Israeli media is finally starting to feel the pressure. These past two weeks, the news has been full of the issues that activists have been working hard for and paying with their freedom for. Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions is slowly making headlines, the Goldstone report has been on the Israeli mind all week and the issue I’d like to highlight today, has been gaining momentum: The Shministim.
Meet the Shministim
In Hebrew “Shministim” means “seniors”. Every high school senior, in Israel, gets their drafting order in the mail. On rare occasions, these seniors refuse on ethical grounds, becoming conscientious objectors. In Israel, conscientious objectors are jailed by the army. They serve up to 28 days (those refusing to wear an army uniform, during their jailing, are sent to solitary confinement), are released and jailed again, until the army agrees to discharge them.
In 2008, a global campaign was launched to release these standup youth from jail:
The History of the Shministim Tradition
Shministim is actually a bit of an archaic term, the reason is because conscientious objecting didn’t start with this group of seniors, but almost 40 years ago, with a letter to Golda Meir. The young, soon-to-be-soldiers expressed their reservations about the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza.
In 1979 another letter, dubbed “The 27 Letter” for its 27 signatories, was sent to the minister of defense. This letter was controversial in the sense that it featured “selective objection”. The youth were willing to be drafted, as long as they don’t serve in occupied territories. Members of the group were dealt with individually; Some were jailed for a short term, some were drafted bet not sent to the occupied territories, and some were discharged.
The most famous of the 27 was Gadi Algazi, who was eventually drafted and had refused, seven times, to serve in the occupied territories. After a long line of short jail sentences, he was tried, in 1980, and was sentenced to a year in military prison. After civil campaign to free him, he would have to endure one more confrontation with the army, which had finally decided to discharge him.
During the year 2000- the Second Intifada- similar letters were sent by Israeli youths to different public figures. In 2001, 61 teenagers sent then Prime Minister, Ariel Sharon, a letter stating both full objection and selective objection. In 2002 the letter was sent again, this time amounting to 350 signatories. The Shministim that stood their ground and, in fact, didn’t serve, were imprisoned for a number of months, as disciplinary punishment.
In 2003 the signatories were to be tried. Feeling especially vindictive, the army decided to have two of them, Yoni Ben-Artzi and Haggai Mattar, court-martialed. This way the penalty can be extended to up to three years, as apposed to regular disciplinary action, which allowed “only” 35 days in jail. In an admirable act of solidarity, the others, Mattan Kaminer, Adam Maor, Shimri Tzameret and Noam Bahat apealed to be court-martialed, as well (they also appealed their cases were joined with Mattar’s, but not with Ben-Artzi’s, because of difference of principles). The trial went on for nine months, at the end of which, they were each sentenced to a year in jail.
The story of the 2003 Shministim is especially infuriating because of the fascist nature of the sentencing (limited by my translation):
We conclude that the five defendants [not including Ben-Artzi] that have testified before us are adamant in their belief that the actions of the military, that implement the policy of the government towards the detained territories and their residence, are wrong and immoral and hurt the local population in an unjust and unworthy manner, and damage the country’s citizens and soldiers that take part in in these activities, morally and economically.
All the defendants, to one degree or another, tried to divert the weight of their claims from the ideological-political to the issue of personal-conscientious. Nonetheless, during their cross examinations, they all confessed that they see themselves as part of a bigger movement, that one of its goals is that many will hear of their refusals, and that they’ll be happy if their refusal and the letter they had signed will influence others to join them. Be that as it may, our feeling was that the defendants made an effort to hide their intentions of influencing the public through their refusal, to wake many youths (Army graduates and soldiers under conscription and in reserves) to take steps, that express a resistance- by thought and by deed- to government policy, and as such to thwart it.
The defendants do feel a moral and ideological disdain towards taking part of an army that, in their view, is acting immorally. Notwithstanding, the act of refusal doesn’t stem only from this disdain, but also- and maybe most of all- because of the defendant’s wish to change popular opinion as a whole, the opinions and behavior of security service candidates and of conscripted soldiers and reserves, and eventually to a change in government policy and to bring an end to the occupation.
In 2005, a Shministim letter with 250 signatories was sent to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz, IDF Comander in Chief Moshe Ya’alon and Education Minister Limor Livnat. In this letter, the signatories asked for an alternative civil community service option. These young standup citizens are serving amassing short sentences, as we speak. And in between, they are anti-occupation activists, demonstrating in Bil’in and the surrounding villages, accompanying farmers in Saffa and speaking around the world about occupation and apartheid.
