Exactly 20 years ago, when I registered with the Selective Service System, I wrote in the application’s margin: “I am a conscientious objector to participation in war in any form.” Like most U.S. Mennonites in recent decades, my CO status was never tested beyond intellectual debate.
As an Israeli, my friend Moriel Rothman risked far higher stakes. Military service is mandatory for Israeli Jews, male and female. Apart from exemptions for men pursuing full-time Torah study and some religiously observant women, most Israelis serve, says Mori, because of “societal pressure, propaganda, the threat of jail or punishment and the perhaps more devastating threat of stigmatization.”
Exactly one year ago, at the army induction center in Jerusalem, I joined those encircling Mori with prayers, songs and hugs as he prepared to refuse the draft.
“I will do my best to obey the biblical commandment that appears more times than any other, and seek to love and do justice with the stranger,” Mori wrote on his alternately sobering, hilarious and inspiring blog, thelefternwall.com. There, he distills the reasons for his refusal: “God/love, nonviolence and Israel’s military occupation of the Palestinian territories.”
While some see Israeli control of Palestinian territory as prophecy fulfilled, Moriel Zachariah Rothman, in the justice-seeking tradition of the Hebrew prophets, declares: “The occupation is anti-God, anti-love and staggeringly, constantly violent. The occupation is based on a system of racial/ethnic separation that does, in fact, resemble South African apartheid.”
For refusing to join this system, Mori served two 10-day jail terms. He then sought and was granted a mental health exemption, a legal way to circumvent conscription. “I was determined … to do this truthfully, not to invent stories,” writes Mori, “and this was helped by the fact that the second jail term was much harder than the first.”
Another refuser, Natan Blanc, recently served a record 10 jail terms totaling 177 days before being excused as “unfit for duty.” New Profile, one of Mennonite Central Committee’s Israeli partner organizations, is a “movement for the demilitarization of Israeli society.” Their support network offers counseling for refusers and organized letters of advocacy and encouragement for Mori and Natan during their prison terms.
“Instead of following orders from a system designed for violence, I have followed the orders of my soul,” says Mori, reflecting on his year since choosing to resist rather than enlist. “Instead of standing guard against the Other, I have strived to stand guard, as an Israeli and a Jew, against the increasing xenophobia and fear-based antagonism that poison my cultures and my communities. The weapons I have wielded have been my pen, my word, my relationships, my spirit.”
Refocusing attention directed at him, Mori calls for “mourning for the children in Gaza who were killed by the [Israeli military] while I sat in its jail, and an acknowledgment of the Palestinian prisoners whose hunger strikes are far more bold than any action I have taken.”
Israel frequently jails Palestinians engaged in nonviolent resistance, including several activists affiliated with MCC partners. Other Palestinian prisoners, even members of militant groups, have neared death in Gandhian hunger strikes, protesting human rights violations, including torture and imprisonment without charge or trial. Every sacrifice and success inspires many more to see the strength of nonviolence.
So while Palestinians and Israelis pay a high price for choosing nonviolence, many Mennonites take it for granted or abandon it altogether. And even as I hold to these ideals, I benefit from, just as Mori acknowledges for himself, “privileges of education, of financial security, of light skin, of circumstance” inherited from unjust social structures. What will I risk to resist the sinful systems I was born into?
Ryan Rodrick Beiler is a service worker with Mennonite Central Committee in Palestine and Israel. He blogs at mccpalestine.wordpress.com.