There is Israel. And then there is Tel Aviv. “A liberal bubble,” detractors and devotees agree; A city of sybarites, nocturnal dreamers – the metropolitan centre of excess. But even at the heart of this epicurean capital, the spectre of the military looms large.
Camp Rabin – latterly named for the slain prime minister – has served as Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) headquarters since the state’s founding in 1948. At the base’s prime Tel Aviv location, opposite a gourmet market’s local cheese and craft beer stalls, soldiers and shoppers intermingle, handbags and rifles, hafuch and shakshuka.
It’s among this crowd that Noa Gur Golan unassumingly sits. The softly-spoken 19-year-old could be a young soldier on a day off – in Israel, both men and women are conscripted into the army at 18 – but she’s here meeting me because she took a different path, that of the conscientious objector. Noa is a minority in a minority: Even among the dwindling Israeli left, fewer than one per cent of conscripts refuse to serve on moral and ethical grounds.
Exemption is generally only granted to Israel’s ultra-Orthodox Jewish community and those deemed psychologically unfit. Israel’s Arab citizens, who make up one fifth of the population, are also exempt, although individuals may volunteer to serve. According to Israeli army statistics, in 2017, just over half of Israeli youth enlisted.
To outsiders, the decision not to serve may appear simple, but the cost is high: A prison sentence is all but guaranteed for conscientious objectors who must defend their principles before a committee of officers. When their claims are rejected, as they usually are, objectors are sent to military prison for “disobeying military commands”.
Making “the right choice” is something that Matan Helman, 20, also thought very carefully about. Just a few days after his release from military prison, he is visibly exhausted when we meet. He talks of a green, rural childhood steeped in communal values.
Kibbutz Haogen, a community 40km north of Tel Aviv, was the collective dream of Jewish-Czechoslovakian refugees on the eve of the second world war. It was here that socialist labourers cultivated the eponymous “Haogen” melon – “sweet flesh with honey notes” for those in the know – but, in an ironic twist characteristic of the region’s conflict, it was here too that an Arab village once stood, whose residents became the first Palestinian refugees of 1948.
Growing up, Matan knew nothing of this. For him, the kibbutz was his home – and his father’s and grandfather’s before that. But as an active member of the international socialist-Zionist youth movement Hashomer Hatzair (“The Young Guard”) Matan was encouraged to think critically.
It was as a teenager in this youth movement, which traces its origins to a secular Jewish movement in 1910s Austro-Hungary, that Matan first heard the word “occupation.” The movement itself, however, did not support objectors. Although both men and women are conscripted into the IDF, not all army roles are open to female recruits and young men often face greater pressure to serve in a combat unit.
“The idea was that you were supposed to be the good guy at the checkpoint. But that wasn’t enough for me. If you are ‘the good guy’ in the occupation, you are still occupying.”
Matan’s moral refusal to enlist was partly motivated by his family’s history of resistance. His Dutch mother met his Israeli father when she volunteered on the kibbutz. But it was Matan’s mother’s grandfather, who refused to enlist in the work camps during the Nazi occupation of the Netherlands, who inspired Matan’s some 70 years later.
“[My great-grandfather] would refuse to enlist and he would face the consequences,” Matan tells me. Matan has also faced the consequences – with 110 days in military prison over six sentences.
Unlike Matan, Noa Gur Golan’s family and early childhood gave no hint of future non-conformity. She had every expectation that she would follow her parents and two older brothers into the IDF. “My dream was to become a pilot,” she remembers. “I was in an environment where you don’t really question it. It went without saying that you joined the army after school.”
The catalyst for her conversion was a scholarship interview for an international high school in Italy, when she was asked a question about Arab refugees from 1948 that caught her off-guard. Until then, Noa had always considered herself open-minded and aware. But, at 16, she faced the realisation that she didn’t know much at all.
“Even though we studied history at school, it was from a very narrow perspective. I’d lived 16 years in Israel and I’d never met a Palestinian.”
This imposed blindness is characteristic of the Israeli public in general. Hadas Tal, 18, another recent objector, speaks of an environment where ignorance and secrecy flourish, and where education is segregated mostly along religious and linguistic lines. Hebrew-language media, she says, is not much more enlightening.
“If you look at the major Israeli newspapers, you probably won’t see anything that actually shows what is going on that is not from the point of view of the military.”
Hadas remembers drawing a map of Israel on her notebook in geography class in 9th grade. By the area known as the West Bank, under Israeli military occupation since 1967, she placed a question mark – she wasn’t aware of it as a geographical, or political, entity.
In the same vein, rejecting a norm that is instilled in Israelis from a very young age is fraught with obstacles – educational, mental and parental. “You blink once and suddenly it happens and you’re part of it,” says Hadas.
Her twin sister is currently serving, not, Hadas tells me, because her views are so very different from her own but because of the inherent difficulties of even contemplating – let alone following through – on such a remote possibility for yourself.
