, one which often includes war (Leiblich and Perlow 1988). Ben-Ari and Levy-Schreiber have stated that military service is as natural as ‘the appearance of secondary sexual attributes, that ‘everybody’ goes through’ (2000: 178).  Ben Ari (2001) warns not to mistake it for the military-as-rite-of-passage as one might find in other modern industrialised states. Israel is unique, because of the exclusion of some sections of the population, such as religious Jews and Arab Israelis, and how the politics of military recruitment are parallel to the politics of the state. Therefore, it is a rite-of-passage for a specific, privileged segment of society who fit (or are moulded to) the according cultural myths, which are used to encourage the glorification of elite combat units. In Tel Aviv, a young woman told me about such a thing as ‘Protectzia’ or ‘Vitamin P’, which refers to processes of social and career- orientated networking which occurs mostly between men in military service. Military service becomes an opportunity to make career contacts, thus putting yet more emphasis on elite forces being desirable in the long term of a conscripts life. The intensity of relationships which are formed in the military (especially in combat units) make for high degrees of trust and risk-taking for the ‘collective good’ of the unit; a kind of ‘I’ll cover your back, if you cover mine’, translates from the battlefield to the landscapes of politics and business. Consequently, a large percentage of the Knesset is made up of male, ex-military commanders, who perpetuate politics through military strategy framework.


Induction at birth


New Profile wrote a report in July 2004, which presents military service in Israel as child recruitment. The normalisation of things military can be seen in the education system in what New Profile calls ‘symbolic recruitment’, which sees recruitment strategies as early as kindergarten, when youngsters often dress up as soldiers for the Jewish national holiday of Purim. Rebecca, a spokesperson from New Profile asserts that in actual fact, the induction process happens from birth;

The whole induction process that our children go through, it doesn’t really start when you’re 16 years old, it’s something you’re born into. So, you are conditioned from the minute you’re born. As a parent, I hold my child’s hand down that process of induction, which is an 18 year long process. So I am also inducted into the military. I’m an enabler. I let my children, after protecting them for 18 years, teaching them how to cross the street, how to ride a bike safely, how to treat other people, I go and I put them into a danger –I let the army take them! To get past that... they are no longer registered in the Ministry of Interior, and I have no control over them, they are registered with the Ministry of Defence. So they become property of the state. At 16. Because in order to induct them, they have to be registered with the Ministry of Defence, and I have no say over that.

In this respect, all citizens of Israel become ‘enablers’ of militarism, and fuel the culture of fear. Processes of militarisation of the youth can be seen in school as a means to normalise military service as the ‘next step’. As pointed out in the most recent report from New Profile (2010), the Ministry of Education and the Ministry of Defence have a relationship whereby, it is common for educational institutions to use soldiers as teachers, and the army sponsors special trips to various army bases. During school hours, students will be taught how to use rifles, as Nava describes,

When I was in 9th grade, the school was taking all the students to a shooting range. And I wasn’t that political at the time, but I said, I don’t want to go. And I got into like, serious problems with the school. Like the principal, my teacher, they took me to this room, both of them, talked to me for about half an hour about how it’s so really important. It’s important for the army, for us to defend ourselves. And I was like, its not a discussion about the army, I’m not saying I don’t wanna go to the army, I’m just saying I don’t wanna shoot guns when I’m in 9th grade. And well, now I see how absurd it is for a 15 year old girl to explain to grown-ups why it’s not educational to take 9th grade students to shoot guns. (Nava)


Basic training occurs when young people have just left school, a moment in life when they are forming how it is to be an adult. Training at this stage in a young Israeli’s life instils in them the values of the state.  


