Refusing and avoiding military service

סירוב והימנעות

One of the main expressions of the militarism which characterizes Israeli society is the duty of obligatory conscription, required by law from all Israeli youth. Generally conscription is perceived in Israel as a natural and indisputable step, and military service is presented as an empowering period which is a necessary stage for successful civilian adult life. It is seen as a stepping stone into Israeli society. Strong social pressure to enlist is being put on Israelis, also by the education system. For marginalized youth, conscription is presented as a unique opportunity for social mobility, supposedly providing access for education and professional skills.

In reality, as opposed to the myth of “the people’s army,” only less than half of youth are indeed drafted, and only around 40% complete full military service. Beyond populations who receive mass exemption from service and people exempted by the initiative of the military (mainly due to medical disabilities or criminal record), many youth choose not to enlist in order to avoid distress. Yet, this choice is often presented as a selfish act, as a recipe for social and professional impasse, and as a reason for condemnation and strong criticism. It is a choice which at times bears consequences of stigma, discrimination, and negative labeling in civil life.

Against this reality, New Profile offers support for anyone who decides to avoid or discontinue military service for any reason. One of the main projects the movement has been operating since establishment is the Counseling Network, which offers personal, bureaucratic, and legal support along the exemption process, and offers individuals relevant information–all free of charge.

Is receiving exemption from military service defined as a refusal to enlist? Depends whom you ask. In the history of the Israeli refusal movements, importance was granted to those who publicly declared their refusal to enlist as a political action of refusal–mainly refusal based upon the occupation, but also to wars in general, to chauvinism, or animal exploitation etc. Declared refusal is a public act which expresses hope for social change through refusal to serve in the military or in specific military actions. The reasons for this kind of refusal relate to morality or politics. Some see this choice as a brave action, and some political circles attribute refusers admirable characteristics such as moral strength, conscientious loyalty, and civil responsibility–and rightly so. Declared refusal on political grounds is a brave and significant choice of youth who voice an important political position. Since the beginning of the second intifada in September 2000, declared refusal became more public and organized, among other things through “Shministim letters,” in which high school graduates declared their intention not to serve in the military based on political reasons. So far, some 200 refusers were imprisoned–some for successive and continuous periods. Several organizations and initiatives in the Israeli left support declared refusers and promote their campaigns.

Yet, the declared refusal movement is only the tip of the iceberg. Statistics show that in the last decade, there is a constant increase in the number of youth who avoid enlistment or discontinue military service on their own initiative, without declaring a conscientious or political reason. We could label it “avoidance of military service,” but this term describes something passive, even though there is an active choice here. We can also call it “social refusal,” “gray refusal” or “non-declared refusal.” It is a move in which those designated for military service ask and receive exemption from service based on various exemption clauses stated in the law, without an explicit attempt to change society or to attract attention. Varied motives stand behind this phenomenon. Most avoid service for personal or economic reasons: some need to work in order to support their families; some are interested in academic studies or in a career, and feel military service is a waste of time; many others just don’t feel like going to the military, or think military service might harm their psychological well being. Others, just like declared refusers, act due to social, ideological and political reasons, but prefer not to declare it publicly, in order to avoid conflict with the system or public backlash. Whatever the reason, this “gray refusal” has huge political importance in such a militaristic society. Those who choose not to enlist act against the continuous militarization of Israeli society and against the social power structure it creates. This refusal is individual, unorganized, not public, and lacks a specific action plan, leadership, or official declaration–and yet, it has an important political significance.

New Profile joins the feminist tradition of claiming the personal is the political. From our point of view, as a movement which opposes militarism, any avoidance of military service undermines the status quo. It is a significant choice, requiring resilience and will-power, and comes with no medal of valor. Even if this avoidance of service comes from personal, economic, or family motives, it is evidence of a wider social and political change. It is related to objection to violence and to militarism, and to the choice of freedom over blind obedience.

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