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Avoiding military service

Sunday 24 February 2008, by Uri Ya’acobi-Keller

Israeli soldiers laying on a pile of shirts which say "I Don’t Evade the Draft." Part of the "True Israelis Don’t Evade the Draft" campaign. Several months ago, the Israeli media evoked yet another one of its mass panic attacks when publishing “worrying statistics” regarding the high number of “draft-dodgers” —Israelis who evade military service in various ways.

A few weeks later I, as a conscientious objector who had been to prison to avoid military service, was invited to the panel of the popular political debate show “Politika” to discuss this. It was clear to me that I was invited simply in order to fill the role of “bad boy”—to say a few unconventional words and then be the target for the attacks of the rest of the panel. I was not wrong in my prediction. The show’s panel, clearly set up in accordance with the Israeli political mainstream, was full of old, male, retired military officers who were simply too detached from the Israeli reality to relate to what I was trying to say in the very little time I was given: that it is a disgrace to expect the young to die for a state that had long ago ceased to give them anything in return. States, I was trying to tell them, are there to serve the people and not vice versa. That was something they dismissed altogether, and my words had no impact; their discussion then focused on what is the best way to force people to serve the state.

Those retired officers were representatives of the generation and rhetoric that still dominate the Israeli political scene, elevating the values of military service and sacrifice for the state. Although they still dominate, they have lost contact with the current Israeli reality. These retired officers could not perceive that times have changed, that people are not going to be content with dying in exchange for the mumbling of a few nationalistic slogans.

That mindset has more recently appeared with the “A True Israeli Doesn’t Evade the Draft” posters that have popped up on buses all around Israel. This campaign for shaming draft-dodgers was initiated by a number of public relations offices, without a doubt determined to get more publicity for themselves by doing something “right” and patriotic. With the CEOs and directors of many companies in Israel coming directly from the Israeli military’s high officer roster, it is even likely they were successful in that. However, this campaign also has the smell of wealthy, detached people who have little to do with what’s happening on the ground and have no understanding of the large part of the public who evade the military draft. If anything, this campaign is a pathetic attempt to win an already lost battle. But then again, its real goal is probably not to influence the public, but gain prestige for a few PR offices.

Accompanying the posters, an “A True Israeli Doesn’t Evade the Draft” video clip has also been released, showing a theoretically typical Israeli situation (although it takes place in India) in which the draft-dodger tries to hide his “problematic” past and is then shamed when discovered.

This campaign was so disconnected from the Israeli reality that it actually succeeded in angering a few people; enough angry people to produce a counter video clip.

The counter clip, “A True Israeli Doesn’t Evade the Truth,” describes common reasons for which people choose to evade the draft: “What goes on in Hebron,” the soldiers’ neglect by the military and the state’s neglect of its citizenry. Of these, only the first has the slightest hint that wanting or not wanting to serve in the military may have anything to do with the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories. This attempt by the clip’s makers to dodge the sensitive issue of the occupation is regrettable, but is not its biggest problem.

The name of the clip and its slogan, “A True Israeli Doesn’t Evade the Truth,” is a variation on the “A True Israeli Doesn’t Evade the Draft” campaign. Thus, it still refers potential draft dodgers to what, supposedly, is most important to them, their nationality. Being a “true Israeli,” according to this, is the fundamental core of any good citizen’s aspirations. Both video clips use the same logic and the same underlying assumption: You need to be a “True Israeli.”

But “Israeli” is not a definition of which to be proud. “Israeli” is a definition of someone’s contingent place of birth, place of residence or citizenship, and very commonly all three. It is merely a geographical reference point, any reference to it as something that has importance above that stinks of nationalistic rhetoric. From the rightwing mainstream of Israel, which clings to the glorious past, when it sometimes seems as if everyone queued enthusiastically for the chance to die for the glory of Israel and the Jewish state, this is expected. However, coming from left-leaning, self proclaimed “civil society” activists, this is disappointing, even if it is only to mimic the rival campaign’s words.

In the end, “True Israelis” are indeed the patriotic, old-style-pioneer-like creatures who would never even consider evading the draft. “True Israelis” are people willing to conquer and kill for this very definition, for the land, name, flag and prestige of their “True Israel.” I, for one, have no wish to be a “True Israeli.”

Uri Ya’acobi-Keller is a conscientious objector and assistant researcher in the “Economy of the Occupation” project of the Alternative Information Center.

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