By Ben Sales
TEL AVIV (JTA) — The Israel Defense Forces oppresses people, the letter said. The army creates inequality, perpetuates injustice and corrupts social values.
The letter didn’t come from a foreign protest group, but from teachers and graduates of one of Jerusalem’s elite high schools, the Israeli Arts and Sciences Academy, or IASA, and it encouraged the school’s students to refuse to participate in mandatory military service.
The letter, which was published Sunday and included nearly 60 signatories, focused mainly on Israel’s continued occupation of the West Bank, but it also noted the “oppression and dispossession” of non-Jewish Israelis and called this summer’s military campaign in Gaza a “massacre.”
“Refusal means voting with our feet against a policy that cannot be tolerated,” the letter says. “Under a regime which negates any chance for diplomatic and social normalcy, which can ignore and squash sweeping social protest, refusal today is a brave and necessary act of civil resistance to unacceptable crimes.”
Most Israelis see the military as a unifying institution and a protective bulwark in a dangerous region. Army service is widely considered a rite of passage, with a majority of Israelis serving for two or three years and many continuing as reservists for decades.
But for the third time this year, a group of Israelis has published a letter opposing participation in certain military activities because of the occupation. In March, dozens of high school students published a letter announcing they would not serve in the IDF, and in September 43 elite intelligence officers from the 8200 unit declared they would no longer carry out operations targeting Palestinians.
“This letter isn’t just upsetting — it’s hurtful,” Deputy Education Minister Avi Wortzman said on Army Radio, referring to the IASA letter. “Army service is what allows us to live in this state. There’s no discussion over whether a certain group can come and take the privilege for themselves of deciding whether we can live here.”
To the IASA signatories, the IDF’s main role has shifted from defending the state to ruling the Palestinians. Raya Rotem, an IASA literature teacher who lost her husband in the 1973 Yom Kippur War, acknowledges the need for an army but said she can’t support IDF actions in good conscience.
“The army has become a police army, which raises a question among ethical people,” said Rotem, 70. “The occupation became a norm, and there’s an erosion of the moral threshold.”
Conscientious objection is nothing new in Israel. The country’s first prominent draft refusal letter was written during the 1982 Lebanon War, when a group of soldiers asked not to participate in the invasion. But conscientious objection remains a fringe phenomenon.
Yair Sheleg, a research fellow at the Israel Democracy Institute, says the recent crop of letters reflect a radicalization of rhetoric on all sides of Israel’s political discourse.
“There’s a sharpening of the diplomatic argument,” Sheleg said. “From right and left, expressions are getting more extreme. Events like war always sharpen this.”
To date, most Israelis have not been swayed by the arguments of the refuseniks. A poll by the Israel Democracy Institute think tank following the September letter found that four out of five Israelis see draft refusal as unacceptable.
The signatories nevertheless hope their arguments will influence the country’s discourse about the Palestinians. One signer of the 8200 intelligence unit letter, who like all the signatories has remained anonymous due to the sensitivity of his work, said he felt obligated to speak out.
“It’s very easy to tag refuseniks as traitors, but certainly for us, the act of refusal is the furthest thing from being a traitor as possible,” he said. “It’s an act of caring for the country and its future. It was a very hard act for us to do, and it was out of necessity.”