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August 30, 2008
Refusing to Oppress
by Neve Gordon

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 follow suit.

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.

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Neve Gordon teaches politics at Ben-Gurion University, Israel. One can read about his book Israel's Occupation and more at israelsoccupation.info.

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