A Conscientious Objector Poses a Challenge to the Israeli Military
By Isabel Kershner, NY Times, July 19, 2013
HAIFA, Israel—AROUND the age of 16, most Jewish Israeli high school students go to “Gadna,” the Israeli military’s voluntary youth corps, where they spend a week training for the army before mandatory service.
When it was Natan Blanc’s turn, he refused to go.
Mr. Blanc’s teachers called him in for a chat, and he told them that he was opposed to serving in a force that perpetuated Israel’s occupation of the Palestinians. “I explained, and they exempted me,” he recalled.
But when the actual draft came around a few years later, things were not so simple. Mr. Blanc emerged as one of the nation’s highest-profile objectors when he was tried and jailed. His case was finally resolved in June, but only after the military said Mr. Blanc was “not an appropriate candidate to serve,” in effect announcing that it was rejecting Mr. Blanc, not the other way around.
"You could see it as a victory," Mr. Blanc, now 20, said in an interview at his family home recently in the northern city of Haifa. He was spared a court-martial in a full military court that could have kept him behind bars for three years.
"Maybe what made it easier for the army was that I was the only such declared conscientious objector of my year," he said.
But if it was a victory, there was a long, difficult road to that end.
When he first showed up at the army’s induction office, Mr. Blanc asked to be allowed to participate in civilian community service as an alternative to the military. But the military refused, put him on trial and sent him to a military prison for repeated terms, amounting to six months.
As is often the case in Israel, one citizen’s open refusal to serve spoke to issues that cut deep into the complex character of a state whose identity and survival are so closely intertwined with its military. Mr. Blanc posed a challenge for the military in its sometimes clumsy attempts to balance security needs, individual rights and the principle of equality.
Mr. Blanc, in a black T-shirt and shorts, barefoot and with cropped hair, looks like a typical Israeli recruit on leave. But unlike his friends, who he says are serving in all kinds of roles in the military, he has found himself fielding tough questions. That is because, he said, he is not a pacifist and would serve, if not for the occupation.
The army says that while motivation for service remains high, it does grant a small number of exemptions each year on the ground of conscientious objection. But it makes a distinction between pacifists who object to joining any army and to any use of force and what it calls cases of “selective objection” or “selective conscience” like Mr. Blanc’s.
Mr. Blanc’s route to conscientious objector started when he was a schoolboy. He grew up in a left-leaning household and attended demonstrations and Israeli-Palestinian coexistence activities with his parents. But his first real awareness, he said, occurred while he was in high school and became upset by what he called a systematic attempt to “brainwash” the students.
He recalled a trip to the Golan Heights, the strategic plateau that Israel seized from Syria in the 1967 war. On the high ground overlooking northern Israel, the pupils met Avigdor Kahalani, a retired general who commanded a decisive battle there in 1973. “He tells his story, points to the hills and says: ‘I think the Syrians are watching us now. Can I count on you?’ Everybody shouts, ‘Yes!’”
Mr. Blanc’s grandfather was an officer in the United States military who came to fight in Israel’s war of independence in 1948 and was wounded. Both his parents served in Israel’s military intelligence. One sister served in military intelligence, and another was exempted as a pacifist. “We have very different opinions,” he said of his family.
Mr. Blanc said he first began considering refusal in the winter of 2008-9, when Israel carried out a devastating military offensive in Gaza aimed at stopping Palestinian militant rocket fire against southern Israel. At first his parents opposed his refusal and hoped that he would change his mind, he said, but later they came to see his view as legitimate, even if they disagreed with it.
He said the argument that it is better to try to influence the army’s conduct from within was “acceptable, but you have to draw the line.”
"The essential problem of the Palestinian’s life is not whether he’s being smiled at at the checkpoint," Mr. Blanc said.
Michael Sfard, a lawyer for Yesh Gvul, a group that supports army refuseniks, said that Mr. Blanc would normally have been considered officer material, making his refusal harder for the military to swallow. Mr. Sfard, who represented Mr. Blanc, added that few of those who apply are granted exemptions as pacifists.
Shimri Zameret of Yesh Gvul was one of a group of five high school refuseniks who were court-martialed and spent two years in prison together a decade ago. Mr. Blanc’s case was unusual, he said, in that “Natan was alone, went public and did not go to an army psychologist” to ease his way out of the military.
The group organized a Facebook campaign, petitions and demonstrations in support of Mr. Blanc. Mr. Zameret said the growing publicity was probably one of the reasons that Mr. Blanc was released in the end.
Mr. Blanc said he now intended to volunteer for two years in the civilian ambulance service, having already done one year of voluntary community work before his draft. He was also planning to attend the graduation ceremony of a friend who had completed the officers’ course.
"All the arguments were over a long time ago," he said. "I did not convince them, and they did not convince me."