This coming Thursday marks a new chapter in the long, convoluted story of Natan Blanc, a 20 year-old who has been imprisoned 10 times (for 178 days all in) since last November not for any violent crime, but for refusing to serve in the Israeli Defense Forces.
In Israel, the army is the most important socializing institution, the true 'ticket into society'. Jewish men are conscripted for 3 years, women for two; so far, Arabs are exempt, and as of this week, Orthodox Jews are no longer (but I'll get to that in a minute). As Uri Misgav has written, Blanc's objection, unlike those of his predecessors, is primarily political.
"And this type is difficult to deal with on a theoretical level. This difficulty is understandable, but at the end of the day the practical decision the system has made has been to trample a lone man who posed an obstacle. Blanc’s 178 days of imprisonment represent cowardice, vindictiveness and mostly, a terrifying inflexibility."
But conscientious objection isn't new to Israel. This has been with us since 1982, when Israel was in the grips of the war within Southern Lebanon, which was opposed on the basis that Israel's involvement was arbitrary, ineffective, and a burden too far on the military. It arose from the experience of Israeli soldiers in Lebanon - a shared excruciating experience that came to be described as an exercise in 'shooting and crying', wherein soldiers said they had no choice but to shoot at enemies hidden in an urban population. This was the context in which conscientious objection first appeared in Israel, among soldiers reporting for their second tour. Many of them, if they were able to change the terms of their service, still had to face intense public scrutiny, often portrayed as unpatriotic - or worse, as traitors. Blanc, instead, sees his objection, as patriotic in its own way, in that it is a moral indictment of the state's policies:
"The main reason for my refusal is the feeling our country is going towards a non democratic condition of civil inequality between us and the Palestinians. There are two people in the same land but only the Israelis can vote in the elections.
Once they said "This is temporary," that "the occupation will end", that soon we will have two states or a different democratic solution. Today it's clear to everyone that it is not going to end in the near future. This state of inequality is going to stay.The Israeli army has an important role in preserving this condition, and my conscience does not allow me to take part in that."
To Blanc, the structural (and direct) violence in the Territories operates on structural violence domestically as well. It is clear that to Blanc, the Occupation of the West Bank is at least ineffective and burdensome in the way the occupation of South Lebanon was for soldiers in the 1980s.
Natan Blanc's refusals to serve and repeated imprisonments come in the context of mass demonstrations against the inclusion of Orthodox Jews in the army alongside their less religious peers. As the law stands now (awaiting ratification in the Knesset), the number of Yeshiva (seminary) students exempted from service each year will be limited to 1,800, out of the 8,000 or so required to register annually for the draft. It was a deal that nearly tore apart the new government's coalition in addition to the thousands who poured out in protest.
All this said, I can't help but think that Natan and these Orthodox objectors meet at a profoundly interesting place: outside of Israel, in the Occupied Territories. Religious objectors refuse by claiming their prayer as its own form of patriotism and many Orthodox young men, for their part, have threatened to reject or disobey orders if they contradict their rabbi's teachings, particularly if they involve dismantling Israeli settlements in the West Bank - the same settlements and occupations which so shape Natan Blanc's conscientious objection.
George Orwell once wrote, “by becoming continuous, war had ceased to exist.” The occupation isn't the only issue deeply dividing Israeli society, of course, but it is true that it has far outgrown its physical boundaries.