Similar to the already mentioned ‘Peoples’ Army’, is the concept of ‘Melting Pot’, which has been used to give the impression that the army has an intensely important social role in bringing together the diverse ‘ethnic mosaic’ of immigrants, making it the tool of assimilation, as well as a social leveller to encourage a sense of an egalitarian collective.

this concept of, the melting pot? Everybody talks about it. The army is the melting pot of society. It’s a society of immigrants, and everybody’s coming from everywhere and the army is what unifies them. Which is absolute BULLSHIT, because new immigrants go to the worst units, and Ashkenazi Jews will be the only ones who are pilots, and It’s really, its like, its bullshit basically. It’s an exact translation of all the hierarchies outside of the army, are translated into the army, and from the army back into society. And it’s kind of like a circle of building the exact same hierarchies that existed. It’s anything but a melting pot. (Hadar)

Furthermore, the people who experience the sense of The Meting Pot, The People’s Army, and Vitamin P are usually the ones who achieve powerful positions in business and government, and eventually become the new power elite and mythistory writers. Consequently, the possibility of social change is undermined and ‘the system of domination and inequality becomes so lodged in cultural belief it comes to appear natural and inevitable’ (Lomsky-Feder and Ben Ari 1999: 162).

 

Going Against The Grain


According to Klein, ‘nothing can harm Israeli (Jewish) society more than critical voices inside’ (Klein 2000: 163), therefore, silencing voices of dissent, social cohesion and an obedient militarised population is paramount to the continuation of Israel as it exists today. ‘We are all in the same boat’, reads a Zionist poster, using the image of a boat which would have carried immigrants to the country after WW2. The social role of gibush means that if one does not ‘pull their weight’, that is causes severe tensions within the family unit, and further afield, making it even more difficult to refuse. Nava explains;

My father was very very disappointed, because he was in the army and then he served in the reserve service until he was 45. And it wasn’t just his duty, he also enjoyed it in a sense, so I think he was expecting me to be a part of it, because it makes me part of him. My mother, not so much, but it did cause trouble with her friends. She has two friends that don’t speak to her anymore, because of what I did. And, one of her best, closest friends, her son, he is the same age as me and we grew up together and he went to the army and his mother was very concerned about him, because he was a combat soldier, he is still a combat soldier. And she felt a lot of anger towards my mum because she doesn’t need to feel worried about me, because I’m not doing it, and they don’t speak anymore because of that.


The media, and even private companies help in the effort to keep a gibush society, as Hadar explains,

a private company launched a campaign, under the slogan of ‘a true Israeli does not dodge draft’. Without even signing it, it wasn’t even a commercial. They didn’t even say that Look, we are good Zionists, we are pro-army, here’s our signature, this is us. And this, these campaigns keep popping up. When anything is said about low enlistment. Just after the flotilla, the biggest bill board in Israel is on the Ministry of Defence in Tel Aviv. It’s huge. It’s the primetime commercial spot. Really expensive. And there is this huge huge sign saying ‘Deep in the sea, deep in our hearts, we love you, Naval Commando 13’ (the unit that did the flotilla.) Not signed. So, it’s not used as a commercial tool, like, they feel a need to contribute this way, its pretty sick. (laughs) (Hadar)


Berinsky (2007) has compared statistics of the public support of WW2 and the war in Iraq to critique the ‘casualty hypothesis’, which pronounces that support for foreign policy in war, is directly related to the injuries and death toll of on going events, or based on a cost/benefit analysis. Contrary to that, Berinsky claims that the public is more likely to be susceptible to elite groups’ discourse or narration of war, which has huge implications on the war effort, and its outcome. This research is reminiscent of Milgram’s famous experiments (1974), which drew on Hannah Arendt’s theory of the ‘banality of evil’ (1963). These three texts serve to highlight how morality is vulnerable to positions of authority, especially institutional, bureaucratic systems of domination that banally seep into the cultural consciousness. Israel, which operates under a constant threat of 'emergency', has an advanced media machine, entrenched with a Zionist message, which works in tandem with the normalized militarized siege mentality.

