Like most Israeli youth, at age 18, Rotem Mor readied himself for military conscription. In the army, he was a liaison soldier with foreign armies at the Port of Egypt, but was kicked out of the unit for under-performance. After that, he was a soldier-teacher working with civilians, and spent a year in Jerusalem, working with disadvantaged kids. But he wasn’t happy.
Mor began to have misgivings about the army even before he joined. He felt he had a responsibility to himself and his society. “I stopped blaming the army for my misery and took a stand,” he said. He began serving in February of 2000, but by August 2001, he knew the army was not the place for him, and he sent a letter requesting exemption for reasons of conscience.
In the two weeks between his refusal and discharge, he tried to prepare himself for prison, where he knew he would be sent for refusing, but he had no regrets. “I went from a depressed soldier to attention and exposure,” he says. “I worked a lot harder trying to get out of the army than I ever did while I was in it.”
But there was a lot of uncertainty in standing up to a system with more power than he. “They could hold me in prison for a long time,” he says. “The main thing that scares people away [from refusing], is not knowing what will happen to you. You can be tried again, once you get out of prison.” In the end, he spent 28 days in jail.
“More people are speaking out,” he says, “but it’s still quiet. Not like it was 10 years ago, though. There’s a lot more support now. In some places, refusing is the norm, in others, not, and those places can be right next to each other.”
According to Sergeiy Sandler of New Profile, a movement working to demilitarize Israeli society, it’s difficult to determine how many refuseniks are ideological, because there are so many other ways of avoiding service that don’t lead to prison sentences.
“Some are not called up to begin with — even though by law they are supposed to be,” Sandler says. “Those are most of the members of the Palestinian minority among Israeli citizens, making up roughly 20 percent of the relevant age group among Israeli citizens. Religiously observant Jewish women are exempted upon submitting a simple declaration often made by not-so-observant women as well; about one-third of all Jewish women are exempted on these grounds.”
Medical discharges, and especially psychiatric ones, he adds, are quite common, especially for those who’ve already been enlisted and have decided then to opt out. Ultra-Orthodox Jewish men, who decide to be full-time students of religious colleges, or yeshivoth, get a complicated scheme of deferral of military service. Declared conscientious objectors are a relatively very small group to be added on top of that.
“There are negative consequences,” says Sandler, “but they are usually not very substantial. There is a considerable deal of discrimination against those who have not served in the military in the labor market, for example, but most of it is due to the large proportion of security jobs in the general job market in Israel, and a lot of it is just a thin disguise for ethnic discrimination against Palestinians.”
But the public condemnation for avoiding military service is far more pronounced, although it has decreased in recent years.
“Up to some 20 years ago,” says Sandler, “military service was considered some sort of sacred duty by most Israelis. It often still is, but overall, as the numbers of those deciding not to serve rose, the decision to avoid military service was beginning to be considered increasingly more legitimate. Nevertheless, the pressure to enlist is still exceptionally high, and includes an enormous amount of military presence in culture and education, from kindergarten on.”
This is an action that Mor has taken issue with. In a letter to foreign organizations, asking for their help to further his case, at the time of his refusal, he wrote, “questions began arising long before I was recruited. They stemmed from information I had been acquiring about the Israel-Arab conflict and the discovery of the disinformation I had been subjected to over the years about it. I found that the more I educated myself, the less I believed the ‘official’ Israeli version of events. This point of view is the moral premise on which most Israeli youths justify their army service. I had begun to realize how much hate and fear were instilled in me from a very young age. I found that I do not believe in the existence of an ‘enemy,’ but of people of another culture who were just as scared and angry as I was.”
Increasing attitudes like Mor’s among Israeli youth has caused the government to take action to renew public dedication toward service.
“The recent year saw a concentrated public campaign by the military itself and some civil-society groups sponsored by it to restore the old attitude,” says Sandler.
“It is too early to judge how effective this campaign will turn out to be,” he adds. “My own guess is that they won’t be able to turn the clock backwards after all.”
“The message from the government about service is that it’s your national duty, it builds the country, and it’s good for your career,” says Mor. “But they skew the messages based on the class of people they are talking to. If you are in the lower echelon, it’s a lot harder.”
He feels that Israel’s classification of itself with Europe and the US, and its attempt to remove itself from identification with the Middle East, as well as determined separation from Palestinians, has a lot to do with the state of conflict today.
“The overall opinion about Palestinians seems to be getting worse, and I feel it is because of more separation,” he says. “People in Israel are recognizing more political rights for the Palestinians, but they are afraid to speak out.”
“There are very few initiatives inside Israel [directed toward unity]. If there is going to be a peaceful Jewish existence, they have to be part of the Middle East, and not so aligned with Europe and the US. Israel is portrayed as a united society, but has a lot of small subgroups with a lot of different opinions and experiences. In a broad sense, the US is seen as protector and ally, but also as someone telling Israelis what to do and how to do it.”
On the subject of the Israel lobby’s influence in the US, he says, “Each side can use the other to blame because they can say they are being told what to do. It’s very convenient to have someone to blame.”
He adds: “I think we need to learn more about where we live.”
To that end, he has headed up a number of initiatives in the seven years since his refusal and discharge.
After his release, he spent a year traveling to different countries, meeting with political activists and talking to them about his experiences. Upon his return to Israel, he began running seminars for young people who were contemplating their own refusal. “These two-day seminars created a safe space for young people to contemplate their army service and refusal,” he later wrote. “The seminars also provided youth with a variety of information and strategies for carrying out their decision to refuse.”
He also worked with the American Friends Service Committee to strengthen the Israeli conscientious objector movement, including organizing meetings between Israeli conscientious objectors and Palestinians, living both in Israel and in the Occupied Palestinian Territories. In addition, he was involved in the nonviolent movement against Israel’s wall in the West Bank.
Currently, he is studying Middle Eastern classical music through a program at the Center for Middle Eastern Classical Music in Jerusalem, called Promoting Middle East Culture through Peace, which he describes as “a project acting to empower and promote Middle Eastern culture in Israel as a means of integrating Israeli society into the Middle East. Despite the seldom-mentioned fact that the majority of Israel’s population (Jewish, Muslim and Christian) is of Middle Eastern origin, Middle Eastern culture (in all its expressions: music, cinema, theater, religion, history and heritage) has only a marginal space in Israeli society and mass culture.”
“In school, there is a lot of racism and prejudices present, but I think it opens up a lot — learning about another culture opens you up to them,” he says. “Some of the students, even though ideologically they stood with the Palestinians, there was still a divide. Learning about another culture is like learning another language and speaking the same language brings people together.”
In the meantime, Mor continues to spread his message of unity in any way he can, believing that this is the only way to really have peace. He is currently writing a book about his experiences, which he hopes to finish next year.
Sarah Price is an American freelance journalist based in Los Angeles, CA. She recently visited the occupied Gaza Strip.