Nerds, Jocks and Jailed Dissidents: Inside the World of Israel’s High School War Resisters
A Palestinian woman and boy walk among Israeli soldiers and military vehicles in the West Bank town of Nabi Samuel.
Photo Credit: Ryan Rodrick Beiler / Shutterstock.com
Stay up to date with the latest headlines via email.
When the 19-year-old Israeli war resister Noam Gur attends weekly demonstrations against the occupation of Palestine, the soldiers who suppress the protestors—with tear gas, stun grenades, and occasionally live fire—aren’t just strangers in uniform. Among them are her former high school classmates, who have been conscripted into the Israeli army.
Gur was supposed to serve, too, but instead joined the shministim. This is a Hebrew term meaning high school students in their senior year, who face conscription into the army. But the word is also used to refer to students who publicly refuse conscription on ethical grounds.
“All my friends from high school are in the army,” Gur explains. “Now I see them at demos. It is really weird and complicated.”
With a shrug of her shoulders, Gur describes the process that led to her refusal of conscription. “I found out that what they taught me in school was different from this reality. I went to the West Bank to protests and saw the occupation. I started to realize I didn’t want to serve.”
Gur, who has cropped hair and a shy smile, was supposed to be a soldier before she was out of her teens, like most Israeli youth. But instead she served 20 days in prison for refusing orders. Now an anti-occupation activist who supports other young people questioning military service, she is one of many young Israelis who are saying no to the army. They are part of growing number of Israeli movements working to end the occupation from the inside.
Letters of resistance
To understand what it takes to become a shministi—the singular form of shiministim—it’s important to understand the powerful grip of the Israeli military on society. Israel’s occupation of Palestine and aggressive stance toward many of its neighbors requires a highly militarized society. The country devotes almost one fifth of its national budget to military spending, 18 percent of which is paid for by the United States. Israel’s military spending as a percentage of GDP is one of the highest in the world, and it boasts a larger military than any of its neighbors. The country maintains a stash of nuclear weapons and is the world's eighth largest arms exporter.
Meanwhile, children are prepared for compulsory service from an early age by constant military presence in educational settings, including “teacher soldiers” in some schools. Walking through Israeli cities and towns, one encounters streets filled with soldiers carrying M4 and M16 rifles, many of them in plain clothes.
“There is always a military background here,” Gur says.
While the Israeli army is preeminent in society, it is not invincible. Public draft resistance began in 1970, when a handful of students penned an open letter to then-Prime Minister Golda Meir, in which they explained their refusal to serve in territories seized and occupied in the 1967 war. In 1982, a group of army reservists refused to serve in the Lebanon War, founding the group Yesh Gvul, whose name means “there is a limit.” The movement of letter-writing and refusal by high school seniors grew during the early 2000s, prompting the military to crack down and sentence each of the five shministim from the class of 2002 to two years in prison.
By 2008, when almost 100 people signed public letters resisting conscription, prison terms for shministimhad become standard. The army makes it nearly impossible to get a discharge based on conscientious objector status, and many shministim escape conscription only by claiming mental unfitness, often after serving multiple prison sentences. The 19-year-old shministi Nathan Blanc is currently serving his eighth consecutive prison term for refusing army service in protest of second-class rights for Palestinians.