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 , Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

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

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."

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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.

Since then, hundreds more have resisted the call to arms on moral grounds. Some refuse to serve in the occupied territories others refuse to serve at all. And while the vast majority of these objectors are reservists, the number of 18-year-old conscripts among their ranks has also grown, despite the general social stigma.

"The occupation is weighing down on everyone," said camp counselor Tali Lerner, who spent nine months in the air force before deserting. Eventually released on medical grounds, she became active in New Profile, an antimilitary movement that helps those who don't want to serve. New Profile – the name is a play of words on the profiling system used by the military to sort recruits into units – is an Alternative Camp sponsor.

"Israelis grow up fed the idea that serving is our ultimate responsibility to the state," said Ms. Lerner, shaking her shaved head. "And here we offer a weeklong break from that collective narrative."

Between 2005 and 2007, 42 draftees – both male and female – were recognized by a special military committee as conscientious objectors and given official exemptions. Dozens of others, who were not recognized as pacifists by the IDF, eventually went to jail for refusing the order to serve.

The number of objectors is relatively small, but also hard to verify, mainly because most do not go through the process of declaring themselves objectors but rather get out of serving by feigning physical or mental incompetence.

The IDF spokesman's office confirmed that 28 percent of 18-year-old men and 43 percent of the women did not join the army this year. The vast majority of those who are not drafted are ultra-Orthodox Jews – a large population that is legally exempt. Others are exempted on medical grounds, because they have low test scores, criminal records, or are living abroad. Israeli Arabs are also exempt from service, although they can volunteer.

"It's easier to lie and pretend you are nuts or get married or say you are religious or try to leave the country, but I wanted to take a moral stand," said Vardi, whose request for a conscientious exemption was rejected because her political activities were not deemed pacifist. "And if you go to prison, people listen to you."

Vardi will remain in jail until Sept. 1, when she'll be asked again to serve her term in the IDF. If she refuses, the state is expected to give her another weeklong sentence. If she continues to defy the state, Verdi could remain behind bars anywhere from 42 days to two years. Six other young Israelis are expected to choose jail time over service later this month.

When asked why they don't take their protest a step further and leave the country, the counselors at Alternative Camp were taken aback.

"I refuse to see the policy of the government and military in the territories as the sum total of society," said Mr. Matar. "Israel is a part of who I am."

"Leave? Why?" wondered Lerner. "We all belong here. Now let's talk about what kind of 'here' we want."

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