Refuzniks

Refuzniks are the Israeli people who are unwilling to serve in the army. For different reasons they reject what it seems to be a compulsory stage in a militarized society. From childhood to adolescence, schools and institutes, invite soldiers to their classrooms to explain the role and importance of the army. Almost in any job and at each university, Israeli are asked what they did in the army.

In fact, Israel has the world record for expenditure on armaments per capita: US.$ 1429. Tsahal has 186.500 soldiers and may mobilize 445.000 reservists. Nowadays, half of Israelis beggins military service at 18 years old (3 years for men, 2 years for women). However, it can be avoided if you may present any physical or mental problem. For Israeli Arabs (18% of the population) and the Haredim Jews (who make religious studies), the military service is not compulsory.

Many of the refuzniks are pacifists. In this case they will have to go to a committee that will decide whether the person has or has not the right to avoid doing the military service. Others choose to say clearly that they are against the occupation of Palestinian territories. The punishment for these people is the military prison. The penalty can vary from 2 months to 2 years. There are also people who avoid the military service for personal reasons (studies, work, family...) The movement of Refuzniks is acquiring importance although it is not well accepted in the country. This serie of portraits aims to show a hidden part of Israel.

This work is from a 200-page book published by Libertalia (France) with 47 portraits and about 15 contextual photos. The interviews of these Refuzniks (much longer than here) were conducted between 2008 and 2017. This book was awarded at the «Rendez-vous Photo» festival (Strasbourg - France) of which Paolo Woods was the artistic director.

Omri, 18 : «It all started with an awareness about a very simple thing: I am against taking a life. I quickly realized that I could not be part of a violent structure like the army. At home, we did not talk about politics, I did not even know what the occupation of the Palestinian territories was. When I went to the West Bank, it was like an electroshock. At checkpoints, at 3 am, we can see 8,000 people waiting to go through a very small door. There are elderly people, pregnant women and patients. Some fall from exhaustion. I spent 67 days in jail.» Tel Aviv 2016.

Ben, 27, video club assistant: “My father spent 40 days in jail for not wanting to serve in the army in Gaza. When it was my turn to go, I told the officer in charge about my mental problems, that I didn’t want to carry a weapon and that if I was forced to carry one, I would use it against my superiors. It was one of the most important decisions of my life. When I see all the young people who die for the Zionist cause I can only be happy with my decision. I'd like to feel compassion for these soldiers but, honestly, I can't: when they pull the trigger and shoot at civilians that's unforgivable.” Tel Aviv 2014.

Omer, 20, student: “The army system works well. It leaves no time for reflection. I think the Israelis have to know the Palestinians' situation to be able to choose whether they want to join the army or not. 
My father is an important general, he was deputy director of [Israeli intelligence agency] Mossad. We were on opposite sides. I spent two months in jail. My case caused a big stir. It was hard, I lost five kilos.” Tel Aviv 2009.

Alex, 22 years, projectionist . "At 17 years, I went to the occupied territories to help Palestinians and to pick the olives. I realized that security as a justification of the occupation was a lie. I decided not to do my military service. I spent 5 months in prison for disobedience."

Tair, 19 : «In this society, it is obvious that everyone must do the army, regardless of what you think or who you are. The government, the soldiers themselves, the defense ministry, everybody says, «We have no choice.» Israelis manage to convince themselves that there is no alternative to war. My idea was to break this prejudice. Regarding the checkpoints, the argument is the same: «We have no choice, they stab us in the street.» This is part of the general problem of this country, everything is connected to fear.» Tel Aviv 2016.

Kobi, 38, researcher in mathematics: “When I was 12 years old I decided I would not do military service. I didn’t feel compelled to serve a country which I didn’t feel part of. The first time I was called up I said I was gay, depressed and unbalanced. Today I regret having taken the easiest route and not having simply declared that I refused to serve in the army. The atmosphere in Israel is more and more stifling, it's becoming more and more dangerous to protest in Tel Aviv against the occupation of the territories.” Haifa, 2014.