Now, in 2009, a new crop of 88 fine young men and women are showing no fear in the face of power:
We, the undersigned young women and men, Jews and Arabs from all parts of the country, hereby declare that we will toil against the occupation and oppression policies of the Israeli government in the occupied territories, and in the territory of the land of Israel, and therefore refuse to take part in actions related to such policies, which are carried out in our name by the Israeli Defence Force.We are all community activists and contribute in various ways to a variety of sectors in the Israeli society. We believe that contribution, cooperation and volunteerism are a way of life, and should not be limited to just two or three years. Our conscientious objection stems directly from our volunteer experience, from the values we believe in, from our love of the society that we are a part of and in which we live, from our respect of every human being, and from the aim of making our country a better place for all of its inhabitants.
Demonizing the Kids
The Shministim are rarely featured in the news in Israel, which is rather worrisome, seeing as teenagers are being jailed for their politics and no one seems to mind. Today, however, as I mentioned at the beginning of this article, the Shministim are taking center stage. With the support of the organizations Jewish Voice for Peace and Code Pink, the Shministim are on speaking tours, in the US, and South America. The Israeli media outlets are having a fit, and proving once more that they see their duty as strengthening violent government agenda in the public mind, rather than exposing what’s going on.
One of the basic media offenses is one I can’t quote: When the media is covering the Shministim, it never mentions their history. It’s not that every article needs the full coverage that I gave above, but an allusion to the fact that these youths didn’t just fall out the sky one day and decide to do something that doesn’t make any sense, would assist by way of context. Of course this is very deliberate, and the media is nothing short of giulty of demonizing high school kids. Of course, there’s another aspect to this, and that is the continual erasing of history. After all, we wouldn’t want to create a tradition of dissent in the only democracy in the Middle East, now would we?
Demonizing of Israel’s young conscientious objectors has become a favorite pastime since they made some waves in South Africa, last week. One way to do this is by taking lead Hasbara talking points and incorporating them in the article, as Ha’aretz did:
Community leaders condemned the visit, fearing it will stir up anti-Israel and anti-Semitic sentiments.
At the University of Cape Town, one of the shministim said she did’t [sic] believe in a two-state-solution and another one said she considered herself Israeli rather than Jewish, a spectator said. [To fully understand this one, refer to my post “The Zionist Identity Crisis”]
At a tumultuous gathering at a Jewish institution Wednesday, the trio was “basically lynched,” according to an eyewitness. At the end of the event, “all mobbed forward” and called the shministim cowards, bringing one of them to tears, the source added. Organizer Daniel Mackintosh told Anglo File he and the shministim were insulted and threatened by “extremely aggressive” people in the audience. [It’s very subtle- under the guise of partial quotes, the author undermines the eyewitness.]
A special place is given to Zionist officials, in the article (doubly biased when considering that the Shministim got only two quotes and were never mensioned by name):
“They will leave South Africa having made a few more anti-Semites in the non-Jewish community and influenced a few school children, but the Jewish community, almost to a man, stood together with Israel,” said David Hersh, the former chairman of Western Province Zionist Council…
Maish Isaacson, the chairman of Telfed – the South African Zionist Federation’s Israel branch, said: “We are extremely upset that young Israelis take their gripes abroad – everyone has the right to object but we strongly believe the issue should be handled locally in Israel… We have however put in place a monitoring system to try and find out about such visits in advance for the future.”
David Saks, associate director of the Board of Jewish Deputies told Anglo File it was evident in meetings with the shministim that ” they were very ignorant of South African history and weren’t aware of how false comparisons between Israel and apartheid are harming their country…. Ex-South Africans in Israel can always try to educate them. However, [the shministim] are so rooted in their smug self-righteousness that it may well be impossible to get through to them… I am sure their motives are well-intended from their perspective, as they’re concerned about society both in Israel and South Africa. But they are misled by naivety – the atmosphere in South Africa at the moment is incredibly toxic in terms of attitudes toward Israel,” he said, referring to several incidents of South Africans politicians making anti-Semitic remarks.
The cherry on top would be Kaplan’s final quote. A monument to the centrism that Israel loves to convey, in order to create the illusion of a balanced situation:
These youngsters don’t realize the damage they’re doing… The problem is that their movement has lost all sense of proportion, it’s drifting away from a balanced point of view and has become completely obsessed with the occupation.
I’d like to add a note on Kaplan’s last statement: Understanding that the occupation is at the root of the problem is the first step to getting justice in this region. No state-solution and no half-assed agreements will do here. The situation must be understood for what it is: Institutionalized apartheid. Calling it an obsession, is exactly the kind of statement that would land Kaplan a quote in Ha’aretz.
