Are Israel’s Refusers Modern Day Heroes?

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.


 In his blog, which appeared in the Emory Wheel,  , Professor Kitron presents his admiration and respect for Natan Blanc, who as of this writing, is serving his 7th incarceration period for refusing to serve in Israel’s Occupation army. Many people, much like Professor Kitron, consider Natan a modern day hero. He is indeed brave. It is admirable that any Israeli his age (18) should 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 has 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. It is one that cherishes human life and recognizes the Palestinians right to self-determination. This is not a given.


Without personally knowing the Blancs, I admire the ethics that enabled Natan to question Israel’s belief that it has no choice other than military solutions and to make the decision to refuse military service. I identify with his moral values and the way he was raised. I know that 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 as a way of life. It is contradictory to the Israeli mindset. It is difficult and energy consuming to continually question and oppose Israel’s brutal policies, especially when militarized indoctrination is ever present, trickling down from the time our children are born, and when the conscription process is so powerful. 


Refusers like Natan, who openly oppose conscription on those grounds, are far and few between and there are good reasons for that. 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 among all participants.


Israeli society is brutal and judgmental; loyalty to the State is measured by one’s commitment to military service. To step outside the consensus contrary to what is considered acceptable behavior, such as daring to refuse, is a frightening thing to do. A sense of belonging is an essential human need and deciding to go without it requires a lot of strength and support. 


Most teenagers don’t want to be isolated from their peer group or suffer social rejection, and no parent wishes that on their child. If they are tempted to make a political statement similar to Natan’s, they might not be able to do so without a close support network. It is important to keep in mind the wonderful support that Natan received from his family, friends, and more distant circles.


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


Militarism is strongly embedded in our society: it starts at home and continues with our children’s education. Personally I think that there is something very warped in the way that Israeli parents are expected to raise their children, nurture them and protect them throughout their lives, 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, walking hand in hand with our children through the early stages of their lives and then willingly encouraging and preparing them for their eventual conscription. We are obedient to the calls of our leaders and raise generation after generation of fighters for a “war of no choice.” Our compliance and acceptance of this process, which is also full of religious and cultural symbolism, is rarely questioned. 


Often considered a rite of passage, conscription inspires pride amongst parents. We place high regard to military rank and the social status that comes with it. Some families consider it part of a legacy that is passed down through generations. For many parents, seeing their young 18 year olds in uniform signifies their transition into  adulthood and brings with it an expectation of responsibility and duty. This sense of honor is cohesive and promotes cooperation with the military by emphasizing the national collective through individual contribution, both the conscript’s and the parents’. By 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 all our enemies. They are raised on the ethos of heroism, and are taught that soldiers can be national heroes. Those that die in battle are often given this 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 when he died in the Battle of Tel Hai in 1920: “It is good to die for your country.”


New Profile examines the questions of “what is heroism” and “who is a hero” through a balanced discourse. We are careful not to identify refusers through a hierarchy. Every 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 in order 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 within 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 in NP we do not advise with regard to what path should be chosen. We only map out the different options for whoever seeks information from us and believe that every person who turns to us for information and assistance should choose the path best for them. If they choose the path of openly defying the Occupation and going to military jail, we give them as much support as we can, rather than holding them up as an example for others.


Refusal to serve in the Israeli military is not always the outcome of a choice to oppose the Occupation. Other reasons for refusal may be pacifist ideology, the interconnection between feminism and anti-militarism, religion and national identity. Sometimes young people are unable to define “what feels wrong” about it, 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 6, 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