 

The youth of today, having grown up with the first and second Intifada as a backdrop, have formed their political views in a time when alternative media sources, via new technologies, are available more than ever before. Although distinctively alternative backgrounds, we can see in both Ariel and Hadar's testimonies that notions of Us and Them are broken down through cross community dialogue;


My father started being active and then when I was about 12 or 13 he took me to a village in East Jerusalem. We were just planting olive trees. It was 2002 and they started building the wall, and uprooting the same olive trees that we put up! So I started going to more and more demonstrations. I starting going to Bi’lin when I was 14. (laughs) My father wanted to kill me for that, but yeah (laughs). Ummmm, and then from there its all downhill. (laughs) You start seeing like the whole concept of who is ‘Us’ and who is ‘Them’ starts mixing up. You have soldiers, Israeli soldiers shooting at you, and Palestinians like, offering you shelter, and then, it just mixes up your perception of how the world should be. So, I can’t even say there was a time that I decided I would refuse. (laughs). It was literally obvious to me. (Hadar)

---

I felt a need to talk about it. I felt something. I felt a need to deal with it. And then it’s a total co-incidence, but I heard about this new dialogue group initiative between Israelis and Palestinians. And this meeting was really shocking for me, as I had never met Palestinians before. I met this girl, and we had this open space time, for everyone to tell a story. And so everyone told a story. And then she told hers. And it was about how one night when she was 12 years old, soldiers came into her house and took her father away and she never saw him again. Later, the army called them up to tell them he got sick and died in prison. But they never gave them the body, and so they never really knew. And so she told this story and began to cry. And, I, was, shocked. I can’t even tell you. I was sitting there and I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. And the first thing – it just came instinctively from me, I said, ‘I am so sorry.’ And she looked at me really surprised and said ‘Why are you sorry, It’s not your fault.’ And then it hit me. Why was I feeling so guilty? So terrible? (pause)... (slowly) Because I knew it could have been me. It could have been my father, my cousin, my friends – and me in three years time. Suddenly I made the connection between my actions and the consequences it has for other people. That was the first time my bubble was burst. Up until then I thought the IDF was the most moral army in the world.  My father is a really moral person, and I still think he is. But at the age of 15, it was very hard for me to understand how an organisation with moral people, like my father in it, do immoral things? I didn’t make sense to me. She was telling me something that made me question everything. I was like wow, wait a minute, see everything that I was told about the army, is that not true? Was I mislead? Misinformed? I felt like everything was collapsing around me, and I didn’t know what to do. When you start questioning, and you find out something isn’t true – you can’t stop there. You have to question other things. So I was all over the place. It was very hard for me to hear, and of course I was always defending Israel. Palestine in my school, was a dirty word. Totally taboo. To say the word Palestine, is unheard of. Palestine doesn’t exist. There is no Palestine. There is no Palestine! So when a Palestinian called it Palestine in the group, I started crying ‘How dare you call it Palestine, you can’t call it Palestine. There is no Palestine. How dare you!’ That was my response, because in school it was very clear. I learnt a lot in this dialogue group.


Quite ironically, Zionist Youth Movements that are set up in Israel to encourage young people to organize, gain leadership skills, be politically involved and promote Zionist ideology were a breeding ground for alternative thought. Ma’aretz was mentioned by most people, whose message is one which incorporates ideologies of socialism and Zionism, however this was described as a place to arouse questions and meet other young people, the beginning stages of a kind of activist snowballing, which progressively gets more radical.

A strong commonality between the political refusers was taking a year after school to do national service, which is in addition of the military, and places the young person in a volunteer job for one year to help in the community in some way. This was described as ‘time to think’ (Noa), and was especially instrumental in the experience of Noa, Ariel and Avi, who describe being exposed to various structural violence and inequality in Israeli society between majority and minority groups.

Nava who comes from a Misrachi, Middle Eastern Jewish background explains how Misrachi Jews should have more solidarity with the Palestinians, because they too are a minority, excluded from the hegemonic ideal of Ashkenazi Israeli identity. In her opinion, through fear of this exclusion, and desire of inclusion, Misrachi, Ethiopian Jews, as well as women tend to need to prove themselves to the rest of the group and often are more likely to conform to state attitudes concerning the military.

