"We cannot ignore the truth ~ the occupation is a violent, racist, inhumane, illegal, undemocratic, immoral and an extreme condition that presents a mortal danger to both peoples… We, who were educated on the values of liberty, justice, honesty and peace, cannot accept it."
So reads the letter declaring the refusal of 150 students to join the Israeli army this year. Amongst that number is Efi Brenner, 18 years old and an active animal and human rights campaigner. His decision has resulted in ten days imprisonment, with further terms likely, and for his family to throw him out of home. Despite the fallout Efi’s commitment to his decision and the reasons underlying it remain resolute.
"One of the reasons I refuse to join is because I want the Palestinians to know that not all Israelis are in favour of the occupation and that some people are willing to make a sacrifice to end it."
- Photo by Palestine Monitor
The ‘Mandatory Conscription Law’ means every Israeli must join the army when they finish high school; boys serve for three years and girls for two. Israel’s conscientious objectors are known as shministim which literally means twelfth graders denoting the final high school year before military service begins.
The shministim dates back to the 1970s and every year people refuse to join for a variety of reasons though quantities are hard to establish ~ this is not an activity the Israelis authorities wish to publicize. The reasons behind refusing are diverse and encompass those that morally object to the occupation of Palestine and extreme Zionists who refuse to carry out orders such as the forced evacuation of Jewish settlements.
Interviewing Efi the first thing you notice is he is chronically underweight, to the extent that he would be deemed medically unfit to enlist regardless of his political stance. However instead of taking medical exemption Efi has chosen to make public his views and take an active stand against the occupation, despite the repercussions. As he speaks his clarity of reasoning and his passion for his values is irrefutable.
“I am not willing to enlist in the Israeli army because it occupies the Palestinian nation. It is stealing land, building roads only for Israelis, oppressing people with checkpoints and arbitrary arrests. Some people get a medical certificate to avoid the army without making a political stand.
For me they are shministim even if they don’t want to publically expose their objections, they’re still being true to their moral values and refusing to partake in a force of oppression. But for me it was important to make public my views. I wanted to raise awareness among Israelis about the atrocities our army commits every day.
People here live in ignorance. They do not want to know the reality of what our country is doing, of what’s happening in the territories. This is my chance to highlight the truth of the occupation and to show the Palestinian nation that not every Israeli is prepared to occupy them. I am meant to live in a democracy and should be free to obey my conscience.”
Efi is the only one of his classmates to refuse to serve based on political reasons.
“My generation sees this conflict as natural; it’s all we’ve ever known. From childhood we are raised on Zionist values and so joining the army is nothing strange, it’s what everyone does so people don’t question the politics or morality behind it. When I was a child, I didn’t think about it but when I was 16 years old I was exposed to the animal rights movement and I became a vegan. This introduced me to politics and then I started searching the internet for information about the Israeli–Palestinian conflict.”
“What I read was different to everything I’d been taught. It was pretty confusing so I decided I had to do something and see the reality for myself. I went to the West Bank to a demonstration in the village of Bil’in that’s surrounded by the Wall and has lost over half its land.
Suddenly the army that’s supposed to guard me was shooting at me and my friends even though it was a non-violent protest.
Experiencing this made me realize everything I’d been educated on was a big lie. I’d seen the reality for myself and it was a reality that’s hidden from Israelis sat in coffee bars across Tel Aviv. Every day when I hear about new actions that are oppressing the Palestinian nation it strengthens my conviction in what I am doing.”
“The cooperation between Israelis and Palestine’s in the non-violence struggle against the apartheid wall shows me that peace is possible. For almost 5 years Israelis, Palestinians and internationals have come together for non-violent demonstrations and every time the army shoots on protestors, they raid houses in the night, arrest and attack people to try and quash the resistance.
19 people have been killed since the demonstration started but still people from all over come to protest in one voice and to work for the same goal ~ Palestinian liberation.” After going public with his refusal to enlist Efi was thrown out of home.
“I come from a Zionist family. They are all against my decision. My older sister did her military service; my father served in the 1982 Lebanon war with the paratroops and has carried out his reserve duties every year since.
We had a lot of discussions about my opinions; they are against all of my political activity not just my desire to refuse. When I didn’t enlist my father threw me out of home. I knew this might happen, from the beginning my parent’s didn’t support me, and I know most Israelis feel the same.
They don’t think for themselves, they don’t want to see the reality, they just do what they’re told.”
“Sometime it is hard but I don’t feel alone because I have my friends, my girlfriend Adva and the support of international solidarity. Solidarity is so important, meeting people at demonstrations and on the internet, from all over the world, who share your values and support your cause gives you extra strength.”
Efi was recently attacked in the street by two men who recognized him from the newspapers.
“People on the street see us as traitors some even think the government should take away our citizenship. I don’t care; I am a human being struggling for freedom, fighting for what I believe in, not what someone else has told me to believe in. Israeli society is more violent because of the army.
The violence soldiers experience in the territories they bring back home. Violence is increasing everywhere. The government says the army is there to defend and protect us but we will never be safe as long as the Palestinian nation is under occupation.
I don’t agree with suicide bombers but I can understand why people, who’ve been oppressed for decades and feel powerless and hopeless, might see terrorism as their only option. If you want to prevent people from becoming terrorists you need to stop terrorizing them.”
“There is an indifference prevailing here. People don’t care about the conflict because they are not exposed to it. The media only shows one side of the story. We grow up with no contact with Palestinians so are only view of them is what we are told by our teachers and the media, that they are terrorists and suicide bombers.
People warned me that if I ever went to the territories I would be killed by Palestinians. They try and scare you from ever having contact with the other side. I have many Palestinian friends now that I’ve met at peace demonstrations.
One of them Basem Abu Rahme was killed by the Israeli army. People say I should join the army and try and change it from within but you can’t. As a soldier you must simply obey orders.
Would you encourage a Palestinian to join Hamas to try and stop it? My strategy is non violence because I believe we will only stop the conflict when we stop ourselves from joining the cycle of violence that perpetuates it.”
“Israel is scared of us. The best strategy for them is to keep silent and not let people know about conscientious objectors so we don’t become an example for others. In the end they will deny me entry to the army because I am underweight not because of my political objections, officially I am just not healthy enough so they will bury my story.”
To find out more about this year’s conscientious objectors visit http://www.shministim.com/