Mika Sullivan

January 4, 2007

Israel has been in the news a lot this year; there was the war in Lebanon this summer, as well as the invasion-withdrawal cycles in Gaza. For young Israelis, the response to conflicts like these is especially passionate–in both directions–for one very important reason: Military service here is mandatory for almost everybody.

Twice a year, every year, the nation’s youth who have most recently come of age are enlisted. Families gather at bus and train stations all over the country to see their son/brother/daughter/sister leave to become one of the nation’s patriotic protectors. There are tears, laughter, pride, fear–every emotion you can think of. Every person in this country has been, is, or will be a soldier–except most of the non-Jewish population, and some of the most religious Jews. For the most part, however, it is an experience that bonds all Israeli citizens.

How does this intimate experience with the military affect young Israeli attitudes toward war? Well, for one, their opinions and attitudes are much more passionate and involved than people who don’t ever have to get close to such things. When you have fought, or your cousin has, or your best friend’s boyfriend is getting sent into an area of conflict, you tend to be very engaged in the outcome.

Take Michael, a 29-year-old Jewish Israeli, who served in the military when he was younger. His girlfriend Lana, 23, is Arab and didn’t have to serve, but when fighting broke out in Lebanon this summer, she was terrified that he would have to become part of the system again. They attended anti-war rallies together, joined by other liberals from all over the nation–gay, Arab, feminist, and those just wanting to demonstrate their opposition to what they felt was violent action taken so suddenly and without much diplomatic preamble.

Michael didn’t want to go to war, but decided that he wouldn’t refuse to go if he was called. His reasoning was that the only way to talk to the other soldiers in a way to get them to consider another point of view was to do it from inside the system. For Michael, serving and facing possible danger was worth the opportunity to try to expand the minds of other soldiers who are less critical of the system they are part of.

“When I did my regular service,” he says, “that’s what I did. When soldiers would say racist things, I would basically threaten to leave them on the side of the road [in the West Bank]. We ended up having conversations about the occupation and the Palestinians and all that kind of thing.”

Michael felt that serving in a war was not much different from serving in the occupied territories. He says that both involved ambiguous arguments and what he saw as a one-sided story to justify military activity. “These [soldiers] aren’t going to listen to outsiders, and definitely not protestors,” he points out “The only way you can get them to listen is to be one of them, in the group. When they have a choice of being left by the side of the road or listening to what you have to say, then you can have a conversation with them.”

The Israeli armed forces are called, collectively, the Israel Defense Force (IDF)–Tzavah Hagana Le’Yisrael, or “Tzahal” for short. Men are legally required to serve for a minimum of three years, women for 18-24 months. Enlistment begins at age 17/18. Basic training lasts for usually a minimum of two to three months. Once a soldier finishes his/her regular service, he or she may be called up for reserve service until age 49–although this usually only applies to men, as women are rarely called unless they served in a combat unit. Some women serve in combat units, although not on the front lines. There are 1.5 million men aged 17-49 in Israel and 1.4 million women. Of these, 1.26 million men and 1.21 million women are thought to be fit for military service. Every year, about 54,000 men and 52,000 women reach service age. About one third of women end up being excused from service, and half that number of men find a reason to not serve.

The most common excuse for not serving the mandatory term is religious observance. Women can also be excused for religious reasons, as well as marriage and family obligations. There are, however, people who refuse to serve for other reasons. The ideology can range from pacifist, to anti-military, to refusal to serve in Israeli-occupied West Bank and Gaza, to refusal to remove Israeli settlers from those areas. The term refusenik comes from the English word “refuse,” and originally meant Israeli soldiers and reservists who refused to serve in the occupied territories in protest against Israel’s actions there, although the definition has expanded to include all other reasons for refusal. In 2002, the Israeli High Court ruled that unqualified pacifism (refusal to serve at all) was legal, but “selective refusal” was not. The jail terms handed out to those whose refusal is deemed illegal has varied, from less than one to over five years.

Avner, 26, is another example. He got called for service earlier this year and briefly considered leaving the country or refusing, before deciding that he would go to his duty. His girlfriend Anat, 22, has been asked, on several occasions why Avner doesn’t want to refuse and spend time in an army jail, which is different than criminal prisons.

“I would rather [Avner] go to reserve duty than get sent to that jail,” says Anat, who had seen the army jail and found the conditions worse than military or regular jail conditions.

When he was called, it had been so long since Avner had been called for reserves that he wasn’t useful (it would have taken too much training to get him caught up with all the new changes), so he was sent home after a few days.

Michelle, 20, is currently doing her army service. She is critical of young Israelis who protested the war and calling them “anti-Israeli.”

“We have to show Hezbollah that they can’t do whatever they want,” she said at the time of the conflict. “And besides, they have our soldiers and they won’t give them back! It is their fault we’re in this position.” Michelle believes she is protecting the Israeli cause and she bases this belief on the story that Israelis are told from birth.

Noa, on the other hand, argues that war is not the answer, and Anat says she is disgusted by the idea of being even friends with someone who ever killed another human (something that is more common than the average Israeli would like to admit). But they are both a number of years out of their service and have noted that there’s a very good reason the draft is done at age 18, as opposed to 20 or 21 or after university. The army, they say, convinces these young people, until now still mostly children, to do things older citizens would not do.

According to Noa, the Army is appealing to young Israelis because it makes them feel important at a phase in their lives where they haven’t yet been relied on or had much responsibility.

“You’re fresh out of high school; you’ve done nothing in your life yet but sit in classes and play football,” she says. “Then the army comes along and offers you a golden opportunity to show what a man you are–walking 40 kilometers through sand with heavy equipment, carrying weapons, and being a ‘great defender’ of Israel. For the first time in your life, an authority is taking you seriously enough to give you a gun, and tell you that your country cannot survive without you. It’s the best ego-boost you could ask for.”

Like most Israelis, both Noa and Anat still fulfill their reserve service requirements. Both say they see the reserves as less exploitative as it is usually just for a week or so, once a year. Plus, it’s a short period of time away from their lives, with friends who shared a unique experience. But, it’s also an opportunity for the army to keep in touch with Israelis, to remind them that they are part of the protection of the country and to continue the nationalistic dialectic that allows continued support of the military.

As much as young people have direct experience with the military, many of them also have an overwhelming feeling of not being in control of its direction.

Noa describes the sentiments of many young people when she says, “The feeling is increasing that the army is run by a bunch of hot-headed generals with an eye towards politics, who really don’t care about developing the civil society in Israel and have an interest to prolong the fighting so they can justify their own existence (and salaries).”

There are young people in Israel who support the concept of war, and those who do not. But for most, it’s less cut and dry. It is rare to speak with someone who does not have friends/lovers/brothers/fathers/etc. who have fought and come back with their own version of story. In the end, war feels like a fact of life in Israel. Mothers routinely beg doctors to find something wrong with their sons, so they won’t get sent to combat units. And the sons, like Noa’s younger brother, shrug off any discomfort or mistreatment they may face in service. Maybe it shouldn’t be the case, but most youth here see war is something that just is.

See the Refuser Solidarity Network for more information about refuseniks in Israel. Read more about Mika Sullivan’s experiences as a young Israeli-American living in Israel on her blog, the Adventures of Mika.