Tamar, aged 20: “I’m a pacifist. In 2008 I chose to go to jail in order to explain that it's possible to question the taboo of military service. The most important thing for me was that people could hear a different voice. I spent three months in prison. For the last month I was in solitary because I didn't want to wear the uniform. As for what's happening now, I think it's even more important to refuse to go into the army. The hate and intolerance shown towards these kinds of decisions are even stronger today than back then. Nationalism and the Right's propaganda have made people lose all hope. My generation has grown up without any contact with Palestinian society. So hates flourishes more easily.” Tel Aviv 2014.

Uri, “When I was at high school I began to understand that what we were being taught at school was only part of the story. I was interested in politics and was against the occupation of the Palestinian territories. At the age of 17, I thought for the first time that I shouldn't join [the army]. That was a shock for my parents. They tried to convince me to join the army but they didn't succeed. In the end I was declared unfit for service on the grounds of psychiatric problems.” Haïfa 2009.

Margarida, 23: “I arrived in Israel from Brazil with my family when I was 14. I joined the army at 19 and I asked to be [based] near my house. They never listened to me. In the end, I took 60 pills so that they'd understand that it was something serious, and they got rid of me. I dreamed of working at the airport, but that's now impossible.” Ashkelon, 2009.

Isham, 39: “My parents are Druze and communists. It was clear from the start that I would not join the army because I could not support Israeli policy. There's a 1957 law that obliges the Druze to join the army. The major Druze families have accepted this. There's an agreement between two elites, the young have no say in it. Israel’s aim has always been to divide and rule. The Israeli policy has worked, the young Druze join the army and are led to believe they're privileged, yet their social situation remains pitiful. They do all the bad jobs, in particular at check points. I spent a year and a half in prison for disobedience.”

Efi, 23, a student: “From your childhood in Israel you're led to believe that the army protects you. An important experience made me understand that this wasn't the case: I went to Bilin on the West Bank where I saw pacifist demonstrators defend their land. I saw the soldiers fire at them and that shocked me. When growing up in Israel, when you're young, it's impossible to know about this sort of thing.” Tel Aviv, 2009. In 2014 he says: “Today I think that the problem is in fact a complex one. War is a terrible thing and there are people who suffer on both sides. But as it is being attacked I think Israel has the right to defend itself.”

Or, 19: “Because I grew up in a very Zionist Israeli family, when I was a child I was certain that I'd serve in a combat unit. But when I was at a demonstration against the wall in the West Bank, the Israeli army fired at us. I realised that day that I wouldn't do my military service. I'm going to go to prison so my family understands.” Tel Aviv, 2009.

Gal, 19: “When I was 13 I remember seeing on the television about the refuseniks who were going to prison for not joining the army. I found them repugnant. The suicide attacks of 2002 to 2003 had an impact on me. Afterwards I read about Palestinian history and I realised the extent of my ignorance. In the end, and above all because of my family, I decided to get myself declared unfit for service on the grounds of psychological problems. I think the most difficult thing for my father is when people ask him about what I'm doing now. If I were a 'normal' boy I'd be in the army.” Haifa, 2009.

Giyora Neumann, 55, journalist: “In 1971, when I was 17, I was the first to refuse to join the army and to go to jail. At the time I was an activist with Matzpen, a socialist, revolutionary and anti-Zionist political party. We were against the occupation [of the Palestinian territories] from the start [editor's note, in 1967]. I also did it for personal reasons: my family suffered another occupation ... in Poland. My parents supported me even though they were afraid. They understood my position. From a social point of view, because of what people said about their son, they perhaps suffered more as a result of it than me.” Tel Aviv 2009.

Hilla, 23, student: “I couldn't see myself being in the army but I wanted to give something to society. I wanted to do civic service. That was a big problem for my parents. We had a serious argument about it. In the end I announced that I was a pacifist and I appeared before a committee. My father supported me and even got involved in this nonsense imposed by the army by being my witness during the interview.” Haifa, 2009.

Haggai, 26, journalist: “When I was 16 I had a teacher who for the first time spoke to us about the conflict in a different way. That same year I took part in a peace convoy to the West Bank to help rebuild Palestinian homes that had been destroyed by the army. In 2001, when we decided to go to jail to protest against the occupation, there were 25 of us. A big trial took place. Witnesses appeared on television. In the law faculty this trial has become an important case, both from a political and philosophical point of view. The army wanted to make an example to scare others, I was sentenced to two years in prison.” Tel Aviv 2009.

