Jerusalem high school alumni to students: Refuse military draft

Dozens of Jerusalem’s Israel Arts and Sciences Academy alumni publish a letter calling on future graduates to refuse to serve the occupation. Orly Noy sat down to speak to one of the signatories about the legality of the letter, militarism in the educational system and the influence of former IASA student, Sayed Kashua. 

Three Israeli refuseniks. Their T-shirts read: “We See. We Hear. We Refuse,” Tel Aviv, October 16th, 2009. (Photo by Keren Manor/Activestills.org
Three Israeli refuseniks. Their T-shirts read: “We See. We Hear. We Refuse,” Tel Aviv, October 16th, 2009. (Photo by Keren Manor/Activestills.org

Just three months ago reservists from the secretive Unit 8200 declared their refusal to serve in the army. Now a group of alumni from the Jerusalem’s Israel Arts and Sciences Academy (IASA) are calling on the school’s students to do the same and refuse to enlist. There are many similarities between the two groups: if Unit 8200 is considered to be one of the most elite units in the army, then IASA is its educational equivalent.

The school, established in 1990, was formed “to serve as a unique school for gifted and talented students from across the country.” The boarding school picks the most outstanding students from across the country in a lengthy and arduous screening process that lasts nearly a year. Those who are picked study either humanities, sciences, art or music. As opposed to the soldiers of 8200, the alumni of IASA, who were also joined by former faculty members, are doing more than simply declaring their own personal refusal – they are going one step further and calling on future graduates to refuse to enlist in the IDF. From the letter:

The Israeli military is responsible for the mundane systematic mechanisms of oppression used against Palestinians in the Occupied Territories while also taking part in the oppression and dispossession of the non-Jewish citizens of the State of Israel. The military serves as an enabler to a separation-regime based on the notion of an ethnic superiority of Jews over Palestinians; a regime which denies basic human rights, enforces separate legal systems to different populations in the West Bank, and which has institutionalized a system of ethnic-based discrimination in the ‘48 territory.

Gilad Leibovitz, 36, is a 1996 IASA graduate who signed the letter. He currently studies medicine in Italy.

How did this initiative come about?

It began during the summer by a number of alumni and quickly gained many signatures.

Can you describe the signatories in general terms? Did any Palestinians sign it? Faculty members?

There are Palestinians among the signatories. They are, of course, Palestinian alumni and citizens of Israel. It may even surprise you to hear that many Palestinians refused to sign or be part of the letter in any capacity. I assume it has to do with their workplace or their relative proximity to the Jewish population’s consensus on the issue. I also assume that most of them are afraid of being harmed by the consequences of the call.

There are also former faculty members – a literature teacher, a homeroom teacher, another alumnus from my graduating class who worked in the arts department and myself. After graduation I worked on staff as a social counselor at the boarding school. Obviously, one of the current staff members signed the letter.

Israeli activists protest outside the Ministry of Defense in central Tel Aviv, calling for the release of former conscientious objector Natan Blank. (Photo by: Activestills.org)
Israeli activists protest outside the Ministry of Defense in central Tel Aviv, calling for the release of former conscientious objector Natan Blank. (Photo by: Activestills.org)

As opposed to previous conscientious objector letters, yours includes not only a declaration that you will refuse to serve, but also a call on graduates to refuse. This is considered a crime. Have you considered the consequences of your decision? Did you receive legal consultation?

This is a call to refuse. I think that we need to look at this question from a few different angles. First of all, it is ignorant to think that someone who has signed onto a refusal letter has not read it. I do not think that the soldiers of 8200 published their refusal letter under the premise they would simply publish their stories and that’s the end of it. The significance of every public call for refusal is that it also calls on others to take part in the act. I think that this kind of debate belongs in the world of contract law, rather as a part of a serious discussion.

As for the issue of the legality of the call, we did seek out legal consultation. Obviously there is no lawyer who prefers that this kind of call never be issued. We chose not to hide behind a cloud of ambiguity and instead decided to state the obvious.