However, the most important common experience in the political journey of the refusers was going to the West Bank and seeing for themselves what has been hidden from them;

I started going to the West Bank. And this is what really opened my eyes. Because I went to Bi’ilin for the first time when I was 15. And I saw, I saw everything that I was told falling off in my face. I felt like I’d been lied to my whole life. I felt like everyone I know are either murderers or potential murderers, in a way. It was very painful, because that’s my father and my friends and everyone around me. Maybe murderers is too much, like its not exactly what I felt, but I felt really bad. (laughs) Like, there was a huge mistake going on, and no-one knows about it. And I started being really angry, about everything. I think I was really radicalised by the violence I saw in Bi’iln. Because I saw an Israeli activist being shot in the head when I was 16. And it really effects you. It is a picture I will never forget. And...its just, after I saw it, I could not believe anymore, anything that the IDF said, coz they said in the beginning, like that it was a stone, or stuff like that. And I just could not accept anymore... at all. (Nava)

I was interested, I wanted to see, you know? The people - who is gonna stab me in the back when I turn around? Once you get any... proof of what’s going on in the Territories, its like a big dark cloud, you suddenly realising... half an hour from your home, its like... it’s the worst. And I was really mad, and really angry at my father. He didn’t tell me what was going on. And about the Israeli media. And everyone. And I used to call people before demos and tell them to come. You have to see what’s going on. It’s like a big gossip. “You are not going to believe it! From here there’s apartheid!” You know? I was shocked. (Ariel)


Illegitimate Identities

Apart from some rare exceptions like Shir who decided to refuse upon seeing another refuser as a role model in the media, giving him a pathway to rebel from the racism he was experiencing at school, the extreme punishment of not doing military service is meant to dissuade others from refusing, and presents the refuser movement as a fringe group of extremists. Howard Becker (1963) has argued that by officially labelling individuals as outsiders, society will see them as disreputable, exacerbating their ‘deviance’. Dealing with refusers outside of the Supreme Court of Justice is a tactic which prevents the defendant from having a lawyer, who would then be able to bring witnesses in front of a jury and present a case in legal and moral contexts, and avoids putting the occupation, or other military matters, on trial which could be extremely damaging for military public relations. Instead, refusers are dealt with in military summary trials, where they are not put on trial for breaking a state law, but are trialled as a soldier, for refusing an order. These summary trials are commonly used to deal with minor military offences, simultaneously denying the voice of the defendant as a citizen, downplaying the significance of their action and giving authority to the immediate commanding officer of the unit to decide upon their fete, which can be anything up to a thirty-five day sentence. Although these sentences are short the conditions faced by the inmates can be brutal. Shir was put in solitary confinement with no clothes on after refusing to don a US Marines uniform which the United States donate to Israeli military prisons as part of their military aid package. The inmates of military prison will be treated like soldiers, which can be far worse than the treatment of prisoners in civilian Israeli prisons. Summary trials may be repeated indefinitely, until the refuser changes their mind, or requests for their profile to be lowered to one which makes them unfit to serve. Many soldiers go to the Medical Corps or the Mental Health Officer who will then send them to a psychiatrist or conscience committee, who may release them on grounds of mental health.

Most of my friends, they declared themselves mentally ill, right at the beginning... and after my refusal stopped affecting, after two or three months... I declared myself anorexic. All of us, by the way, from the 70s ‘till now – there is no such thing as political refuser. We are all mentally ill. Like, Nava is depressed and schizophrenic, Ariel... tried to kill herself, Hadar is border personality disorder. We all had to, that’s our back door, back door in the army. Everyone knows that we are not sick. Even the shrink that’s talking to you, is like, ‘okaaaay...’ We together make something up, because that’s the way out. That’s the only way out. (Golda)

Eventually, all the political refusers declare themselves ‘unfit’, as the only means out of the military prison, with the exception of two male political refusers I interviewed. Avi and Lev demanded a trial in the Supreme Court of Justice, whereby they effectively put the occupation on trial. They were sentenced to two years in civilian prison.