Tal Sela, 33, teacher: “At the age of 19 I was posted to an elite unit. This specialism required you to take lessons, and I knew straight away that I was going to stay [in the army] a year-and-a-half longer than normal. In 1997 there was a raid in Lebanon. On September 5th, 12 Israeli soldiers were killed by explosives. The army sent my unit to retrieve the bodies. I remain traumatized by the horror of it. Now, I no longer want to be a reservist. I’m involved in the Combatants for Peace movement.” Tel Aviv, 2009.

Daniel, 24 years, student: “As a socialist, I didn't want to do military service because I'm against imperialism. Moreover, in Israeli society war has always been synonymous with social injustice. No matter what major social problem it is, it gets pushed to the back of public debate if the state decides that the army must attack the Lebanon or Gaza. My parents didn't want a tragedy to happen to their only son. In the end I was declared unfit for service on the grounds of psychological problems.” Haifa, 2009.

Naomi, 20, student: “I didn’t do my military service because I’m against the occupation and against the militarization of Israeli society. It's not just the Palestinians who suffer from the militarization of our society. We have one of the biggest armies in the world even though we're a very small country. The money that's spent on defence is not invested elsewhere, in education for example. It was a problem when I wanted to look for job. I was going to work in a bookshop, but when the employers saw that I hadn’t done military service, they changed their minds.” Tel Aviv 2009.

Gaï, 30, playwright: “I'd been in the army a month when I learnt that my little sister had died in a suicide attack in Jerusalem. I stayed in the army in an attempt to avoid getting completely depressed. But it didn’t work. Much later I travelled to France where I worked with Palestinian refugees. It was at that time I decided to be a “missionary” against military service.” Tel Aviv, 2009.

Aiden 19 : «I decided I would not go to the army when I saw the video of my friend Taïr Kaminer Kaminer. I wanted to do something brave and supportive. I thought that could have a positive effect on this cause that a transgender went to a man’s prison.» Tel Aviv 2016.

Avner, 32, historian: “ I grew up in a kibbutz, in a left-wing Zionist family. All the men in my family are in the army. At the age of 18 I joined up full of confidence, I thought we were the good guys, even if sometimes we made mistakes. But when I discovered the way the Palestinians lived, I thought it was unacceptable that the army, rather than protecting our country, was defending a colonialist project. Me and other 13 soldiers sent a letter explaining that we didn't want to be reservists.” Jerusalem, 2009.

Alona 24, student :«I was born in Ukraine and arrived in Israel in 2002. I got up every day at 5 am, went to the army and stayed until 5 pm. And I worked almost every day in a cafe until one or two in the morning. I lived with my aunt. But I did not have enough money to help him with the rent. I felt like I was a burden to her. Once I slept in the street. After this episode, I decided that I would not continue my military service.» Tel Aviv 2016.

Gilad 23, student : «The first time I thought I would not want to be in the army, I had to be ten years old. The idea of sleeping with other men, taking showers with them terrified me. Today my job is to go to the schools of the poorest neighborhoods to talk to students about militarism in Israel.» Tel Aviv 2016.

Raz, 26, filmmaker : « When I was 15 I knew nothing about the Palestinians. I lived in a kind of bubble. But when I went into the territories for the first time I saw very clearly that the occupation didn’t exist for security reasons. I felt strongly that we’d been lied to. In 2008 seven of us refused to join the army. I spent 4 months in jail. I came face to face with the reality of other girls who were in a much more difficult situation than mine both on a family and social level.» Tel Aviv 2016.

Yaron 22, postman : «I was in a military high school. I was supposed to become a high ranking officer. on the Internet, I came across an interview with a politician who said that Arabs and Jews could cooperate. After that, everything has changed for me. After a year and a half of service, I spent forty days in prison.» Tel Aviv 2016

L'Obs - France

L'Obs - France

L'Obs - France

Mediapart - France