A CO in the family

IssueJune - August 2001
Feature by Ruth Hiller

Just three years ago my son Yinnon approached me and told me that he could not serve in the military on moral grounds. He said he knew with growing certainty that pacifism was his ideal. He was sixteen years old.

The soul-searching that followed this declaration was not just my son's. It became mine as well, and that of the entire family. The process was deep and often painful. It forced us to question our core values, demanding a re-evaluation of ourselves as parents, siblings, as family partners and as Israelis. Once this dialogue started in our home everything entirely changed. We agreed with Yinnon, as a son, a brother and a young Israeli. And as our support grew, we needed to find ways to help him in his struggle. This declaration of protest would nearly consume our lives.

I knew from the start that Yinnon's decision was bigger than him, bigger than any of us. Israel is a country in which both men and women have to justify their birthright, their very existence, by being party to a machine that perpetuates warfare. Enlistment at eighteen is an accepted ritual in adolescent development. Challenging this status quo is almost unheard of. As we eventually discovered, being “unheard of” actually meant “unspoken about”. Not serving was totally taboo, blanketed in rumour and social ostracism. The first time I dared to talk to someone outside the family circle about Yinnon's choice, for some reason I whispered. It was as if I was afraid the walls would hear what I was saying and pass on this information. But, under all the hush-hush, we found things were happening. Eventually, with the help of friends, we made contact with the Association of Conscientious Objectors in Israel (ACOI), a small organisation made up of draft resisters. Some, like Yinnon, were ideological pacifists, some objecting on the grounds of religion, and others on the basis of political beliefs. All of them had been drafted and had resisted through accepted channels. Most of them had served prison sentences.

Discretionary exemptions

According to Israeli law, all citizens of all national identities and both sexes are liable to serve in the Israeli Defence Forces. However exemptions are allowed for. Women are dealt with as a special category. Married women, pregnant women and mothers are routinely exempted without examination. On grounds of conscience, religious belief or Jewish religious observance too, women are exempt in a way that men are not. For the rest, men and women alike, there is discretionary exemption: a clause in the law gives the Minister of Defence authority to exempt certain categories—and under his authority are exempted almost all of the Palestinian minority in Israel. All Muslim and Christian men and women are exempt. Bedouin men are sometimes allowed to volunteer. All Orthodox Druze men and all Druze women are exempt. All Jehovah's Witnesses are exempt. The mentally or physically unfit, the under-educated (or otherwise “unsuitable'“), juvenile offenders—and (male) conscientious objectors—find it more difficult to be exempted from conscription.

The manner in which the state prefers to deal with this latter group, which includes male COs, and other resisters, is to issue, at the hands of military doctors or psychologists, a “medical profile”, which has an imputation of some unfitness or deficiency in the resister. (Even then they may be subject to a military trial or hearing and may have to serve a prison sentence before eventually being discharged.) What is much more difficult however is to make a case that one objects to the draft on political, religious or ethical grounds, and to have this case acknowledged. And that is what Yinnon wants to do.

A less usual possibility exists, whereby men can seek exemption specifically on grounds of belief rather than on medical criteria. They must appear before a particular military committee set up in 1995 that has the jurisdiction to exempt men, if it finds they have a real moral commitment to conscientious objection. However the members of this committee are military personnel. The questions they ask, and the conclusions they draw from COs answers, are testimony to their total ignorance of conscientious objection and pacifism, the matter on which they are supposed to be passing judgement. The criteria on which the committee operates are in fact labour force criteria, and they openly admit it. Thus, what they are really judging is not the COs moral commitment but whether it is worth the army's while to insist on an applicant's enlistment or continued service.

Objecting to organised violence

Add to this the fact that the COs coming before the committee are often only school pupils of 17 years old, yet they are not allowed legal representation, nor support from a member of their family or a friend. They are allowed neither to have written notes taken, nor to tape record the interview. To date we know of only five men who have been released from military service by this committee. Women COs are called to appear before a similar committee but allowed representation and are required to bring character witnesses. We understand that all women who appeal to this committee are eventually released from military service if they do so before their induction date.

