JERUSALEM — Until recently, Yaffa Yarkoni was one of Israel's most beloved singers. Since the modern state of Israel was formed in 1948 and through subsequent wars and crises, she has rallied national morale. She was even about to be honored last month with a prestigious gala tribute in Tel Aviv.
But then Ms. Yarkoni crossed a red line: She criticized the Israeli army's behavior in its recent West Bank offensive and came out in support of a controversial group of reserve soldiers who refuse to serve there. "We are a people who suffered the Holocaust. How can we do such things?" she asked.
Retribution was swift. The Israel Artists Association cancelled the tribute, saying the seats would be empty anyway. Leading youth movements, which sang her songs, called for a boycott of her works. Only one pop star, Gidi Gov, came to Yarkoni's defense.
Within days, Limor Livnat, the education minister, urged the attorney general to prosecute for incitement Hebrew University professors who backed the conscientious objectors.
The reservists started out as a group of 50 three months ago. They published a document saying they were ready to defend Israel but not "dominate, expel, starve, and humiliate an entire people" and termed the fighting with the Palestinians, depicted by the government as a war for survival, as "the war for the settlements."
Their numbers have swelled to 443. The success or failure of the embattled reservists to gain more influence promises to affect whether Israel leaves or stays in the occupied territories. Similar refusal to serve in Lebanon during the early 1980s helped prompt the government's decision to pull troops out of much of that country in 1985.
The objectors, whose group is called The Courage to Refuse, have been increasingly shunned in recent weeks by the Israeli media, which is largely caught up in the patriotic consensus of the country. The popular Channel Two television station has a ban against interviewing them. Forty-one soldiers are currently in jail for refusing to serve, the largest number in two decades.
It is on university campuses that the ideological and moral challenge they pose is reverberating most forcefully. Elli Hazan, spokesman of the right-wing Lavi party at the Hebrew University arguing against the petitioners: "Refusal to serve is the first sign of the society falling apart," he said. "Everyone will do whatever he wants, and there will be no laws. We are waging a just war, defending our homes."
Mr. Hazan conceded, though, that the petitioners "are having an impact, they have prompted discussion." He is trying to organize a petition of right-wing academics to counteract the professors who back the reservists.
The reservists have in mind nothing less than catalyzing a full withdrawal from the West Bank and Gaza Strip and the dismantling of the settlements there. They say they are unfazed by the popularity of the military's West Bank offensive, Operation Defensive Shield, launched after a string of suicide bombings by Hamas.
"The price of the current quiet is total oppression [of the Palestinians]. As people are asked to do worse and worse things, support for us will increase," says Haim Weiss, a captain in the armored corps.
In a society where the military is the most revered and powerful institution, their website has a radical whiff: The entire system in the West Bank is evil, they argue, and therefore it is not possible to simply avoid carrying out individual illegal or immoral orders as the mainstream left urges. "We have created an entirely hallucinatory reality in which the true humans, members of the Nation of Masters could move and settle freely and safely, while the sub-humans, the Nation of Slaves were shoved in the corner and kept invisible and controlled under our Israel Defense Forces boots," wrote Sgt. First Class Assaf Oron. Another reservist, Capt. Dan Tamir wrote of how he had reached the realization that his work as an intelligence officer on a seemingly innocuous project to "reorganize civil neighborhoods" in the West Bank actually amounted to "preparing the ground for the establishment of ghettoes." That pushed him to sign the petition.
Gideon Ezra, the deputy minister of internal security, says the reservists could harm the state "by damaging our deterrent capability." But in Mr. Ezra's assessment, "they don't enjoy a lot of support and are not impacting on the army."
The biggest disappointment for the refuseniks has been the lack of support thus far from the moderate left. Most of the legislators from Meretz, the only Zionist opposition party, say that opposition to the occupation should be expressed through political protests and not by refusing military service.
Gad Barzilai, a Tel Aviv University political scientist, says the fate of The Courage to Refuse depends on the course of military action. "If the military campaign will become tougher, longer, more costly this might enlarge the scope of dissent. It all depends on the nature of the conflict."