Eighteen-year-old Sahar Vardi is currently in
an Israeli military prison. She is being punished for the crime of refusing
to be conscripted into the Israeli military.
A few weeks before her imprisonment she wrote Israel's Minister of Defense,
Ehud Barak, explaining
her decision to become a conscientious objector. I have been to the occupied
Palestinian territories many times, and even though I realize that the soldier
at the checkpoint is not responsible for Israel's oppressive policies,
that soldier is still responsible for his conduct
She summed up
her letter to Barak with the following words: The bloody cycle in which
I live made up of assassinations, terrorist attacks, bombings, and shootings has
resulted in an increasing number of victims on both sides. It is a vicious circle
that is sustained by the choice of both sides to engage in violence. I refuse
to take part in this choice.
While Vardi is the first woman to be imprisoned this year, she is part of a
broader movement of Shministim
, high-school seniors who refuse to be conscripted due to the military's
oppression of the Palestinians. Two other conscientious objectors, Udi
Nir and Avichai
Vaknin, were imprisoned earlier this month and a few others are likely to
Like many other Shministim, Vardi's conscientious objection is also rooted
in a wider pacifist position,
which explains why she refused to wear a military uniform once imprisoned. The
prison authorities are not sympathetic to such acts of defiance and immediately
placed her in the isolation ward, which, according to existing
reports, is a site of abuse.
Vardi is in prison because the military conscientious committee did not accept
her appeal. In early March 2008, Vardi testified in front of the committee,
recounting her years of activism against the West Bank separation barrier and
the dispossession of Palestinians in East Jerusalem and the South Hebron hills.
She explained to the committee members made up of officers as well as civilians
that as a pacifist her conscience prevented her from being part of an occupying
power. She added that instead of serving in the military she was willing to
carry out two years of civil service in Israel and had already secured a position
with the Tel-Aviv based rights group Physicians
for Human Rights.
Converting military service into civil service is common practice among Israeli
women; in fact, it has become routine among religious women. Vardi's appeal
was, accordingly, not exceptional or strange.
The appeal, however, was rejected, because, in the military committee's
opinion, it was based on political convictions rather than a sincere conscientious
belief. This spurious separation between politics and conscientious principles
was originally formulated by Israel's two court philosophers, professor
Asa Kasher from Tel-Aviv
University and professor Avi
Sagi from Bar Ilan University.
These moral philosophers (Kasher is also one of the authors of the Israeli military
Code of Conduct which among other things provides moral grounds for assassinations
[pdf] ), have spent much of their time arguing that people who refuse to
serve in the military due to its colonial and repressive actions and policies
are doing so in order to advance a specific political agenda and not due to
conscience. According to Kasher and Sagi, conscientious objection is, by definition,
divorced from politics; therefore anyone who refuses to serve in the military
because he or she wants to end Israel's occupation of the Palestinian territories
(a political position) simply cannot be a conscientious objector.
The military was, of course, delighted to adopt the philosophers' distinction
and has repeatedly used it to reject the appeals of conscientious objectors
like Vardi and to put them behind bars. On the day of her imprisonment Vardi
told her father that she would not bow down to the powers that be regardless
of how the military presents her case. The occupation is cruel,
she said, and my conscience will simply not allow me take part in the
oppression of another people.
While she has yet to study moral philosophy, eighteen year-old Sahar Vardi understands
something basic that Kasher, Sagi and their cronies are determined to elide:
conscientious concern for one's country and neighbors is intricately tied to
action. As Joseph Raz
from Balliol College, Oxford, points out, there is no doubt that [conscientious
objection] covers the case of military service, for calling on people to be
ready to kill when ordered, or calling on them to engage in activities which
perpetrate an occupation with the subjugation of people to the indignities and
humiliation which occupations involve are clear cases where the right applies.
It is, after all, the duty of respect for human beings, perhaps the most fundamental
of all moral duties, which serves the guiding principle for the Israeli refuseniks.
It is also the foundation of the right to conscientious objection.