My son Yinnon has appeared twice before it, and has twice been refused. One of the IDF criteria for proving a CO's moral commitment is his adherence to his beliefs from a very young age. Yinnon, still only 19, firmly advocates nonviolence and believes in creating alternative means for resolving conflicts. He objects to the organised violence used by states, and therefore to both the use and existence of military organisations. Yinnon has been committed to these views for a long time, and applied for exemption from service in the military even before he was asked to undergo a preliminary physical check-up. Nevertheless, the committee claimed that he was not a true pacifist; his beliefs were not “pure” enough.

Support and guidance

ACOI gave us an enormous amount of guidance on how Yinnon should present his request to be released from the military on the grounds of his total belief in pacifism. It is against Israeli law to either assist someone in evading the draft or incite him/her to resist it. It may be considered a breach of law even to give out information to someone who has already decided to resist the draft, including information that is in the public domain because it is related to past cases. So ACOI members themselves risk going to jail by helping Yinnon pursue his ideals.

As our commitment to the cause of conscientious objection grew, so did our awareness. We learned that it was virtually impossible to obtain information pertinent to the number of draftees and avoiders from the military or from other governmental institutions. We have had to rely on quotes from members of Knesset or military officers. On occasion a survey is exposed. It seems that far fewer Israeli citizens, even of those apparently liable for enlistment, actually do serve in the IDF. In fact the little data published varies considerably, but even according to most modest evaluations, less then half of Israelis serve, and the proportion seems to be declining. We know for a fact that since 1974 no more than 42% of the “eligible” population has served in the army. To this we might add that about 20% of young soldiers drop out of the military and do not complete their required tour of duty (three years for males, 1 yr 9 months for females).

“What are my options?”

Despite the costs, increasing numbers of Israelis are turning into draft resisters. Recently, ACOI merged with New Profile, an antimilitarist, feminist organisation of women and men and youth (see box), of which I am a member. New Profile receives many phone calls from young people just starting their induction process, and men in reserve duty, asking for advice about refusal. They ask “how do I get released?” and “what are my options?” The increased rate of draft resistance and objection may partly be due to the fact that the political situation in Israel has become dangerously tense. The new Intifada and recent violent attacks of the military and police on Palestinians within Israel and the Palestinian Authorities have made Israeli youth aware of the danger they will be subjected to in military service, and at the same time the danger they will inflict on the Palestinian victims of the Israeli army. It is more obvious that the military is an occupying force.

Parents call us too, concerned and scared by the path their child has chosen. All are searching for the best way to have their child released from military service, at the same time hoping they will not be adversely affected and suffer emotionally. It is harder for them to accept draft resistance than it is for their children and their peer group. Parents are more vulnerable to the opinions of the communities they live in and of society as a whole. But the ones that call us are supportive of their child even though politically they may not agree.

“Israel is not Switzerland”

We appealed to the High Court in December 2000, for Yinnon's right to be released from military service on the grounds of his pacifism. We were summoned for a hearing before a panel of three judges in March, 2001. Much to our surprise the judges, especially Judge Isaac Englerad, encouraged and initiated a discussion on issues of discrimination between men and women, and secular and religious Jews, in regard to conscription. The attorney for the Ministry of Defence was unable to relate to the discussion on overall world opinion of who is a pacifist. He insisted over and over again that, since Israel was at war, everyone had to serve. “Israel is not Switzerland”, he said. He was questioned over and over again as to why the army was incapable of accepting Yinnon as a pacifist and exempting him from military service on the grounds of his beliefs.

Although no final decision has been handed down, the Ministry of Defence received an injunction order. They must give a detailed explanation why Yinnon was not released from army service within 45 days (by 10 May, 2001). This is a very surprising outcome. If Yinnon loses the appeal we will have grounds to appeal once again. If he is released from military service this will set a precedent; he will have opened new opportunities to other young people who have similar beliefs.