Human Rights Defenders – Shministim in Israel

30 Aug

Demonstration supporting conscientious objector Udi Nir, Tel - Aviv, 21.8.08

‘We cannot hurt in the name of defense or imprison in the name of freedom; therefore we cannot be moral and serve the occupation’ – excerpt of letter from members of the Shministim Letter, 2008

‘My personal moral responsibility, which I have already mentioned, is far deeper and broader than my specific political views or of my perceptions of the repeated errors committed by the Israelis, or of the equally damaging errors committed by the Palestinians. This responsibility I bear because I am human, and it holds in my relations with any other human being. I therefore refuse to take part in immoral violent actions, whether ordered to do so or not’ – Excerpt of declaration of refusal to perform military service by Udi Nir.


Neve Gordon’s Counterpunch story, ‘The Shministim Movement, The Ordeal of Sahar Vardi, Refusenik’ is a moving account of Israel’s first female youth who is being imprisoned for refusing to serve the military (Gordon 2008).

Sahar Vardi belongs to a  group of youth conscientious objectors, also known as the Shministim movement, which can be traced back to 2004, amongst more than 300 high school students. They wrote an impassioned letter publicly announcing their refusal to join the compulsory military service for it means partaking in the Occupation which is against their ‘basic values’ (Felice & Wisler 2007, p. 15, 16).

Vardi’s ordeal and story has re-ignited a debate in Israel. Despite having appealed to the military conscientious committee, the eighteen year old was refused a chance to enter civil service because , ‘in the military committee’s opinion, it was based on political convictions rather than a sincere conscientious belief’ (Gordon 2008).

This separation of politics from ‘so-called sincere conscientious belief’ was devised by Israel’s philosophers, Asa Kasher and Avi Sagi who argued that refusing to serve in the army as a result of ‘its colonial and repressive actions and policies are doing so in order to advance a specific political agenda and not due to conscience’ (Gordon 2008).

Critics of the movement have argued that such selective conscientious objections are baseless. First, the objections are not ‘justified by a universal and ideologically- neutral principle’. Second, it ‘undermines the democratic regime’ of Israel (Gans 2002). Moreover, refusing to serve also means ‘abandonment of Israeli citizens in the Occupied Territories and in Israel’; ‘constitute a precedent and legitimization for settlers to refuse to vacate settlements when the time comes’; and ‘absence of left-wing dissenters from the Army would leave the occupying army in the hands of those with no moral restraint’ (Gans 2002, p.19; 20).

In deflecting these criticisms, counter-arguments have been made, that refusing to serve does not indicate abandoning Israeli citizens as a) an act of conscientious objection does not by itself implies that others should follow suit; b) the moral possible consequence is pitted against the moral consequences of what they are expected to do (Gans 2002, p.52). On the arguments that the Israeli right will refuse to vacate settlements, Gans also argued that such an argument is invalid as the right have committed such acts in the past (and they were not inspired by the left to engage in civil disobedience) (Gans 2002, p.58). Last, the argument of leaving the army to those without moral restraint lacks reasoning as it is not the responsibility of those who chose to engage in conscientious objections. In fact, it is the soldiers themselves who should be personally responsible (Gans 2002, p. 64).

The movement to refuse military service has unfolded to potentially become a domestic controversial issue in Israel. According to Ynet news, another 18 year old, Udi Nir, was arrested at home just one day after he was supposed to be enlisted. Vardi, who was not arrested at that time, was quoted as saying that the former’s arrest was “a deliberate attempt on the army’s part to prevent our voices from being heard.” (Levy 2008).  Demonstrations in support of Udi have been reported.

– Works Cited –

Felice, C. D & Wisler, A 2007, ‘The Unexplored Power and Potential of Youth as Peace-builders’, Journal of Peace Conflict & Development, Issue 11, November, pp. 1 – 29.

Gans, C 2002, ‘Right and Left: Ideological Disobedience in Israel’, Israel Law Review, Vol. 36, pp. 19 – 72.

Gordon, N 2008, ‘The Shministim Movement, The Ordeal of Sahar Vardi, Refusenik’ , Counterpunch.org, accessed 30 August.

Levy, Y 2008, ‘Conscientious objector to IDF service jailed’, Ynet News.com, accessed 30 August 2008.

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One Response to “Human Rights Defenders – Shministim in Israel”

  1. Claudia November 27, 2008 at 9:35 am #

    I think they are courageous young people and they deserve support.
    For more information on the Shministim check out this website http://december18th.org/ it is a campaign showing its support for the Israeli high schoolers.

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