BY CHRIS SZABLA
The word refusenik was first used as a term for Eastern Bloc Jews who were denied permission to emigrate. Over time, it has morphed into a term for any protester – including Netta Mishly. Netta is one of the shministim, literally “twelfth graders” – a term given to Israeli youth who have refused to perform required military service out of moral conviction. During a recent event sponsored by Harvard Law School’s Justice for Palestine group, she shared her reasons for taking a stand.
“I was happy and proud to be a future soldier,” Netta said, recounting her youth. At thirteen, however, she became politically active, joining a social democratic youth group, and volunteering during the elections of 2003. She said she moved between “all kinds of leftist organizations,” supported by the “bubble” of relatively safe Tel Aviv and parents who encouraged a critical mindset. Soon she was taking part in a more radical group, which led her, for the first time, to the West Bank. After that, she recalls, she “could not deny what was going on there.”
She still had difficulty with the idea that she would not perform military service, considered by many in the country to be an unquestionable duty. “Even when I was against the occupation,” she notes, “I wanted to be patriotic and join the army like everyone else.” When she finally made the decision, questions from friends and colleagues were frequent. “I have to explain over and over again why I didn’t go. I feel I gave up my status, and my position on the inside,” she said. Her father accused her of pointing her finger at him, and she lost friends.
Netta also faced legal consequences: in Israel, refusal of compulsory military service is a punishable offense. Netta spent less than a month in prison – other shministim spend up to three years. Trials for conscientious objectors are conducted by the military, since those whose draft numbers have been called up are considered already soldiers. The charge: “refusing an order”. When released, the shministim is told to join again, or face similar consequences – the process, Netta said, repeats itself until the refuser is worn down. Those who do not finally go into the military are usually sent to see a psychiatrist, and released on grounds they are mentally unfit.
The shministim are not the only Israelis who do not serve in the military when they are of draft age. Around 40% of Israelis are exempt from service for various reasons: they are Orthodox Jews, married women, the physically incapable. There is a panel that hears pleas of conscientious objection, but only one-fifth of those who apply are granted the status – and then only after an interrogation meant to test one’s aptitude for violence, inquiring after an applicant’s attitude toward family members suffering harm. Most fail the evaluation process when it emerges that a political belief motivates their desire to stay out of the Israel Defense Force, or IDF.
Political beliefs weren’t the only factors motivating Netta’s decision to refuse to perform service. Women, she said, did not enjoy equal status in the IDF, pointing out that the vast majority of officers are men, and that the country’s first female pilot obtained her position through a fairly recent Supreme Court ruling. She performs alternative civil service now, on a voluntary basis.
Not all who oppose Israel’s military occupation of the Palestinian territories support the tactics of the shministim. One Israeli officer who came to view Netta’s discussion called out that he believed Israelis could do more good from within the military than without to change the occupation’s character. Netta disagreed, arguing that service changes people, even members of the radical youth groups she was part of, who come face-to-face with a Palestinian population who she said was understandably predisposed to hostility toward Israeli soldiers.
Netta concluded by observing that, beyond its effect on the lives of Palestinians, the occupation had turned Israel into a militaristic society: it was “not good that when I was 15 my school took me to a shooting range.” Overall, she believed that Israel “could be in a much better place than it is right now. Why in a normal world would an 18 year old have to sacrifice his life? Some are. Some are my friends, and I don’t want them to have to do that.”