TAIR, 19: ISRAEL, “WILL YOU PUT ME IN JAIL FOR A MURDER I WILL NOT COMMIT?”
By Bernard Henry
In 1987 a British new wave group called Johnny Hates Jazz topped the charts with a song called I Don’t Want to Be a Hero, whose standardized, rather soulless music hid lyrics that were anything but common in the pop song industry of that era. No phony story of an impossible love romance – the song was really a fierce anti-war statement.
Among the lyrics, a question asked by the young man stating his refusal of conscription stands out:
“And what if I fail?
Will you put me in jail
For a murder I will not commit?”
By the time the song was released, the United Kingdom had long renounced conscription, as had the United States, Canada, and Australia. In the Western world, only in Europe could a draft be found, although the practice had gradually disappeared from the continent when the twentieth century ended. Except for Norway, Finland, Austria and Greece – plus neutral Switzerland – the then NATO allies of Britain against the Warsaw Pact are now all draft-free.
In what is generally called “the West”, only one non-European country retains a strong draft – Israel.
Ever since the Jewish State was created in 1948, its armed forces regrouped under the Hebrew acronym Tsahal, literally Tsva Haganah Lé-Yisrael, “Israeli Defense Force” (IDF), have taken in young people of both genders, male and female. Having been often at war with its Arab neighbors, being constantly in need of military personnel to maintain its occupation of the West Bank and the Golan Heights, Israel has traditionally had all of its sons and daughters wear the uniform for a few years – three for the boys, two for the girls. Exemptions are given, though, to observant religious Jews and, on quite different grounds, to non-Druze Arab Israeli citizens.
Then comes the problem when you “don’t want to be a hero”, in short, when you declare yourself a conscientious objector (CO), thus joining the number of the country’s shministim, “twelfth-graders”, students who refuse to comply with the law and enter the IDF once they have completed their high school studies as the law requires. You must appear before an IDF board, and if you fail to obtain exemption from military service, you will be ordered to enlist at once – or go to jail.
That is what happened this year to Tair Kaminer, 19. A member of Mesarvot – Jews for Justice for Palestinians, the young woman filed for conscientious objection but was turned down by the board. Sent to jail a first time, she was released and jailed again, and then jailed and released three more times. “The last military officer who sent me to jail told me that he was a member of the conscientious objection board,” says Kaminer. “He added that I had no chance of obtaining CO status and he would send me back to jail ‘for the rest of my life’ if I continued to resist.”
While serving her current sentence, Kaminer was given two weeks’ leave for the Jewish Passover, a national holiday in Israel. But upon leaving the military prison, she was told to return the next day. She chose to fully observe the two weeks’ leave and, instead of reporting to the prison as ordered, she stayed at home. “I am not ending my protest”, she insists. “I will return to the prison.” But she will have the IDF keep their word.
Kaminer is by no means the first Israeli conscript to refuse enlistment. The issue has been with the IDF since 1970, when a first Shministim movement was created, followed in 1982 by the Yesh Gvul “There is a Limit/Frontier” organization of reservists who refused to serve in the Lebanon War, and a surge of CO initiatives under the premiership of the hawkish former IDF general and Defense Minister, Ariel Sharon, in the early 2000s. The latest two IDF military campaigns against Gaza, “Cast Lead” in 2009 and “Protective Edge” in 2014, also resulted in more CO applications from young Israelis, as has the announced expansion of Israeli settlements on Palestinian land. As for today’s Shministim movement, it is comprised by an estimated 3,000 high school students.
This only makes it harder to understand why the IDF has proved so adamant about punishing Kaminer specifically, putting her in jail, as Johnny Hates Jazz sang, for “a murder (she) will not commit”.
In a country like Israel where such people as former Prime Ministers Ariel Sharon and Ehud Olmert died without being prosecuted for the gross human rights abuses committed under their command by, respectively, IDF proxies in Lebanon and the IDF proper in Gaza – and to date, the incumbent, Benyamin Netanyahu, remains immune from domestic or international prosecution over the IDF’s campaign on Gaza’s civilian population in 2014, there must be room for the honest refusal of war stated with courage by young people whose love for their country will not be turned into hatred of their neighbors.
Hopefully, Tair’s sacrifice of her own freedom will let the Israeli government see that, in the very words of Johnny Hates Jazz, “It’s time to forget and forgive” its COs at last.
Bernard Henry is the External Relations Officer of the Association of World Citizens.