TEL AVIV — “WHAT are you,” he asked, “a leftist?”
We were both wearing the surplus United States Marines uniforms given to prisoners at Israeli Military Jail No. 6.
“It depends how you define ‘left,’ ” I said.
“Don’t get clever with me. Why are you here?”
“I didn’t want to be part of a system whose main task is the violent occupation of millions of people.”
“In other words: You love Arabs, and don’t care about Israeli security.”
“I think the occupation undermines all of our security, Palestinians’ and Israelis’.”
“You’re betraying your people,” he said.
“Why are you here?” I asked.
There is a growing chasm between Israeli rhetoric and reality. In the discourse of Israel’s Knesset and media, the Israel Defense Forces represent a “people’s army.” Refusal to serve is portrayed by politicians and pundits — many of whom began their careers through service in elite units — as treacherous and marginal. This rhetoric becomes the common wisdom: A popular bumper stickers reads, “A real Israeli doesn’t dodge the draft.”
The outrage is disproportionate. Rarely do more than a few hundred Jewish Israelis publicly refuse to serve each year in protest against Israel’s occupation of the Palestinian territories. The shrill condemnation of refusers is thus an indication of the establishment’s panic.
Last year brought something of a surge in refusals. Open letters of refusal were published by a group of high schoolers, a group of reservists, veterans of the elite intelligence Unit 8200 and alumni and former staff members of the prestigious Israel Arts and Sciences Academy. All were denounced by politicians and in the media: In September, the Knesset’s opposition leader, the Labor member Isaac Herzog, blasted the letter from Unit 8200 as “insubordination.”
Aggression toward refusers is widespread. When I accompanied a refuser named Udi Segal to his draft station during the Gaza war this summer, we were met by a group draped in Israeli flags and chanting, “Udi, you’re a traitor! Go live in Gaza!” After signing the scholars’ letter, Raya Rotem, a former literature teacher whose husband was killed in the 1973 Yom Kippur War, received a threatening phone call. And a friend of 50 years severed ties with her.
The idea that the “real Israelis” serve and those who refuse are “traitors” is a false dichotomy. As Ms. Rotem told me, “Israeli patriotism today means resisting anything which frames the occupation as normal.” It’s also inaccurate: The reality is that a majority of Israeli citizens do not serve in the military, including Palestinian citizens of Israel, or the “fifth column,” as they are often branded, and the ultra-Orthodox, or “leeches,” as they’ve been called. as long as they were enrolled full-time in a yeshiva. Recently, though, a coalitionformed in the Knesset over a proposal to draft the Haredim — which resulted in a 500,000-strong public demonstration. Most Haredim cite religious reasons for refusing, but the Haredi refusenik Uriel Ferera, recently released after six months in jail, gave the occupation as a primary factor in his decision.
There are also thousands of “gray refusers,” who find quieter ways to get out of the army, mostly by seeking mental health exemptions, known as a “Profile 21.” Like most public refusers in recent years, I was released after a month in military jail with a Profile 21.
Most of the prisoners with me in Military Jail No. 6 were Mizrahim (Jews of Middle Eastern origin), Ethiopians and Russians. Many of these members of Israel’s most marginalized Jewish communities told me of their intention to “get out on 21,” despite the risk this entailed for their future: Employment and educational opportunities often depend on completing military service.
In a recent interview, the Israeli author Amos Oz urged politicians to act as “traitors,” and make peace. But the type of traitors Mr. Oz wishes for — visionary ministers, peace-minded military men — are nonexistent. The most left-wing of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s potential challengers in Israel’s coming election is the same Mr. Herzog who attacked the 8200 refusers.
Peace won’t come from the next Knesset, or the one after that. But some hope for a less violent, more decent future lies with the real traitors, the disregarded millions of Israeli citizens who have refused to serve in the army.
The reasons for not serving may differ between a Palestinian youth from Acre and a Haredi from Beit Shemesh, between an 8200 veteran and an Ethiopian immigrant, between me and the deserter in Military Jail No. 6, but there is a deeper consensus: We all refuse to see the government as a moral guide and military service as sacrosanct. As the Israeli government leads us further from peace, and the army faithfully executes its violent orders, this is the kind of treachery we need most.