November 17, 2018

Israeli women jailed for refusing to serve in the Israeli army tour the United States.

When two Israeli girls, Maya Wind and Netta Mishly, graduated high school, they didn’t move into a college dorm room. They didn’t travel to India or Europe or the Philippines. They didn’t get a job. They didn’t start a career. They went to jail for more than a month.

In Israel, where military service is compulsory for all Jewish citizens who have completed high school, save for a few exemptions, jail time is the punishment for refusing to serve in the Israel Defense Forces.

These now 19-year-old women are among an Israeli group of conscientious objectors, called the Shministim (meaning 12th-graders, in reference to the age when Israelis are drafted), who specifically oppose the Israeli presence in the West Bank and the treatment by Israel of Palestinians within and without the nation’s borders, particularly at check points. They also object to the separation wall, the blockade of Gaza, the seizure of land and other “defense” methods, as expressed in a letter outlining the Shministim’s stance — a letter that circulated in 2008 and was signed by 200 young Israelis.

“It is impossible to be moral and serve the occupation,” the Shministim letter states. Shministim define the occupation as Israel exerting power in areas beyond the 1967 Green Line and advocate a peaceful two-state solution ensuring security and self-determination for both Israelis and Palestinians.

The two women traveled to the United States last month to share the Shministim message on college campuses. Their trip, titled “Why We Refuse: A National Tour of Israeli Young Women for Peace,” was sponsored by CODEPINK Women for Peace and Jewish Voice for Peace. They made stops at more than 30 locations over the course of a month, including at UC Berkeley, University of Hawaii, Columbia University, New York University, Harvard and Wesleyan. In San Francisco, they met with former U.S. Congresswoman Cynthia McKinney (Ga.), who also spent time in an Israeli prison for violating the Gaza blockade in an attempt to deliver humanitarian supplies.

On Sept. 24, they came to Cal State Northridge. In the sweltering mid-day heat of the San Fernando Valley, the young women participated in what was, they said, one of the most intense discussions of their tour.

“Northridge was the worst for us,” Mishly said in a phone interview from New York a few days after the event, which drew an audience of about 50. “We appreciate people coming to argue with us and share their different points of view, but for security to have to walk us to the elevators — that doesn’t feel good.”

As at all of their talks, the pair began their presentation by saying, “We are only presenting one side of many sides to this conflict. We encourage you to disagree.”

They presented their argument with slides, photographs, charts, maps and statistics, speaking in articulate English. Wind and Mishly explained Israel’s draft process and how exceptions are often made for Orthodox Jews, those with financial hardship, married women and conscientious objectors, among other categories. The IDF does not grant Shministim pacifist status because their protestations are not against war in general, but rather against some specific actions of the IDF. The refusal to fulfill the mandatory military service under such circumstances has been deemed an act of civil disobedience.

Wind spent 40 days in a military prison. Mishly spent 35; she requested to see a psychiatrist and was declared “unfit” to serve in the army, a common way for Israelis to legally avoid service.

“It wasn’t that far from the truth,” Mishly told the CSUN audience, half of whom looked to be students. “It was terrifying and lonely being in jail. I was depressed.”

Once released, they said they found little solace. Family and friends were not sympathetic to their cause; in a society where army service is a right of passage into adulthood and a common, shared experience, the Shministim felt like outcasts and were treated by some as traitors.

Indeed, the accusations they leveled at their country were severe: that all West Bank settlements are “stolen Palestinian land”; that the 600 (according to an unstated source) check points in the West Bank were devised to divide and control the Palestinian population, not to protect the Israeli population; that Israel maintains the occupation for its own economic benefit and that of multinational corporations; that the Israeli security industry exploits Palestinian suffering in order to sell their expertise and products abroad; that Israel extracts natural resources from Palestinian land and diverts them to Israeli towns; that the IDF is a sexist and racist organization; and that the occupation gives Israelis the sense that they are superior to Palestinians, which then fosters racism in the general population.