The IDF is a central artery in school life. From the first days of kindergarten, until the last weeks of 12th grade, the ideological connection runs deep. “Most soldiers are 18, 19, 20 – so when there’s a conflict, people from the school have an older brother who’s serving,” Hadas says. “It’s clear what side we’re supposed to be supporting.”
Hadas has friends who think exactly the same way she does, but they, she says, are serving in the army. Out of 106 students in her year, she is the only one to refuse the draft.
A boy who attended Hadas’s high-school was killed serving in the 2014 Israel-Gaza war just a few months after he finished school. The mourning was public and vocal. In such an environment, Hadas says, to speak out could have you labeled a traitor.
“If you start talking about ‘war criminals’ you are talking about somebody’s brother, somebody’s cousin.”
The Gaza war was also transformative for Noa, the first war she experienced as an adult, forcing her to reevaluate her values and reshape her identity, as her new school peers questioned her about Israel’s actions in the occupied territories.
But after careful reflection and concluding that military service did not square with her ideals, Noa had a bigger problem to deal with – her mother. Noa, the youngest and only daughter after two sons, enjoyed an especially close relationship with her mother, Iris, a high-school principal and a single parent since Noa was 12.
The two discussed everything – but when Noa informed her mother, who was raised in a proud military family, that she was refusing the draft, the vigour of Iris’s emotional response surprised them both.
“I really shouted at her: ‘What the hell is going on with you? Who are you to think you shouldn’t serve your country?'” Iris remembers. “She was shocked. I was shocked. We didn’t speak for a few hours – which was very unlike us.”
When Iris realised that she could not be dissuaded, and after her daughter promised to do civil service instead, Iris gave Noa her full support. “I was very naïve. I thought it would be a straightforward process, that she would turn up and tell them that she was going to do civil service instead – but the whole process took a year,” Iris says.
After Noa was handed down her first sentence (she served a total of 98 days) she asked her mother to be her voice outside.
Iris embraced her new role with brio, even when her public advocacy for her daughter prompted a discussion in the Knesset (Israeli parliament) about whether she should be allowed to keep her job.
“I couldn’t sit and be quiet – either as her mother or as a citizen. I thought, ‘If she’s going to prison, I want her to be loud.’ If you’re doing something and have to pay for it, you should shout loudly about it.”
There were moments of levity too, such as when Iris celebrated her birthday in a tent she assembled next to Noa’s prison in the northern Israeli coastal town of Atlit. Unbeknown to Iris, while she camped outside, Noa was transferred to a jail in a different part of the country. A policeman was sent to dispatch the devoted mother who greeted the bemused officer with a slice of cake.
Not all of Noa’s family were so accepting of her choices. One of her brothers, in the IDF when she first refused the draft, was, Noa says, “very angry” with her.
Tamar Zeevi, 20, whose serious demeanour is somewhat mitigated by a rainbow Facebook profile of her with potato chips masquerading as duck lips, is keen to emphasise that her main focus during her repeat incarcerations – for a total of 115 days – was determining what was right for her philosophically and morally.
“That’s why it was easier for me to go through all of that – I knew it was the right choice for me.”
Tamar also faced the reproach of a sibling when she made her choice. Unlike Noa and Hadas, Tamar grew up in a politically active, progressive home in Jerusalem. However, one of her sisters has still not come to terms with her decision: “She really does not accept it and that has affected our relationship.”
For Tamar, it took time outside Israel for her to formally coalesce how she felt about military service. The 20-year-old knew what the occupation was but had never been asked to defend her country’s actions before she went to study abroad.
“I didn’t really learn much until I left Israel and got another perspective – until I heard people’s criticism of Israel and faced their questions.”
It’s notable that both Tamar and Noa attended United World Colleges, a group of high schools for 16-19-year-olds whose honorary president is Nelson Mandela, with a stated mission of “unit[ing] people, nations and cultures for peace.” But Tamar admits that it was hard to receive criticism from the international student body. She felt – and still feels – that the curious teenagers questioning her don’t understand the complexity of life in Israel.
“It’s like me giving my opinion of Tibet. I’ve never set foot in Tibet but the general liberal consensus is against the occupation.”
Tamar’s new friends felt comfortable asking her how she could justify serving in the army, leading to a confrontation with a Moroccan girl who boasted that she had succeeded in her mission of stopping Tamar from serving. In Tamar’s own words, she was “pissed off.” While the girl could go home with a nice story about how she influenced an Israeli, Tamar would have to deal with the consequences, “for my family, for society, for the rest of my life.”
But Tamar’s ultimate fear of objecting, of “becoming a stranger in [her] homeland”, did not come to pass. “I found out that the opposite happened,” she remembers. “Not only did I stand up for what I believed in, I became a part of this community of people who believe the same as me.”
Hadas, Noa and Matan repeat the same story: although young and undecided on their futures, human rights and advocacy are intrinsic to who they are – and to what Israel will become.