(Omer Goldman, Tamar Katz, Sahar Vardi, Raz Bar-David Varon, Yuval Ophir-Auron)

In the U.S., those who refuse to serve, we call them conscientious objectors. In Israel, young high school students who refuse to serve in the Israeli military in opposition to the occupation of Palestinian Territories are called Shministim.

From Howard Zinn who wrote eloquently about Raz Bar-David Varon, to Ed Asner who penned a piece on Huffington Post about how Omer Goldman’s story grabbed him, over 12,000 people have joined in calling for their release.

Their stories and statements speak for themselves. On the day Raz was arrested, this was Raz’s statement:

“I have witnessed this army demolishing, shooting and humiliating people whom I did not know, but have learnt to respect for their ability to go on dealing with these horrors on a daily basis. There’s supposed to be a good reason for all of this. This reason is supposed to be my defense. I feel like screaming: ‘This does not defend me! It hurts me!’ It hurts me when people, Palestinians, are being so brutally assaulted, and it hurts me when they later turn their hatred towards me because of it. I wasn’t born to serve as a soldier who occupies another, and the struggle against the occupation is mine too. It is a struggle for hope, for a reality that sometimes feels so far away. I have a responsibility for this society. My responsibility is to refuse.”

Omer Goldman has received additional press in particular because her father is the outgoing deputy head of Mossad, the Institute for Intelligence and Special Operations. Igal Sarna writes a moving piece about Goldman’s journey:

For months before she refused to be drafted into the Israel Defence Forces she went to a psychologist every week to prepare for what was to come: incarceration in a cell in a military prison. A narrow cage for a songbird.

This Thursday, December 18th, there will be a Day of Action in support of the Shministim, where groups will visit Israeli Consul Generals across the country to lobby for the release of the young students.

According to Jewish Voice for Peace:

So far, about 7 of the approximately 60 young Israeli students who have signed the Shministim letter of 2008 have served time in prison. Typically, they go in for up to 3 weeks, are released for a week and then sent back in. This continues until they are 21 or obtain a medical release.

Nineteen-year-old Tamar Katz (picture to left) is currently in solitary confinement where advocates say “she is being mistreated” by jailers because she refuses to wear a military uniform.

On the 18th, there will also be a rally in Tel Aviv, where the Shministim and supporters will hand-deliver these 12,000 voices in the form of postcards and letters to Defense Minister Ehud Barak. Organizations from AFSC to Amnesty International, Gush Shalom and Sojourners are involved in the organizing effort.

In thinking about the Shministim, I am reminded of a sermon that Rabbi Ellen Lippmann gave this past Rosh Hashanah on seeking moral leadership.

Traditions so often sustain us. Coming into Rosh HaShanah, I could hear the sounds of Avinu Malkeinu in my head, as I yearned to hear its haunting melody and words yet again. But not all traditions need to be repeated again and again; some can be altered, some discarded, some replaced. Akiva himself broke through the order of prayer in his time to give his urgent prayer of necessity. Chutzpah!

Surely we too are living in a time that requires urgent prayer and an overturning of the usual order—some chutzpah. When I think of Rosh HaShanah in this way, I realize that as much as I love singing Avinu Malkeinu, I am sick of the Akkedah, the story of the binding—sacrifice? murder?—of Isaac. This story is everywhere in the midrash, poetry, art, and yes, our liturgy. And I am sick of it. It contains not a single character I want to identify with, not the God who commands the sacrifice, not Abraham who obeys so submissively, not Isaac who goes along with only one question along the way, and not even the poor ram who loses his life because someone has to. It is our tradition to read this story on Rosh HaShanah and I am sick of it. Over the cries of “We can’t leave it out, it’s part of our tradition!” I say, “Let’s.”

Not just because we need change, though that is clear enough in our liturgy, in our nation, in our world. No, I say let’s leave it out because what we need now to face the terrifying world is a story of moral courage, of protest, of hope, not one of submission to God who lays down an impossible command. What we need is an Akiva to overturn the usual in a time of crucial urgency.

In a country where all young people are required to serve, saying no, refusing to go along with “the tradition” of serving in the army, in a country and a world so embroiled in violence and war, is a story of moral courage.

According to Igal Sarna, the first letter was written thirty-eight years ago, by high school students who sent a letter to then prime minister, Golda Meir, in April 1970, against the occupation and the War of Attrition.

In a letter by the Shministim in 2008, they write:

We hereby challenge every citizen who wonders if the military’s policy in the occupied territories is conducive to the progression of the peace process, to discover by himself/herself the truth and to lift the veil which distorts the reality of the situation; to verify statistical data; to look for the humane side in him/her and in the society which stands in front of him/her, to disprove the myths that were routed within us regarding the necessity of the IDF’s in the Palestinian Occupied Territories, and to stand up against every action which he finds irrational and illegal.

In a place where there are humans, there is someone to talk to. Therefore, we ask to create a dialogue that goes beyond the power struggle, the retaliation and one-sided attrition actions; to disprove the “No Partner” myth, which is leading to a lose-lose situation of an ongoing frustration, and to move to more humane methods.

We cannot hurt in the name of defense or imprison in the name of freedom; therefore we cannot be moral and serve the occupation.

In her declaration of refusal Mia Tamarin (picture to left) stated:

“I have no doubt that I should be serving my country, I have been doing so in many ways from a very young age, and intend of course to continue doing so, not out of compulsion but fully and truly of my own will. I cannot become part of an organization the purpose of which is to fend off violence by violence, because it stands unequivocally contrary to everything I believe in and to my whole life. There always is another, non-violent option, and it is this option that I choose.”

Send your letter of support here.

Further Reading:

Looking to the Future: Investing in our Youth as a Form of Effective Resistance