From the interviews carried out in this research project, it became apparent that the IDF’s response to refusers is unpredictable. In some cases people manage to attain exemption without much of a fight, while others will be imprisoned indefinitely. This fits in with Dloomy’s (2005: 707) interpretation of the military having a deliberate ‘strategy of not having a strategy’. Dloomy believes that ‘a militarised society that perceives itself as facing an existential threat cannot accept a mode of protest that undermines its most profound values’ (2005: 714). This results, he argues, in the refusal movement being pushed to the fringe of the Israeli left, and being represented as a small group of extremists without political legitimacy.

As one Israeli tour guide put it to me,

They can’t say anything because they haven’t done it. They are just looking for an easy life. Them, and the Arabs that don’t serve, THEY are the problem. There is a real threat to Israel, and they benefit from the security we provide for them.  

Dloomy’s (2005) study into ‘Israeli Refuseniks 1982 – 2003’ attempts to demonstrate how the ‘refusenik movement’ is a failed movement, because it undermines ‘the main essence of the Israeli State – the security ethos’ (2005: 696). He describes a picture whereby Defence authorities have managed to marginalise voices of dissent, perpetuating the outsider position of the protesters and sustaining the power of the authorities. Refusers are represented as ‘narcissistic’ or ‘parasites’ (an emotive term used for the Jews under the Nazi regime) if they did not carry out their military service. In July 1998, when Dan Shomron, the then chief of staff was asked how he coped with the phenomenon of refusal he replied that ‘he would not call it a phenomenon...anyway it is an ugly way of evading responsibility for self-defence and the essence of existence’ (cited in Dloomy 2005: 705).

However, how can a movement have failed when it is on going?  Every refuser who acts, every media action, every conversation at school, in the home, with friends inside Israel about the occupation, about militarism, about alternative imaginaries, is part of movement building.  The marginalisation and social stigma that the refusers face is a sacrifice that they have been willing to make for standing up for humanity.  Dloomy has not taken into consideration the extent to which these young people are emotionally imprisoned and how powerful it is when they stand up – not only for what they believe is morally right, but also for their country.  In a country that provides little options for expressing national identity outside of militarism, the young people who refuse military service are exceptional people, who are looking for new ways to relate to statehood.


Your identity becomes...problematic. And its really painful actually, because I don’t have any place to go, like I don’t have any foreign citizenship, I’m not interested in going anywhere else. I did grow up here, and with all my criticism, I really love this place and its really important to me, otherwise, I wouldn’t bother, like if I didn’t care about what’s going on here. Its also really painful because I don’t want to be traitor, that’s not who I am, I’m not defining myself as a traitor, I am a traitor in some values, and I’m proud to be a traitor for them, but I’m not a traitor for... I just think Israel has values that I don’t agree with. I think even if there will be one state here, my society will be my society, and my society which doesn’t have... Apartheid changed, slavery changed, Zionism can change. (Nava)


The social stigma that comes from voluntarily excluding oneself from ‘The People’s Army’, and the state’s elaborate strategy (while giving the impression there is no strategy) subsequently removes the political refuser from sight, rendering not only the occupation invisible, but also any opposition to it.  The political refusers attempt to redefine their cultural and political identity as opposed to that of the state, however, their experience sheds light on the fact that we are often vulnerable to the mechanics of state. The visibility of continual resistance to the hegemonic order of things is absolutely necessary to resist the occupation, demand democracy and encourage social change. It is through such processes which the state is ultimately created.


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The author is Poppy Kohner, who is currently undertaking a PhD in Anthropology of Militarism and Resistance in Post 9-11 USA at the University of Glasgow, Scotland.  She can be reached at poppykohner@gmail.com

 
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