“These girls are very misguided,” said Roz Rothstein, national director of StandWithUs, an Israel advocacy group, who was at the event. “Their presentation was inaccurate, misrepresentative of the facts, and the reasoning was completely unfair. For example, that old propaganda map [of Israeli-Palestinian territories since 1948] they used. They need to state their sources, first of all, and second, they need to use credible sources.”

Another attendee, Gal Yaakobi, a student from Ben-Gurion University in Israel and currently a StandWithUs Israel Fellow visiting the United States, served in the Israeli army and describes herself as “very leftist.”

“I feel their pain and I understand where they are coming from,” she said. “I don’t want to occupy anyone either, but they’re leaving out the Israeli narrative and critical information, and that’s dangerous.”

Wind disagrees. “We’re not here to speak for the Palestinians. We don’t have that right,” she said during the CSUN presentation. “We’re here to speak on behalf of Israelis who want something to finally change in the country that we love. We want peace for the Palestinians and we want peace for Israelis.”

Wind says she speaks out of concern for what she sees as the detrimental effects of the conflict on Israeli society. She objects to the grueling physical and mental stress young Israelis have to endure as soldiers; the dangers they are exposed to; the violence and aggression that she says later seeps into everyday society; the groupthink that remains even after a soldier’s three years of service are completed. She sees the occupation dominating politics in Israel to the detriment of other critical internal issues, such as education, the water crisis and the economy.

“Everything in Israel functions on the same premise: that everybody hates the Jews and that the world is a hostile place and we have to stay on the defensive and protect ourselves or we will be exterminated,” Wind said, adding that this victim mentality is only a hindrance to Israeli society. “The Israeli viewpoint is that all the wars we fought were not our fault; we had no choice but to defend ourselves. And that’s not true. Even Gaza was seen as an act of self defense, believe it or not.”

At CSUN, an immediate burst of reactions erupted from the clearly divided audience in response to this remark, including a loud indignant laugh from Joseph Glatzer, the president of Students for Justice in Palestine, which hosted the Shministim at CSUN. The women took the emotive buzz as a cue to open the presentation up to discussion. Dozens of hands shot up in the air.

A self-identified former Israeli soldier with a British accent sitting in the front row disputed many of the facts the young women had presented. “With all due respect, and I do greatly respect your courage,” he said, “I think your portrayal of the Israeli mentality is condescending and pretentious.” As the questioner went on to describe his own experiences in the army, Glatzer interrupted: “Is there is a specific question you want to ask?”

“No, no, no, please let him speak,” the women responded, waving the student leader off. It was a moment that illustrated their tour’s philosophy: No one should be silenced. 

“We had a talk with the girls before they arrived,” said Sydney Levy, campaign manager for Jewish Voice for Peace. “They said they didn’t want to preach to the choir; they wanted people in the audience to be of different perspectives.” In Berkeley, organizers anticipated things would get rough, Levy said, and suggested that audience members ask questions by writing them down on index cards.

“The girls said ‘absolutely not.’ They insisted that they wanted to hear people’s opinions, not only answer questions. They didn’t want to cut off the dialogue.”

When an older man stood up to speak at the event, he urged the Shministim to emphasize in their discussions that they were looking out for Israelis’ best interests too, not just the Palestinians’.

Wind started to respond, but, overcome with emotion, had to take a few deep breaths before continuing. “This is coming from a deep sense of caring for my country. I don’t want to see my friends dying, I don’t want to see anyone dying.”

Both Wind and Mishly had tears in their eyes — and apologized for their lack of composure — as they described how difficult it is to be rejected by their own families and friends and ostracized by their communities for trying to do something they think could benefit their country. They said this was the only time during the monthlong tour that they were unable to control their emotions.

After they wrapped up the question-and-answer portion, with many more people clamoring to voice their thoughts, one man followed the women out of the room. Mishly described him as loud and aggressive, shouting at them as they rushed toward the elevator, late for their next talk. Security had to be called in, she said, to escort them out safely. The incident, and the entire afternoon, left the young women shaken and weary.