On a fundamental level, I cannot say that I would be surprised if the state takes active steps against us. Doing so, however, would be a mark of shame for any democratic state, although perhaps most people here may no longer frown upon that. The call to break the law exists in many other situations, including among right wingers or the ultra-Orthodox community. This is a call that has existed across the world at different times, such as during the Vietnam War. Furthermore, this is a call that has characterized popular uprisings against different regimes, such as the oppression of blacks in the United States or the most totalitarian regimes of the last century. This call, or rather the lack of such an explicit call, is one of the reasons why the Western world blames Nazi Germany, without getting into comparisons. The actual call to break the law is not of the essence.

From the letter:

Oppression mechanisms are also used against Jews within Israel, particularly against Mizrachi, Ultra-Orthodox, Ethiopians, women, residents of the periphery and the poor wherever they are. The military is not the only executive power in the current political, social and economic reality, but a refusal to serve in it is a clear expression of resistance against these oppressions. Backed by the military, Israeli governments are exploiting the weakened populations for ethnic cleansing and dispossession projects across the Green Line, in the Negev and the Galilee, using them to fight the so called “demographic war”. The constant state of emergency serves the destructive neoliberal policy of the regime, which means the state’s rejection of its responsibility for its own citizens while eroding basic services such as health, welfare and education.

You call on future graduates to take a step that strays from the norm in Israeli society. Is there an underlying recognition of the privileges that students of a certain background have that will allow them to have support, should they answer the call?

I think that first and foremost, it is important that anyone who chooses to refuse knows he is not alone. He is not alone because others believe and think like him. He is not alone because we will stand together and help one another, and we will help those who choose to try and chance the discourse and the present situation, even if they live in a reality that does not allow them to even dream of doing so.

IASA is a very elitist school. Did you witness any militarism while there?

I don’t think there is a single place in Israeli society that is not strongly influenced by or is part of a militaristic discourse. The very fact that we are having this conversation is perhaps the best indication that the discourse is omnipresent. It is part of us, our culture, our ethos, our identity as a nation. There is no doubt that IASA is partner to it, and that the message of the school is not open to discussion. I think that part of it is also to raise awareness of the educational system’s indoctrination, which begins from a very young age and never ends. I think it is very sad that speaking about human rights or full equality for all citizens of Israel is seen as radical or extreme.

Is the school’s principal aware of the letter? Have you gotten responses? If not, what kind of responses are you expecting?

I know that the administration has been aware of the letter for several months. We haven’t received any responses yet. I assume that there is a fear that the school will be seen as radical left or something similar, and that this may hurt their “marketing.” But because we are not talking about a school-sanctioned letter, I am sure that the school will understand its place in the public discourse at large, and specifically among its students and alumni.

Sayed Kashua’s new movie, ‘Dancing Arabs,’ is currently being screened in theaters across the country. The movie is partially based on the difficult experiences he had at IASA. Were you aware of the difficulties that Palestinian students faced at the school? Was it spoken about?

I am sure that Palestinians face many difficult situations at the school. The school is ostensibly open to everyone, but in reality its identity is, without a doubt, Jewish-Zionist. I think that the underlying expectation is that Palestinians become assimilated. As a counselor at the boarding school I could these situations in a way that I previously couldn’t. I remember two Palestinian students who flew on the annual trip to the [Nazi] death camps in [present day] Poland. One returned draped in the Israeli flag, singing Chava Alberstein songs, while the other got up and spoke during one of the ceremonies on the trip about the understanding that Arabs in Israel have of the post-concentration camp experience. There was never a discussion of the Palestinian version of the state’s history.

I have yet to see Sayed Kashua’s new film, although I did read the book and watch his television show regularly. I think that Sayed brilliantly expresses the frustrations of that student who tries to be part of a culture that can’t really deal with that student’s identity. This leads the student to want to change his or her identity.

Did Sayed sign the letter?

No, Sayed didn’t sign it. I don’t know what his reasons were, but I personally think that it is not our place to judge. Sayed does a lot to help us understand and deal with the current situation. I am not sure that it is the job of a Palestinian to call for conscientious objection in a Jewish society, since that option is not open to him in the first place.

This article was first published on +972′s Hebrew-language sister site, Local Call. Read it in Hebrew here.

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