Rotem Mor is a 27 year old Israeli peace activist who became active for peace at the age of 19 following his choice to refuse army service after a year and a half of being a soldier. After his release from prison, and then the army, Rotem became involved different projects (New Profile and AFSC) working to support Israeli youth contemplating their army service as well as being active in joint resistance to the separation wall being built deep inside the West Bank. Rotem is currently enrolled in school for Middle Eastern classical music in Jerusalem and is an alternative tour guide, guiding tours in East and West Jerusalem, one of these being a Musrara Black Panthers tour, teaching (with the senses) the history of the struggle of the Middle Eastern Jews in Israel.

This article was first printed in News From Within in August 2004, yet the article still remains as timely and relevant as it did in 2004.

When looking to extend our effectiveness in the struggle for a new future free of oppression in Palestine/Israel we need to examine where our resources are and make full usage of them. We are very busy resisting occupation in many ways but forget sometimes to examine whether our resistance is at all effective and long lasting. Ineffective resistance is a bit like throwing rocks at a tank; it may make us feel good for a little while, but is highly ineffective in any real sense. Effective resistance tackles the core of the real issues which cause us suffering and creates an alternative to our old ways.

So in looking to make a real impact we want to start looking at which groups are disempowered in society and ready to be empowered. One such group in Israeli society is our youth. The youth in Israel is a kind of “wasted commodity”. It is trained to produce the same catastrophic results that the previous generation created. Israel’s youth are educated to be unquestionably patriotic, “achievement” oriented and consume with a passion. There is a real void in true substance in the lives of our young people leaving them feeling empty, bored, cheated and lacking any real hope, power or positive direction.

There is a system of disempowerment working 24/7 on our youth. It starts with consumer culture, probably the most destructive force in the world today, and prevalent in every part of Israeli society. The urge to consume, fueled by advertisement, media propaganda, social pressure and encompassed in almost every norm and value in our society sucks all substance out of life. It creates young people who are blind to the joys and agonies of themselves and others, living in an isolated world where everything around them, as well as they themselves, are reduced to nothing more then merchandise to be dealt and acquired by those who can afford it. Consumerism leaves lives completely lacking substance; Zionist militarism fills that void by telling our youth that they can be important people by defending their country from the ever present enemy.

Militaristic education is everywhere in society. From Kindergarten plays where children play brave, heroic Israeli soldiers, to high school’s mandatory preparation workshops, as well as billboards, commercials and dinner table discussions about who did what when they were in the army. Zionism provides the (very shaky) moral grounds on which this education grows. You, as a young Israeli, are to be “fighting for the survival of the Jewish people, it is your god given country and, anyways, have no choice in the matter of war because it was forced on us by the savage Arabs.” All this has an 18 year old very excited to be going to the army where he or she can give of herself to her people, fulfill their adult potential, and gain credentials as a “successful” Israeli civilian. Thus we have an education of violence, forcefulness and compliance officially sponsored by the state and embraced by much of its citizens. Our disempowered youth are completely reliant on the existing social order to provide them with some much sought after strength.

Thus, providing true substance and ample answers to young people’s burning questions is a very high priority for us. There are a steadily growing number of young people who are questioning the “truths” manufactured to them by the army generals and corporate elite. A burning desire for truthful answers, real substance and respect drives much of our youth to splinter from societies’ mainstream and seek alternatives. Often this finds it’s expression in drugs, violence and other destructive phenomenon. We can attribute much of this to the inability of adults in society, especially educators and social activists, to offer accessible alternatives to our youth. Such alternatives, when practiced with commitment, passion, and patience are hugely in demand. Every school I go to, on buses, and in the streets, I find young people who are asking questions and seeking answers and alternatives. Such is an immense strength that must be harnessed and empowered in order to create a new foundation for a just society.

Last year I had the privilege of guiding over fifty young people who were contemplating their army service through intensive seminars lasting two whole days (Thursday Night until Saturday night). Three such seminars were held with the support of New Profile, the feminist movement to bring about a civil, as opposed to militaristic, society in Israel.

In Israel conscription is mandatory for Jewish males and females (approximately 80 percent of the population). Male soldiers are obliged to serve a term of three years, plus reserve duty, and for woman it’s two years of mandatory service. Although the rate of conscription is steadily decreasing (only about 50 percent of Israeli young people will complete their army service) among Jewish Israelis army service is still a the norm. The seminar’s purpose was to provide much needed alternative education and community to those young people who seek it. It provided young people with deep, interesting and varied perspectives on the issue of conscription (and other related issues), while allowing them to contemplate these together in an open and safe environment.

The seminars were composed of about seven two-to-three hour sessions hosted by different people and addressing a variety of issues such as: the pros and cons of army service, the Israeli Occupation resulting from the war of 1967, the Nakba (Palestinian Catastrophe of 1948), militarization, martyrdom, feminism, Judaism, Zionism (movement of Jewish Nationalism) and many more. We had esteemed university professors come talk to us, spoke to heads of pre-army programs, religious figures, soldiers who had refused, as well as those are still enlisted, went on tours with the Arab Counsel of Jaffa (part of modern day Tel Aviv which was ethnically cleansed of Palestinians in 1948 and today houses a majority Jewish population alongside a minority of Arabs), and many others. Through these encounters we raised issues that are neither presented nor discussed in schools, youth groups or most other parts of Israeli society. We also incorporated leisurely types of activities such as meditation, joint meals, games and free time at the beach.

