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A summer camp for political dissenters in Israel

At Alternative Camp, draft dodgers and declared conscientious objectors hope to develop a new generation of young Israelis who refuse to fight.

By Danna HarmanCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / August 27, 2008

Objectors: Saar Vardi, left, and Hagai Matar were counselors at Alternative Camp, a gathering for young Israeli pacifists.

Danna Harman


Latrun, Israel

Weeks before her scheduled conscription into the Israeli army, at a time when most other 18-year-olds were gearing up for mandatory service, Saar Vardi was in the forest – talking about pacifism.

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One of a small group of Israeli conscientious objectors, Ms. Vardi spent her last days of summer at a unique camp – counseling others who might follow in her activist footsteps.

"A lot of us don't get why we should give up years, not to mention maybe our lives, for what seems like someone else's wars," explained Vardi, a facilitator at Alternative Camp, a program for 15- to 19-year-olds outside Neve Shalom, a cooperative Israeli-Arab village. "Here, we talk about options."

On Monday, instead of reporting for duty, Vardi exercised her option to refuse service and, as expected, was promptly marched into jail.

While the camp is not billed as a conscientious objectors' gathering, the theme hung over the forest as thick as the smoke from the environmentally friendly cookers. Most of the 30-odd counselors were draft dodgers, deserters, or declared conscientious objectors who hoped to foster a greater understanding of their desire not to fight.

For the third year in a row, close to 100 campers gathered here to take part in seminars on subjects ranging from "gender, sexuality, and alternative lifestyles," to "animal rights," and "the alternative history of the occupation." And all this, between vegan meals and field trips to deserted Arab villages.

"No. We are not mainstream," shrugged counselor Hagai Matar, a redhead with thick sideburns and a full beard, who was recently released after two years in jail for refusing to serve. "But we are as much a part of the fabric of this country as anyone else," he said. "Israel is more conflicted and complicated than it may seem."

Military service is mandatory in Israel – two years for females, three for males, and more if one volunteers for certain elite units or stays on as an officer. Afterwards, most Israeli men, and some women, are required to report for reserve duty every year until age 40, and sometimes beyond.

For most of Israel's 60 year history, the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) was a sacred cow, and the need for everyone to serve in it – part of the national consensus. But cracks in that consensus are apparent.

"Until the 1980s resisting the draft was practically unheard of … but kids today are thinking differently than [they once were.] Today it is easier, in some circles, to justify not serving," said Ofer Neiman, an activist from Yesh Gvul ('There Is A Limit'), a reservists' resistance movement established at the start of the Lebanon War in 1982. That war saw both the beginning and the peak of the phenomenon, with 3,500 people eventually signing a Yesh Gvul petition pledge not to serve – and 200 ultimately sitting in jail.