If you think our “enlightened, leftist” paper is subtle, check out the uber-subtle maneuvering of the “state’s paper” (the official slogan- I didn’t make it up), Yediot Acharonot. Let’s start with the title (limited by my translation):
A Youth from Rishon Le’tzion – Of the Heads of the Shministim Refusers
The specific word for “heads” (בכירי), used in this title, implies military ranking. It’s also often used to describe “heads of Hamas”. This is how you turn grassroots into “terrorism”. The article goes on to describe these teenagers as “Soldiers in the army of refusal” and has the following to say about the mandatory army service:
Effi Brener (18) from Rishon Le’tzion, was suppose to arrive at the recruiting office, next Thursday, to “get on” uniform and embark on a new path of military service, that symbolizes, to most of his pears, the passageway from childhood to adulthood.
Such an exiting, magical journey awaits this stubborn, ingrate, how dare he refuse this irresistible adventure?! More shocking to the Yediot reporter, is the fact that Brener doesn’t say “IDF” (i.e. Israeli Defense Forces), he prefers the term “warring militarism”. The article goes on to place Brener on the political Left (as you know from the last election, that’s one way to get the majority riled up) and talk about him as if he’s drawn up plans to take over the Temple Mount:
The continual struggle against one of the strongest entities in the country is just one of list of social aims, Brener hopes to attain.
In Yediot’s defense, Brener gets a mini-interview, but with opinions like his, it serves the paper- thus the state- thus the army- well. To end the article, we have the principle of the school, denying that this is a far-reaching phenomena in her school, and the crazed lyricism of Dov Tzur, mayor of Rishon Le’tzion, proving once again, that Zionism isn’t politics, but an ideology that sees itself above reason and ethics:
In a state like ours, in the situation it’s in for so many years, we don’t have the luxury of conscientious delinquency and it’s not something we can allow. There is a very basic flaw in the education and it doesn’t matter what your political views are. It’s part of the string that bonds us as a society.
The subtlety of Yediot propaganda, brings to my mind the words of Zdener Urbanek:
In dictatorships we are more fortunate that you in the West in one respect. We believe nothing of what we read in the newspapers and nothing of what we watch on television, because we know its propaganda and lies. Unlike you in the West. We’ve learned to look behind the propaganda and to read between the lines, and unlike you, we know that the real truth is always subversive.
So that we don’t think that Yediot is choosing sides, they added another mechanism of propaganda. Carefully worded, even a poll could be completely distorted:
What do you think?
- A person should act according to his conscious, and if he is willing to pay the price of refusing to serve in the IDF and sit in prison, it is his right and maybe even his duty.
- They are stabbing a knife in the back of the nation. The IDF has superior ethics, under tough fighting conditions, and if they refuse to serve, they aren’t different from other dodgers.
I won’t comment on the scary second choice, but lets look at the first answer: If I want to be an ethical person, I must be willing to sit in prison, not only that; It is my duty to sit in prison. This is the society I was born into and live in. (for all you curious folks, out there: The scary answer won with a majority of 76.23% over 23.77%, last time I checked.)
Zionist Grassroots Strikes Again
I’ll play devil’s advocate again and say that Yediot do mention that a similar letter was written 30 years ago, but instead of linking to that, they much prefer linking to the counter-letter, written by shministim of Bnei Akiva, a religious Zionist version of the scouts. [limited by my translation]:
We, high school youths, were shocked, lately, to hear in the media about the “Shministim letter 2009 and the struggle of its signatories around the world”… Each year, we are witnesses to these voices that call for [draft] dodging from serving the state with ideological statements, and this year we’ve decided not to stay indifferent, not to be silent, and to show that this opinion is the opinion of the few, and that we, the youth of today, want to continue the ways of the founders of this country, the underground fighters and the heros of the IDF for generations… It is obvious to us all that the IDF is a moral army, nevertheless, we strive for constant inquiry and moving forward of soldiers and commanders. We believe that true improvements will come from taking responsibility from within the army and not from running away from it. We believe that we, the youth nearing draft, will lead towards a moral and ethical way, a way of leadership and taking responsibility, a way of uniting the people and a way of true and honest cooperation.
Remember the blonde youth in the film Cabaret that spontaneously stands up in the middle of a cafe, for a little fascist ditty? There’s so much I could say about this statement, but I’d like to keep focused. In order to fully understand what the body-snatched youth of Bnei Akiva are saying, a few notes:
- The term draft-dodger is practically a swear, in Israel.
- Bnei Akiva confuse the terms “state” and “country”, as is so often the case in Israel. I decided to translate the literal word used; “state”, but I disclose that I believe they meant to say “country”. Either way, how does one serve land by wielding a gun, is beyond me.
- It’s interesting that this sudden burst of activism isn’t because the youth of Bnei Akiva believe Zionism is dying; On the contrary, it’s because they believe it’s strong. What can we call this but a show of force, of the strong against the weak?