The seminar placed its young participants at its center. All activities were centered on their internal world. We attempted to reach and touch them in new ways, to keep them involved and challenged. The seminar was built so that each view being presented would be confronted by another, letting no perspective, thought, or opinion go unchallenged. This process flooded and excited the participants, which made them eager to share, to debate, and to express their doubts, dilemmas and newfound perspectives. We would hold much of our discussion in small groups which allowed us to discuss freely with each other, encouraging each and every one to express his or her self and allowing them the time and space to do so. Through this process every participant began to form their own personal perspective; new and distinct from their former views, as well as give rise to collective thoughts and views.

The basis of our participation in the seminar was listening and active participation. It allowed us to form relationships of respect, cooperation, interest and curiosity with each other and with our special visitors. Every aspect of the seminars was geared to create new awareness, thought and participation: from the topics of discussion, joint planning and running of the seminar, small discussion groups and special rules and regulations, to the vegan food, meditation, games and more. We made sure that people felt comfortable and cared for. One of our rules, for example, was that “no one stays alone,” which meant that we constantly care for one another and make sure that each and every one of us is supported, cared for and is making the most of the experience.

Our thinking deeply about the participants and the results they can achieve had them feel safe and respected in the environment of the seminar. We were able to create a sense of freedom of expression and imagination that is so lacking in our ordinary lives. This left us open to one another and to new thoughts and ideas. We created a space where people wanted to be, and where they could be listened to and be truly present. The seminar provided not only alternative content and discussion but also alternative ways of being within a group and as individuals. We did not just debate and discuss possible alternatives; we practiced and fulfilled them at the same time. This gave great strength to our experience and elevated it beyond our everyday experience.

Such an experience had inspiring, and sometimes surprising results. No one who participated, including the guest speakers, came out the way they came in. Through our two days together we became present and aware of the strength we have as a group and as individuals. A good example was the conversations we had, on three separate occasions, with soldiers who came to speak at the seminar (the last conversation of the seminar was always with a soldier). They were amazing and unique conversations in their honesty and intensity. Twice we brought experienced officers, who have been in the army for a long time yet on all occasions the soldiers transformed right before our eyes from their initial self assured position to a much more varied, attentive and contemplative way of being (mirroring our own way of being).

The soldiers contemplated questions like “Do you feel like you are an occupier?”, “do you think that what you are fighting for is just?”, “don’t you think there is another way?”. The participants were asked questions like “would we survive without an army?” “How do you suppose we stop terrorist attacks?”, “Isn’t it better to change the system from within?”, “Do you really believe peace is possible?”. These conversations are so rare and unique for young people in our societies because usually when soldiers come and speak at schools they are regarded as heroes and students who want to ask them hard questions have to face a whole classroom of their unsympathetic peers. In the conversations we had in the seminars, though, the young people were the equals of the soldiers and treated them as such (even though they could have used their power to oppress the soldiers had that been their intention). It was truly something to be seen: how deeply a group of high school students, together for only two days, could touch these soldiers who had come speak with them for a few hours. It all goes to show that when you provide young people with the information, tools, and space to make their own choices magical things will happen.

In an ironic twist the seminars (especially after the conversations with the soldiers) typically ended with the participants being more confused then when they came in. The difference was that they were now contemplating much bigger questions and had met many friends who will contemplate these questions with them. Participants wanted to know “what now”. They were eager to continue their search for answers and to engage in meaningful actions.

This resulted in many different actions taken by participants such as organizing tours, seminars, graphite and other actions to educate and raise awareness amongst their peers about their right to refuse army service and other social injustices. There was also a group of eight young men, formed through the seminar experience, that met regularly over the course of a year and supported each other through the refusal process Many of the participants created quite a stir in their schools and communities’ with their actions like not standing at the national anthem, chaining themselves to the gate of their school to prevent an army officer from speaking there, breaking into the school at night to hang anti-militaristic slogans and more. These actions were an example of what true bravery is: standing up for what you believe to be right even if it’s a very unpopular thing to do.

There were also some unexpected results like participants who reported that they had formed closer relationships with their disapproving parents following the seminar. This is a truly unique phenomenon since most participant’s parents (as well as brothers and extended family) were soldiers themselves at some point. The issue of army service is still taboo in many of these families and is extremely hard to raise. The seminar empowered it’s participants in doing so by introducing them to other like-minded young people and deepening their understanding of fundamental issues of society as well as helping them develop better listening and communication skills.

Many of the young people who participated in the seminars are now working, along with many others, to create a mass movement of critical and creative young people. They are slowly building the foundations for a viable movement, able to address the needs of our society in the face of great adversity. The creation of such a movement requires the active participation of the entire movement for social justice in Palestine/Israel as well as the support of our friends from abroad. It will take much time, effort and commitment and will require that we, young people and adults, go beyond what we have been able to achieve so far. Creating a worthy future our future generations is the ultimate challenge and it demands that we rise to it.