Two citizens who refused to serve in the Israeli military spoke about their experiences as conscientious objectors to the country’s service requirement on Saturday in a talk hosted by Students for Justice in Palestine.
Sahar Vardi, program coordinator of the American Friends Service Committee’s Israel Program, said the organization believes militarization in Israeli society is one of the root causes of the occupation of Palestine.
“The way in which soldiers are perceived creates prestige around it,” Vardi said. “They are able to get better jobs, and you aren’t able to criticize the military because in doing so, you are criticizing everyone around you.”
The prevalence of the military in Israeli society creates a stigma implicit with refusal to serve, according to Yasmine Yablonko, one of the speakers, who works with the organization Mesarvot to organize and elevate the voices of young military refusers.
“The Israeli education system indoctrinates students as young as kindergarten to become soldiers when they finish school,” Yablonko said. “You grow up in Israel thinking that everyone is going and you don’t have any other options, so you don’t even question it.”
In reality, Yablonko said less than 50 percent of Israeli citizens serve in the army.
Yablonko, who is half Jewish and half Palestinian, said she chose to refuse her military service for moral reasons. However, she clarified that she officially refused for mental health reasons, as the military rarely exempts citizens because of their personal morals.
Palestinian Druze — a religious minority that stems from Islam — are also not exempt from service for ethnic reasons because the Israeli government classifies Druze as a different ethnicity than Palestinian or Arab, according to Khaled Farrag, the other refuser. Farrag is a member of Orfud, an organization that works to end compulsory military service imposed on Druze men.
“This is an intentional policy to deepen the gap between the Druze and the rest of the Palestinian community,” Farrag said. “It has created a negative reputation for the Druze in the Palestinian community. They see us as traitors.”
Because he was not exempt from service, Farrag said he had to serve time in prison for his decision. Although his family supported his decision to refuse, he had no other support or way to raise awareness about refusing service as a Druze, according to Farrag.
Farrag added that the Israeli government paints the Druze as a model minority who do not refuse military service, but he added that only 48 percent actually serve.
Many Druze are reluctant to enter the army due to the social atmosphere surrounding the military, and face economic hardship while they are serving — even while the army offers benefits to its soldiers after conscription, according to Farrag.
“Many people will not go into the military because it only pays $160 per month, and they need to support their families,” he said.
Despite the difficult nature of their situations, Yablonko and Farrag both expressed hope for the future of Israel.
“It’s hard to be hopeful in a violent situation when the mainstream is shifting to the far right,” Yablonko said. “But this makes my work so much more meaningful. Everything I do will have much more impact and be more powerful.”